By Amelia McLear
I am a huge animal lover. Dogs, cats, giraffes, monkeys—you name it, I love it. So when I heard about this amazing place called Safari West where I could literally eat, sleep and live out among wild animals and it was within driving distance of Sacramento, I immediately convinced my husband that this was THE place that I needed to go to celebrate my birthday.
Safari West is a 400-acre wildlife preserve that’s home to over 400 types of exotic mammals and birds. It’s a member of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and also serves as a breeding home for many exotic animals and birds that are then provided to zoos around the country. It’s located in Sonoma County, about halfway between Santa Rosa and Calistoga, and bills itself as “the spirit of Africa in the heart of Wine Country.”
Distance to Sacramento = 95 miles
Prepare yourself to be the only adults without children in tow (or bring your kids and make it a family affair). We were there during the summer, and kids were literally everywhere. We happen to like kids so it was fine with us, although I did almost get into a fight with a boy celebrating his 8th birthday because both he and I wanted the top seat on our safari truck that had the best views of the animals. (Hey – it was my birthday too!)
There is no cell service anywhere at Safari West except for spotty wireless service at the dining hall. Be prepared to be cut off from all communications during your stay. Also, it’s pretty rustic and dusty so keep the attire casual.
As you may assume, the only animals allowed at Safari West are those that live there.
Once you arrive at Safari West, you are pretty much set as far as food & beverages. Make reservations for the Safari Ranch Dinner before you head up there. Dinner starts at 7:00 p.m. and appetizers are available starting at 6:30. The food is not remarkable, but it’s filling and there are s’ mores at the campfire after dinner. Cost is $29/adult; $14/child. There is also a bar that serves beer & wine for purchase. (However, we brought our own wine from home and I would highly recommend that.)
Before dinner, we wandered around the grounds drinking our wine and looking at all of the animals, including lemurs, monkeys, a cheetah, Serval cats, flamingoes and lots of other birds and mammals. The animals were all very active, and we seemed to be there during mating season so we had a lot of pre-dinner entertainment!
If you book a room, a continental breakfast is served starting at 7:00 a.m. as part of your stay. During the day, they have a snack shack with sandwiches and other items for purchase, or you can make reservations for the BBQ Ranch Lunch.
A Place to Lay Your Head
Safari West is home to 31 luxury safari tents. The furnishings are pretty nice for being in a tent, and the African Safari design theme (not cheesy) is apparent throughout. There are no TVs or land-line phones in the tents. If you need to make a call, you can use the office phone. There are no locks on the doors, which was a bit odd, but we stuck a chair in front of the door to block any intruders (although I never had the impression we weren’t safe).
The best thing about the tent is the huge balcony that overlooks either “Giraffe Alley,” where you can watch all of the giraffes wandering around, or Watusi Lake, a small lake home to many different types of birds. Prices range from $200 – $315, depending on the time of year, size of tent and where it’s located on the property. We stayed in a wonderful tent cabin that had a king-sized bed, an ensuite bathroom with a shower and a giant balcony overlooking the lake They have others that have two double beds, or a king bed with a bunk bed for kids.
BE WARNED: Don’t plan on getting a good night’s sleep. We were woken up numerous times by very loud squawking and screaming by who-knows-what animal or bird. It was part of the charm for sure, but be prepared and bring a sleeping pill, or just deal with it like we did by drinking a ton of coffee the next morning.
The main show is obviously the Safari Vehicle Tour. Each vehicle is a giant Dodge Power Wagon and holds about 8-12 people with double-decker seating. The tours are led by guides who have extensive training and knowledge of exotic animals and know the story behind each animal, including their names. (I LOVED finding out that Safari West names all of their animals – so cute!).
Each tour takes 2 ½ to 3 hours and involves driving around a large portion of the 400 acres and then walking through some of the aviaries and smaller animal enclosures. On the driving tour, we stopped pretty consistently throughout so the guide could tell us about the animals we were seeing and we could take pictures. The animals get VERY close to the vehicle, including an ostrich that was trying to peck our guide’s umbrella, and a giraffe that decided to shadow our vehicle by walking literally right next to us for five minutes. I wanted to reach out and pet all of the animals, but of course they are wild and that was not part of the deal.
Tours take place throughout the year and there are about five tours offered per day in the summer and tour per day in the winter. Prices are $68/adult if you stay the night or $78/adult if you just go for the day.
Check out some of the other funtivities like going on a hike through the property with the owner Nancy Lang, or going on one of the special encounter tours where you can feed the animals. Call the office before your visit to talk about scheduling one of those other activities.