Introducing Admiral Travel’s new Hilton Family Travel Journal!  As most of you know, Ryan & Malaka Hilton typically spend most of the year traveling, whether escorting guests on Founders Journeys and private departures, or performing site visits at partner properties across the globe.  View our Hilton Family Travel Journal series here.

“To ensure that Admiral Travel can offer our guests the best, most accurate possible answers to the many questions you undoubtedly have, our team considers it our responsibility to venture out into the world, to support the global travel industry as much as possible, and to report back to you what we learn,” notes Malaka Hilton, CEO of Admiral Travel.

View all posts in our new Hilton Family Travel Journal series here. All images were captured by Ryan Hilton Photography.

Through Malaka’s eyes:

Ryan and I have just returned from ten wonderful days in Tanzania.  It felt amazing and so natural to be traveling again!

We decided that the best way to show our guests what “COVID TRAVEL” would be like, was to experience it firsthand so we could confidently navigate this “new normal” for you. We are happy to report, it went even better than expected!

From the moment we boarded our flight on Qatar Airways, (masks and face shields required for boarding only) we felt very safe. Business Class on Qatar was supremely comfortable & with our own suite, we never came in contact with other travelers. Even in coach, passengers were able to truly spread out with flights not coming close to being full.

On our layover, the international airports were in total safety mode with temperature checks and distancing as soon as we exited the plane.

By the time we landed in Tanzania, we had gained our confidence that travel was not only possible but could be done safely and responsibly without having to sacrifice comfort. The Serengeti was quiet as expected but made for an exceptional experience for us as we had the whole place to ourselves.

What better place to keep your distance than in the bush?!

Through Ryan’s eyes:

Travelling means more to us than it ever has before.  When the time is right for you, Admiral Travel will be equipped to confidently prepare you for your experiences under COVID conditions. We aim to show you all that you can move safely around the world and still enjoy all that makes travel so important to you, to us all. When the world calls to you and you feel safe enough to respond, we will be prepared to pass along the message. 

Eager to see for ourselves, Malaka and I recently embarked on yet another journey – to Africa this time. 

Excitement owns its rightful place amongst my ‘new normal’ pre-departure preparation routine, alongside packing, camera bag organizing, COVID testing, and checking in with our ATI team to ensure the office would, as always, hum along in our absence.  I couldn’t sleep the night before we departed.  The drive to the airport seemed even more brief than usual.  Mentally, I wasn’t on the road but mentally exploring our destination and pondering what we might see upon arrival.  This adventure felt promising, despite the minor changes we were happy to make.

The most notable differences in our COVID-era journeys now show up have arisen in the actual moving from place to place: The airports are very clean. The terminals are uncrowded and the airline staff is not stressed or overworked but seem genuinely happy to see you. Airline check-in and TSA screening have never been so hassle-free. 

Let’s talk logistics: We flew AA from Tampa to DFW and connected to a Qatar flight to take us through Doha to Zanzibar. The airline requires a facemask be worn and provides you with a face shield to be worn during boarding and debarking your flight. Business Class travelers may remove their masks when in their seats.

We arrived into Zanzibar.  Even the word itself seems enchanted. After passing through immigration, we collected our bags and breezed through customs. We were transferred by private vehicle to Matemwe Retreat on the north-eastern coast of the island. Just like in the airport hours ago and even on our trip to St. Lucia, I again noticed how sparsely populated the area was.

We walked beaches devoid of other travelers, noticed watersport activity centers completely shuttered, and gazed longingly at picturesque beach bars sans thirsty travelers, tall palms waving in the Indian Ocean breeze. Most notable was the complete absence of travelers on the famed Mnemba Reef, the best snorkeling on the whole island. On any given September day for the last 10+ years, you would see 50+ boats with tourists snorkeling the reef.  

With all airport staff, aircraft crew and passengers wearing masks, we traveled by light aircraft scheduled flight from Zanzibar to Arusha to connect with our flight to the western reaches of the Serengeti to begin our time on safari. This is why we were here. This is the meat and potatoes, folks.

As we peered down over the rural African landscape, questions soon-to-be-answered kept on swimming through my head until the wheels met the tarmac.

Touching down at Sasakwa airstrip we were welcomed planeside by our masked guide who led us through a COVID disinfectant sprayer prior to receiving a temperature check. Within minutes our safari duffels were on our vehicle, wheels rolling toward Singita’s Faru Faru Lodge.

Over our 35 minute drive we spotted more than 800 animals covering six mammal species before the nose of the vehicle turned gently through into the lodge’s welcome area. That unforgettable Safari signature greeting from the lodge staff — the warm and joyful arm-wave — has never looked so good.  Under the masks I knew the smiles were warm and sincere.  Peaceful relief flooded me as we strolled into the lodge, knowing that the moving-from-place-to-place aspect of our journey was behind us.  We exhaled deeply, settled in wholeheartedly, thrilled to finally give our time and attention to this team and the wonderfully wide-open space they get to call their office.

Lunch for two was set under an umbrella overlooking a waterhole dazzling with zebra and a ribbon of riverine vegetation following the Grumeti River. We enjoyed beautiful salads, colorful vegetables, flavorful meats, and fresh fish.

Within 24 hours it was very clear to me that while in the lodge, the safari experience still retains all of the magic and wonderful elements that make it so memorable and special for travelers. All staff are very happy to relearn how to make your ideal cappuccino to accompany your daybreak granola, with fresh fruit and yogurt and freshly baked pastries before going out on your morning game drive.  The hospitality teams still work in uniquely positioned and designed guestrooms and common areas that connect the travelers to destination.  They are happier than ever to be firing up the burners in the kitchen and igniting evening fires for guests to congregate around. Above all, the staff are still doing all they can to personalize your experience to ensure that you can disconnect from your daily life and routine at home to truly discover new places, cultures and people.

As always, we are here to strengthen our connection to Africa.

While on safari at Singita Grumeti we enjoyed 3 nights at Singita Faru Faru Lodge and 3 nights at Singita Sasakwa Lodge.  It was clear that the team responsible for maintaining the lodges, camps and villas had actively been maintaining all the equipment that makes these unique places so comfortable and enjoyable. The fridges, freezers, burners, sinks, taps and drains, cupboard doors, drawers, light fixtures, and switches in the common areas were all in perfect working order despite the lack of guests. They certainly have made the most of having unfettered access to the hardware to do the work that requires hammering and sawing and drilling and lots of talking and perhaps some shouting…

The kind of necessary work that simply cannot happen when guests are in camp. 

All the structural and decorative woodwork, including the decks, had received the needed sanding and fresh coat of varnish for a sparkling shine. All stone, slate, and concrete flooring and walling had been checked for unwanted cracks which were, if found, removed.  All chairs and tables, cushions and pillows, and even the tabletop candles were in picture-perfect place. It all looked and felt so clean, warm, and welcoming; So much so that we couldn’t one cannot help but fall deeply and completely into that uniquely African embrace. 

Perched on a hill, with seemingly ever-reaching views over the grasslands of the western Serengeti, Sasakwa Lodge is simply unrivaled in this region. Guestrooms are spacious, thoughtfully laid out, and tastefully decorated to ensure that every element of your environment contributes to your experience. The common areas are large and inviting and seem to beg you to try to add another the sun for another few hours to the day so that you can make the time to just to enjoy that space and the welcoming comfort it provides as you take a closer look at all the impressive art and furniture.

Trying to do just that, we found ourselves enjoying that very view and a late afternoon wine-tasting with the friendly, well-informed in-house sommelier Rob, who was intimately familiar with the current collection in the property’s cellars. He is well-armed to impress his guests; he arrived prepared and well-versed in Malaka’s wine interests, having checked her preference record from her past stays at other Singita properties.  She was delighted to try two wines we’d never heard of, another she’d mentally noted to taste on a previous recommendation from a ÷friend, and an old favorite.  Perfection.

In the field we were equally impressed. Having 6 nights on safari to move through this 350,000+ acre, exclusive use, very productive, well-protected, quintessentially East-African wildlife area, we were able to move slowly and look carefully for all of those delights with which the African bush so graciously surprises a visitor. It didn’t matter whether we were creeping slowly along the riverine forests and thickets that flank the Grumeti River looking for rare Colobus Monkeys, or sitting idle under a Torchwood tree out in the middle of the open plains enjoying a personal salad and a tasty sandwich from our packed lunch picnic: There was always lots to see and lots to learn.

The sight of a lone adult Giraffe on the grassland horizon, framed by two flat-topped trees, all under a softly clouded sky, beaming rays of light piercing through is a hauntingly African sight. Such an image promises to settle deeply and permanently in your soul, rooting itself in your being.

The same is true for the Zebra and the Topi and the Gazelle and the Wildebeest. With the big cats – the Lion, Leopard and Cheetah – along with the dangerous game – the Elephant, Cape Buffalo and Rhino – you experience the same moving awe that is uniquely African. You feel a slightly feel a new type of vulnerability that makes you look around often, considering escape routes, and wonder who in the vehicle is slower than you. That is, until you engage with your guide in search of the assurances that you are perfectly safe, provided you follow his/her direction.

Every day we made the most of our time in the field. Robert, our guide, made sure the coolbox was appropriately stocked with our favorite beverages and snacks. Robert worked directly with the kitchen so that when we were in the field for full days, our picnic lunch would nourish and satisfy us. 

One day, we started our morning drive with wheels rolling from the lodge about 30 minutes before sunrise with every intention of being back late morning for a slow meal at a table for two, next to the pool, overlooking the waterhole that dazzles with Zebra all day long. The anticipation in that cool morning air felt thick and the promise in those first rays of sun had everyone smiling, simply happy to be awake, alert and moving through this wild and natural space at our own pace. 

We had seen a male Cheetah late in the afternoon the previous day and we were heading out to that same area to see if we could relocate him and hopefully get to see him active. Robert made an impressive long-distance visual identification and location of the animal shortly after arriving into the area.  The Cheetah was up and active. Exactly what we were hoping for.

Ultimately, we spent 13 hours in the field that day. Almost all of them with that one male Cheetah. We saw him engage in a half-hearted stalk or two throughout the day, but he did not break into a full run once. For a lot of the time he was flat out under a tree, just being a cheetah. (A lesson in self-care… there is so much to learn out here.)

A couple of days later we spent some time watching a female Cheetah with two sub-adult youngsters stalk, chase, catch, and kill a gazelle in what was a very steady 250+ yard stalk followed by a perfectly timed break into stride. When the Gazelle did lift its head and spot the striding cat at pace, it didn’t have much of a chance. The kill was clean and swift. 25 minutes, 3 full bellies, and a few noisy vultures later, there was no sign of a transfer of energy at that site.

We enjoyed very good Lion sightings throughout our stay, one of which included two litters of cubs who had not yet been seen by a game drive vehicle. Their shyness was evident. 

There is no question that the absence of travelers due to the current travel climate has impacted the people and the wildlife of Africa tremendously.

It may well be that some creatures of the bush are not all that comfortable having vehicles around again but over time, all shall settle back into that wildly comfortable space where all contributors benefit: the travelers for their experiences, the local staff for their livelihoods, and the wildlife for its protection.

Every day we saw thousands of animals.  With the environmental indicators currently pointing to the seasonal change of direction for the great migration when the masses of animals begin to move south, it is expected that the last half of October and most of November will see many thousands of Wildebeest and Zebra moving through this area.  The habitat management teams throughout the area have been burning sections of the grassland over the last couple of months and the imminent light rains will bring a flush of new green grasses. For these reasons, it is certain that part of the migration will make their way through this special place — so irresistibly certain that I cannot resist.  I’m going back next month.