By converting their family home into a boutique hotel, the Banins hoped to create a more intimate travel experience. Ami Shah finds out more.
In the early 2000s, a light aircraft hovered ominously over the savannah plains of Northern Nigeria. The pilot scouted in panic for the landing strip that no longer was. With fuel at near empty, he made a decision to land as best he could amid the scrub and grass. This was his only chance to get himself and the handful of passengers to safety. The propeller plane made a valiant attempt at a near impossible touchdown. Bruised and battered from the crash landing, its passengers staggered out and stood vigil over a carcass of crushed metal.
Among the passengers of the wrecked plane, were Sansone and Caterina Banin. They were in the north of Nigeria to explore the viability of a luxury resort by invitation of the regional governor. They took this near-death experience as a sign, and decided not to proceed with the project, now a region terrorised by Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
This, among a handful of other extraordinary tales, occupied an hour-long window I had with the couple, owners of The Maji, a boutique hotel on Diani Beach. Now 85 years of age, Sansone has a wealth of experience in the hotel industry. He first came to Kenya in 1958 to work at the newly-built Oceanic Hotel in Mombasa and continued in the hotel industry for the next 60 years, later joined by his wife Caterina, an interior designer.
From Diani Reef Beach Hotel (now Diani Reef Grand) in 1981 to the La Palm Royal Beach Hotel in Accra, Ghana, in 1999, the projects he worked on were aimed at mass travel, selling the concept of the ‘democratisation of travel.’
Herein lay the problem. “At the back of my mind, I knew that we’d never be able to deliver the truest feeling of luxury in such big hotels,” Sansone said. “We always wanted to create an intimate travel experience where guests would feel as they did in their own home.”
In the mid-2000s, they returned to Diani and built AfroChic, a boutique hotel concept that delivered on the wishlist they had created over a near life-long career as hoteliers. They sold AfroChic to Elewana shortly after the 2007 post-election violence and subsequent dwindling tourist numbers. Undeterred, they embarked on a project to convert their own home into a luxury travel destination, which since opening in 2012, has garnered handfuls of accolades, thanks to its discerning patrons on Trip Advisor.
The Maji sits as a seemingly monolithic structure of white cement, clad with sanded coral brickwork, a backdrop for fuchsia bougainvillea and a moat-like swimming pool that snakes its way into the cool and open, inner confines of the property. Upon entering, you won’t find an imposing reception desk, but rather a framed view and balmy breeze of the Indian Ocean.
The communal spaces are occupied with artefacts that the couple have collected and curated from their travels from beaded Yoruba chairs to Afghani kilims. It’s an eclectic and elegant cornucopia of style that translates to all 15 bedrooms of the property, each with a different aesthetic fingerprint. One of the most refreshing aspects of this establishment is the lack of its European style of dining etiquette. You can eat when and where you wish, so if a midnight snack catches your fancy, a deep dive into the minibar isn’t your only option to quell the munchies.
An extraordinary amount of effort has been put in so that The Maji is not the type of hotel where you go to ‘be seen’. Details of its famous (or infamous) client list remain a closely-guarded secret. It is a place where guests relax or escape to quiet nooks and crannies, reading novels, knocking back a few dawas or just allowing themselves to be mesmerised by the hypnotic rhythm of the sea. Privacy perhaps to a sublime fault.
From plane crashes to near collapsed regimes and economies, I asked Sansone and Caterina what drew them back to the continent and Kenya specifically. “The answer may seem clichéd, but there was a feeling that Africa was calling and it still is,” answered Sansone. I got the sense that The Maji, is an enduring love letter to a lifelong career striving to create the ‘ideal’ travel experience. If that’s true, they’re not far off the mark.