Throwback Thursdays: Lodging and Dining at the real-life ‘Hotel Rwanda’

Join us for another installment of ‘Throwback Thursdays,’ where we travel around the world to share cuisine and culture from some of our most interesting trips. Today, we head over to Kigali, Rwanda, where I found myself an overnight guest at the Hotel des Mille Collines, the same hotel that was the subject of the 2004 feature film, Hotel Rwanda, which told the story of how hotel staff, led by manager Paul Ruesabagina and his wife, sheltered over 1,000 refugees during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It was a truly surreal experience that gave me a sobering appreciation for the legacy of the genocide and the impact on the Rwandan people in this lovely hill country. 

A couple of years ago, I joined an Africa-based friend for a girls’ trip to Uganda to track gorillas for her birthday. From Kenya (and most other bases), to reach Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda, it is easiest to fly into Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city and make a land border crossing into Uganda’s less developed road systems, rather than attempting the eight hour+ drive from Uganda’s capital, Kampala.  Our plan involved an early morning flight to Kigali, where we were met by our driver for the weekend, who would escort us to our inn just outside Bwindi National Park, where we would overnight for two nights with our gorilla tracking expedition in between, and then proceed onto Kigali to spend one night before flying out on Day 4.

Landing in Kigali on Day 1, I was struck by the cleanliness, natural hilly beauty, and organization of the Kigali and its infrastructure, particularly relative to other African capitals. The city’s wide streets and plentiful traffic signals (the latter of which people actually followed!) told me Kigali was unique. Leaving the city behind for well-paved and marked highways and two lane roads in the countryside, the roadsides were clean, the homes tidy and lovingly painted lively shades of pink, blue, and other bright colors.  Three hours later, we crossed into Uganda, where the rolling hills quickly gave way to steep mountains and a rocky, dirt road that wound dangerously for another two-hour trek to our accommodations. When we reached our lodge, my body felt the vibrations of this rough road for several hours.

Isolated in the jungle-covered mountains that earn Bwindi its “impenetrable” moniker, we appreciated the lifeline to civilization awaited us in Kigali.  After a moving morning of a lifetime following a troop of gorillas, civilization called us, and we decided to depart Uganda for Kigali a day early.  We reached Hotel des Mille Collines after dark, marveling en route at the creative – and often quite dangerous — modes of transportation that shared a major highway in northern Rwanda.

Mille Collines – a reference to Rwanda’s status as the “land of a thousand hills” – is an unremarkable four-star hotel from its exterior, and several tasteful renovations since the 1994 Rwandan genocide conceal its traumatic, storied history from casual viewing.  Which is probably a good thing as a guest, not seeing the visible scars or feeling haunted by the 1200 people that took refuge within its walls during the fateful 100 day period, in which almost 1,000,000* of their countrymen, women, and children were slaughtered.

But walking the corridors and landscaped grounds of Mille Collines, you might never know that your hotel room probably sheltered three families for three cramped months, that a mortar hit one wall along the southern wing of the hotel (no trace now), or that the sparkling, grandiose swimming pool teeming with squealing children was once used as drinking and cooking water, while menacing patrols of soliders bribed by Paul Ruesabagina and the hotel staff to avoid violence urinated in that very pool. Yes, this is heavy stuff, and this hotel truly saw it all. But you might never know it today.

On our first night, we dined on the outdoor terrace in the hotel’s signature restaurant, La Panorama.  Located on the 4th floor of the hotel and offers a stunning view of the hill capital’s skyline (hence the name). We dined quite late and were the only diners, so we had the service cornered. It was my friend’s birthday, and they did manage to make it special!  I enjoyed a delicious butternut squash and ginger soup and then steak with roquefort sauce and vegetables, along with imported red wine.  We concluded the meal with a chocolate mousse for me and a birthday slice of apple pie for my friend. After a day in the literal wilderness, the city’s twinkling lights and a great meal were a fitting end for a milestone birthday.

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The following day, we toured Kigali, starting with the Kigali Genocide Memorial.  This museum and memorial is very well done; it is a must-see. It highlights the historic and socioeconomic factors that led to the Rwandan civil war and 100 day genocide (news flash: it wasn’t an “ethnic” or “tribal” conflict per se), and how the rest of the world delayed intervention that could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The museum’s exhibits put the history I remembered from the Western perspective in a much larger context. It was truly heartbreaking and sobering.

We also visited the former presidential palace, which houses Rwandan art and contains the wreckage of former President Habyarimana’s airplane, which was shot down shortly before landing at nearby Kigali International Airport, on 4 April 1994, which led to the start of the genocide three days later.

That afternoon, back at Mille Collines, I took a dip in the infamous pool, which was certainly surreal and mildly disturbing, understanding what horrors it had seen, but with so many African and European children and adults lounging and enjoying it, it seemed a peaceful coda to a very ugly chapter in Rwanda’s history.

That evening, we walked through the Central Business District to the sophisticated Marriott hotel, where we dined at their modern Italian restaurant, Cucina. The meal was great, from my beef carpaccio to a hearty lasagna, and a well-executed to my friend’s minestrone and prosciutto and arugula pizza.

On our final morning, we walked to a Kigali natural history museum and browsed in a few shops.  Getting around Kigali always felt safe, and the Rwandans were generally friendly (they all do live in what essentially is a police state, so…).

My brief visit to Kigali made a lasting impression upon me. It may not be high on a list of tourist destinations, but for those that do choose to visit Africa to see wildlife at many of the region’s national parks, make sure you stop over in Kigali for a night or two if you have the time. This lovely country, its people, and understanding a recent chapter in its history that should serve as a cautionary tale for our world, are worth it.

To learn more about the Rwandan genocide from an outside perspective, I highly recommend Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dellaire, the Canadian general who led the United Nations’ ill-fated peacekeeping force in Rwanda leading up to and during the 1994 genocide. There are numerous other books detailing genocide survivors’ firsthand accounts of the genocide that are worth a read.

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