When a new hotel opens in Ethiopia its news. It has given me great joy to watch the country come into its own in recent years. The opening of the Hyatt in Addis is a real game-changer. It is an indication that this country is committed to providing a comfortable tourist infra-structure. And we should all be really happy about that!
I have been traveling to Ethiopia for over 20 years and I always give a little jump for joy when I hear of a new hotel in the country. Ethiopia is a jewel. It is one of my favorite destinations and one of those extraordinary countries that everyone should visit. But, whether it’s the images of famine or now, sadly, the thousands of locusts, people just don’t get on a plane and fly to Ethiopia. Really though, when the locusts are gone and COVID-19 is no longer part of our lives – I really recommend a trip to Ethiopia. Where else can you see exquisite churches carved in rock, religious festivals with men draped in white robes and carrying colorful parasols, the most magnificent landscapes and hundreds of different tribal groups. And you will find the most incredible food be it traditional or Italian and, of course, the world’s best coffee.
I love Gondar and was so excited to stay at the Gondar Hills Resort. The property we usually use, the Goha, left a lot to be desired. Its saving grace and what allowed me to forgive so much was that it had amazing views. Driving up to the Gondar Hills Resort I was not disappointed. It too is set high up and offers panoramic views. The Royal Enclosure (more later) is on one side and then on the other side, extensive vistas of the lowlands below with their terraced fields and farming communities. As soon as my guide parked our car, hotel staff grabbed my luggage and accompanied me to the lobby.
The property is built with local stone and traditional Ethiopian stonework. The green roofs, a nod to the medieval castles in the city, combine with glass to create a contemporary look. The hotel definitely had the sense of a new property with staff learning the ropes along with you! The check-in process took a little longer than usual but there were lots of smiles. I’m sure that these kinks will be worked out as staff become more comfortable with their new role. The breezy open-air lobby has a minimalist style in neutral tones with local pottery and baskets adorning the walls. A quaint succulent garden brought the outdoors inside. There is no question that this is the best property in town.
Once I had my key, Dawit – the porter who had met me on arrival, showed me to a golf cart. Spread around the property, the 78 rooms are each eco-friendly. In the golf cart, with my luggage secured, we zipped to my room. Along the way we passed the private, spacious grounds filled with bougainvillea and the smell of numerous rosemary bushes.
The sun was just setting, giving the entire property a golden hue as the sun slid beneath the surrounding hills. I was in room 64 but none of the rooms had any signs. Thankfully, Dawit knew where to go and he eventually stopped at a room right at the end. It’s always nice to feel you don’t have another room on one side of you!
The spaciousness of the rooms surprised me. The double/twin rooms are 540 square feet which is huge. The wooden floor had two Moroccan looking carpets although they might be Ethiopian. There were bedside tables with reading lights which isn’t always the case with Ethiopian hotels. There was lovely original artwork behind the bed, two chairs, a small table, and a desk. The sheets were very soft and comfortable and I had six pillows on my queen sized bed! I loved the heavy curtains. I believe they were made by Sabahar, an Ethiopian company that produces uniquely designed, hand-made cotton, linen and silk textiles. They use ancient weaving traditions using locally sourced silk and cotton. I recognized the border of the curtains as their work as well as the spread on the bed.
The room was a bit sparse but that went with the overall minimalist feel of the hotel. The bathroom is spacious and contemporary with the same stonework continued. There is a large sink, a separate toilet area and an amazing free-standing rain shower head with wonderful water pressure. I really have to say the bathroom was impressive. There are very few hotels outside of Addis that have gorgeous bathrooms and this was definitely gorgeous. They toiletries did not quite match the luxurious feeling of the bathroom though, but the towels were super soft!
Everyone agrees that the star of the rooms is the private terrace that each room has. Sweeping French doors open onto individual terraces with private gardens furnished with a patio table, chairs and an enormous umbrella. The patio was the perfect place to sit and enjoy a morning cup of the world-famous Ethiopian coffee as you look out onto the spectacular views below.
The grounds of the hotel are quite lovely and as the flowers mature will become more so. The terrace and Olympic size swimming pool had the same wonderful sweeping views. Other amenities include a spa, sauna and steam bath. For those wanting to be a little more active you can take advantage of jogging trails and tennis courts.
At the end of the day, unwind with one of the carefully curated drinks from the modern, light and airy bar while watching the sunset over the stunning landscape. Ethiopian food is fabulous and the chef here does an amazing job – I absolutely love their Tibs and Injera dish. They make theirs with beef, not lamb and he uses the berbere spice – an Ethiopian chili powder fragrant with cardamom, fenugreek, and clove – quite lavishly. It’s so flavorful – hard to describe – it’s not spicy but it rests on your tongue in a very pleasant way. You can eat inside in the glass-fronted dining room which is lovely but does not capture the views in the way I think it should or, better still, eat outside for more of those glorious views.
Of course the reason to be here is to explore Gondar and where do I begin? Known as the Camelot of Ethiopia, Gondar was home of Ethiopian emperor Fasilides who lived here in the 16th and 17th centuries. Surrounded by a nearly 3,000-foot wall, he created a fortress-city containing palaces, castles, a library, and churches. The Royal Enclosure remained the center of the Ethiopian government until 1864 and is now a UNESCO site.
You absolutely must visit the small Debre Berhan Selassie Church, perhaps the country’s most famous church. The winged heads of eighty Ethiopian cherubs cover the ceiling – all with slightly different expressions. Admire the equally impressive paintings on the wall. Full of color, life, and wit of Ethiopian art, they provide an excellent overview of Ethiopian saints and martyrs.
We’d love you to meet with Nigisti Gebreselassie, the young, beautiful and dynamic director of an organization called Yenege Tesfa (Hope for Tomorrow) that works with the street children of Gondar to provide shelter and education. She has dedicated her life to these children offering them a home, education, medical care, agriculture, training. She finds ways to educate her community so they can take care of themselves and their children. The daycare has one nurse, one teacher, and one coordinator in charge of the program. The work she does, on a shoe-string budget, is extraordinary. Don’t miss the opportunity to meet one of Ethiopia’s silent heroes.
Of course, we could not write about Gondar and not mention the beautiful Simien Mountains. Depending on how much time you have, we recommend at least a day trip to the place Homer once said “where Greek Gods vacationed and played chess on the peaks: the unforgettable Simien Mountains.”
After reading Rosita Forbes description from 1925 you definitely won’t want to miss it, “The most marvelous of all Abyssinian landscapes opened before us, as we looked across a gorge that was clouded amethyst to the peaks of Simien. A thousand, thousand years ago, when the old gods reigned in Ethiopia, they must have played chess with those stupendous crags, for we saw bishops miters cut in lapis lazuli, castles with the ruby of approaching sunset on their turrets, an emerald knight where the forest crept up on to the rock, and, far away, a king, crowned with sapphire, and guarded by a row of pawns.
When the gods exchanged their games for shield and buckler to fight the new men clamoring at their gates, they turned the pieces of their chessboards into mountains. In Simien they stand enchanted, till once again the world is pagan and the titans and the earth gods lean down from the monstrous cloud banks to wager a star or two on their sport”.
And finally, don’t think you will have to go hungry in Gondar. There are some fabulous local restaurants with my favorite being the Four Sisters. Yes, there are Four Sisters and they are always there when I visit! They make an array of traditional dishes and if you say Distant Horizons sent you, I am sure they will take you out back and show you how they make injera – the delicious bread-like dish that accompanies every Ethiopian food. It’s made mainly with “teff” flour and cooked more like a crepe than bread. It’s delicious!
At the end of the day return to your spacious room at the Gondar Hills Resort where you know the views will silence you and the smiles of the staff will warm your heart. The hotel has a ways to go to meet international standards, but the will is there and you are in Ethiopia with a cup of coffee waiting for you.