Disclosure: I was a guest of Bisate lodge and Thousand Hills Africa. All opinions are always truthful and my own.
Bisate Lodge is Rwanda’s first and only truly luxury lodge at the time of writing and before One&Only Gorilla’s Nest and Singita’s Kwitonda Lodge open in the latter half of 2019. It is Wilderness Safaris’ first lodge in Rwanda and will eventually be one of three lodges the African safari company will open in the country, the other two will be in Akagera National Park and Nyungwe Forest National Park.
Aside from being the only true luxury lodge for now in Rwanda, Bisate Lodge is a gem on its own. Its mindful architecture, its commitment to sustainability and its stunning location on the edge of the UNESCO-listed Virungas Massif have positioned it as a household name in recent global design and conservation awards worldwide.
The story of Bisate Lodge
I had first set my eyes on Bisate Lodge before it started to welcome guests. I saw it featured on some of the lists of hotels opening in 2017 and couldn’t help but add it to my bucket list.
It was the renderings used in the press releases which captivated me. The design of the forest villas looked like the eyes of the mountain, carefully watching over the Volcanoes National Park and the endangered mountain gorillas.
Located on an eroded volcanic cone, Bisate Lodge opened in the summer of 2017 with just six villas. A couple more may be added in the future but the lodge will always remain intimate. The Rwandan Government, and Wilderness Safaris, have decided to go for high end, low impact tourism and the lodge’s rates start at $2,300 per room for two people all meals and drinks included in the low season, climbing to almost $3,000 in the peak months.
This positions Bisate Lodge as one of the most expensive hotels in the world and certainly one of the most exclusive lodges in Africa. With just 12 guests at any time, you are guaranteed a personalised service that is truly at the level of every individual guest. Bisate is a fine example of Wilderness Safaris’ “purpose is the new luxury” philosophy and its commitment to the 4Cs of sustainability which underpin all its projects: Commerce, Community, Culture and Conservation.
Bisate Lodge General Manager, Jomi Krobb, explained to me that the Rwandan Government approached Wilderness Safaris for its well known commitment to conservation and proposed a joint partnership to open Bisate and two other lodges, one in Akagera and one in Nyungwe. Wilderness not only had to bring its luxury hospitality expertise and training to the country but also its commitment to sustainability and conservation.
This commitment started with the location of the lodge. Bisate means “pieces” in the Kinyarwanda language and it refers to its location on an eroded volcanic cone chipped away by the effects of the weather. Its location was carefully chosen away from farmland so the lodge would not take away fertile soil from the farmers in the area.
The main objective of Bisate Lodge is not just tied to providing its guests with a unique and exclusive experience but also to the reforestation of the area, suffering from uncontrolled farming encroaching on the national park and, ultimately, on gorilla land.
As part of this effort, Bisate is planting a minimum of 10,000 trees every year and has already planted 20,000 in the first year of operation. Eventually, Jomi tells me, the Volcanoes National Park will expand in the area where the reforestation efforts are taking place and Bisate Lodge may end up within the borders of the park.
Wilderness Safaris bought 172 plots of land from 115 farmers for the lodge and reforestation project thus converting farmland into forest area for the 42 hectare site. This also contributed to the community with financial resources that helped upgrade houses and provide investment funds to pursue other aspirations.
The reforestation is made using indigenous species and it is expected that as the forest grows, the endemic species will return. Imagine a majestic mountain gorilla wandering in the common areas of the lodge. That would be a once in a lifetime experience.
But this commitment will take years to materialise. Like with all other projects Wilderness Safaris sponsors and supports, conservation is a long-term game. The trees take years to grow and the area will not be ready to welcome wildlife until a few years from the opening of the lodge. Notwithstanding, even today, Bisate is remarkably close to some of the park gates used in the daily gorilla trekking excursions.
One morning, as we were walking in the nearby village getting to know the local culture and ways of life, we saw a couple of tourists walking with a ranger, they were just returning from the entry point to their gorilla trekking. Bisate is remarkably close to the mountain gorillas as it is.
Arrival and check in at Bisate Lodge
Bisate Lodge is located about 3h from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. It can be accessed on a perfectly paved road all the way until the last half an hour which is on a rocky, volcanic path that requires a 4×4 car. This last stretch was the best welcome we could have wished for.
It may seem counterintuitive but the rolling mist that covers the mountains every morning, and which was the backstage to Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist autobiography, was exactly what I was hoping to find at Bisate Lodge. The weather cooperated and provided this mystical feeling one has in the area.
The drive was incredibly bumpy and the mist made it impossible to see more than a couple of meters away from either side of the car or in front. Occasionally, a local farmer would appear from the mist, carrying the tools to work the fields.
The expectations were growing and the anticipation starting to peak when the stairs to Bisate Lodge appeared at the end of the road. A group of staff members were already waiting for us, despite it raining lightly.
“They have such beautiful acapella voices”, said our driver as we were pulling in. It was drizzling and I could already feel the altitude. We jumped off the car and there they were, quite a few of the staff members including Hadley, one half of the management team, singing a song in Kinyarwanda as if the sun was shining. The arrival experience at Bisate Lodge is the best way to set the scene for what is to come.
Our luggage was taken directly to the villa and we were handed carved wooden sticks with gorilla heads, the same ones we would use for the gorilla trek, to help us up the stairs. They were useful, as we were already at 2,600m above sea level and the altitude was immediately felt.
Bisate Lodge is stunning, but you need to be in relatively good shape to stay there as there are a lot of stairs built with uneven volcanic stone. There is a lot of climbing up and down the side of the volcanic cone it is located on to get to the room, the restaurant or to go on the daily activities. At sea level these would be fine but the altitude makes it exponentially harder. We took our time to walk up to the restaurant level and arrived breathless to an even more breathtaking view.
Check in was brief and devoid of any administrative elements. There was nothing to sign, no paperwork to take care of, no credit cards required, our chat with Hadley was focused on a briefing about the lodge, the safety measures, the activities and the general workings of the property.
We were given a warm cup of the signature ginger tea brewed with cinnamon, other spices, herbs and some lemon. I ordered the drink several times during our stay as it was delicious and perfectly suited to the weather. It is also believed to help with altitude sickness, which was a great excuse to keep ordering it.
After the brief, we were shown to our villa. A couple more flights of stairs to Villa number 4 and there we were, in the most amazing room in Africa, no doubt.
The villas at Bisate Lodge
Bisate Lodge has just six identical rounded thatched villas located at different levels and measuring 91 square meters. Each of them has two separate spaces. A bathroom with a freestanding black resin bathtub dominating the space and the bed, a sofa, a small desk and two armchairs set around the fireplace which separates both bedroom and bathroom and is built with volcanic stone.
The bathroom has his and hers sinks, a walk in brick shower, a separate toilet and eco-friendly amenities by South African-based Africology brand. The leather mirrors and the open closet are all convenient and there are a few useful touches that make it a cozy home away from home.
There is a balcony running the length of the room with incredible views over the highest volcanoes that form the range of the Virungas Masif: Bisoke, Karisimbi and Mikeno. The mist rolls in every morning and every evening covering the mountain tops for extra dramatism.
The villas at Bisate Lodge are absolutely breathtaking. From the moment you walk in you know that you are in one of the most unique and beautiful lodges in Africa.
The lodge was designed by Garreth Kriel from South African-based Nicholas Plewman and Associates who took inspiration from the Royal Palace in Nyanza, with similar interiors and domed design, and input from the National Ethnographic Museum. The architectural firm is well versed in African lodge design with dozens of projects under its belt, but still managed to come up with something that cannot be compared to anything else for Bisate Lodge.
Inside, the villas are domed and the walls covered in dried woven grass mats, just like the ones found inside Rwandan homes. The floors are wooden and the doors leading out to the balconies are made of black steel. The combination of materials is unique and differs from the traditional interior design in other high end safari lodges where wood and fabric are the only materials used.
The interior design was commissioned from Artichoke Design and led by Caline Williams-Wynn and Nilfah Adams who worked with local designer Teta Isibo, owner of local jewelry brand Inzuki Designs, to source local items. She is also one of the 30 most promising young entrepreneurs in Africa in 2017 according to Forbes. I totally loved her jewelry designs and bought a few pieces in her Kigali store but you can also find a few of them at the lodge.
The result of combining Plewman and Artichoke with Isibo is a divinely unique mix of modern and traditional, global and local. The furnishings are decorated using the imigongo art technique which is traditional in Rwanda and blends cow dung with coloured soils to paint geometric shapes. All the materials are native to Rwanda and the furniture combines fabrics and patterns that play with the textures, shapes and colours of Rwandan life. Though it may sound chaotic, it actually works seamlessly well to create a cozy and welcoming space that cuddles you in without forgetting where you are.
The villas at Bisate have WiFi internet, not very strong signal or very fast but enough for email and social media. There is no WiFi anywhere else in the lodge.
It is very difficult to explain the sense of place and the moving feeling one has when entering the villas at Bisate Lodge but I do hope that my photos do it justice.
Dining at Bisate Lodge
The rates at Bisate Lodge are inclusive of food and house wines and spirits. There is also a selection of premium wines available for purchase but I found the house wine list to be great.
All meals at Bisate Lodge are served at the main restaurant. Breakfast includes a small buffet selection with cold cuts, fruits, homemade granola, breads, pastries, cereals and yogurt plus a choice of hot dishes. As I was there at a relatively quiet time of the year, the breakfast menu never showed up, we were simply free to let our minds loose and order what we pleased.
Lunch consisted of a menu with several choices of simple dishes including fusion African recipes, local Rwandan ingredients and other international alternatives. Every lunch started with a salad made with the fresh ingredients from the lodge’s garden and homemade breads. All dishes were tasty, fresh and healthy and we managed to enjoy them outside on the open terrace once when the sun was shining. It is one of the most memorable lunch settings one can think of.
Dinner at Bisate Lodge is a more refined affair with a set menu, wine pairing suggestions and more elaborate dishes. If you are staying for at least three nights you will have the chance to experience a traditional Rwandan meal. This means that not only the recipes are Rwandan but the manner in which they are served is also traditional using beautiful baskets, jugs and bowls.
At every meal, the food was all handmade from scratch. The sauces, the pasta, the granola, the breads, the salads and it was all delicious. While it was hard to fault the team on anything, I wish there were more Rwandan dishes on the standard menus, even if Rwanda is not famous for its cuisine, but everything we had was great.
The facilities and common areas at Bisate Lodge
The decoration in the common areas of Bisate Lodge is as unique and beautiful as the villas and incorporates elements that would be found in local Rwandan homes. Milk jugs, weaved baskets, cowhide rugs carpets and traditional African patterns are all present throughout the common spaces. There are also some innovative items. The large light above the bar and the one in the cellar room are made of recycled green wine bottles that reflect the emerald green of the Rwandan forests and the walls are made of exposed red brick.
Bisate Lodge is really small so there isn’t much in the way of facilities. There is however a wine cellar with the only TV available in the lodge, and there will soon be a spa. For now massages are available in your own room. A complimentary 20min head and shoulders massage is offered to every guest.
Other than that, there is a cozy living room area where check-in happens and where all evening pre-dinner drinks are offered around the fireplace with all the guests and the management team. This is the equivalent of the safari bonfire gin and tonics where everyone’s stories and anecdotes are shared. These occasions have been the best source for future travel plans for me, always highlighting a new place I had not heard of or a lodge that is incredible or unique.
During our stay at Bisate Lodge there was a couple from South Africa in the mining industry, an American couple who had come to help with a charity focused on offering surgery to the disadvantaged and training to the locals. The lodge was not full as it was not peak season yet, but that made it all the more cozy.
Activities at Bisate Lodge
The main reason one comes to Bisate Lodge is for its proximity to Volcanoes National Park and the mountain gorillas. The lodge is just 20min drive from the park’s headquarters where all visitors need to report in the morning for their gorilla trek. In fact, it is so close to some of the park’s gates that gorillas have been seen in the farmland near the lodge.
But aside from gorilla trekking, there are a few other activities to do at Bisate Lodge. One of the most popular ones, for animal lovers, is a trek to see the golden monkeys which are at the entrance to the park. Golden Monkeys are also endemic of the area and are funny to watch. The fee to visit them is $100 and you just follow the same process as for the mountain gorillas: report early to the park gates, get assigned a group and watch them from up close.
The lodge also offers village walks to the neighbouring village where some of the staff members come from. The visit is a good chance to observe local life and learn more about farming with rural means at 2,600m above sea level. Visits are usually escorted by one of the villagers who also works at the lodge. You will get the chance to visit the workshop where they make some of the handicrafts so you can buy some baskets of carvings if you are interested.
Another popular activity is planting a tree. As mentioned, Bisate Lodge is committed to planting 10,000 trees a year and guests can participate in this activity by contributing their own. For something more active, you can follow the trail around the lodge which has some 360 views from above the villas.
If you are staying for longer, you should also consider visiting the grave of Dian Fossey which involves a longer trek up the mountain where her original Karisoke Research hut was and where she lived. You can also attempt the climb to the top of Karisimbi if you are feeling strong.
The service at Bisate Lodge
The staff to guest ratio at Bisate Lodge is some of the highest you will find. With 46 staff members, there are almost 8 staff members to every room getting close to the original mobile tented camp experience that Hemingway wrote about. This includes all the staff taking care of the gardens, the security team, the room maintenance and the kitchen staff. Everybody is incredibly friendly and willing to help.
The team you are most likely going to interact with the most is the team in charge of service at the restaurant who will make sure you are always well fed and hydrated. All of them are very helpful and always ready to give you anything you need.
The service at Bisate Lodge is definitively personal and personable. Since you know the names of every member of the staff and they know yours your preferences are remembered and everything is always taken care of. Leave your boots outside and they will be cleaned overnight without you even realising. When you go on the gorilla trek they will help you put your gaiters on. Whenever you sit down at the living room area someone will magically appear and offer a drink or some snacks.
Value for money at Bisate Lodge
Bisate Lodge is one of the most expensive lodges in Africa. At $3,000 per couple per night all inclusive, it is a once in a lifetime experience and material for a honeymoon or special occasion. Most guests will not come to Bisate Lodge and just spend the money on the stay but also go on a gorilla trek at least once, usually twice. That means that the average two night stay at Bisate with the gorilla trekking can add up to $12,000 per couple, one of the most expensive experiences to have.
It is hard to assess whether the price is justified just by the lodge itself but there are a few elements that can support such high prices. One is the location. No other lodge in Rwanda, the DRC or Uganda provides such level of luxury for gorilla trekking (click here to see a comparison the three countries). I slept in a similarly close location to the gorillas in Uganda when I went on a gorilla trek years back, but it was not a luxurious place. Secondly there is the design, so unique and so amazing that it is truly special to sleep in any of the villas. Lastly, there are the views of the volcanoes, totally hypnotising.
On the surface, it may be obscene to suggest this is good value for money, there are a lot of equally stunning hotels and resorts in the world, but I can’t make such an assessment without remembering Wilderness Safaris’ “purpose is the new luxury” ethos. This is probably the best way to equate value to money for such a holiday: understanding that your spending will go to something more than just the bottom line of a travel company.
The revenues that Bisate Lodge makes help the local communities, they contribute to the long term growth of an endangered species and they aid in the reforestation of one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. You could also contribute to such projects in other ways, but by visiting Rwanda and seeing for yourself you can grasp the realities and challenges associated with it and share your experience with others who may then appreciate it better. Just like I am doing here.
Bisate Lodge: The verdict
On my last day, as I sat down for lunch with Jomi to share my thoughts on the stay I had a really hard time faulting the lodge on anything. There were very few things I would do differently or could provide feedback to. I would have liked more Rwandan dishes in the menu, but I did miss the traditional dinner night which would have covered that.
I found the service very friendly and helpful and the rooms were absolutely fabulous but also practical. After almost a year of operation any teething problems highlighted by guests had been addressed by Jomi and Hadley and the previous management team who took care of the opening so there was little else to be said.
For most people Bisate Lodge will be a once in a lifetime experience, a honeymoon perhaps, and one which will leave a mark. It is an experience one saves for their entire life but one which is deserving of that title.
All bookings and local arrangements for guests at Bisate Lodge are handled by Thousand Hills Africa, Rwanda’s highest end travel agency and the one which organised my trip.