Sip and Swirl . . . Safari and Spa!

What happens when you combine wine, wildlife, and well-being? . . . Amazing surprises!

Safari West Resort is on the wild side.

In my wildest imagination, I never thought a road trip from Las Vegas to northern California would prove to be a trip on the wild side!

In one day, my husband Steve, and I saw endangered species, sipped and swirled fine wines, and relaxed in a world renowned spa.  Who would have thought that a sip of Chardonnay would pair so marvelously with a spot of Cheetah and a mineral bath?

For three days and two nights we camped in an authentic African safari tent at a 400-acre animal preserve called Safari West Resort in Santa Rosa, California.   All my friends know that I am not a camper.  In fact, my idea of camping is ordering room service and eating from a silver tray on 700 thread count bedding with a pay for view movie on a plasma screen television. So, when I bragged about staying in an African safari tent, they gasped in disbelief.

Home James . . . to the safari tent.

The minute our African safari jeep pulled up to take us to our cabin, we felt transported to another continent.  The jeep was immersed in various shades of mud; a wobbly stick shift ground into gear as it climbed the terrain to our cabin.

Each of the 31 tent cabins nestled along side of the road were built on stilts with wide cozy verandas.  My heart skipped a beat when my husband tapped me on the shoulder and pointed. No more than a foot from the window was a giraffe staring at us!  I looked up into her big brown eyes as she chewed on a leaf.  I’d never been that close to such an exotic creature.  And now, my cabin was a heart beat away. I’d be able to look out my window and wave to my new neighbor.  How fun!

My idea of camping in luxury.

I felt a little anxious about the camping idea, even though the splendor of such fascinating neighbors was exciting.   The tents did look sturdy, and protected . . . but camping out?  I wasn’t too sure I’d survive the night,  My camping anxieties were quickly assuaged as we entered our cabin.

All of the furniture was elegant!  It was crafted by the resort's own carpentry shop from the fallen oak trees on the property.  I let out a huge sigh of relief as I eyed the exotic hand hewn custom pieces, highly glossed wooden floor, and an award winning bathroom.  Never in my life did I think such splendor existed within a tent!   I started taking lots of pictures because my friends would never believe me.  Five star camping in the wilderness. 


Windows to the wild.

The oversized king oak bed beckoned me to snuggle and take a nap.  The Tommy Bahama-styled sheets satisfied my 700 thread count fetish but it was the cozy red electric comforter with  his and her heating controls that spelled  out L U X U R Y!  The pillows were so comfy I knew wild zebras wouldn’t disturb my sweet dreams. But the  best part of the room was the three oversized canvas windows that zipped open to reveal breath taking panorama views of the property.  How did I land in this penultimate camping experience without an airline ticket?

I guess it’s like all great adventures . . . you have a yearning desire to experience something greater than who you are . . . and voila . . . the adventure finds you!

A night of Chardonnay and cheetahs.

That night we were invited to a special guest lecture. The dining room was designed with African artifacts and murals.  It was ablaze with excitement.  A fabulous aroma of home made ranch style BBQ dinner complete with all the comfort condiments awakened our appetite. 

There were probably 60 people mingling and enjoying the local wines from the area.  We didn’t know anyone but that didn’t matter because everyone was so friendly that we started to feel like they’d thrown this party just for us.  The real magic behind the evening was the special guest, Dr. Laurie Marker, who is the Founder/Executive Director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund.  She is the Jane Goodall for the endangered species — the cheetah.  She flew all the way from Namibia, Africa to lecture on what the conservation research center is doing for wild cheetahs.

Dr. Marker, left, with the author.

Captive cheetah breeding
success at the preserve.

Twenty years ago there were more than 20,000 African cheetahs.  Now, because of the conflict between livestock farmers and cheetahs in Namibia there are fewer than 3,000 left.   But the poacher’s aren’t the only enemy to their extinction. Cheetah’s are picky breeders and their lack of genetic variation are double threats to their survival.  But thanks to Dr. Marker, who created the most successful captive cheetah-breeding program in North America, the cheetah will be around for a long time.

When I spoke with her, I felt the light in her eyes ignite something inside that I’d forgotten living in the concrete jungle of Las Vegas.   Dr. Marker’s reverence for life was not only for the cheetah’s, it was for all of us.

What a special evening!  And it didn’t stop with her lecture.  Going back to our tent we were greeted by a real jungle surprise, a torrential rain storm.  Drenched, muddy, and out of breath we laughed so hard our sides hurt as we tripped into our tent.  Thank goodness for the hot shower!   We put on our warm pj’s and snuggled under the cozy red electric blanket, listening to nature’s lullaby singing rain drops on the roof of our tent, I prayed that it wouldn’t ruin our safari trip in the morning.

Delilah, a Great Indian Horn Bill.

My prayers were answered.  Steve unzipped the three canvas windows and a bright, warm, sunshiny day spilled into our cabin.  We were burning day light so we hurried and got dressed so we wouldn’t be late.  The mist rose from the lake outside our cabin.  I could feel the excitement building inside of me as I grabbed my camera and raced down the hill to catch our private safari vehicle that would take us on a tour of the "Sonoma Serengeti".

While we were waiting for our tour guide something very odd caught my attention.  There was a handsome dark haired man with a Safari hat and camera around his neck walking around the property taking pictures of the guests.  Following his every move was this strange looking large bird with black feathers and an enormous yellow bill.  The bird hopped up and down with his every move.  I was so curious I stopped the photographer and asked him about the bird.   His feathered friend was named Dalila, a forty year old Great Indian Horn Bill.  Adrian, the photographer, was still surprised about how Delilah had adopted him his first day of work and follows him around like a little puppy dog, except she hops and is a bird. 

Hey . . . here comes the tour -
greeted by
Scimitar-horned Oryxes.

Our tour guide arrived in great splendor in an open-aired Safari vehicle.  He was a tall, dark, well built man from Johannesburg, South Africa.  He had a great accent and told us that his grandfather was a farmer and a conservationist who had taught him to hunt with a bow and arrow. Our guide informed us that he spoke several languages, including Xhosa and Zulu.  I couldn’t stop asking him personal questions because he was so interesting.

He was happy to oblige and told us that before he came to Safari West, he traveled the world recording and performing music about peace and liberty.  Now, he has his own band and performs at local schools.  I loved his passion.

Got any acacia leaves?

He then proudly introduced us to our vehicle named “ZULU".  Smiling broadly, he then introduced himself with a loud clucking sound he formed with his tongue on the roof of his mouth.  He said that was how you pronounced “Gideon” in Zulu.  I tried to imitate the Zulu sound but my tongue wouldn’t move that quickly.   So for the next three hours he was Gideon.

I felt like I was in the movie Jurassic Park as Gideon drove our vehicle through the gates.   Immediately to our right was a large giraffe that looked like a stuffed animal — he was so still.  “They’re not always this peaceful,” Gideon told us.  The males like to fight with their horns.  “ It’s called necking and the male that wins gets the lady.” 

The animals are kid freindly.

East African Crested Crane.

Gideon stopped Zulu, and handed me a couple of large leaves.  He signaled for me to hold them up high.  Within two seconds above my head was a 150 lb neck of a giraffe bending her seven vertabraes down to meet my hand while an 18 inch long, tough, sticky tongue slowly grabbed the leaves I was holding.  “Her name’s Twiga," Gideon announced.  I stretched a little taller and found myself inches away from her big brown eyes and eyelashes that were so thick and long that they looked fake.  I was mesmerized.  Gideon laughed at my love affair with the giraffe and warned me that she doesn’t always stand so still and bat her eyes.  “She can kick so hard that she can kill a lion,” he stated authoritatively.

Zulu got in gear and began to climb the muddy roads.  We passed East African Cranes that live for 70 years and are monogamous.  I learned that ostriches in Africa are called “Big Chickens", and that they can run 50 miles an hour for 50 minutes.  When Gideon weighed 145 pounds he would ride them.  The impala is a Zulu word for fast runner and one impala can have  6-10 wives.  The male impala runs away from his wife after mating.  No wonder they became fast runners.  The Cape Buffalo are the most dangerous animals in Africa and are the only animal that holds a grudge.  Gnu migrate for 1,000 miles.  They have a brain of an ostrich and a rear end like a donkey, and a face of a horse, horns of a buffalo, and the chest of a zebra.   I laughed to myself, “With those looks no wonder they travel so far away from home."

We stopped in the middle of the road and waited for another vehicle to pass that was loaded with school children.  Gideon stood up and waved to get the children’s attention.  There was a hush that came over the land and just like in the movies, an extraordinary baritone sound rose from Gideon’s throat as he bellowed the "Birth of the Lion" song in Zulu.  The children jumped up and down and shouted in excitement: “It’s the Lion King!” I had goose bumps all over me.   This jungle was alive with one surprise after another.

Zebra roam on the Serengeti . . .

Our Safari Guide,
Gideon, left.

As we crept further up the terrain, I spotted a herd of zebra’s. Did you know that a zebra’s stripes are as unique as our fingerprints?  You can never ride them because they can’t be tamed and their spines are too weak.  They get pregnant for eleven months, and two weeks after birth, they can get pregnant again!

Of the 400 species of birds and animals on the preserve, one animal became more fascinating than the next.  There were Scimitar-horned Oryxes, African Antelope, Watusi Cattle roaming freely around.  They were all just inches away from us.

But it was the walking tour of the property that left me speechless.  The birds in the aviary had colored feathers and sounds that exploded with beauty.  The cheetah habitat was where I met Kira, one of the resort's three cheetah’s.  She stole my heart at first site.  The expression on her cat face was regal and her sleek spotted body moved with the speed of the wind.  I stood mesmerized by her strength and beauty.  I now know why Dr. Marker is so passionate about her work.  Just looking at Kira made my heart beat faster.

Safari West is more than an adventure.  I think it should be called the Eighth Wonder of the World.  To view the magnificence of nature’s creatures in such a personal manner cast a surprising spell over us.   Even more magical was the deep love and compassion all the employees of Safari West expressed for the animals . . . and their guests.

Calistoga Oasis Spa

The spa is a Gold Medal recipient.

Our penultimate camping experience became complete when we visited Calistoga Oasis Spa, located in the heart of Calistoga, just minutes from our tent. We choose this place because it was the 2006 Gold Medal Recipient for Best/Spa Resort and we wanted to live on the wild side and try a mud bath.

It was wild!  Mud baths are an old Indian therapeutic tradition. They believed that the healing power of the earth was the most powerful. This mud was certainly a powerful force.  We immersed ourselves neck deep in volcanic ash, imported black peat moss, and hot spring water. I felt like a kid throwing those forbidden mud pies around as the sticky, black, heavy, and strangely magnetic substance clung to my body,  The minerals were forced to adhere to me.  It was one of those treatments that felt better once you were washed off.  That was why the mineral bath felt so amazing!  This bath was crystal clear and felt as light as air.  The water came from an ancient geyser and when the therapist added some mustard powder with essential oils, Moor mud, and Dead Sea salts, my body felt a calmness so deep it permeated every pore.

Safari West Wildlife Preserve
and African Tent Camp

3115 Porter Creek Road
Santa Rosa  CA  95404
Phone: (707) 579-2551
(800) 616-2695

The Calistoga Oasis Spa
1300 Washington St.
Calistoga, CA 94515
(707) 942-2122 or
(800) 404-4772

The two baths relaxed my muscles so completely that when the therapist gave me my massage I floated away to a heavenly place.  My husband said he received the best massage in his life from his therapist. So when you go to Calistoga Oasis Spa be sure you have all three treatments: Calistoga Oasis Spa mud bath, mineral bath, and massage.  They certainly earned their Gold Star rating!

Living life on the wild side was an incredible surprise for us.  Who would have thought that when you combine wine, wild animals, and well-being you’d find yourself in Sonoma, California, Safari West Resort, and Calistoga Spa — all in one day!

Feature by Janice Wilson, Jetsetters Magazine Las Vegas Resort and Spa Editor.


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