Why This Travel + Leisure A-List Advisor Decided to Visit Tanzania During COVID-19

An elephant and a giraffe seen in Tanzania

Editor's Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.

In a typical year, I travel for four months, scouting the best properties and experiences for my travel agency's clients, consulting for the finest hospitality brands, and shooting for my photography portfolio. Last year, I decided to try to travel safely during Covid-19. When I closed my eyes and dreamt big, all I could think about was being back in Africa, a continent that moves me deeply. I've traveled to Africa over 50 times and dreamed of being back in Tanzania, one of the most extraordinary places I have ever visited.

If you're a traveler, you've undoubtably been wondering when you will be able to travel normally again. Here's why now is a good time to consider a safari, and how to do it safely.

Before your trip, take precautions

I took two Covid-19 PCR tests in the 72 hours before I left New York City (though Tanzania does not require one for entry) to make sure I received a double negative result and didn't put anyone at risk. I traveled with a close friend knowing that if anything went wrong, we had each other's backs.

I was determined to limit my contacts on the way, so I flew with a mask and a face shield on Qatar Airways in their secluded Q-suite, with a door that closed around me. Once in Tanzania, I flew private on Grumeti Air, the finest domestic airline in the country (they also have regularly scheduled commercial flights.)

Mark Lakin arrival in Tanzania and relaxing at Sasakwa

Safaris are built for social distancing.

By definition, safari vacations are open-air experiences that allow for plenty of space. We chose to go to Singita Grumeti, an enormous game reserve which—at over twice the size of New York City—has just over 50 suites spread across five small boutique properties. In a normal year, Grumeti's suites would have been booked a year in advance for the Great Migration. During our trip, we were among only a handful of guests at the various properties.

We spent our first four nights at Sasakwa, Singita's flagship, which has just nine private cottages and a villa, each with its own infinity pool. (I began every day in my bathing suit, with a cappuccino that rested on the ledge of my pool.)

Next, we went to the iconic Sabora Tented Camp, a dramatic modern redesign of a luxury tented safari camp. As my friend and I walked to the main area for dinner on my first night, our askari, or security escort, told us that there were some special guests at the camp. When we arrived at the outdoor dining area, we saw a pride of lions playing on the front lawn, illuminated by the moon.

Our final stop was Faru Faru, a place we would call home for 14 nights. It is an architectural masterpiece that seamlessly incorporate living trees into its interiors and features design wonders like 30-foot retractable glass windows. Outdoor showers and deep soaking tubs afford views of nearby giraffe and zebra, while also allowing for privacy.

Once leaving Grumeti, we journeyed to the Ngorongoro Crater for a stay at Crater Lodge, an iconic andBeyond property perched on the crater's western rim. With only 30 suites, private sitting and dining areas, and private butlers, we were guaranteed limited interaction with others. We were lucky enough to have South Lodge all to ourselves for an entire week.

After enjoying a Tanzanian safari, many travelers choose to spend a few days on the country's beautiful white-sand coast. We flew Grumeti Air to Mnemba, a tiny private island off of Zanzibar. AndBeyond Mnemba's 12 thatched bandas are spaced far apart. We spent our days diving to coral reefs, chasing migrating humpback whales, swimming with pods of dolphins, and walking around the island. We were also set up with private meals aboard our own traditional dhow sailboat and at a seaside table set away from the main area.

These properties have strict protocols in place.

I knew that I would feel safe staying with two of the world's best hospitality brands, Singita and andBeyond. Their properties are located on large expanses of land with private, individual accommodations, and their new Covid-19 safety protocols are among the finest in the world. The staff was always masked, and social distancing was respected.

Still, we felt the human connection despite these new protocols. At Faru Faru, our waitress, Jacqui, brought us every meal for our entire 14-day stay. Her mask could not hide her positive energy and nurturing disposition, which made our trip so much more special.  When I asked her if she missed having guests, she put her hand over her heart. "So very much, Mark," she said with gravity. This small moment moved me deeply.

Leopard seen in Singita, Tanzania

Right now, wildlife viewing is superb because there are so few visitors.

At Grumeti, we had arrived just in time for The Great Migration, the single largest migration of mammals on the planet. More than one million wildebeest, zebra, and other grazers and browsers follow the rains across the vast green and golden plains of East Africa in their never-ending search for food.

Our stay at Ngorongoro Crater, which has the densest concentration of wildlife on the planet, delivered. Here, you will find lions, hyenas, wildebeests, zebras, buffalo, ostrich, leopards, elephants, giraffes, and even pink flamingos.

Our game drives in the Crater were among the finest I've ever had on the continent. We were given special access from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority to go off-road and track some of the Crater's 65 endangered black rhino, who represent the majority of the black rhino in Tanzania. In less than an hour, we miraculously saw three at close distance. The combination of dark grey clouds, beams of orange sunlight, golden yellow grasses, and verdant green bushes and trees added to the incredible scene. 

With wi-fi, remote work is now a possibility.

In addition to being the perfect place to disconnect from the world, Singita's and AndBeyond's properties have reliable WIFI that allow you to stay connected. I found myself loving the efficiency of working remotely in a place where, at any moment, I could close my laptop and get lost in nature's brilliance.

Mnemba, Tanzania accommodations and working from the beach

These properties are also leaders in conservation.

Perhaps the most memorable and the most meaningful part of my time on Mnemba came when I was told that andBeyond's Oceans Without Borders had relocated a green turtle nest months ago to protect it from predators. We were there when it was time to unearth these hatchlings and watch them begin their journey into the Indian Ocean. As I gently slid back the sand, dozens of tiny baby turtles emerged. At just the size of my pinky, it is hard to imagine that each of them could grow up to be 500 pounds, and even harder to imagine that 20 years from now, these same turtles will somehow know the way to return to this exact same beach to lay eggs of their own.

You’re giving money to communities in need.

Travel is the largest industry in the world, employing one in every ten people globally. Though travel is a luxury and a privilege for the traveler, it's a livelihood for those who work in hotels, airlines, cruise ships, and experience providers, and puts food on the table for everyone from the housekeeping staff to general managers. Travel also produces revenue that allows governments to invest in infrastructure like roads, flights, shipping routes, water supply, and waste management. Local communities directly benefit from this investment.

I knew that our trip had been a force for so much good. We had spent our money with Singita and andBeyond, brands that have kept their staff employed and continued their robust conservation efforts, and our gratuities to the staff also went toward helping people and their families.

My friend and I made the tough decision not to visit any local communities during our stay, for their protection as much as ours. We instead brought solar lights for 50 families and asked the staffs at the various properties to deliver them on our behalf to families living without reliable access to electricity.

Above all, a trip like this will make you remember why we travel.

Tanzania is a reminder of how much beauty there still is in the world. Whenever it is that you decide to travel again, make informed and safe decisions that protect you and those you will encounter along the way. Spend your dollars with brands that support your values and vision of our collective future. If we all do these things, we will return to travel with a renewed sense of purpose.

A sunset seen from a boat in Tanzania

Mark Lakin is a member of Travel + Leisure's Travel Advisory Board. He can help plan the perfect getaway to Africa, Antarctica, Iceland, India, Japan, or New Zealand, among other destinations. To work with Mark and his team at The Legacy Untold, contact him at [email protected] or 646-580-3026.

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