A dazzling herd of zebra thunder across the valley, their stripes shimmering in the blazing sun. A rowdy gang of Cape buffalo holds court on a hilltop, and a fuzzy baby giraffe wobbles near its mother. Cheetahs warily prowl nearby, eyeing each other.
Behold the wilds of Safari West, a 400-acre nature preserve tucked amid the golden hills of Santa Rosa, Calif., just north of San Francisco. The next best thing to going on safari in Africa, this wildlife oasis is the perfect family-friendly getaway. Riding high atop an off-road jeep, we bounce down bumpy roads on a quest to encounter more than 900 species of animals, from hyenas and antelope to ostriches and rhinos. If you want to be amazed by the dramatic spectacle of gazelles rubbing elbows with Watusi cattle on golden rolling hillsides, as hawks soar overhead, look no further.
By day, you ride around this epic preserve, where most of the animals roam free in vast sun-drenched enclosures. During the three-hour tour, our guide, the redoubtable Terry Cotter, regaled us with tales of African safaris and animal anecdotes. Cotter delighted us with stories of scaling Kilimanjaro and tracking down apex predators on the Serengeti. He also gave us the inside scoop on animal eccentricities.
Turns out zebras have a bit of a nasty streak, while rhinos are quite chummy, almost doglike in their friendliness. Ostriches, by the way, often have sticky fingers, ahem, beaks. They’ll reach into the jeep to make off with a tube of sunblock or a baseball cap. Cotter has been on more than two dozen African safaris and he knows how to outwit poachers, follow animal tracks and survive where the wild things are. He’s also a fount of information, particularly about the fate of the rhino, which is critically endangered.
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Fun and education
Learning about the urgency for conservation of these magnificent creatures from someone who has been on the front lines helped my daughter Daphne, 6, truly understand the threat of extinction and the special nature of her experience at Safari West, an animal sanctuary that’s fully accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
If you are staying overnight, the adventure has just begun as darkness falls. You tuck into a hearty camp-style dinner of spice-rubbed chicken, barbecue ribs and apple crumble with ice cream. After dinner, the children frolic on wide green lawns, doing cartwheels in the evening glow as parents sample a nicely curated wine list.
Then everybody beds down amid the luxury of the high-end glamping experience. Safari West has 30 plush tent cabins imported from South Africa.
Zebra-print bedding, African art and gorgeous woodwork decorate these lavish tents, which can be open air or tucked up tight. One definite edge over camping: There are bathrooms with showers. This is high-style roughing it.
Remember to bring along some ear plugs unless you want to hear the hot-pink flamingos squawk all night. Toting along a flashlight will also make it easier to get to and from the canteen in the dark. (Of course, some children will be so stimulated by the adventure of the place, they may not have any interest in shut-eye. Sigh.)
There are other treats to be had here during special animal encounters and specialty tours. You can venture inside the giraffe barn to feed these adorable (and drooling) giants. It’s as if it’s raining in there, but there’s nothing more enchanting than having a long-necked fellow eat right out of the palm of your hand. My little one smiled so hard, it could have been Christmas morning. Other possibilities include a close encounter with a cheetah, as you get to know each of their distinctive personalities and histories, or a private safari tailored to the kind of adventure you’re after.
The next morning, you wake to the sounds of kookaburras chirping and red river pigs snuffling about. As you saunter toward the canteen, many of the animals shuffle in your direction, perhaps thinking you may be delivering breakfast.
Experiencing the preserve in the early morning in the soft dawning light, before the caravans of visitors arrive, is magical. Stroll through the aviary and you may make fast friends with an audacious avian, a dainty little demoiselle crane named Kovu. She was hand-fed as a baby bird and now she bonds instantly with anyone who comes to visit. She’ll try to come home with you.
Classic safari tours (3 hours) range from $45-$115. Overnights, which include breakfast, are $250-$425.
Where: 3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa, California