It is easy to miss the hotel perched on the hillside along the Embu-Meru Road. And while it may not have a notable name like the global chains, Izaak Walton now prides itself as the spot where one of the world’s wealthiest men, Sir Richard Branson, savoured his Kenyan breakfast of maandazi and coffee.
The founder of Virgin Group could have easily flown a private helicopter to the hotel. In any case, he owns a whole airline — Virgin Atlantic — among 400 other companies! But he chose to drive up the countryside as he embarked on what he termed as one of his toughest endeavours so far, climbing Mount Kenya.
But he needed the energy to tackle the mountain, and there was no better way than sneaking into Izaak Walton on the morning of October 7.
The visit took the staff, more so the general manager, Mercy Mugo, by surprise. “It was a normal morning at the office when an agent from a booking agency came to my office and informed me that a high-profile guest would have breakfast at our hotel,” recalls Mugo. That was an hour before the guest arrived at the hotel.
Apparently, the agency had scouted for the hotel a month before Branson’s arrival without the staff knowledge and had made a breakfast reservation for about 30 to 40 guests.
Most of the guests accompanying Branson had already checked in and were enjoying their breakfast by the time Bransom made it to the hotel.
His demeanour is what Mugo will treasure more than catching sight of a man who not only makes global headlines, but interacts with the world’s powerful men and women.
“Branson is a simple man who never followed any protocol,” says Mugo. And simplicity is a hallmark of the billionaire. His main residence, located on Necker Island, the 74-acre private paradise he owns in the Caribbean, was once described by a lifestyle magazine as “just three rooms (or rather three small buildings): a bedroom, kitchen and living”, not surprising for a man who recently said that “simplicity is a great way to build something that works well without costing too much”.
Murugi Kariuki, who heads the public relations segment at the hotel, was among those who were starstruck by Branson’s presence.
Like Mugo, it is Branson’s simplicity that attracted her to him. “I found him approachable. At breakfast, he casually joined the rest of his team and picked up his cup of coffee and maandazi. We had prepared an executive guest room next to the garden for private use but he opted to use the restrooms that everyone else in the hotel used,” says Murugi.
Murugi had a 10-minute chat with Branson that covered everything from Mwea rice fields to the drought ravaging the country at the moment. “He even wondered why Embu town was not a city,” says Murugi.
As expected of such high-level but private visits, there were no “official” photo ops, though Branson agreed to some photos with the few whom he mingled with and served him.
However, the task of ensuring that Branson and his team enjoyed their brief stay at the hotel fell on Timothy Mutua, the executive chef. Like other members of staff, he had little time to waste, having got the brief about Branson’s arrival only 20 minutes prior.
“We always make it perfect for all our guests but with the sudden communication you must be extra keen on the service,” notes Mutua.
The family-run Izaak Walton Inn was built in the 1930s as a tourist getaway on the Embu-Meru highway. Due to its prime location, it is popular with tourists seeking to hike Mt Kenya.