An Overnight Safari in the Steppes of California
Safari West uses authentic African safari camp tents to house overnight guests.
Safari West runs animal spotting guided Jeep tours.
Pheasants love to hang around the paths that guests use.

Those unexpectedly upside down moments in life, like seeing the Golden Arches among the pagodas of Beijing, can be fun and very reassuring, especially when traveling with kids. But when it’s the reverse — finding the exotic in the familiar — it can be unsettling. So when we first heard there was an African safari camp outside Santa Rosa, California, we were skeptical… and a bit suspicious.

A delightful surprise, Safari West delivers as close to a luxury safari experience as you can get without a visa. It’s rare to be so close to such a variety of wildlife — nearly 1,000 animals representing 100 species — in a well maintained and seemingly humane environment. As a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Safari West must maintain very high standards for animal research and care. That it also has luxurious fixed tents — ideal for the mom whose idea of camping is shopping the aisles at REI — is a big bonus.

Animal Safaris are Fun and Educational

Instead of carefully manicured rows of pinot noir grapes, this 400-acre wine country ranch is a carefully crafted wilderness with wild animals and birds behind cattle fences and mesh.

Jeep “safaris” in comfortable 4WD vehicles with rooftop seating are given throughout the day. Lasting about three hours, each takes on the flavor of its guide, whether a perky blonde zoology graduate student or a professional breeder attracted to this preserve’s research facilities. This is not an Animal Kingdom “Stop the Poachers” theme park ride; the staff stress animal conservation and are well trained in all aspects of what your family will see, do and ask about.

Guides carefully haul the vehicles beside ponds, up deeply rutted hillsides, around eroded roadbeds and… if the kids behave, up and over big bumps. We learned about the rhinoceros’ acute hearing, got close enough to smell giraffe breath, saw tiny antelope leaping through the brush, and marveled at the flamingos standing on one leg. During our guided tour of the aviary, a crested pheasant followed us the entire way, jealously keeping the other birds away from our guide.

Before or after your safari tour, visit the island of lemurs and some very funny monkeys. Choose from full meals or snacks in the Elephant Lounge, a thatch-roof lodge with hot coffee and tea as well as two separate patio areas. At dinner time when we visited, Safari West put on a hearty barbecue with soups, salads and a choice of grilled chicken and ribs, followed by pineapple upside down cake and all the fixings for s’mores.

After a few glasses of the fine Sonoma and Napa Valley wines, you’ll swear that the live oak trees silhouetted by the setting sun look like the set of “The Lion King.”

Overnight in Nature – Not Cheap but Neat

Although the rustic landscaping includes some palms, mimosa and flowers native to California, most of the furniture, art work and building materials come from Africa. Bathed in blinding sun by day and the starriest of black skies at night (overnight guests are given flashlights), the 30 fixed canvas tents are set up on their own platform with a cantilevered balcony for wildlife viewing. And wine tasting. And amazing family photos.

Inside the tents, snap and velcro flaps seal over authentic mesh “windows” you will never close because the view is so captivating.

The spacious tents, more like individual cottages with convertible walls, hold two queen beds or a queen and a bunk of double beds with no problem. Tree limbs support the night tables and comfortable bed with its fine linens and big duvets to ward off the night time chill. More branches and antlers are pegged to the tent frame for hanging clothes and towels.  No phones and no cell service, no TV, no WiFi except in the Elephant Lounge cafe and voilá, you’re in a tented camp out of Africa.

Trip Planning Details for an Overnight Safari

Within a few hours’ drive of Sacramento, San Francisco and Silicon Valley, Safari West has a flush family crowd to draw from. We met several parents and grandparents who were spending two nights at Safari West, so their kids could enjoy the wildlife at all hours of the day and night and just unplug.

If you only have one day, arrive early enough to check into your tent, walk around the grounds and begin to match the animal sounds to their makers. When nightfall comes and the cacophony begins, you will be grateful you did.

Dinner is served nightly (an extra fee during certain seasons), and there are a lot of interesting people to meet over the cocktail hour. Allow the day to hang around and you’ll get the most out of your wildlife encounter. (We took an early Jeep safari the next morning but could have lingered over the big breakfast buffet listening to the animals for much longer.) The gift shop, with its range of merchandise from silk leopard print scarves to hand-crafted tribal beadwork, stuffed pet lions, and wooden African sculpture is also worth exploring.

Safari West is located at 3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95404. Rates vary throughout the year with summer weekends being the highest and midweeks off season being less; rates for two adults begin at about $260-$300 per night for a tent sleeping up to four ($25 for each extra guest), with a safari and continental breakfast for two. There are handicap accessible faciltiies. Some family tour/tent specials are available in spring and summer, and there’s a more isolated two-bedroom cottage if you prefer. To book an overnight stay, contact Safari West at 707/579-2551 or visit the Safari West website. Get more ideas on what to do in this region with kids in : California: Wine Country Attractions.

Ron Bozman contributed to this story.

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