When a travel magazine recently assigned me a feature on luxury South African safaris and the best safari lodges, I didn’t buy a guidebook – I called Micato.
When your group of four are the only guests in an entire deluxe Tanzanian safari lodge, it is easy to get close up private time with the wildlife.T+L is not alone. They’ve won three different best categories from National Geographic Traveler: Best Outfitters on Earth, 50 Tours of A Lifetime, and 10 Guides Who Make the Trip. Safaris are a hugely popular land add-on to cruise vacations, andPorthole Cruise Magazinehas named them Best African Safari Tour Operator for five straight years. The popular book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die just picked them as Preferred East Africa Tour Operator 2011. I have written here before about the exclusive Virtuoso consortium of the nation’s best travel agents, an elite and very respected group of true travel experts, and in competition with the best tour operators in the world in many fields, Micato once again took home Virtuoso’s Best Active and Specialty Provider 2011 – and the year before Best Escorted Tour Operator. And that’s all just the tip of their award iceberg.
But while these accolades reflect well on the amazing job Micato does, these awards are not why I just called them for my trip. I called them because I have traveled with Micato before, and I know firsthand how great a job they do. My first trip with them was to Kenya, more than 10 years ago, a safari feature assignment for Cigar Aficionado magazine. I have traveled with a lot of high-end tour operators in various areas of specialty, and I was blown away by the job Micato did. I’ve written before in these pages about how enamored I am about Butterfield & Robinson, the world-class bicycle tour operator. Well, Micato is the equivalent for safaris, and both companies succeed over and over again by emphasizing the same things: excellence of guides, local employees, offices and equipment, utilizing the very best accommodations and cuisine, with decades of first-hand knowledge and insider clout to make things happen that other simply can’t.
It's Micato's expert guides and drivers, shown here sharing sunset cocktails (they actually drank soda) with guests, who make the trip.
Many tour operators, especially safari companies, are essentially booking agents, turning over actual operations to local companies who handle the ground transportation and guiding. Not Micato, which is dually based in New York and Nairobi, Kenya with satellite offices, staffed 24/7, in Cape Town, Arusha and Johannesburg. Micato has its own fleet of first-rate safari vehicles – window seat-only minivans with pop up roofs in East Africa, and open Land Rovers in South Africa. Its biggest asset is a cadre of highly trained, multi-lingual, expert safari guides, drivers, tour leaders, and trackers. Micato serves 5-7,000 customers a year, an average of about 500 monthly, and has 300 employees, a staggering ratio. Even when visiting parks that require use of their own guides or rangers, Micato guides ride shotgun, and from the moment you get off the plane until the moment you leave, your trip is personally supervised. When I last used Micato three years ago to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, our departing flight changed while we were in Tanzania, and our guide not only rearranged transfers for the later departure but got us all day rooms at a swank hotel so we could change, shower and rest until it was time to go.
Micato is a family business started by Felix and Jane Pinto in 1966, just three years after Kenya got its independence from Britain. They are both Kenyans with long personal connections to their homeland. Every Micato trip includes a lunch or dinner at the private home of one of your hosts, and on my first visit to Kenya I was lucky enough to meet both of them at their house, something that is it is still typical. The company is run on a day to day basis by their son Dennis, a Stanford grad and former VP with American Express, along with his wife and sister. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Dennis several times and his passion for the safari business, for Africa, and for philanthropy is limitless.
There's lots of reasons why safaris are such fantasy trips, and you see why every day.Which brings me to another appeal of Micato – in an age where hotels and other travel entities are suddenly trying to cast a socially responsible image, Micato has long been a leader – before it became a fashionable marketing tool. For every single safari they sell, Micato pays the expenses and fees to send an African child to school – for 12 years. Their other programs donate school and health supplies to children in Nairobi slums, have staff volunteering and the company even donates a gallon of clean drinking water to locals for every gallon its customers consume on safari. Micato has been doing these programs for 25 years, and created AmericaShare, its charity arm, with seven full time employees. The company’s monetary donations are substantial and ongoing, as are its charitable efforts, and for this reason the awards that the Pintos value the most are those reflecting their philanthropy, such as Conde Nast Traveler’s World Savers Award, which Micato just won (yet again) for 2012, in two different categories: Education and “Doing It All.”
As for the safaris themselves, the quality of both the itineraries and guides are simply awesome. In many ways, no one has more effect on your actual wildlife viewing experience than the guides and game drivers, and Micato has excellent staff. When it comes to lodging, they have longstanding relationships with the top luxury lodges, but also a unique product called the “Bespoke Collection,” accommodations consisting of private ranches, family homesteads, and country estates throughout Kenya and Tanzania, many within private game reserves, to which Micato guests have exclusive access. Like many special touches Micato offers, this is only possible because of the Pinto’s deep roots and friendships in the African community. And from a strictly business perspective, ultra-luxe safari lodges like Singita, Royal Malewane, Londolozi, Ulusaba and Xaranna are far more likely to offer flexibility and upgrades to a company that does a large volume of business with them year in and year out. On my first safari there was a honeymoon couple on our trip, and when the Micato guide found out he told the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, one place we were staying, and they immediately upgraded them to the luxurious Presidential Suite – at no charge. These properties value Micato’s business and it is the customer who benefits. Likewise, they are on first name basis with the best bush pilots, hot air balloon owners, naturalists, scientists and so on. Itineraries almost all include special Micato-only touches, from lunch or dinner at the Pinto’s home to bringing in guest expert naturalists to lead bush walks. Micato guests routinely meet Masai elders and enjoy other “by invitation only” experiences such as meeting with paleontologists Philip and Louise Leakey, grandchildren of the world’s most famous paleontologists, Louis and Mary Leakey.
Micato offers both scheduled small group trips and completely bespoke custom itineraries, including anniversary, wedding, celebratory, honeymoon and graduating themed trips, itineraries using private planes or jets, and unique safaris by horseback, camel or on foot. For its scheduled group trips, the company has an unusual guaranteed departure rule – sign up for a published trip and you are going, even if no one else does. You might be surprised how many people find their vacation plans ruined because of such trip cancellations. Last year I tried to go on a specialized European trip with a different high-end tour operator only to have it cancelled because they said not enough people signed up to make it worthwhile – well after I made my plans. That won’t happen with Micato, and in terms of similar policies, the company adds no surcharges or supplemental fees to their published or quoted prices, something many other tour companies do, and includes many things in the rates others add on, especially all airport transfers, park entrance fees, and all bottled water and soft drinks – on drives and at lodges. All gratuities are included, from porters to waiters, and Micato has a “no tipping necessary – ever” policy. That being said, they are a luxury company heavy on hands-on service and the best accommodations, and these trips are not for the budget minded. ( Forbes)