News & Reviews Africa Rwanda Review: Bisate Lodge, Rwanda

Bisate Lodge, Rwanda
Room type: Villa
Duration: 24th > 27th October, 2018
Booked with: Dorsia Travel

Were there a sudden spout of news reports confirming aliens had landed in Uganda, offering all the secrets to the universe, unlimited youth and free scratch cards, I would still be completely unimpressed.  I would have no desire to visit until someone setup a luxury hotel.  Only then would visiting seem a reasonable endeavour.  So I have to be hugely grateful to Wilderness Safaris, the brand behind Bisate Lodge, for launching the first luxury hotel in Rwanda.  It gave me the opportunity to experience something epic.  And I’m not referring to impersonating Don Cheadle’s awful accents.

I know most of you only care about the hotel, but I’ve got the mic here, and I ain’t ready to drop it.  So let me begin by talking about what 99.9% of you will be doing here: gorilla trekking.  As usual, I do like to live in a state of perpetual hype; always chasing the next glory.  I’m the guy planning my next holiday whilst on holiday.  Now is never enough – it’s what comes next.  I would have made a lousy firefighter; I’d walk out half-way through putting the fire out, already mentally preparing for the next one.  My death count would rival a Tarantino movie.  With this being the most requested review I’ve ever had, you too are responsible for this hype.  Thanks a bunch!

Yet somehow, amongst this beautiful chaos, it managed to live up to it.

And thank god.  The process of getting on a gorilla trek can leave you in doubt.  Waking up at 5:45am, leaving around 6:30, driving for 30 minutes and then unnecessary waiting around until nearly 8am.  As we all stood around on the first day, watching some propaganda video that made the Rwandan President look more humble than the Dalai Lama, and more popular than Bill Gates walking around aimlessly with his wallet open, I overheard the familiar English accent.   Stood next to us was an elderly couple who happened to also be from Cambridge too – a city of a mere 100,000 people. What are the odds?  Luckily I had plenty of time to figure them out, as that was the most interesting thing to happen all morning.  It would be a further hour of waiting, followed by another hour car journey, before we would even begin.

But this annoyance soon fades away.  Even though our first trek took over 6 hours, and even though we had to share our toys amongst a group of 5 others, and even though my thighs felt as abused as a survivor of Samba dancing, it still managed to be worth it.

He was impressed too

Gorilla trekking is a simply phenomenal experience, unlike anything else.  And doesn’t Rwanda know it, seeing that they charge $1500 per person for an hour with the gorillas.  I was initially incredulous at being told so many guests book two treks, but abandon the second – the hassle involved is significant, and the roads to the national park are diabolical, like body surfing on knives.  But I found suddenly found myself in a similar situation, having booked two treks, and stumbling away from the first thinking that one was enough.  As usual I was proven wrong.

Each gorilla group displayed different personalities, no different to their uglier cousins: us.  After realising throwing $3,000 away was as stupid as booking a non-refundable rate at a hotel I could not attend, we decided to persevere.  The second trek, which our driver managed to work magic to make it private (something that would normally cost $15,000), was an entirely different experience. Not least because this one only took 2 hours. It’s not marketing bullshit: it is actually worth going twice.  The first group, more reserved, cautious and capricious; the second, more active, exuberant and gregarious.  Just like English vs Americans.

Both honoured us with their time and allowed us to observe them playing, eating, sleeping, nurturing and performing some rapid adult-only activities.  The guides may frequently spout the “keep 7m away” rule during the initiation, but gorillas are as bad at math as Bernie Madoff.  Once you’re out there in the jungle, they will be within touching distance.  Or grabbing distance, as I found during the first few minutes of our second group.  As if to epitomise their acceptance of us, an adolescent gorilla walked up to me, gripped my leg several times, looked at me and walked off. I’m sure he’ll remember our time together for the rest of his life, and I left a bigger impression on him than he on me.

Vogue Cover March 2019

Experiencing nature like this is a privilege.

So you can understand, it i hard to differentiate the experience of the gorilla trekking from Bisate.  Having already just spent $6,000 of your money, should you spend a further trillion dollars on accommodation?

The arrival made me doubt it.  Not the fast track, even though the airport was empty, nor the help in collecting our luggage.  But the poor thought put in by Thousand Hills, the tour management company that Wilderness Safaris use and own 40%.  The drive to Bisate takes around a 3.5 hours, so including things like snacks, warm towels and chilled water would have been a nice start.  Or even a well-kept car.

The driver will be with you for the duration of your trip, taking you to and from your activities and returning you to the airport at the end.  Luckily for us, we got a good one.

The roads in Rwanda were described to me like a scene from a The Handmaid’s Tale, but in reality were just as good as those in Europe – excluding the final 15 minutes, which they call an “Africa massage” due to the endless bumps.  A helicopter is an option for those of you so rich that you use money for toilet paper and have your face chiselled into mountains.

An interesting choice for a company called “Wilderness” Safaris to chose to place their property within a village.  I suppose along with the decrepit road, it delivered an authentic experience, otherwise the gorilla trek would just involve getting on a golf buggy and seeing some recently tranquillised gorillas stumbling around.  Alas, it does have a beautiful view of the nearby inactive volcano.

Prior to arrival, we wanted to emphasis just how hungry we were, so asked the driver to phone ahead so that Bisate could have some food prepared for us.  “No worries”, he said, “everyone is well aware you’re arriving”.  Of course, they were not.

On arrival, a short and most welcome, greeting ceremony took place, and we were escorted up the countless steps to the property.  At this stage I began to question my fitness, as I suffered with each stride.  Having just spent 6 days sat in safari vehicles in Tanzania, with exercise limited to dumping food into my squalid mouth, I could not be sure I was not to blame.  Yet fortunately I’m not quite hitting the peak condition of an 80 year-old in my early 30s, and it turned out it was the lack of oxygen from the altitude.

A normal workout routine for me

As we arrived and sat down with management, I received those chilling words: what are your food allergies?  Oh no, they had completely ignored our stay list.  I may as well have been yelling it at a group of wildebeests before they plunged to their needless deaths crossing a river.  Stupid animals.  Even if they somehow managed to ignore the stay list, they would have our preferences from our time with their other camps, such as North Island, Abu Camp, Mombo, Vumbura Plains or Kings Pool.  Not here.  Even shaving kits were absent, but maybe that was so I blended in with the apes better.

It turns out this was the last involvement that Thousand Hills could put their hands on, and here forth Wilderness Safaris took charge and stamped their elephant sized authority on delivering a world class experience.

Bisate is an incredibly intimate affair.  It’s fortunately not one that turns it into the feeling of a cult.  Excluding the merged library and wine cellar on the lower floors, the entire main area is open planned.  Most of all, it is absolutely stunning.  Plenty of in and outdoor seating areas, a small bar, dining room and boutique.  Sadly all that is absent is a proper spa; treatments are done in your room, including the complimentary 20 minute neck and back massage.  As all the main activities begin at the same time, you will likely see everyone during breakfast, then again during lunch, then start to get sick of seeing them for drinks at the bar, before you sit next to them whilst having dinner.  Bring your best aftershave and shower twice daily.

There are only 6 identical villas, further adding to the closeness.  If you’re not as fit as He-Man, you may want to get one of the lower room numbers, like 1 or 2.  They gave us 5 – right near the top.  Any further and they would have been calling me that helicopter, but to evacuate me to the nearest hospital.

The villas, too, are open plan, and are just – if not more – beautiful than the main area.  I am not a huge fan of the majority of Wilderness’ properties when it comes to room design, but Bisate is as much as a delight upon the eyes as a rhino to a poacher.  The sense of space; the beautiful views; the elegant design; the generosity; the practicality of it.  An entire area just dedicated to your food and drink, so you don’t have to climatise yourself to conditions found on Everest each time.  An actual walkie talkie (that was always answered!), so if you do need something, someone who can survive at this altitude can bring it to you.  WiFi available in all rooms, but not the main area – the compromise Wilderness settled on after enough complaints from people like me.  Admittedly, the Internet connectivity was often bordering on unusable, so in a way, they are entirely responsible for this review taking so long.  USB sockets next to the bed, plenty of plug adapters, electric fans, portable heaters, yoga matts, heated towel racks, a fire place, sublime bathrobes and even a tablet filed with activities and staff profiles.  If this is the new Wilderness, I very much like it.

The living area next to the bed, along with the outdoor balcony with views of the mist descending from the volcano, offers plenty of seating options, during the few hours you will find yourself either not eating or on an activity.  Normally it would bother me to not have a separate living area, but we did not suffer the jet lag that the many Americans guests likely will, so it never proved an issue.

There are several minor areas they need to focus on, not least the Internet.  A common complaint of mine, so I’ll be more specific here.  Strangely, the heat is the biggest issue – we woke up on the first 2 nights needing to turn the fan on, even though the fire went out hours ago.  The room was cold, but the bed felt like it was used as a part-time sauna.  Then there’s the balcony doors.  Not only are they stubborn to open and close, but they then go rogue by rattling during even a hint of wind.  Fortunately these are already due to be replaced next month.

The light switches were deeply confusing, with a whack-a-mole attempt of hitting them all being required to leave the room.  They seemed badly positioned, but most annoying was the lack of a master switch.  They ask you to preserve energy, but then make it difficult to do so.  The labels were also peeling off, so it was anyone’s guess what they did.  I’m just grateful none of them turned off the smoke alarms.  Although maybe they did, as on arrival we entered the room, the fire was lit, and the door wasn’t closed properly, so the entire room was filled with smoke. The smoke detectors were clearly on a day off, as they didn’t bother to respond either.

The food was superb, with it following a similar concept to Abu Camp: breakfast buffet with cooked options, snack packs for activities, the same lunch menu with a daily changing salad, bread and soup, and a dinner with a choice of 2 starters and 3 mains.  If that sounds sounds rather limited, it’s because it is.  Yet the lunch choices were substantial enough that I never cared for anything else, and dinner theme changed between Western, local and tapas.  I am an hotelier’s nightmare food guest; so fussy that your chef will likely quit and become a mute Monk to avoid any human interaction ever again.

My only complaint at Bisate was hoping they would actually ask us what we wanted in the snack packs, as opposed to simply assuming.  It wasn’t that it was bad, I’m just sure we could have gone a bit more inventive than crisps, bananas, flapjacks, peanuts and a beef roll.  We finished dinner around 10pm each night and were always the last, with staff clearly keen on going to bed themselves.  I was half-expecting the infamous “can we help you with your luggage?” request you receive from hotels kindly asking you to vacate their premises when you’re past checkout time.

Service was warm, friendly and on hand for anything you want.  The lodge managers, Jomi and Hadley, would spend time talking to the guests in the lounge/bar area prior to dinner, and would always be seen around the lodge throughout the day.  Everyone else certainly tried, but there is definitely area for improvement.  You will not find staff memorising preferences here, nor a major sense of urgency when it comes to food – as we experienced during a 30 minute wait for a soup.  Forgetfulness and proactivity were the main areas we saw, such as asking for things to be sent to our room and never finding them, or coming back from a 7 hour gorilla trek and finding staff waiting for us with hot towels by the entrance, but then no one else being prepared to help us when we walked up to the main lodge.

The Bisate Thrones

It felt similar to Laucala, in that the main elements of superb service were following checklists.  I do not mean this disparingly, I simply mean that management has clearly implemented what needs to be followed, but thinking beyond this to deliver truly world class service is not there.  For example, the hot water bottle in bed each night, the turndown gifts, the invite to plant a tree, the notes scattered around the room, fast laundry, your boots cleaned after every activity – these are points you can write down and train.  Teaching someone to specifically remember what you do and do not like is much more difficult.

Their biggest faux pas came right at the end, as we spotted just a single item of laundry missing as we packed.  Lucky we did, as it turned out they forgot to return almost 20% of our clothes to us.

Due to needing to fly to Nairobi the next day, we checked out at 3am.  Even so, Jomi insisted on being there to wave us off.  3 hours later, through the thick fog of Rwanda, we arrived at the airport, having absorbed some of the half-empty snack bags they gave us.  In an entirely non-scalable operation, everyone has to get out of the car with all their luggage before they can even enter the airport, so a sniffer dog can come in, the vehicle gets searched and you get searched.

Worth Knowing

You most likely need to spend the prior 5 hours to your gorilla trek reading up on the etiquette for tipping.  Apparently, anyone that comes within breathing space of you deserves one.  Being British, I only tip my bowler hat tailor and even then it’s with signed pictures of Rod Stewart, so this was news to me.

The Good

  • If you’re reading this and deciding whether to book, by the time you can actually get any availability at Bisate, it will be significantly better.
  • Beautiful lodge, beautiful rooms, beautiful people

The Bad

  • Needs more refinement around the service, particularly Thousand Hills

The Luxurious

  • Gorilla trekking
  • Gorilla trekking
  • Some more gorilla trekking

Conclusion

Bisate Lodge is undoubtedly a bucket list for many people.  I am young, fortunate and financial irresponsible enough to not have to call this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  My only concern is that we forgot to sign the waiver, so there may be assassins right now hunting me down, just in case I’m planning a lawsuit.

Prior to arrival, and even during arrival, I noted down their valiant attempts at convincing us of the other activities other than gorilla trekking.  It sounded like further marketing nonsense, but I truly wish we had another night, so we could have experienced the golden monkeys and volcano tours.  One of the hidden gems was tailoring an outfit, with next day turnaround.   So if you see someone walking around England during winter in bright green, purple and orange, please come over and say hello to us.

We loved our stay in Bisate.  There is a way to go for it to be the finished product, but that is often the way in developing countries.  Until Singita opens next year, it will be the only luxury option and I leave grateful for the opportunity of what it offered us.

For a country that has been through so much in recent history, it felt as welcoming as anywhere else I’ve been.  It is a disservice to visit here and not take a trip to their Genocide Memorial in order to understand the magnitude of how far they’ve come and how far they will go due to this form of tourism.  As we departed, the number of Rwandans who thanked us for being there was humbling.  They know the importance of tourists, and have only gratitude for it.  It should be us thanking them.

Thanks, Rwanda!

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 29th Oct '18

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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