Last week, I took my family on an African safari without ever leaving Sonoma County. Instead, we went to Safari West, a 400 acre wildlife preserve for over 400 varieties of African mammals and birds from around the world. Safari West is about one hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge and 15 minutes from downtown Santa Rosa.
This is my 5th trip to Safari West and I fall in love with the place more and more every time I go. It’s no surprise that AAA calls it a one-of-a-kind adventure and Sunset Magazine has listed it as one of the top destinations in the western United States.
We started with a greeting from a comical mob of guinea fowl that parade around the grounds. They're not just a pretty face but serve a very important purpose by keeping the bug population down and rattlesnakes away from the areas where visitors come.
While waiting for the truck to pick us up and take us to our cabin, my daughter and her friend walked to an area where ring-tailed lemurs from Madagascar live on an island surrounded by water filled with large koi and a local residential egret. A couple of things we learned about them is that if you meow at them - they meow back. Also, the movie Madagascar got it wrong. Lemurs are a matriarchal society; sorry King Julien; it’s the women who rule here.
Our jeep came and we were greeted by a very nice young man who helped us with our luggage and drove us to our tent cabin. Safari West has 30 tent cabins and one cottage. They are all great but Cabin 18 is the only cabin that abuts the pasture with the giraffes and that’s where we stayed - what a treat!
Weekends book up fast but Safari West also has tours for day trippers. I do highly recommend staying overnight for the full experience. People staying overnight also get a discount on the safari tour. These tent cabins are quite lovely. Beautiful hardwood floors, electricity, and plumbing. The deck has a table and chairs and an amazing view, a cooler with some bottled water and bag of ice. At night, it can get chilly, but they provide space heaters and electric blankets, so no one was cold. The beds are very comfortable too.
That afternoon we were treated to an incredible behind the scenes tour with our guide Kimberly. One of the highlights of the tour included hands-on feedings and learning more about the animals behaviors and habitats. First we fed Wiley the African Gray. The kids were thrilled having never fed a parrot before. We then fed the 4 adorable porcupines who quickly stole my heart. They have faces that look like the guinea pigs from my childhood. Then we fed the two very sweet and beautiful warthogs, Lulu and Hannah. On to feeding the gentle and friendly giraffes who are like cows - they have no top teeth, just lower incisors and back molars and they burp up food. Then we fed the birds in the aviary. It was such a thrill to hand feed spoonbills, ibis’, and more. This is not a petting zoo and you're not supposed to feed the animals except under supervision. So this was an exceptionally special experience for all of us.
After feeding all the animals we were ready for our dinner which we brought with us because I read in reviews that the dinners at Safari West are expensive and not that great. But honestly, it looked and smelled really good and everyone seemed very pleased. It’s buffet style and a great chance to mingle with other guests. I think we lost out there. But eating on the deck was really nice too. After dinner, we were welcome to roast marshmallows and drink hot chocolate at the open fire pit. It was a great way to unwind before strolling back for bed.
You should be aware that there is cell phone reception with AT&T only and they have internet service at the dining area. But if you feel an overwhelming need to be entertained bring a book, play cards or sit on the deck and enjoy the stars.
I also read reviews where some people complain about the animal noise, particularly early in the morning. I was awakened with the calls of a bird aptly named the crested screamer and the echoing merp’s from the flamingos but this is part of the charm of Safari West. I could not imagine it any other way. Sitting on the deck of my cabin, I had a sweeping view of a large enclosure with a variety of antelope, giraffes and birds roaming about. There is a very nice continental breakfast with in the cost of the room including fresh squeeze orange juice.
We booked a 10am Safari tour and met our tour guide, Robert. Unfortunately, on the morning we booked our tour it started to drizzle but there are benefits to the rain. First they provide you with a really cute poncho. Second, you get to go into the giraffe barn for an up close visit since they stay in during the rain. The rain tapered off by 10am so we had a dry ride with all the benefits.
The safari vehicle is a truck that has three rows of seats tiered in a stadium arrangement and a row of seats directly above the driver. Of course, that is where my group sat. They will rotate so everyone gets a chance at the top but since no one want to go on top, my group had it the whole time.
We drove around for over two hours getting expert commentary from Robert. We saw and learned about the giraffes on property, Watusi cattle, wildebeests, zebras, and cape buffaloes, the fifth most dangerous animal in Africa - mosquito being the first. Robert mentioned a YouTube video at Kruger National Park about an interaction of cape buffaloes, lions, and crocodiles, it's a knuckle bitting video.
We concluded our tour on foot for about 40 minutes, visiting the cheetahs, lemurs, monkeys, and another visit to the giraffe barn and aviary.
One other thing I read is that Safari West is really expensive. It's a lot less then an African safari plus no yellow fever or gamma globulin injections, no malaria pills nor concerns of ebola. I found the costs just right. The only expense I did not prepare myself for is tipping. I have to say, the staff is really wonderful. The tour guides and help all deserve to be tipped.
Although it is more expensive on the weekend, I don’t agree with anyone who thinks that is too pricey. But there are still ways to keep costs down and even more:
- Safari West offers savings on overnight stays Sunday-Thursday nights in the fall.
- AAA offers a discount.
- Safari West has "Moonlight Madness" days - check website specific days.
- On occasion you might see an online coupon.
Safari West is dedicated to raising awareness of exotic animals, promoting understanding through in-person contact, and to the propagation of endangered species. They are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and have a number of terrific educational programs for kids. There are birds and tortoises who outlive their human companions and are re-homed there but the vast majority are born at Safari West and a few acquired from other zoos. And they work on captive breeding programs for endangered species.
To book a tour, overnight stay or learn more about educational programs and conservation efforts, visit Safari West at www.safariwest.com or contact them at (707) 579-2551. Advanced reservations are require.