A Whole ‘Nother Animal

At one stop along our Healdsburg Wine Tour, the tasting room

Home to more than 400 wild animals, Safari West in the Santa
Rosa foothills is a miniature excursion to Africa
By Melissa Flores, Special To South Valley Newspapers

Santa Rosa – Last summer, my family had a chance to take a vacation we’d long dreamed of taking: We went on an African safari. We watched the sunset from the balcony of a canvas tent lodge with giraffes sauntering past our accommodations. Crickets lulled us to sleep in our cabin, and we woke to the calls of macaws and the screeches of lemurs. And we didn’t even have to board a plane for our adventure.

California has long been known as a place to find great appellations – especially in Sonoma Valley. But a little-known animal preserve offers a rare opportunity to take an African-style safari without crossing oceans or continents.

North of San Francisco, a menagerie of wild animals roams 400 acres in the Santa Rosa foothills. These animals – ostriches, zebras and other African animals – wander through what has been dubbed the Sonoma Serengeti.

Safari West is a unique animal preserve and is home to more than 400 wild creatures, including a variety of endangered antelope, birds and even two cheetahs. Peter Lang founded Safari West in 1979, and it is one of the rare private facilities that has membership to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

Since I had the unique opportunity to take a real African safari for three days in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, I thought who better to compare the Safari West experience to the real deal. After all, this trip would require no vaccinations, malaria pills or 22 hours in a plane.

There are three components to a Safari West stay that make it similar to an actual African adventure: a trek through the reserve in an open-air truck with a knowledgeable guide, a stay in a canvas tent lodge, and a restaurant where the meals are cooked on an outdoor grill.

For my parents, sister and I, the two-and-a-half hour “safari” offered at the park prompted our visit. Safari West offers year-round tours three times a day – at 9am, noon and 4pm. We opted for the late Friday afternoon tour.

We arrived just in time for our adventure and climbed into an open-air truck with our tour guide, Noah. The safari ride takes visitors through three animal enclosures. Two of them are more than 100 acres to allow plenty of space for animals to wander.

We entered the first enclosure that contained giraffes, ostriches and a springbok – a type of antelope – and I felt like I was back in Africa. The unpaved paths made for a bumpy ride, and dust kicked up every time our tour guide started up the truck. With no windows or doors on the vehicle, visitors should be sure to take their allergy medication and put on plenty of sunscreen to handle the elements.

Buffalo, considered one of the Big Five in South Africa – along with elephants, lions, rhinos and leopards – had eluded my tour group last summer in Kruger, but on this smaller-scale preserve we got up close and personal with a herd. A little too close, since the bull of the group turned toward our truck just as Noah told us the animals are considered the most dangerous to humans by many African guides. Luckily, Noah recognized the cues that our presence was agitating the male, and he started the truck up quickly and moved on.

After the afternoon drive, we took a short walking tour with stops at the aviary, the cheetah enclosure and lemur island before we settled down for the evening meal.

The $25-per-person dinner at the Savannah Cafe, which promised to be the best barbecue this side of Kenya, fell below our expectations. The ribs were overcooked and the chicken, though it smelled delicious, was pink in the middle. I had been hoping for some authentic African cuisine, like melee pop – a mashed corn dish served with a tomato-based sauce – but instead we got green salad, cabbage, potato wedges and sourdough bread.

The dessert, bread pudding, also didn’t compare to the Cape Brandy pudding I ate while in Cape Town, South Africa, but it was better than the canned fruit cocktail that served as dessert while my friends and I were roughing it on safari.

After our disappointing meal, we retired to our canvas tent, which included hard-wood floors and hand-crafted end tables and bed frames. While munching on Pringles and mini-muffins, we sat on our patio while watching the giraffes and a herd of gazelles. Without a television, radio or cell phone signals in the room, we bedded down early with the sounds of animals lulling us to sleep.

Safari West Tours

During the winter season, tours leave at 10am and 2pm daily.

Tour prices

Monday through Thursday:

Adults $52, children ages 3-12 $25

Friday through Sunday

Adults $60, children ages 3-12 $28

Lodging Prices

Tent cabin accommodation and continental breakfast for two:

$225 per night, plus $25 fee for each additional person

Savannah Cafe

Lunch adults $15, children ages 4-12 $12

Dinner adults $25, children ages 4-12 $15

Reservations are required for tours, meals and lodging. Info: www.safariwest.com or (800) 616-2695

Healdsburg Offers Worry-Free Wine Tours

When my family and I headed up to Santa Rosa to visit Safari West, we took the opportunity to visit Sonoma wineries with the help of Healdsburg Wine Tours, a local tour outfit owned by Gene and Debbie Warren. After all, what visit to wine country in California would be complete without a trying a few local varietals?

Healdsburg is a family-owned-and-operated business run by Gene and Debbie Warren. Though retired, Gene said he finds himself working plenty with the three or six hour private tours he and his wife offer daily with advanced reservations. Unlike other tour outfitters, Healdsburg Wine Tours provided the luxury of a private wine tour for two to four without the price tag.

Though we didn’t ride in a limousine from winery to winery, my family of four found comfort in the air-conditioned mini-van.

We opted for the six-hour tour because we had never been to Sonoma County before and wanted to see more of the area, which includes the Alexander, Dry Creek, Green, Russian River and Sonoma valleys.

As wine amateurs, we left the planning up to Gene, letting him know that we hoped to visit smaller, locally owned wineries, and that we were interested in trying a variety of wines. Each tour is custom-designed to fit the desire of the clients so that wine newbies, like my family, or connoisseurs can both enjoy the journey.

In addition to serving as our planner, Gene spent the day as our designated driver, tour guide and even served us a picnic lunch.

He picked us up at the Fountaingrove Inn, where we would be spending the second night of our weekend getaway, promptly at 10am. Gene planned a packed day for us, with tastings at nine wineries in the Alexander and Russian River valleys.

During our day of wine tasting, my sister discovered a penchant for chenin blanc while my mother reaffirmed her distaste for anything red. We all discovered red zinfandels and decided the strong wines were not for us.

The Lancaster Estate turned out to be the favorite stop of the day. We were able to tour the wine cellars while sipping a glass of their 2002 Roth Cabernet Sauvignon. At that stop, we also tasted a wine that is only available for preslaes, the 2003 Roth Cabernet Sauvignon. At the end of the day, it still remained a favorite.

By late afternoon, we had had our fill of wine and were ready to call it a day. Gene dropped us off at our hotel for the evening and gave us a packet with fliers and taste listings for each winery we visited.

We enjoyed the day, but we learned that nine wine tastings proved too much for our palates. We also found that we enjoyed learning about the history of the wineries and facts about how wine is made.

But with Healdsburg Wine Tours, the next time we visit the Santa Rosa area we know we can call Gene up and ask him to plan a unique trip based on our desire to learn more about winemaking and less about the taste of wines.