Set the scene
Forget about JW Marriott’s typical gleaming high-rise hotels and mega-resorts. For Marriott’s first foray into the safari game, the brand has kept things appropriately snug with just 20 tents pitched up on the bushy banks of the Maasai Mara’s Talek River. The thrill starts well before check-in: within minutes of touching down at the reserve’s Keekorok airstrip (which offers direct turboprop connections with Nairobi), you might spot lions lolling in the tall grass, or elephants grazing along the road. Upon arrival at the camp, a wobbly wooden suspension bridge crosses the river (and with that, the reserve’s natural border) to the canvas-roofed communal lounge, where plenty of zebra-patterned pillows, wood-carved elephant statues and wall-spanning portraits of Masaai tribespeople instantly deliver on the African bush camp fantasy. Ultra-spacious tents, a lounger-lined pool, and a cosy bonfire pit make this a plush spot to retreat between game drives. The small-scale, anything-goes vibe makes it feel un-Marriott in the best possible way.
All eyes were on this hotel when it opened in April 2023, marking an exciting new chapter for JW Marriott and the greater Marriott umbrella. As the world’s largest hotel chain’s first-ever safari camp, and the smallest outpost in its hotel group, the JW Marriott Masai Mara is a sandbox of sort – a way to figure out how the trusted Marriott formula translates in the African bush. Mere weeks after opening, the outlook is promising: the camp has been booked out for months in advance. The project has also spurred Marriott (along with some other global hotel chains) to sniff out partner sites beyond the Maasai Mara and Kenya to expand their budding safari portfolio.
Each of the 20 tents is similar in their generous size and style – with the exception of the honeymoon villa (the only tent with a private plunge pool) and an interconnecting family suite. Between their canvas walls' zipper- and roll-up windows you’ll find a supremely comfortable four-poster bed (draped in mosquito netting) and decor of the usual safari-lodge suspects: Maasai warrior busts, wicker lampshades and ‘tribal’ mirrors fringed with jute and sea shells. Is it boundary-pushing style? No. Albeit lovely, the look is more Zara Home than haute hospitality – it’s a Marriott, after all.
Amenity-wise, things are tip-top: each tent comes with a canopied balcony overlooking the river and bush (for in-room wildlife spotting potential) and has an outdoor hot tub to soak in the view. Bathrooms have both indoor and outdoor showers, zhuzhed up with licks of marble and copper to up the glam factor. Bring a book along, though: the tents are the first rooms within the Marriott portfolio to forgo TVs – but with these views, who needs one?
Food and drink
Sarabi restaurant and the adjoining Fig Tree Lounge sit at the heart of the camp to offer the human equivalent of the watering hole in view just across the river. Guests gather here in the early morning for pre-game-drive croissants and coffee in thermos cups, while late risers trickle in for a breakfast (the herby scrambled eggs are divine) and flakey pastries, all in the shade of a giant fig tree. For lunch and dinner, chefs design rotating three-course menus (in order to keep food waste to a minimum) that depend on what’s available that day from both suppliers around Kenya and the on-site vegetable garden. We had lunches including falafel wraps and zingy cucumber gazpacho, and dinners of citrusy salmon and lamb chops. That said, the kitchen team is happy to go off-menu too: ask for a spread of local specialities, and they’ll deliver a bona fide Kenyan feast of roast meats, salted cabbage, and ugali (dense corn-meal porridge).
While the restaurant meals are delightful, it’s the bush breakfasts and savanna sundowners – all part of the package – that will stick with you long after your return home. Expect the full safari fantasy of folding tables with white tablecloths fluttering in the breeze, gleaming ice buckets with champagne and Tusker beers, and pop-up kitchen and cocktail stations pitched under a lone acacia tree.
JW Marriott brought along its signature Spa by JW concept, but gave it an African makeover. Occupying a trio of tents near the pool, it’s a welcome spot for post-safari rubdowns and sunburn-soothing facials done with all-natural spa products from South African skincare brand Healing Earth. Treatment rooms overlook the bush where, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot baboons and zebras strolling past while a soft-spoken therapist kneads your muscles into blissful submission. For a little more action, there’s a breezy gym tent with on-theme equipment made from leather and polished wood, as well as guided sunset yoga sessions around the pool.
The Masai Mara National Reserve unfurls across the river. This is one of Kenya’s most popular safari spots for good reason; the vast national park is prime Big Five territory, which means you’re almost guaranteed to encounter lions, elephants, cape buffaloes, and with a pinch of luck you might spot the more elusive rhinos and leopards. Herds of zebras, giraffes, and gazelles hop past as soon as you leave the camp in a semi-open safari jeep (game drivers are included in the room rate), while the Talek River and the nearby watering hole attract baboons, hippos, and even the occasional Nile crocodile. The camp’s position on the reserve’s northeastern perimeter also puts guests relatively close to the area's famed wildebeest migration action, which takes place from July to October.
“Hospitality from the heart” is one of those hackneyed hotel-lingo terms – but I fail to find a better phrase to describe the genuine and warm service here. From the hand-written goodnight notes by my housekeeper, Mercy, to the endless post-safari chats with ever-cheery restaurant manager Thelma and her team, every interaction was a delight, and felt far from contrived. Even better, the hotel has made it a mission to have an overall staff that's at least 70 per cent Maasai locals. In my stay during the first month of operation, that count hovered around 65 per cent. Many of them had only just kicked off their hospitality careers, a fact that was hard to believe thanks to the team’s cheery attitudes and casual confidence.
The lodge welcomes children ages six and up, and has a family suite with two separate bedrooms for larger groups. While there’s no kids club (or TVs), a library stocked with board games offers plenty of after-dark and rainy-day entertainment.
A lodge of this calibre located in a natural reserve may never be truly sustainable, but the hotel strives to keep its environmental footprint as small as possible: most of the camp has been built from responsibly sourced wood around the existing vegetation, while keeping wildlife migration routes intact. On the resource front, solar panels and a thermodynamic water heater convert Kenya’s plentiful sunshine into electricity for the on-site water borehole (which provides water that’s filtered and distributed to both the lodge and nearby local communities) and hot showers. While there’s still plenty of room for improvement, it’s encouraging to see that sustainability isn’t an afterthought in this wild setting.
All public areas and three of the tents are accessible for wheelchair users; one of those has a bathroom adapted for ADA standards.
Anything left to mention?
To increase your chances of spotting wildlife from your balcony, ask for tent 19 or 20: Both overlook the camp’s animal crossing, which sees elephants, zebras and even lions pass through at night.
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