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A Wild Time in California Wine Country

Sunday, March 14, 2004

The words "California wine country" tend to conjure up certain romantic images. Row after row of grapevines. Summer afternoon picnics. A rental convertible. And a secluded inn overlooking a gently rolling pasture with . . . grazing giraffes.

Sitting on 400 acres in the foothills of Sonoma County's Mayacama mountain range is Safari West, a private wildlife preserve-cum-resort that's home to some 350 animals (about 90 different species, 10 of which are endangered) and 30 tent cabins.

Safari West isn't the most likely of destinations in this ritzy wine region. My boyfriend had lobbied for a budget motel; I longed for something without "Motel" or "6" in the name.

I won. Although Safari West is far from economical, it did satisfy our outdoorsy inclinations with its lure of exotic animals and 14 miles of hiking trails. And it was perfectly situated near the northern apex of both Sonoma and Napa counties, thus almost equidistant from the main drag in each county and just 45 miles north of the San Francisco Bay area.

The sanctuary's first incarnation, in the early 1970s, was a private preserve in Southern California devoted to the preservation and propagation of African animals. Founder Peter Lang, the son of movie producer and director Otto Lang, had practically grown up on location in Africa with his father. When the project outgrew Beverly Hills, Lang relocated to just outside Calistoga in 1978 and established Safari West. He later opened the preserve to schoolchildren and eventually incorporated overnight accommodations to help fund the ongoing breeding and research.

When we pulled into the preserve parking lot after regular check-in hours, the gates were still open, the sun just going down beyond the hills and the front office person still waiting for us. She handed us a map of the grounds and a flashlight, tossed our bags into a souped-up golf cart and bumped us along a dirt path. We came to rest between an expansive giraffe pasture and a string of African canvas safari tent cabins elevated on stilts.

As she left us at Cabin 16, her parting words were something to the effect that the establishment strongly discouraged loud noises and leaving the cabin at night without the flashlight.

The 12-by-21-foot tent cabin was rustic by comparison to the neighboring luxe resorts but far less, well, tentlike than any tent I'd previously encountered. The walls were fabric, the floors wooden, the ceiling high enough to stand upright. And there were safari accents, like the cheetah-striped bedspread and the manzanita branches artfully poised as towel and coat racks -- as well as the occasional eight-legged creature.

From the room, it was possible to gaze through the net windows just past the path to those giraffes grazing in a pasture. Beyond the pasture loomed hills covered with scraggly grass from which came the occasional trumpet of a Saurus crane. Beyond those hills lay Lake Watusi and Wildebeest Road -- home to blue duikers (sort of an African antelope), nyalas (ditto), Thomson's gazelles, zebras and, yes, wildebeests.

As a modern concession to brisk Northern California nights, the cabins come equipped with a space heater and an electric blanket. Though cabins are wired, electricity is used sparingly outdoors. All the better to see the stars. But when we returned from dinner in nearby St. Helena around midnight, it was dark. Turns out that flashlight advice was good stuff.

The next morning, families emerged from their cabins for the "safari adventure." The tour is a 21/2-hour geography and zoology lesson with a staff naturalist; visitors are alternately whisked around the grounds in a "safari vehicle" -- basically a jeep with the top lopped off -- and escorted on foot to see the animals close up.

We skipped the tour (and its $58 price tag) but still took in our share of the domestic safari experience -- the out-of-tune symphony of the lemurs basking in the sun, the early-morning mist hanging above Catfish Lake, the deep-throated chirping of the great Indian hornbill as it spied us on a path.

And peeking out the windows in the middle of the night to see if giraffes really do sleep standing up. They do.

-- Renee Schettler

Safari West is 65 miles north of San Francisco, off Franz Valley Road in Santa Rosa. Tent cabins are $225 per night double. The 21/2-hour safari tours ($58 adults, $28 children) are held daily and are available for non-overnight guests. Open year-round; two-night minimum stay required on weekends May through September. Reservations are required for all visitors.

Details: 800-616-2695, www.safariwest.com.

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