The Victoria Falls, lying along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a must visit destination. Livingstone, and the northern banks of the Zambezi, once the ‘poor relation’ in the Victoria Falls ‘experience’, has undergone an incredible transformation in recent years, and now has some truly sophisticated and spectacular places to stay.
Thorntree River Lodge
My all-time favourite in Livingstone, and somewhere I return to over and over, is Thorntree Lodge. I’ve even been guilty of mentally planning my eldest son’s hypothetical wedding there, years in advance, because I think it’s just such a perfect place. Beautifully appointed rooms right on the banks of the Zambezi…. sundowners beside your private swimming pool, waking up in the morning to drink coffee in bed, with the vast expanse of the Zambezi River stretching out before you… these are all parts of an experience not to be forgotten.
Great food, great staff, great location… great place! Thorntree is situated in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, home to buffalo, zebra, giraffe, elephant, various antelope, warthog and more. The park is also home to the endangered white rhino. Game drives and safari walks in the park are organised by the lodge, giving you the incredibly special experience of getting close to and spending time interacting with (at a safe distance) rhino on foot.
Thorntree has a gym, with a view, for those times you feel you should be working off all the good food, but don’t want to miss out on any of the ‘wildlife action’. I visited the treadmill every morning, while the rest of my family were in bed, and saw beautiful birds, monkeys, baboons, giraffes and even elephants, all while ‘running to nowhere’!
Just 20min upstream of the Victoria Falls, the lodge will happily arrange visits to the falls, as well as to a myriad of other activities on offer in Livingstone, from helicopter flights to canoeing, white water rafting to bungi jumping. If that sounds a little too active then try the spa for a relaxing massage, lie by the pool with a book, or enjoy a three course lunch as you drift down the river on one of the lodge’s boats.
The Stanley Park Safari Lodge
The Stanley has a very different viewpoint and perspective to most of the other lodges around Livingstone. Most lodges in the area are built right on the river banks. At The Stanley, the lodges ten suites and cottages are perched on a hill, bordering the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, overlooking unspoilt bush, and with snaking stretches of the Zambezi River and the spray of the Victoria Falls visible in the distance.
We arrived in a deluge and had to make a mad dash from the car to the welcoming shelter of the dining room. A guided tour of the wine cellar kept us occupied until the rain let up and we could move to our room.
More than anything else I loved the view from The Stanley. Seemingly endless bush stretched out in front of us as far as the eye could see and a thunderstorm during dinner provided a spectacular display of lightning across the border in Zimbabwe. The reflection of the lightning in the swimming pool, which we could see from our table, was incredible.
Islands of Siankaba
Islands of Siankaba is built on two private islands in the middle of the Zambezi. Wooden rooms, built on stilts, perch on the river’s edge, with verandahs jutting out over the water, all interlinked by a series of raised wooden walkways.
The walkways and the suspension bridges that link the two islands, give an air of adventure to the lodge. During our stay they were a constant source of amusement to my husband, who would deliberately wait until I was in the middle of the main suspension bridge, before jumping up and down on it, and laughing as I tried to both keep my balance and glare at him simultaneously.
The rain had found us at The Stanley continued at Islands of Siankaba and the sound of the swollen river swirling beneath our room and the rain falling on the canvas roof at night made us feel cosy and warm tucked up in bed and lulled us off to sleep. Sitting on our verandah the next morning with tea and coffee in hand we watched bee-eaters and swallows swooping out over the water, and an otter swum amongst the tiny islands in front of our room.
Royal Chundu is located 30km upstream of the Victoria Falls. From the minute we arrived at Royal Chundu we knew we were in paradise and it was easy to see why the lodge had previously been voted the 4th Best Resort in Africa and 9th Best Resort in the World in the Condé Nast Traveller’s Readers’ Choice Awards. Having relied on Google maps to get us there, I’d taken us on a ridiculously circuitous route, and we were consequently feeling rather exhausted by the time we arrived at the main lodge. All that fell away though as we stepped aboard the boat that would take us out to the Island Lodge, a quick boat ride from the main River Lodge.
My most memorable experience of our stay was arriving back at our room after dinner to find a freshly drawn bath, in the tub on the verandah, with bubbles that must have been at least a metre high. Never one to turn down a bath, I hopped in, and was serenaded by a choir of frogs in the river below. I sat in the bath watching the Southern Cross and the Milky Way, and listening to lions roaring in the park on the Zimbabwean side of the river. Then as if on cue, a shooting star streaked across the sky. An absolutely perfect moment… warm water, cool night air, mountains of bubbles, brilliant stars and the sound of lions. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Food was a definite highlight of our stay. On our final night at Royal Chundu we were treated to a special Zambian tasting menu. Normally I steer clear of activities labelled a ‘traditional’ or ‘cultural’, but this dinner was on a whole other level. It was an inspired use of traditional Zambian ingredients, starting with the chef’s ingenious take on chibwantu (a traditional homemade fermented drink) served in a giant snail shell, and went on to include the imaginative use of ingredients like wild spinach and vinkubala (caterpillars). Absolutely delicious.
My husband has an interesting criteria for grading lodges and hotels. Eggs Benedict. Everywhere we go, if it’s on the breakfast menu he will order it. Royal Chundu’s Eggs Benedict was apparently the best he’s ever eaten anywhere, in his life. So if you fancy the perfect breakfast, in a luxurious lodge, eaten on a verandah perched over the Zambezi, then Royal Chundu is the place for you.
The Royal Livingstone Hotel
While we are on the subject of food, let me tell you that just after we arrived at the Royal Livingstone we were ushered off to an extravagant high tea, complete with a three tiered cake stand loaded with delectable goodies, accompanied by our choice of any number of tea varieties and, of course, some sparkling wine. We savoured our high tea watching zebras grazing by the pool.
Then, just as I swallowed my last bubbly sip, nibbled my last morsel of cucumber sandwich, and decided there was no way I was going to fit in any dinner, I was whisked off to a luxurious massage in a gazeebo on the banks of the Zambezi. The sound of the river in full flow, with the occasional hippo grunting, gave a very African touch to the pampering.
Wrapping up our stay in Livingstone we spent our final morning enjoying a delicious champagne breakfast, with all the trimmings, while watching the spray from the falls, only a stone’s throw away. We followed this with a last minute visit to the falls themselves (which you access directly from the hotel garden). Taking advantage of our last bit of luxury, and feeling a little bloated from all the delicious food, we didn’t even walk to the falls, instead catching a ride on one of the hotel’s golf buggies! The falls were a magnificent sight, water tumbled over the ragged, rocky edge and plunged into the chasm below. It was hard to drag ourselves away from the sight, but sadly all good things come to an end.