African nations emerge as distinct and vibrant travel destinations, often luring adventurous, barefoot-luxury types to sample the different safaris on offer across the southern continent. It’s disappointing, then, that so many upscale lodges retain such an outdated approach to designing their rooms—call it fauxlonial, all artfully thatched roofs, pith helmets, and steamer trunks. A few smarter properties, though, are more forward-looking, and offer travelers the chance to sample the best of contemporary African design. Here are six standouts across the sub-Saharan region.
Kateka, South Africa
The brand-new lodge sits in a refreshingly quiet corner of South Africa, on the private, nearly 150,000-acre Klaserie reserve; it teems with wildlife, but there’s no risk of jeep gridlock at a key sight, unlike at its better-known counterpart, Sabi Sands, to the south. Kateka (meaning be blessed in Tsonga, one of the languages spoken in this region) is the pet project of the South African, Austin, Texas-based real estate entrepreneur Joel Ospovat, who personally steered its design. He insisted on dramatic touches, from the acid-orange Togo chairs in reception to the rippled black marble cladding in every bathroom, and the bright yellow umbrellas arranged around the infinity pool at the main lodge. Each room also has its own private pool, of course, but the standout accommodation is the three-bedroom villa, which is staffed with a guide and tracker, butler, chef team, and if you opt for the wellness package, an on-call spa therapist. In a nod to its al fresco appeal, one of the three bedrooms is outfitted with a two-person outdoor bathtub.
Miavana by Time + Tide, Madagascar
Half-squint in one of the 14 villas here and it could be mistaken for Saint-Tropez, and no wonder, as the property is owned by French Mauritian private equity exec Thierry Dalais. The mostly white villas have touches of the hotel’s signature aquamarine, with modish furniture and curving walls that evoke the Côte d’Azur’s 1960s heyday; the striped pillows by each private pool are certainly ready for a close-up with Bardot. Come for lemur spotting in the surrounding jungles, or to take to the waters, which are ideal for surfing and sailing. For active families, opt for Villas 1, 2, or 3–they’re the closest to the aquatic activities center–and make sure to book the hotel-operated transfer from Johannesburg’s Fireblade FBO, a painless three-and-a-half-hour shuttle in a plush Learjet to the nearest airport before a quick chopper ride to the beach.
Angama Mara, Kenya
This lodge’s location already sets it apart, sitting on a Great Rift Valley cliff top overlooking the wildlife-filled basin of the Mara like a glamorous Bond villain’s aerie; the best spot in the entire property is the sundowner-ready fire pit right at the edge. The 30 standalone tented rooms here, each with floor-to-ceiling windows to maximize the views, are heavy on scarlet and gold, with rich textures of leather and canvas. The interiors ooze a glamorously retro vibe, but one that’s more akin to African-accented Art Deco than anything faux colonial, a remarkable achievement given that it was this same region where many scenes from 1985’s Out of Africa were filmed. Founders Nicky and the late Steve Fitzgerald, who helped establish CC Africa—or Conservation Corporation Africa, now known as And Beyond—were committed to uplifting local communities via the luxury lodge, and in 2021, Nicky appointed Kenyan Azei Lago as its GM, a rarity among lodges across the continent.
Cheetah Plains, South Africa
Don’t think of this as a conventional safari lodge, but rather as three four-bedroom standalone villas operated by the same back-of-house team. Each bushveld (a colloquial term for a house in the bush) is effectively its own property, with a full-time staff consisting of a host, butler, culinary team, and spa therapist on call for the eight or so folks in temporary residence; there’s an expert field guide and tracker for the duration of your stay, too. The interior décor, by Cape Town–based OKHA Design Studio, is modern in its approach, with oxidized metal and raw concrete walls, open-plan rooms and minimalist fixtures. Every detail is customized for the property, down to its house-branded African nightshade chocolate bars and the pats of butter, each served with the logo imprinted on the surface. Look closely, too, at some of the furniture: it’s custom-made from pieces of local indigenous wood.
Africa House, Royal Malewane, South Africa
Co-owner Liz Biden’s maximalist exuberance has become a signature of the properties she and her family—including her husband and co-owner Phil Biden—operate via the Royal Portfolio, which combine eye-popping bursts of Day-Glo colors with contemporary art and design. The Bidens have just reimagined this six-bedroom luxury villa on their Royal Malewane resort, the ideal exclusive use spot for a buyout with its own pool, games room, and outdoor boma area with its own pizza oven. The décor is particularly over the top in the Turquoise Room—inspired by the vibrantly colored malachite kingfisher. Even the staff room—a common amenity for pilots or nannies, also known as the Pilot’s Room—is a signature Biden design, all egg-yolk yellow and scarlet. Make sure to send out some laundry, which comes back tied neatly in a bundle of scarlet netting.
And Beyond Sossusvlei, Namibia
This lodge, overlooking the namesake salt and clay pan on Namibia’s sand dune-rimmed coast, reopened in 2019 after a dramatic, futuristic redesign steered by Cape Town-based architect Jack Alexander in partnership with South African-based duo Fox Browne Creative. The pointed roofs here resemble oversize, jagged, rusty knives driven into the landscape. The interiors have a whiff of Halston, heavy on 1970s textures like velvet and skins, but in muted tones that better reflect the earthy tones of the surroundings. Explore the deserts here however you wish, whether a helicopter ride at dawn or e-biking on gravel paths to nearby caves or game-driving in a jeep to try to spot the occasional animal cantering through the sands—mountain zebra, for example. Rooms even have skylights, the better for star-spotting in the inky blackness that’s free of any light pollution.