September is indeed a gorgeous time to visit Sonoma County, home to over 250 wineries and the sleepy city of Santa Rosa. But with September on the way out, I’m happy to report that Sonoma County should also be pretty darn stunning in October and November.
For a little Santa Rosa travel-planning inspiration, consider taking a side trip to Africa — while never leaving the wine country.
A wild animal conservation park smack in the middle of Northern California, Safari West is home to giraffes, antelope, cranes, ostriches and a whole lot more. If you like animals as much as Jen and I do, you’ll pretty much be squealing (either to yourself or actually out loud) from the moment you arrive.
The first clue you’re not actually in Africa: The parking lot is set just before a stoplight, right off winding, forested Porter Creek Road. Other incongruous details are the wheat-golden hills, the gnarled oaks and the utter absence of German tourists. (There are always German tourists on an African safari; I’m pretty sure it’s a law.)
But the animals and the safari vehicles are all Africa, all the time. You can wander around some of the grounds on your own and say hello to the lemurs and colobus monkeys, or take a more comprehensive group or private tour.
Jen and I took a private tour, which involved hopping up onto the rooftop seats of a safari jeep and being shown all over the property by a funny and extremely knowledgeable guy named Richard. (When not touring folks around Safari West and making them laugh and think about their place in the universe, Richard is an elementary school teacher. Those are some lucky kids, I’ll tell you what.)
The tour we took is named “Winos and Rhinos,” for two reasons:
1) It makes a lingering stop beside the park’s pair of Southern White Rhinos. I was deeply moved by this rhino portion of the tour, as during the entire 16 days I was actually in Africa, I never saw even one of these perilously endangered mammals. Richard told us about the devastating and grossly misinformed Asian trade in rhino horns — erroneously thought to be a virility booster — and about Safari West’s hopes that their rhino couple will someday make little rhinos.
2) At golden hour, the tour pauses for a wine picnic atop a secluded hillside, surrounded by soft grasses and moss-draped oaks — your basic safari sundowner amidst astonishing wine country scenery. Richard chose some Coppola wines for us, paired with walnuts, brie and strawberries, and we laughed at his stories, enjoying each other’s company.
I dearly wish I could do this with Jen (heck, with all of my friends) every week of my life.
Our tour continued up into hills a-prowl with water buffalo, zebras and a slew of different antelope, set against the backdrop of a golden sky. Amidst all these animals, we were a little reluctant to come back down to base camp, but the words “barbecue dinner” were used — and we were starting to get hungry.
Back near the entrance to the park, the Savannah Café is a big tented mess hall and patio curled around an enormous circular barbecue pit. Anyone visiting Safari West can eat lunch or dinner here, and the food is delicious. I’d recommend the rich mac-and-cheese, the tender barbecued chicken breast and the grilled veggies. The beers and wines are all from California and South Africa, and you can sip them beside a safari mural or beneath an arbor draped with grapevines.
If your dream Sonoma County itinerary only allows you a few hours at Safari West, then so be it. After all, if you’ve come all the way here, you’ll probably want to maximize your wine-tasting time. But I’d strongly encourage you to stay overnight here and get the full safari experience. Perched up on the hillsides surrounding the property’s largest pond and a variety of fenced-in pens, these shockingly fancy tents are the same ones used in Africa at permanent safari camps: mesh-windowed affairs with big decks and full bathrooms, including actual showers.
It gets chilly at night and in the mornings, so I made liberal use of the electric blanket on my bed. I snuggled up and drifted off to the hooting of monkeys, aware that I was grinning like a little kid. It was a little lonely with just me, though; a night in one of these tents would make a cozy, exciting getaway for a couple, and one with two beds would be really fun for a pair of friends. This is, after all, the kind of place where you really want to turn to someone in the dark and whisper: “Wow — did you hear that?”
The next morning, I awoke to more monkey-hooting, and to the low snorts of something I couldn’t name. I sat up in bed, stretched, squinted at the soft sunlight over the pond and the oak-dotted hills…and was frozen to the spot. Not too far off in the distance, a long line of giraffes were loping across their paddock, their heads bobbing slowly atop their achingly long necks.
And for the first time in years, I didn’t miss Africa at all.
My wine country adventure soon continues in
Adventures in California Wine Country: Napa Valley – Part One
This trip was sponsored by The Wine Institute,
including all travel, tours, meals and lodgings.
However, all observations and opinions are my own.