There is a battle of the hotels shaping up in Mekelle.
The long-term choice for the savvy traveler to Mekelle has been the Axum Hotel. Recently, however, an “upstart” has appeared on the scene: the Planet Hotel.
Having just spent over two weeks living in the Axum Hotel, I am well-placed to offer this review. I have visited the Planet Hotel (which has a nice view of Mekelle from the top) but can only report from those who have stayed there that while it looks nice, the Planet Hotel is definitely “not yet ready for prime time.” The food, in particular, is universally regarded as terrible (possible exception: the breakfast buffet).
Most of those who are likely to visit while we are here will probably be staying at the Axum Hotel, so here is my review.
The Axum Hotel has a new wing and an older wing.
The new hotel has a large conference and banquet center which is a popular place for weddings. Book early—this is the busy wedding season and an Ethiopian wedding celebration can last up to three days!
I have never stayed in the older wing, but the rooms in the new hotel are nice. They are very clean and well-maintained. The rooms are neither luxurious nor exceptionally spacious, but they are completely adequate for a short stay—unless, of course, you have arrived encumbered with 7 months worth of baggage.
The water pressure is low (Mekelle water is notoriously “hard” and that is death on pipes) but generally reliable. Hot water, alas, is at something of a premium. It is unlikely you will get more than a lukewarm shower here, unless you are particularly lucky.
The beds in the Axum Hotel are firm. Really firm. OK—they’re actually “hard.” If that’s a problem for you, you will probably need to add an additional comforter to the bed or consider bringing a lightweight, roll-up, camping mattress to supplement what is provided by the hotel. You can buy them from REI or a similar supplier.
There is a breakfast buffet which is not bad, although it does get tiresome after 20-some consecutive breakfasts..
The cooks will produce a pretty good omelet with tomato, onion and green pepper. Be aware that Ethiopian green peppers punch at a higher weight than their American counterparts. There is toast, tempura vegetables, strips of injera (the local staple) and a variety of sweetbreads. The cooks here actually make an excellent cake donut.
Although breakfast is served in the lobby of the New Axum, if you want a restaurant meal you have to go to the dining room at the Old Axum across the parking lot. Food in the Axum restaurant is good, although variety is a bit lacking and sometimes what is advertised is a little different from what your expected (the cream of chicken soup is tasteless unless you like mucilage and the “chicken noodle soup” I ordered when I had a head cold was made primarily with soy sauce–definitely not “mom’s home cooking.”)
Pepper steak is a solid, reliable dish if you are in doubt about the menu. A variety of cold beverages is available. There is a wine list, but it is undistinguished. (Note: this is ironic understatement). Ethiopia is not a destination for gourmet wine-lovers, but occasionally you will get lucky. Beer is a better bet and there are a large number of Ethiopian beers to sample, all cold.
You can even eat outside, if you wish. Helen and I have eaten several meals outside under the tropical moon, thinking of all you poor souls freezing in St. Louis. (Sorry, but it is really hard to resist…)
As part of the “battle of the hotels,” the Axum is putting in a large fitness center, complete with swimming pool. The Planet Hotel is much farther along with its recreational facilities, but as I mentioned, it lags WAY behind in the food department.
The Axum has an on-site laundry which will clean and fold your clothes at a very modest price with same-day service—a “must-have” service if you are going to be living there for an extended period of time.
The hotel bar is available both inside and outside. Inside, it has the ambiance of a weathered old gentlemen’s club, decorated with ornately paneled dark wood. This quiet ambiance is often broken by either soccer being broadcast on a flat-screen TV, a musical contest from somewhere in Ethiopia, or as was the case during one of our last trips to the bar for lunch, incoherent re-runs of “Sanford and Son” from the US and a volume that can only be described as soul-crushing. Fred Sanford was hard enough to take back in the US.
Free wireless internet is available in both the old and the new sections of the hotel.
The wireless is a little unpredictable. It is usually easily accessible in the lobby. I was also frequently able to access it in the room, but that is definitely not guaranteed.
During the tourist season, the hotel is regularly inundated at night with group tours of Europeans and Asians en route to other sites, but most of the time they clear out the following morning.
The hotel has a modern, up-to-date security system—which means there are metal detectors in the doorways of all public entrances to the hotel.
Of course, most people simply walk around it and half of the time it doesn’t work, but this is an important ritual procedure. It is a sign of the times: we live in an age in which ritual security clearance is a higher priority than actual security itself.
The staff are pleasant and speak reasonable English. If you have been around for a while (like we were) they get friendlier with each passing day. No problems here.
In my opinion, the Axum is still “the place to stay” in Mekelle. It is central, clean, reasonably priced, and has decent food. Don’t expect it to compete with the Ritz-Carlton, but hey, were you really even expecting that?