Almost-Luxe in Liberia: A Review of the RLJ Kendeja Resort & Villas in Monrovia
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I was honored to be part of TPG's trip to Liberia, for the second-ever PeaceJam conference held in the West African country, hosted by TPG friend, all-around legend and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Leymah Gbowee.
Liberia is one of the most interesting countries I've been to, and it has a fascinating (and, at times, tragic) history. Groups of freed slaves from the United States were sent by the American Colonization Society to West Africa to find land for a colony that the Society imagined would be a new home. Liberia as we know it today was established in 1847. In the early 1990s, a devastating civil war broke out and lasted all the way until 2003. Shortly after that, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as the first female president in Africa. Peace reigns now, but Liberia, one of the world's poorest nations, has struggled to rebuild infrastructure — and last on the list of important investments is the establishment of swanky hotels.
There is however, a gem hidden among the potholed roads and the growling generators that seem to pump out noise and fumes from every building. The RLJ Kendeja Resort & Villas was the TPG team's home for a three-night stay.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Monrovia doesn't have any points hotels, so we turned to hotels.com to guide our search. We chose the Kendeja for its beachfront location and large-looking rooms. We booked an executive suite with one king bed for $274 per night for three nights, bringing the total to $822. We used the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which earns 10x miles per dollar spent on hotel reservations when booked through the special link at hotels.com/venture. You can also stack this with Hotels.com Rewards, which awards one free night per every 10 paid nights. Since the free night is based on the average price of the 10 nights, when stacked with the 10x miles from the Venture Rewards, it effectively gives us a 20% return on this reservation.
The resort is located right on the Atlantic Ocean, 25 miles from Roberts International Airport and around 12 miles from downtown Monrovia. Driving from the airport was relatively stress-free on the basic but functioning roads and took around 45 minutes. However, the drive to Monrovia had the potential to take hours, with incredibly heavy traffic and only one way in and out of the downtown part of the city. We were lucky enough to be afforded a police escort, but even with this benefit, the 12 miles could have easily taken a solid 40 minutes.
There was very little surrounding the hotel except tiny roadside shops and a gas station (handy for buying SIM cards with a data plan). It was interesting to check out for a few minutes, but a place to spend a leisurely afternoon it was not.
The beauty of the location really is the hotel's proximity to the airport, just far away enough from the city that traffic is no longer an issue. It therefore makes sense that the Kendeja is used as the crew hotel for Brussels Airlines, the only airline that flies into Monrovia from Europe or, indeed, any departure point outside of Africa.
Check-in was surprisingly efficient. The friendly staff welcomed us warmly and had all the rooms and keys prepared.
In the lobby were clocks displaying the current times in Monrovia and Washington, DC -- a nod to the relationship between the two countries.
The hotel has 78 rooms, with large villa-style buildings dotted around the property, each split into a number of private suites.
I was in an executive suite, which was large, with a separate bedroom, living room and bathroom.
Immediately after entering, I cranked up the air-conditioning units (there was one in each of the two big rooms), which filled the place with cold air — essential with the outside humidity and temperatures approaching the 90s.
The cleanliness of the bedding was questionable, but the bed was certainly large and comfortable, and after long, hot days, a faded bloodstain here or there was not going to stop me slipping between the sheets.
Flat-screen TVs were mounted in both the bedroom and the living room, but without much time to spend indoors, I didn't have much use for the entertainment provided. The TVs did work, though, and there were a number of African and other channels with a decent signal.
A seat beside the bed, and an interesting red-cushion installation, provided a place to sit to enjoy the brown and white curtains, which, though heavy and ugly, kept out every ray of light from the room.
A cozy, branded dressing gown with slippers was provided at the foot of the bed.
The living room had ample seating, but the pleather sofa was not comfortable. Nor were the armchairs, but again, there was not much time for relaxing in the room.
At the other side of the living room, a desk, kettle (with coffee and tea) and a fridge were all provided. Room service was available, with the same menu as the main restaurant, but I didn't try ordering it.
The bathroom was clean and functional with some basic amenities provided, including the usual shower gel, shampoo and conditioner. A full-size tube of toothpaste was a nice touch, although with the price on, I wasn't sure whether they had purchased it for the room from the local shop or if they were expecting me to cough up the marked fee.
Food and Beverage
First things first: The Kendeja did not serve Diet Coke. Or any diet drink. Shocking, I know.
Dining options seemed plentiful at first glance at the Kendeja, but the reality was a little different. The aptly named Posh Restaurant had a physical space, but the staff served the restaurant space itself, the lobby bar and the outside restaurant on the pool deck. (It was the same menu everywhere, too.) Getting someone's attention, or even understanding how to order food or drink in anywhere but the restaurant itself was difficult. That being said, all the staff members I interacted with were lovely and did their best to deliver something akin to four-star service.
The oceanfront beach bar that also had a physical presence didn't seem to be operational while we were there.
In both the lobby bar and restaurant, we tried a number of items off the menu. The chicken quesadillas were noteworthy for their tastiness. On the other end of the quality scale, the chicken balti was served with meat so tough it was impossible to chew.
The lobby bar seemed to always be open and staffed even late into the night, and had most things on tap to service the average drinker. Liberian beers and gin and tonics were ordered aplenty. It was a fun place to hang out with an interesting mix of people, including the aforementioned Brussels Airlines crew, who seemed to enjoy this off-the-beaten-track route.
Breakfast in the hotel was also a good effort under the circumstances. I stuck to simple offerings each morning, usually eating a freshly prepared omelet with cheese, and some toast. It was always fresh and hot.
The breakfast buffet was a little more sad. With cucumber, ham, tomato and raw onion, it was probably not going to satisfy hungry morning bellies.
Supplies were low for many items. Pears were a particularly popular pick.
The seaside setting of the resort was its greatest asset, and the swimming pool was positioned to make the most of the views. However, the water in the pool did not look particularly clean and was not an inviting leisure option. Sitting round the pool was definitely a pleasant place to be, though.
A gym was available on site, with gym classes, yoga and personal training all on offer. There was also a spa in the hotel, and I took advantage of a full-body massage for $50. The experience was ruined by the personal trainer, who screamed loudly at his clients throughout my hourlong massage, with the paper-thin wall between the gym and my treatment room not blocking out any of the racket. The masseuse was mortified and said that she felt drained after the treatment and that any good energy was ruined by her colleague in the next room.
An on-site ATM was a nice touch, but only stood to tease those who were in need of cash.
The beach area was beautiful and kept clean. The seating was not comfortable, but the surroundings were enough to make you forget about the need to peel your legs off the plastic mattresses every couple of minutes.
Security guards monitored the boundaries of the resort, including at the beach, and the resort did feel safe the entire time we were there.
When the room next door to me was taken over by Nigerian music sensation Davido, in town for a huge gig (he plastered his stay at the Kendeja to his almost 20 million followers across social media), it was clear we were staying at the place in Liberia. It also suggested this was as good as it got in this part of the world. Read in this context, the hotel really was fantastic and better than I expected going into the experience.
There were of course some huge downfalls. The accommodation was large but a little rough round the edges, service was slow, and the food offering was average at best (and at times inedible). But the beach setting and the lack of alternatives make this a winner in my book.
If I were heading back to Liberia, I wouldn't hesitate to stay at the Kendeja again!
All photographs by the author.