A safari in Sonoma? Bring it on

California’s wine country may be the last place you’d expect to find wild animals roaming the hillsides, from giraffes to zebras. But after exploring the Northern part of the Golden State for the last two weeks, my kids knew better than to be surprised by anything.

A Safari in Sonoma? Bring it on.

We had come to Safari West on a rainy, frigid January day, to see the animals that hadn’t crawled into a cave or barrel for warmth. And there were more than our guide Adrian expected to find.

Safari West is a 400-acre preserve located about halfway between Calistoga and Santa Rosa. It’s not a traditional zoo, but considers itself a wildlife preserve where the whole family can experience hundreds of exotic animals up close.

But our adventure began in the oversized giraffe stables, where two of our kids were invited to feed a very friendly male Masai Giraffe. Our youngest daughter was too scared to go into the barn, so she stayed outside and watched her two older brothers offer slices of banana and carrot to the inquisitive animal.

From there, it was a whirlwind tour of the rest of the enclosures – the aviary, where a gaggle of colorful birds flew around the netted area – the surprisingly sociable cheetah, which talked to the kids in short mews.

We boarded a jeep and Adrian drove us into the Sonoma hills, where we saw a variety of free-roaming creatures, including ostriches, gazelles and wildebeests. I’ve never been on a real safari, but this one took us close enough to the animals, thank you very much.

At one point, as we passed through a herd of cape buffalo, which is also called “Black Death” in Africa, I began to wonder if the safari thing was such a good idea. The African variety, it is said, kills more than 200 people every year – more than any other animal on the continent. One buffalo got close enough to our jeep to almost touch it.

“Do they ever ram the vehicle?” I whispered.

“No,” said Adrian. “The most they’ve done is brush up against it.”

Thankfully, we survived the encounter. And apart from the giraffe-phobia from which my daughter suffered, the kids all loved the safari. If you go, try to pick a day with good weather. The vehicles are open, so mud and water can make the ride a little uncomfortable. Even so, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

For a very different “animal” encounter, we checked out the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. Our kids didn’t grow up reading Peanuts in the Sunday paper (OK, they didn’t grow up reading the paper at all), but Mom and I did, and Schultz’s work is easy to connect to. And no character latches on to you faster than Snoopy, the beagle who sleeps on top of the dog house.

“Why does he do that?” asked Aren, my oldest, looking at oversize plastic model of the dog on the house.

“No one knows,” I said.

Indeed, after wandering through the relatively new exhibits – the museum opened in 2002 – you still feel as if Schulz is something of a mystery. Here’s a guy who woke up every morning for more than five decades and drew America’s most popular comic strip. But watching video footage of how he created “Peanuts” you are no closer to understanding exactly how he did it. Maybe he was just a genius.

There’s plenty for kids to do at the Schulz museum, from interactive exhibits to an art studio on the second floor where they can draw their own cartoons. For adults, there’s a recreation of the cartoonist’s studio and a wall mural he painted for his daughter. You can grab lunch at the Warm Puppy Café in the nearby Redwood Empire Ice Arena.

Sonoma doesn’t have a reputation for catering to families, but with attractions like Safari West and the Schulz museum, that’s changing.