As you drive up one of the many hills that dot Rwanda—it’s often referred to as the land of a thousand hills—you’ll be tempted to stop every few minutes to take a picture of the calderas and shapely lakes that fill the region. Unfortunately for your memory card—but fortunately for you—the view gets better and better as you ascend. But take our advice: sit still for the bumpy ride and give your camera a break, because you ain’t seen nothing yet. The best views are waiting for you at the end of the drive, the top of the hill, where Virunga Lodge is perched with 360-degree views of the Virunga volcanoes and shimmering twin lakes Ruhondo and Bulera.
Even the views from the simple cobblestoned driveway are spectacular, you realize this as you turn and see the lakes beyond the gate you just passed through. A few stone steps sit to your left, leading to rustic small building that acts as a lobby. But you’re in the jungle—there are no unnecessary fountains or fluffy chairs here, just a bench and table with a vase of flowers under a mat roof. This is where you will check in and get a briefing on your stay. It is a good representation of the energy at the lodge—simple, authentic yet not without class and exploitation of natural beauty. Any luxuries are not excessive.
The property is made of winding stone paths and tall-yet-trimmed bushes, resulting in a beautiful maze. Once you’re told where your room is, an attendant leads you further up the hill balancing your luggage on his head, like the way you’ve seen local children carry jugs of water on your drive 2.5-hour drive from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. The attendant chooses—seemingly at random, but obviously not—a path out of the many that stem from the main one, and escorts you to your private lodge—or banda, as they are called in Rwanda.
After giving you a tour of your temporary home, the attendant shows you how to get to the communal areas, most notably, the main building which sits at the very top of the hill and houses the dining room and a rustic lounge, and whose terraces have the best views on the property—hard to believe they get any better than the ones outside your bathroom window. You’ll see what we mean once you get over the splendor of your digs and make your way up for a sundown cocktail either outside on the terrace or next to the big fireplace in the lounge filled with wicker and wood furniture and red accents. Think Hemingway meets rural Rwandan.
Believe it or not, the all-inclusive hotel only has eight rooms, but its so spread out and group meals are so vivacious that it never feels empty.
Try not to get too distracted by the expansive views from your private terrace, because your attendant is patiently waiting to show you around the room and divulge pertinent information about the mosquito net, in-room breakfast and so on. The views will still be there when he’s done.
The lodge’s eight tiled bandas are each named after African lakes in the region. Volcanoes Safaris—the lodge’s parent company—describes the design as “organic, bush-chic,” which is pretty accurate.
Each banda has a different color scheme, my room was aquamarine. This meant the outside was painted in a dark shade of the color and the walls of the bedroom were painted bright blue. The blankets were of a pattern that featured it, as were the throw pillows and other decorative elements. The mat roof held up by exposed wooden beams and raw wooden bedframe made it clear that they are trying to give you a taste of how locals live. They even used volcanic rock and local terracotta tiles to construct the buildings.
However, this is a highly elevated version of the simple huts below the lodge. Mosquito nets are draped elegantly over the bed, looking much more like sheer canopies. Each spacious bedroom shows its cultural pride in indigenous art, and straw lanterns and baskets. The dark hardwood floors and stone mantles keep you connected to the earth, and colorful patterned rugs contribute to the banda’s liveliness.
Each banda was refurbished in 2010 adding huge en-suite bathrooms with low-flush toilets, hot and cold running water (solar heated) and bio-degradable hand and body wash. If it hasn’t become clear yet, the property is very eco-conscious. Continuing their efforts to keep you grounded in the earth, the bathrooms are tiled in large slabs of stone, from the floor to the shower walls to the sink. The open shower allows you to enjoy the views from the huge windows opposite the shower (or you can close the curtains for privacy, but the way the property is laid out, it’s unlikely anyone will be in front of your bathroom window—just mountains and lakes). You can also enjoy the views while brushing your teeth, as another set of windows sit above the sink. The bathroom windows make for the most pleasant cleansing you’ll ever experience.
Saving the best for last, each banda has its own private terrace with spectacular views of the volcanoes or lakes. And thanks to the high hedges and space between the bandas, all you’ll really hear from the balcony is mooing till the cows come home (had to do it).
In terms of the hotel’s most memorable element, it’s hard to choose between the views that make you feel like you’re on top of the world and the natural surroundings that attract a wide variety of birdlife and wild flowers. If you can pull yourself away from your veranda (I was perfectly happy sitting there listening to nearby cows moo—I now have a lot of videos of those views with a soundtrack of animal sounds), I highly recommend getting lost within the lodge’s 18 acres.
Strip a botanical garden of its high-tech buildings and fancy cafes, and plop some indigenous-style huts on it, and you’ve got the Virunga Lodge. The lush greenery and countless spots from which to enjoy it are enough to keep you thoroughly entertained and constantly lost. Try the shaded trail to the lookout point with a view of the twin lakes. If you’re like me, the stone staircase that looks like it leads to heaven will be calling your name. Off a green lawn next to the main lodge, the staircase is nestled in trimmed trees and leads to the lodge’s helipad. You don’t have to own a helicopter to enjoy its unobstructed 360-degree views of the lakes and five Virunga volcanoes (Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo). This is also where a local dance troop that the lodge supports comes to perform for guests.
While I didn’t get to see this aspect of the hotel, as it is still under construction, another point of interest will be the soon-to-open Dian Fossey Map room. Here, guests will be able to see belongings of the conservationist who, through her research in the Virunga Mountains, brought the need for gorilla protection to the attention of a global audience. As of March 3, guests will have access to this room to relax, dine, rent the space for private functions, explores maps surveying the region and learn about some of the first explorers to reach Rwanda.
Address: Lake Bulera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda
Room Rates: From $500
Website: Virunga Lodge
Maggie Parker is Paste Magazine’s assistant travel and health editor.