“What sort of people come to stay here?” my son Jan asked.
We were at the Izaak Walton Inn in Embu – and it was a good question. The latest Rough Guide to Kenya isn’t very complimentary about Embu. “There’s very little to get excited about at Embu,” it says.
But about the town’s Izaak Walton Inn the guide is rightly positive: “If you need accommodation, by far the best place is the Izaak Walton Inn.”
But to get back to my son’s question ... “Conference goers, certainly,” I answered. Because some years ago I facilitated a few workshops there: the hotel has a variety of meeting rooms, OK bedrooms, substantial food, a cosy bar, a swimming pool, salon and gym. The gardens are especially pleasant; the main building, with wooden facias and a clinker roof, has a homely and farming feel about it. The Izaak Walton is a relaxing and restful hotel for anyone to stay.
As soon as we pulled into the car park and then walked the redbrick paths to the reception, I could tell that the place has been smartened up since I was last there. The gardens are well cared for: the hedges are neatly trimmed; the flowerbeds are alive with colour; the chairs, tables and parasols on the lawns are tastefully chosen; and, giving shade, there are trees that must have stood tall since the early colonial years of the hotel.
We were joined for a garden lunch by two very welcoming, and very informative, young ladies: Mercy Mugo, the general manager, and Jackie Mutua, the business development manager.
We put Jan’s question to them. They confirmed that the hotel still does a lot of conference business. But Mercy and Jackie also told us that they get a number of visitors who are on their way to the Meru National Park or are doing the Mount Kenya circuit – staying also at places such as Timau, Nanyuki or Nyeri.
There must also be some who stay at the hotel before or after tackling the mountain climb via the Chogoria route, which is longer but reckoned to be scenically superior to the Naro Moru route to the west of the mountain, or the Sirimon route to the north west.
Then there are an increasing number of guests who go for a weekend break from Nairobi. “For a change from Naivasha,” said Jackie.
The new Thika superhighway has made this quite an attractive option. We had left the city at 6.45am. We were at the Blue Post for a proper breakfast by 7.30am – on the terrace and with a view of the Chania Falls. The driving time to Embu was only two and a half hours. And, from when the plains opened up after passing the Zimmerman estate, through the rice fields of Mwea, up to the forested slopes, we had a clear view of Mount Kenya all the way.
So it was a breakfast in Thika, a break for coffee in Embu, a walk round the gardens of the Izaak Walton, and then the lunch. And for lunch it had to be a special of the place: grilled trout – because trout fishing from the nearby streams is something to do with the origin of the hotel.
Izaak Walton was an Englishman who was around (but not in Africa) about 400 years ago. So he had nothing to do with the founding of the inn that takes his name. What he did, in 1653, was to write what became a very famous book about fishing – The Compleat Angler. (What I have just found out, thanks to Google, is that there is another quite tenuous connection – Izaak’s father was an innkeeper in Stafford in the midlands of England.)
So the Izaak Walton Inn must have been a popular fisherman’s retreat. Which explains why in the very snug bar there are preserved big fishes hanging on the wall, and a board going back to 1952 and recording the names of those who caught some spectacular catches.
After walking us through the “internal” bar, Mercy and Jackie took as along to the adjacent but connected property, the Kenol Tavern where, as Mercy said, the “nightlife” happens. There’s a nyama choma kitchen, TV screens for watching football, plenty of elbow room at the bar, and a fascinating collection of photographs of people who are willing to have advertised that they have patronised the place.
On our short walk – not a stagger – back to the grounds of the Izaak Walton, we saw a slogan painted on one of the hotel’s vehicles: “Where you go... when you arrive in Embu...”
Yes, that is true about the Izaak Walton. And the Rough Guide is false in saying there is little to excite at Embu – the authors couldn’t have visited the Kenol Tavern.
John Fox is Managing Director of iDC