Bumi Hills has been a star of Kariba's tourism stage for most of the lake's 50-year-old history - and like all great ladies of the theatre, her career has been chequered, her fortunes various and her facelifts numerous. Her latest come-back is a triumph.
Perched magnificently on top of a hill right above the southern shore of Lake Kariba, the newly remodeled, redecorated and reinvented Bumi Hills Safari Lodge is glorious. For a grand entrance, Bumi's view has always been unbeatable. But this time, her designers have carefully crafted it for maximum impact with a brilliant blue "infinity pool".
Its sparkling clean water, with a strategically-placed palm tree centerpiece, spills over into the vast, uninterrupted view of an island-dotted inland sea that stretches away for 40-km to the distant hills of Zambia.
If you venture onto the lodge's attractive wooden deck, or onto the verandah of your magnificently appointed "premium" bedroom suite, cantilevered over the edge of the cliff, and dare to glance down from the dizzying height & you look straight into the bush, down onto a waterhole and a tree-top hide, and then on to the red sandy shores of the lake. Invariably some of Bumi's famous elephant bulls will be lumbering along, idly flapping their ears and munching in the shoreline shallows.
It's an awesome act. It's breath-taking. No, honestly. It is.
So.... behind all the makeup and the glitz, what's she really like, this grande dame of the Kariba stage?
Despite the facelift, much of the original Bumi Hills hotel infrastructure, including the old buildings built courtyard-style around the pool, remains intact and has simply been expanded or renovated. The designers have had a challenge making the best of some fairly ghastly 60s architecture, especially in the bedroom area, but mostly it has worked well, and the beautiful bedroom interiors make up for any of the shortcomings outside. I was pleased to see that solar technology heats the water geysers, but air conditioning and ceiling fans (essential for high levels of comfort in that climate) require an awful lot of gas-guzzling, deep-booming generator use. No easy solution is to hand for this, I know.
There's still a delightful, intimate, slightly old-fashioned air about the place - a sort of decadent elegance. It arises from a tasteful mingling of cultures: modern, beautiful, inspired-by-nature African decor with lots of wood and basketweave - the foyer and sitting rooms are works of art in themselves - and olde worlde European touches like the silver tea tray in every room.
The beds are to die for - sumptuous, huge, mosquito-net-draped and extremely difficult to get out of for the early morning game-drive! I enjoyed the spaciousness of the premium suites (there are 10 of these), each with its own verandah and roomy en-suite including the luxury of a bath and shower and loads of fluffy white towels. The standard rooms (also 10) are less spacious and have the disadvantage of a view straight out onto the aforementioned 60s architecture at the back of the premium rooms. The beds, however, are the same throughout - supremely delicious.
As is the food. Fabulous, one could call it - fresh and healthy, and, like the sitting-room decor, each piece a work of art, divinely crafted by a head chef from the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge stable - not easily faulted.
Each dish was gorgeous to look at (and photograph). But I couldn't help wondering whether, for large gentlemen (and ladies) of a ...shall we say... gourmandish disposition, the portions might have been a little on the sparse side. However, there were lots of courses, and plenty of scrumptious snacks and delights in between. A barbecue dinner or (in our case) sundowners and snacks on the beach at sunset - with a table romantically laid next to the lapping waves - is an inspiration. Only at Bumi would you have the professional guide patrolling the bush behind the diners, on full alert to chase off any over-inquisitive elephant cows! I found all the staff and management friendly, attentive and efficient.
The weather being hot in October, we ate most of our meals al fresco in the cool breeze on the deck outside the main dining room. This was lovely. I imagine that in winter, or on windy or rainy days it might be necessary to retreat to the traditional dining room or the lodge's entertainment and games rooms (remnants from the old hotel). But their relatively claustrophobic interiors were far less appealing to me than the open air deck up front with its stunning view.
The lodge has a 12-seater boardroom and conference facilities for 40 people, with a digital projector, large screen TV, DVD and a VCR. I can't imagine wanting to do much serious work in an environment like Bumi's - but it's a great venue for corporate think-tanks and special events.
Shortly to be on offer are a spa chill pool, steam room and massage facilities.
Activities include morning and evening game-drives in open-backed, canvas-covered Land Cruisers; walking with a knowledgeable professional guide in Bumi's surrounding wildlife area (heavily populated with elephant and other species); fishing, bird-watching, game-viewing by boat, sunset cruises, cultural village tours, tours of the neighbouring crocodile farm and flights over the Matusadona National Park and the Kariba dam wall.
Because of its location and layout, the lodge is unable to cater for guests with disabilities. Children under 10 years old are only accommodated by special arrangement.
Access is by air transfer from Harare or Victoria Falls, or by a combination of road and boat from Harare and Kariba.
In either case, guests arrive at the bottom of the hill (either at the airstrip or the harbour) and are driven up to the lodge for the picture-window, maximum-impact, grand "wow"-factor-infinity-pool-entrance. But... sadly, like most theatres where the tatty dressing-rooms at the back lack the glitz of the front stage, the guests' first impression of Bumi is an access road littered with run-down buildings and low-grade staff accommodation. This part of the act could do with some improvement.
But, all in all, the newly face-lifted Bumi Hills puts on a great show. She's an old lady, but you'd never guess it. She's looking stunning, and she can still wow the crowds. I believe she's got a long and successful career ahead of her, and I wish her all the very best.