Deep in the Wine Country Bush

At Safari West, you get oryxes with your chardonnay

A lot of people equate summer at a wine country bed-and-breakfast with a bottle of old vine zin on a sunny veranda, pricey-but-worth-it spa treatments, and a dinner involving Laura Chenel goat cheese and local greens.

But there's another kind of wine country B&B, a place where endangered scimitar-horned oryx mingle among sable antelope, a dromedary camel lumbers lazily behind a journey of stately giraffes, and striking East African cranes bob around the grounds as if they were in African wetlands. The place is Safari West, and though you can't get a seaweed wrap there, you can take a safari tour around the 400-acre wildlife preserve and get up-close-and-personal with fuzzy ring-tailed lemurs, dazzles of zebras, and ornery ostriches. The chardonnay isn't half bad either.

Neither drive-through park nor zoo, Safari West is home to more than 400 exotic mammals and birds, living in their natural habitat; the mission here is wildlife preservation through breeding, research, and education. But Safari West is also an adventurous alternative to the typical weekend getaway.

On arrival, guests are transported via golf cart to Peter Beard-esque lodgings adjacent to the preserve -- canvas African tent cabins on stilts with hardwood floors, decks, ceiling fans, and electric blankets.

Dinner is one seating, served buffet-style at the Savannah Café, beginning with appetizers and wine. Guests gather around a huge barbecue pit in full view of wildlife, the odd helmeted guinea fowl wandering about. Owners Peter and Nancy Lang live in a house on the premises and often dine with their visitors, adding to the distinctly familial atmosphere. Peter, son of Hollywood producer Otto Lang, founded Safari West in 1978 as a sanctuary for rare and endangered birds and mammals. When dusk falls, a cacophony of sounds rises -- shrieks, honks, trills, screeches, squawks, and throaty groans. This is as close as you're likely get to Africa without a passport.

On a recent trip, breakfast was interrupted by a young animal handler who asked the room full of guests to please stand up and move aside. "We're bringing the cats through," he said calmly. Moments later Gijima and Thula, two magnificent female cheetahs on leads, slinked by the buffet table and out the back door, then everyone returned to their cereal and yogurt.

Naturalists conduct two- to three-hour safari tours aboard modified jeeps with seats on top. Bouncing along the rough terrain past herds of Watusi cattle, menacing Cape buffalo, and tiny Thompson's gazelles (guide Vicki Swanson calls them "cheetah snacks") feels more like the Serengeti than Santa Rosa. After touring the grounds and mingling among the browsers and grazers, visitors disembark and explore the outdoor aviary, where guides feed grapes by hand to Delilah, a great Indian hornbill. Guests are offered cookies and iced tea and have a chance to feed the giraffes. A walking tour finishes with a trip to the cheetah's lair and a stop in front of the lemur's lodge.

Safari West also offers specialty and private tours, including sunset and photo tours, as well as seminars, workshops, and wildlife camps for kids.

Safari West is located at 3115 Porter Creek Rd. in Santa Rosa. Tent cabin accommodations start at $225/night; tours are $58 (adults); dinner is $25. For more information or to volunteer, go to www.safariwest.com.

 
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