The Cessna bobbed west of Mount Kenya's snow-capped peak and over cattle-grazing country toward the wild, northernmost escarpment of the Laikpia plateau. Waiting in a tan Land Rover at the airstrip was Timothy ole Mosiany, 27, my personal Masai guide for the next three days, kitted out in tribal regalia, with beads, red checkered cape and suede hiking boots. On our 45-minute drive towards the lodge, he identified Thomson's gazelle, dik dik, kudu and klipspringer and the jagged 1,977m peak of Ole Lentille, once used as a lookout by Masai warriors against Samburu cattle raiders.
Timothy grew up on the Laikipia Masai Kitjabe Group Ranch, the elders of which have partnered with the African Wildlife Foundation and private investors to set aside 2,630 hectares of cattle land for high-end tourism and nature conservation. Opened in Dec 2006 on a boulder-strewn ridge overlooking the territory, the joint project, the Sanctuary at Ol Lentille, consists of four luxury villas designed by Kenyan architect Lengai Croze with respective tribal, Lamu coast, colonial and retro sixties themes; all have fireplaces, outdoor decks and spectacular views from sun loungers, beds, and even toilets and bathtubs. The surrounding acacia-dotted hills and sandy riverbeds shelter elephant and more than 90 bird species along with rare wild dog and spotted and striped hyena.
The area is still recovering from overgrazing, so the emphasis is less on game viewing than personal rejuvenation: think Canyon Ranch meets Out of Africa. I spent my days hiking, mountain biking, quad biking and rock scrambling, while trying to fit in massages, reflexology, facials, manicures and pedicures in a spa modelled after a traditional thatched Masai house with wood-fenced cattle boma. Narrow stone paths link the villas to the spa, a large infinity pool, and a two-story library with a telescope and astronomical observation deck.
The facilities include a horse riding stables and a new, man-made waterhole that is already attracting game to the plain immediately below the lodge - game relocation is in the works this year. On our daily excursions, the enviably fit Timothy and I passed tribal homesteads and four schools partly funded from the Sanctuary's tourism revenue. My visit coincided with a weekly market that draws itinerant barbers, seamstresses, spear makers, and jewellery makers, as well as young Masai warriors and the area's indigenous Yaku honey gatherers.
My villa's private staff included a valet, butler, and askari, all masters at knowing exactly when to offer to make me tea or bring a glass of chilled South African chardonnay, and when to leave me in delicious solitude. Investors and resident managers Gill and John Elias were elegant, discreet hosts. More than 80 per cent of the employees come from the local community.
I stayed in the Eyrie, the highest and quirkiest villa with a modern ambience and stupendous daylight views from the an outdoor sunken tub and round bedroom with floor to ceiling glass windows, round bed, Austin Powers faux fur covers and an aqua and lime green colour scheme. There was a separate living room with a large flatscreen television and DVD player and a dining room for entertaining. Familes tend to book the Chief's House, a three- bedroom thatched villa decorated with African masks and textiles. Honeymooners go for The Sultan's House, a romantic mix of sprawling Lanu-style carved wood furniture, arabesque lanterns, floor cushions and a lovely four-poster bed.
Kenyan cabinet ministers, New York film types who stay for a month, and wealthy folk who book the entire place for some "quality time" with family and friends.
A resident chef shared by all the villas cooks modern British fare with inspiration from India and Asia but is happy to comply with strict diets and special requests. I tended to lunch around the pool and eat dinner in the library on chilly nights; there were also sundowners in the bush.
The extensive, Africa-themed DVD library and four-handed Swedish massages with locally produced Kenyan and Somali essential oils.
That the horses were all away being re-shod while I was there, so none were available for riding. No one bothered to tell me when I booked.
There are better places in Kenya for classic game viewing, but this is ideal for travellers seeking an active retreat in a natural setting with an uncommercial culture. If you want to explore further, staff can arrange helicopter tours, game viewing in nearby Samburu National Park, camel safaris, hot-air ballooning and trout fishing on Mt Kenya. The three-day minimum villa rental price sounds astronomical but it is actually a good deal compared to more conventional five-star safari camps that charge per person room rates, especially since the Sanctuary's price includes an unlimited number of spa treatments.
A two-person villa at the Sanctuary at Ol Lentille, Laikpia Plateau, Kenya (www.ol-lentille.com) costs from $4,300 (Dh15,800) per three-night minimum stay, inclusive of meals and most activities but excluding conservation fees of $60 (Dh220) per person, per night. Tip: there's a 50 per cent discount on last-minute bookings made 14 days or less in advance of arrival.