I was just about to pour myself a glass of wine, shed my dusty clothes, and slip into the bubble bath waiting on my riverside deck when there was a knock at the door. By Summer Rylander
Instead of soaking, I spent the next hour enjoying a massage in the privacy of my suite. This was a lovely turn of events as, truth be told, I’m not really a bath person — but preparing a candlelit outdoor tub each evening is all part of the service at Royal Chundu, and even I couldn’t deny the allure.
Take a look inside Royal Chundu – a luxury lodge in Zambia
Royal Chundu is Zambia’s first Relais & Châteaux property, comprising just 14 suites between two lodges. The main River Lodge is a tranquil series of thatched-roof suites lining the Zambezi River, with a pool, bar, and relaxing common area just steps away. Within minutes of my arrival earlier that afternoon, I’d started scouting a shady spot to grab a drink and catch up on emails, but I wasn’t at my final destination just yet.
I’d been upgraded to the Island Lodge which, as the name suggests, sits on an island in the Zambezi. Only four, ultra-private suites occupy Chundu Island, and each features an expansive outdoor space, a dual-head shower, and an enormous king-size bed.
“The Island Lodge is for making babies,” said general manager Hessah Silwebbe, laughing as he introduced me to Royal Chundu and shared the news of my accommodation alteration. He’d also forgiven my appearance, which was bedraggled and casual at best after lodge hopping in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park with Journeysmiths for several nights prior to crossing the Zambian border. I’d felt out of place in this upscale setting, but only for a moment.
“You are home now. Please relax,” said Silwebbe, ushering me aboard a boat that took me from the River Lodge to my island retreat. A tray of snacks kept me satiated for the 15-minute journey, all of which I spent in awe of the river.
The Zambezi swells during and after the rainy season, and the water levels are at their highest from March through June. During my visit in early June, the width reminded me more of a lake than a river. From this perspective on the water, it was easy to understand why Victoria Falls was shrouded in thick spray during my morning visit. The massive waterfall is just 30 kilometres (19 miles) from Royal Chundu, and there are myriad ways to experience it up close — as my still-damp camera bag could attest.
Post-massage, I went to dinner wearing a gorgeous knee-length robe I found hanging in my wardrobe; it had been hand-sewn by the ladies of the Zambezi Joy Society and looked more like a wrap dress than a bathrobe. My meal began with seared bream, continued with delicately spiced eggplant curry, and finished with a silky chocolate mousse. Dinner, I soon learned, is served somewhere slightly different each night — just to keep things interesting, according to Silwebbe.
As I got into bed that evening, I noticed turndown service included a strategically placed hot water bottle between the sheets — a nice touch given the onset of winter, when mornings and evenings were chillier than I’d anticipated. I was treated to fantastic service from morning until evening throughout my three-night stay. I couldn’t help but notice that every time I left my suite, someone came to check if anything needed tidying or the minibar needed refreshing. The telltale sign? The toilet paper was always folded to a perfect point.
The beautiful setting, thoughtful service, and even the cheeky monkey who hopped on my breakfast table one morning to swipe muffins straight from the basket were enough to make me want to return to Royal Chundu, but what I appreciated most about this lodge is the team’s commitment to the wider community.
It’s easy for travellers to glide in and out of hotels without giving much thought to the greater impact their visits have on the people and places they encounter. And while greenwashing — the marketing of products and practices to appear environmentally friendly even if no tangible difference is being made — certainly exists, it’s equally easy for hotels, restaurants, tour operators, and other businesses in the tourism industry to claim that they “give back” without travellers having a real idea of what that means.
“The story of Royal Chundu is one of community, culture, and conservation,” said lodge manager Aggie Maseko Banda. “When people come [here], they must understand that they are coming to learn about conservation, to learn how people in Zambia live by visiting our communities.”
And this isn’t just smooth talk: Royal Chundu’s staff is 99% Zambian, and the lodge returns 74% of its total income to the surrounding communities. Management is transparent about where funding goes, and guests are invited to visit the nearby village of Malambo and the Royal Chundu Foundation School to gain a broader perspective of daily life in the area.
“We are a different lodge in that we pride ourselves on empowering the people around us,” explained Banda. “Zambians have been running this property and it is five-star. We are so proud to say that we — the locals — are doing everything. This makes us happy and we get the best reviews from guests, so why not?”
I visited the school and village, and was struck by the juxtaposition of a luxury property in an area where it’s entirely possible that a child will complete high school without ever having used a computer.
It was difficult to reconcile the costs of a three-night stay at Royal Chundu when a woman from the village next door explained how she used a particular leaf to create glue to seal a folded piece of paper when she didn’t have money to buy an envelope. But then she proudly showed me the community garden, lush with rows of tomatoes and lettuce, and explained that Royal Chundu provided the seeds and bought the produce. She made it clear that the lodge in Zambia has improved the lives of the villagers.
Responsible travel is a vast and nuanced topic, but each of us (and our tourism dollars) can make more of an impact than we might expect. It was clear to me that the people who work at and live near Royal Chundu genuinely appreciate the lodge and its guests — which, of course, was exactly what Banda told me in the first place.
“In our culture, visitors mean everything. Visitors bring so many good things for us.”
This story first appeared in travelandleisure.com
Main and Feature Image Credit: Jack Weightman Harton