Dropping out of the central highlands and into Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, Samburu National Reserve is the most beautiful park in the country. I’m biased, though: I was once based here as a vervet monkey researcher. From Elephant Watch Camp, on the banks of the muddy Ewaso Ngiro River, you’ll spend each day with indigenous guides, observing and tracking elephants as part of an ongoing study by Oria Douglas-Hamilton (who runs the camp too) and her husband, Iain, who has spearheaded elephant conservation efforts in Africa for more than four decades (doubles from $550 per person; elephantwatchsafaris.com).
The crowds flock together like so many egrets in East Africa’s most popular reserve. Eschew the masses and head into the Mara Triangle—a 200-square-mile region bounded by the Tanzania border, the Mara River, and the Oloololo Escarpment of the Rift Valley. In early autumn the wildebeest herds gather here before migrating south, back to the Serengeti. The Mara Serena Safari Lodge offers off-the-front-porch access to wildlife and the Triangle, closer to the action than any other lodge in the Mara (doubles from $575; serenahotels.com).
The Swahilis who inhabit this seven-island archipelago are among the world’s last surviving maritime cultures, and hand-built wooden dhows and donkeys are still their primary mode of transport—there are four cars in the whole island chain. Opt for a daylong dhow safari with a Swahili captain at the helm. Activities include hand-lining red snapper for dinner, snorkeling off empty beaches, and exploring stone villages that date to the days of Sinbad (a.d. 1000). The locally owned Peponi Hotel will make all the arrangements (doubles from $285; peponi-lamu.com).
Every September, tens of thousands of zebras, wildebeests, oryx, and elephants launch their seasonal migration (peaking in November) from Tarangire, a park that package tours often skip because it’s farther from the main safari route. All the better for the rest of us. Bush guide Paul Oliver, who set up Oliver’s Camp, scouted the ideal places to catch the herds in motion. Wildland Adventures, our 2009 top-rated Do-It-All outfitter, is the best group to get you there (Tanzania Luxury Walking Safari, ten days, $5,795 per person; wildlandadventures.com).