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Hoanib Skeleton Camp
When Hoanib Skeleton Camp opened in Namibia’s Kaokoveld in 2014, it was seen as a game changer for the entire country’s tourism. Indeed, the remote and very chic tented camp has drawn people to the Namibian desert who might otherwise have never made it here, to the most desolate part of the world’s second-least-populated country.
The camp consists of eight khaki-colored tents (one is a family room with two connecting rooms) suspended above stilted modular rectangular structures, which look a bit like shipping containers with windows. (The elevated tent peaks help create a natural air circulation that acts as a cooling system, and indeed, despite extremely high temperatures from very strong sunlight, the rooms are rarely uncomfortably hot.) Like a scene from Star Wars or M.A.S.H., the semi-circular set-up of tents fit in perfectly in the basin-like piece of desert. Inside each tent, however, a refined, elegant and modern sensibility pervades. Décor is mostly in shades of taupe and cream, and comfortable sitting areas abound both inside and on the outdoor shaded deck. Some aspects are reminiscent of traditional African safari lodges (wicker chairs, mosquito netted-covered beds), but they all sit alongside contemporary touches (poured concrete floors, tufted leather and steel benches), which creates a very special feel.
There is no air-conditioning, but evenings are chilly, and poured concrete floors retain the cool from the night well into the day, and there are plenty of windows and doors that let in the perpetual southwesterly winds that bring cool air from the Atlantic. When not out on excursions, the place to be during daylight hours is on your deck anyway, looking towards the water hole, which hosts elephants, baboons, oryx and other creatures, like nature's own TV show.
In addition to its extremely refined set-up and service, the property offers unparalleled access to the northern Skeleton Coast, a formerly inaccessible region by land. All stays should include a day visit, which is typically done via jeep one way, and small airplane for the return. Highlights include driving up and down the dunes en route, along the coast and visiting shipwrecks and colonies of seals and flamingos.
While in camp, guests can relax in the gorgeous and comfortable communal lounge areas, including by the small lap pool, which beckons during the mid-day heat. Another highlight is going on a desert game drive, particularly to seek out the elusive desert lions in the area, some of which are related to the late famous desert lion brothers known as the Five Musketeers, which feature prominently in the 2015 documentary Vanishing Kings. The camp will happily play the film for guests in the research center, which is also home to the world-renowned desert lion researcher, Dr. Philip Stander, and his partner, Emsie Verwey, the camp’s resident researcher conducting a study on the rare brown hyena. While Stander is typically out in the bush studying and tracking the lions, he occasionally makes visits to camp and is a delight to speak to and learn from, especially around the nightly campfire. Emsie hosts nightly pre-dinner presentations on her fascinating research.
All meals are taken at the camp in the modern, glass-walled dining room, and the food is very good. Breakfast, typically taken as early as 6:30am, can include eggs as well as continental offerings. When in camp, three-course lunches are served with wine and dishes might include mushroom soufflé or chicken kebabs. Dinner, too, is three courses, and starts with a soup and homemade bread, followed by a choice of two entrées and dessert. Hot chocolate mixed with Amarula, a South African liqueur, is a delicious way to end the dinner and stroll back to your tent.
Service in the camp is, friendly and extremely thoughtful. The guides are some of the best, as it takes a more seasoned specialist to point out the more subtle flora and fauna found here, and in-camp personnel are committed to making each guests’ stay seamless and life-changing.
Note: The camp does not have WiFi or a gym.
There aren’t many animals in the Sossusvlei area of the Namib Desert, but the ones that are there are fascinating, as they are like no other creatures in the world. Darwin would have had a field day had he made it to Namibia’s southwest coast, as its species are some of the most prime examples of adaptation to be found on the planet. At over 50 million years old, the desert—the world’s oldest—has had time to let its flora and fauna evolve around its limitations, some animals and plants get all of their hydration from the fog’s condensation, and other trees and bushes reach down yards with their roots for water sources from deep, subterranean flowing rivers.
Little Kulala, like its location and inhabitants, is unique in its specialness. With just 11 thatched-roof bungalows (including a two-bedroom family room), the property feels private and remote. Surrounded by 360-degree desert views, the camp sits on a 90,000-acre concession leased by Wilderness Safaris from the Namibian government. (The larger and less luxurious Kulala Desert Lodge is located a few miles away on the same piece of land.) A main lodge sits among the private bungalows in a curved line, all connected to one another by sand paths. The beautifully decorated central structure is home to a library, indoor and outdoor dining areas, a lounge, bar and pool. Chic, modern décor prevails throughout, with neutral-toned wood, wicker and canvas-upholstered furniture, painted-white wood flooring and walls of windows that look out onto the landscape. In all corners of the camp, in fact, there are thoughtful, tasteful touches: chandeliers made of stripped down tree branches, headboards fashioned out of strings of recycled glass beads, acacia trees growing up through the decks and supporting thatched roofs.
Rooms are spacious, with their own furnished decks complete with plunge pools. Inside the air-conditioned suites are king-sized platform beds hugged by mosquito nets, cushy sofas that can be turned into beds for a child, and closet/dressing areas complete with complimentary minibar and tea and coffee making facilities. The bathroom features indoor and outdoor showers (with surprisingly good water pressure, considering its location in the desert), double vanities and is stocked with eco-friendly toiletries.
Guests are well fed at Little Kulala, beginning with early breakfasts of homemade bread, made-to-order eggs, porridge and a selection of German-style pastries, meats, cheeses and fruit. Lunch and dinner are three-course affairs and can begin with an assortment of delicious salads followed by entrées such as chicken stir-fry or vegetarian chili served with homemade tortillas and guacamole. Beverages are included and the camp has a good offering of South African wine and Namibian beer.
Guests are offered a short list of possible excursions, but the main reason for coming here is to see the Sossusvlei area dunes, which sit about an hour’s drive away from the camp’s private gate. The best time to visit the eerily beautiful region of sand dunes is very early in the morning, when the Namib-Naukluft National Park, which protects the dunes and its area, opens at sunrise. Departing the lodge at 6am in one of the camp’s Land Rovers will ensure arrival at the dunes before they get too crowded and it gets too hot (temperatures can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit by 9am). Another favorite attraction is the Sesriem Canyon, about 30 miles northeast of the Sossusvlei dunes, which in drought can be hiked down and explored. Like the dunes, this is best visited early in the morning or late afternoon, to avoid the most intense sun and heat. Back in camp, a massage therapist is available for in-room treatments during the mid-day break and before or after dinner.
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