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Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater

Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater rates as one of Africa’s highlights because of its concentration of diverse wildlife. Among the 25,000 animals that roam the crater floor are lions, hyenas, gazelles, zebras, buffalos and wildebeest as well as endangered black rhinos. Near the rim lies another legend: & Beyond’s Crater Lodge, often described as “Versailles meets Masai.”

After breakfast, Kim, our ranger at & Beyond’s Crater Lodge, takes us on a day-long game drive. A thick, white collar of clouds rims the crater walls, blue in the morning light. Descending nearly 2000-feet, we enter the stark northwest region, whose brown, barren earth looks moonlike. A “kimbunga,” Swahili for “whirlwind,” this one of dust, spirals ahead.

But not all the landscape is inhospitable. Although we don’t spot leopard in the yellow bark acacia trees in the Lerai forest, we come upon baboons feeding in the fig trees. In the tall grass near the Munge River, three lionesses stroll among the paused vehicles.

When one sleek muscled hunter rubs up against our Land Cruiser’s door, we suck in our breath and grow wide eyed with wonder. The lioness then plops herself down in the shade behind the rear wheels. Now, we understand why only closed game vehicles are allowed in the crater. (Also, mornings can be cold).

En route to Ngoitokitok Springs for lunch we pass a dazzle of zebra and a herd of wildebeest. Hippos soak in the spring’s freshwater, resting their enormous heads on each other’s backs, occasionally snorting and honking to the delight of onlookers, of which by 1 p.m there are many. As one of only two places for crater picnics, the parking lot fills with scores of vehicles.

That’s part of the downside of exploring Ngorongoro. With limited routes and no off-road driving in the crater, a lion or cheetah sighting invariably draws more vehicles than animals. The experience is intense, but not personal.

That comes at & Beyond’s Crater Lodge. Upon our return, Msisi, our butler (every room comes with one), surprises us with a rose petal strewn bubble bath. Our big Victorian tub, illuminated by a tiered chandelier, faces a picture window overlooking the lawn and the crater.

Our suite, like the main lodge, incorporates eclectic elements. The thatched roofs and rounded buildings evoke Masai dwellings. The medallion carved wooden screens, bureaus and low tables reference Morocco and the suite’s wood paneling feels English. The main lodge’s gilt mirrors, Persian carpets and cranberry silk drapes suggest European drawing rooms where Edwardian explorers related tales to pearl-draped ladies sipping tea.

While architectural purists gasp at the mixture, the odd juxtapositions grow on us. By the second day we’re comfortable with the fantasy of otherworldly, grand manse at the edge of the awe-inspiring crater. And we’re seduced by the service.

Msisi brings us coffee and tea with cookies in the morning and the afternoon. A rose, a signature element of the lodge, always brightens the tray. Our room blooms with four dozen fragrant red beauties and in the main lodge dozens more in red, white and pink greet visitors.

The food is good and the staff mindful of our lactose intolerance, serving us delicious non-dairy soups and tasty entrees. And at night Msisi stokes the fire in our room, then says “Lala salama,” “sleep well” in Swahili.

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