California Weekend Getaway: On safari right here at home

There are sounds of the jungle just outside your tent's thin canvas walls — the incessant birds, the occasional shriek by creatures unknown, the rustling of trees. You're frozen in place under your warm blankets, not anxious to stick your head out of the tent door because you don't know what might lunge at you from the darkness. It sure would be good to have that bear gun cocked and loaded — but of course, you don't.

One reason you don't is that the owners of Safari West really frown on guests bringing guns along on their weekend getaways to this unique outpost just a few miles outside of Santa Rosa. The other reason is that none of the wildlife you hear during your overnight stay is going to get you. All the really dangerous animals are fenced off or caged.

By day, Safari West is a beehive of activity with numerous day visitors and tours, especially on weekends. By night, Safari West turns to black with absolutely no outside lighting to spoil the illusion you are in Africa. Guests are advised to bring flashlights if they plan to walk the grounds after dark. But the creature sounds make it clear you are not alone and we're guessing most people just hunker down after dark.

The accommodations do lend themselves to just that. They're cozy and inviting and when we say tents, we really mean tent cabins that are tent walls erected over a solid foundation that comes complete with an indoor bathroom and shower. The big beds are warm and luxurious and the layout inside the cabins is really quite comfortable. No television or radio, but there are hardwood floors, a few shelves and benches and reading lights. What else do you need when you are on safari?

Checking in at the main gate around 9 p.m., we were greeted by a person who seemed like the only living soul on the premises. He quickly and helpfully packed our belongings onto his Jeep and drove us to our tent cabin, one of a few dozen spread throughout the property. He loaned us flashlights, which came in handy for an exceedingly brief walk around the grounds before settling in for a night in the wild. The sounds were constant and came mainly, we were told, from a particular type of bird.

The next morning we awakened to a fuller sound — it was like the evening animals had been playing as a quartet but, by morning, had been joined by the full orchestra. We walked out our front door and the first thing we noticed was two giraffes, side by side, directly across the road from us, doing some sort of mating ritual or play thing with their necks.

We hopped on board one of the Safari West tour vehicles to be driven out into the farthest reaches of the park where we would observe wild animals in their own habitat doing their own thing.

The park contains 85 species of animals and 700 individual animals roaming on more than 400 acres of hills and forests. The mammals are all native to Africa, while the birds come from different places all over the globe. There are no lions, tigers or bears, but there are cheetahs, lemurs, zebras and many other fascinating species.

The owners of the park are Nancy and Peter Lang. Peter has a connection with animals dating back to the television shows his father, Otto Lang, once directed. Those shows included "Sea Hunt," "Daktari" and "Flipper," among others. Peter met Nancy while on an African safari and, at the time, she was the curator of the San Francisco Zoo's avian collection.

The Langs chose to locate Safari West near Santa Rosa because the weather is ideal and the combination of forest and grassland is quite similar to Africa. An added bonus for visitors is that the Santa Rosa area is well known for its high-quality wineries.

Guests who stay overnight at Safari West also have dinner and breakfast on the grounds — although we arrived too late for dinner. The continental breakfast is plenty to get you going and the park also serves up sandwiches and other lunch items.

There are other things to do while you're staying at the park. You can make arrangements to get private access to the animals or to attend educational presentations. Swedish pressure-point massage is offered and you can even go hiking with Nancy Lang around Watusi Lake.

But most of all, an overnight trip to Safari West is about the overall experience of being in the wild, sleeping with the animals almost like you would if you were on an African safari.

AT A GLANCE

WHAT: Safari West provides an unusual opportunity to visit and spend the night with wild animals and will appeal to visitors of all ages.

WHERE: Santa Rosa is 55 miles north of San Francisco on Highway 101 and is in the heart of Sonoma Wine Country.

WHEN: Any time of year. Be prepared for much cooler weather in the winter; the rains can be intense at times. Tours still go out on rainy days, but dress accordingly.

WHY: This is a family attraction that is both educational and easy to reach, and staying overnight at Safari West will make you feel like you're a million miles from civilization.

HOW: For more information on Safari West, visit http://www.safariwest.com or phone (707) 579-2551.

For more information on travel in California visit http://www.californiaweekend.com.

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