As you approach Kigali’s international airport, you immediately get a sense of why Rwanda is referred to as le pays des mille collines – or ‘the land of a thousand hills’. Even at night, the faint contours of rolling hills loom in the darkness, illuminated only by a scattering of lights. As a child, this had been my sole impression of Kigali, and of Rwanda, as I only ever passed through it in transit to Europe. But, last week, I finally had the chance to leave the airport, and to explore a country renowned for its stunning scenery, as well as its sobering history.
Kigali lies alongside the Ruganwa River, and spans several ridges and valleys in the heart of the country. It’s a famously attractive capital city, with clean, winding streets, lined with flowering trees and neatly trimmed lawns. Modern cream-and-turquoise buses share the roads with motorcycle taxis and, unlike in Nairobi, all the drivers and passengers wear helmets. In addition to being one of Africa’s cleanest capital cities, it’s also regarded as one of its safest, and visitors are afforded the luxury of exploring the city on foot.
Rwanda has come a long way since 1994, and has done well to shift its prevailing association with the genocide. Kigali, in particular, has benefited from decades of state and foreign investment, and its hilltops have sprouted new skyscrapers, international hotels and restaurants. The most striking of these is the colourful dome of the Radisson Blu Hotel and Convention Centre, where I stayed for the first few nights of my trip.
Both the hotel and the convention centre were opened in July 2016, and were designed by Roland Dieterle from Spatial Solutions in Germany. Dieterle came up with the concept over 10 years ago, and his aim was to create a structure symbolic of Rwanda’s rapid modernisation, but that also embraced its traditions. The impressive spiralled LED-lit dome, for example, was inspired by the beehive-shaped King’s Palace in Nyanza.
Its colourful façade draws on traditional Rwandan clothing, and is indicative of the country’s bright future. The metal ribbons that run down the length of the adjacent Radisson Blu Hotel were inspired by the strips used to make Rwandan baskets. The spiral motifs that typically adorn these baskets were also incorporated in the design of the convention centre, including in the walkways that encircle the dome.
I wasn’t surprised to find out that the complex had won in a range of categories at the 2017 World Travel Awards, including as Africa’s leading new hotel, and Africa’s leading conference hotel. Nagendran Naidu, the Director of the convention centre, informed me that they can accommodate up to 5,000 people across 18 versatile meeting spaces, and that at the heart of the centre is a large, circular auditorium which can comfortably hold 2,600 guests.
The convention centre is linked to the Radisson Blu Hotel by a short walkway beneath four large arches. The hotel wraps around a two-tiered courtyard, with a swimming pool and a neatly manicured garden.
The main restaurant, called The Larder, spills out into the courtyard, and sits beside the Amani Spa and fitness centre. The Larder’s ‘Super Breakfast Buffet’ is aptly named, and features a wide variety of international and African dishes. (I was particularly impressed with the decision to present the sausages on a bed of caramelised onions). Other dining options include the more sophisticated Lobby Bar and Lounge, and the excellent Filini restaurant.
Each of the hotel’s 291 rooms have private balconies, with views of either the courtyard or out towards the city. The majority are Standard Rooms, but there are also 68 Business Rooms, five Junior Suites, five Presidential Suites and one Diplomatic Suite – all connected to Wi-Fi. My Standard Room was tastefully furnished, with earth-toned splashes of browns, reds and greens. For more information about the hotel and the convention centre, visit www.radissonblu.com/en/hotel-kigali
I found Kigali to be a very easy city to navigate, which is useful because there are plenty of sites to explore. Rwanda’s ability to move on from the tragedy of 1994 has been astounding, and this hasn’t been achieved by sweeping the events of the genocide under the proverbial carpet. The focus, instead, has been on understanding and reconciliation, and the horrors of this recent history are presented very powerfully in the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
Visitors can also take a speciality coffee master class at the Question Coffee Café, or admire the art at the city’s foremost modern art gallery – the Inema Arts Centre.
The advantage of Kigali’s location in the centre of Rwanda, too, means that visitors can easily access the attractions on the outskirts of the country, including the shores of Lake Kivu. I was lucky enough to spend an hour with a family of mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes National park – but that’s an experience I’ll cover next week.