In the Busy Heart of Kampala

The pineapples taste sweeter in Uganda than they do in Kenya. Always have done. I have no idea why. So eating them for breakfast on the terrace of the Speke Hotel was one of the pleasures I had looked forward to when I booked a room at one of my old favourite places.

It must have been six or seven years since I had last stayed at the Speke – but I was well remembered.

‘Hello Mr John – welcome back!’ the night porter said as he approached with a broad smile and an open hand outstretched before lifting my bags from the boot of the taxi that had ferried me from the Entebbe airport.

‘Heh, Mr John – long time!’ Roger a Speke taxi driver called to me through the railings, when I went down for the terrace breakfast on the first morning.

But it was for its strategic position rather than for its pineapples at breakfast that I had chosen the Speke. It is one of a triangle of hotels right in the heart of the city and surrounding a tree-lined and expansive green garden. The other two hotels are the Sheraton, on the high side of the garden, and the Grand Imperial, on the low side.

The Speke is perhaps the only old colonial hotel left standing in Kampala. And when it was renovated by the tycoon, Sudhir Ruparelia, he was determined to maintain as much as possible of the colonial style – though certainly not its attitudes.

That’s the first time I’ve used that word ‘tycoon’, but Sudhir certainly deserves it. As reported in Forbes’ list of Africa’s richest men, he is one of Uganda’s largest property owners. Through his Ruparelia Group, he owns more than 300 commercial and residential properties, including the Speke Hotels and the Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort. He also owns Crane Bank, which is Uganda’s third largest commercial bank, a chain of foreign exchange bureaus, and Victoria University, a private university in Kampala.

But Sudhir is not only a rich man, he is also a ‘social’ man – humorous, gregarious and generous. The first time I interviewed him he invited me out to the resort that was in the early stages of construction at Munyonyo by Lake Victoria. I took a photograph of him on one of the horses from the new equestrian centre. Then the horse threw him to the ground – but just as I had turned my back to change the film. It would have been Uganda’s photograph of the year. I can imagine the caption: ‘The horse that did what many human rivals have failed to do to Sudhir Ruparelia’.

Sudhir’s first hotel in Kampala still has a lot going for it. The terrace remains a popular meeting place. It’s the equivalent of Nairobi’s Thorn Tree or Norfolk Terrace but, unlike those two, it hasn’t been screened off from passers-by on the street. In fact, to one end of the hotel there’s the Rock Garden, where every night of the week there’s music and dancing. My guidebook has got something wrong. It advises you to choose a room as far away from the music as possible. But those rooms aren’t sound-proofed, and the traffic along Nile Avenue could well keep you awake late into the night and in the early morning. On the other hand, the rooms at the Rock Garden end are soundproofed – and, sleeping in one of those, I had to strain my ears to identify any of the tunes.

At the other end, the Pizzeria serves the breakfasts and a good variety of Italian meals and snacks throughout the day. But my favourite restaurant at the Speke is the Khyber Pass with its North Indian cuisine. You can sit out at a candle-lit table in the warm Kampala evenings, enjoy the spiced food with a nice glass of wine, and watch the trickle of girls dressed to kill and being frisked as they enter the Rock Garden.

Many of the bedrooms at the Speke are quite spacious and fairly well appointed, with deep balconies or study sections for work, DSTV for entertainment, en-suite bathrooms, wide beds, and plenty of hanging space. And they come cheaper than the business-class Sheraton or the exotic Serena Kampala further along Nile Avenue.

But I think it’s time Sudhir has a good look round his first hotel. The big foyer, with its excellent paintings depicting the adventures of the explorer Speke – the first European to ‘discover’ Lake Victoria – could do with a carpet or some rugs to cover the bareness of the wooden floor. Anyway, the woods of the foyer, the wide stairs, and the long corridors, could do with a fresh coat of varnish.

Other than that, if you want a hotel at a reasonable price and from where you can walk to the city centre offices rather than suffer the traffic, which is almost as bad as Nairobi’s, then you could give the old Speke a try.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation