California’s wine country beckons adults with its tasting rooms, posh restaurants and bed-and-breakfast inns - three things that rate a big fat zero with kids. (And, frankly, the feeling is probably mutual). Contrary to popular belief, however, you don’t have to leave the kids behind to enjoy Sonoma and Napa Valley. Here are two kid-friendly spots in wine country that will keep families fascinated.
While some of the cars on this historic train serve formal, white-tablecloth meals, the Silverado car offers kid-friendly lunch fare (ribs, sandwiches) with a Western theme. With the windows open to let in the gorgeous Napa sunshine, we cruised through 25 miles of wine country from Napa to St. Helena and back again.
The Silverado car is casual, but not rustic, with wood paneling polished to a high sheen, even fluffy cloth hand towels in the restrooms. The atmosphere is relaxed, however, with plenty of chatter and background music by Johnny Cash to fit the car’s cowboy theme.
As we watched mountains and historic chateaux roll by, the whole family laughed our server/tour guide’s tales of wacky Napa lore. Food-wise, we’re a tough crowd: A vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish, one who does, and an omnivore who’s allergic to dairy. We had no trouble ordering off the menu and enjoyed our meals tremendously. The kitchen can accommodate special requests, however, with advance notice.
After lunch, our servers invited us to explore the train, which the adults and kids in our car alike were eager to do. We loved peering through the windows into the three kitchen cars – at one point, we even walked straight through the middle of one of them on our way to see the train’s engine. “Are you sure this is OK?” I squeaked to one of the chefs. Diners who trespass in a typical restaurant kitchen risk the chef’s wrath, but the workers smiled and waved us through as they went about preparing dessert.
We peeked into the Vista Dome, an elevated car crowned with domed windows, then made it to the end of the train in time to see the engineers disconnect the engine and turn it around in order to re-attach it on the other end of the train for our return trip.
In nearby Santa Rosa, we found a truly wild place to rest our heads for the night: A 400-acre luxury tent camp in the middle of a savannah where giraffes, rhinos and antelope roam. Safari West is home to more than 800 African mammals and birds, many of them endangered and some extinct in the wild. While our accommodations looked like a tent on stilts from the outside, the room resembled a luxury hotel on the inside, with gorgeous furniture, electric lights, running water and a full bathroom. Unlike a hotel, however, our view was of giraffes placidly strolling and hummingbirds flitting through the flowers just outside the screen windows of our canvas walls.
Communal gourmet dinners are served around the outdoor fire ring at the Savannah Café, where we chatted with other families and our son dashed off to climb trees with his new friends. Then it was time for a nighttime walk to the pond to gape at the huge catfish there, then back to the fireside for a marshmallow roast before turning in.
After a far more comfortable night’s sleep than I’ve had in many hotels, we headed out for a morning jaunt on a double-decker safari truck. Driving through the rolling hills and meadows of the complex, we saw the fearsome Cape buffalo, watched herds of antelope race across the savannah and marveled at the massive horns of Watusi cattle. Our tour also included a guided walk through the preserve’s enclosures, where we cooed at the impossibly adorable fennec fox, laughed at the antics of the crested porcupines and admired the graceful cheetahs. An open-air aviary offered close encounters with whistling ducks and iridescent crowned pigeons. Tours are available without an overnight stay, but the thrill of drifting off to sleep high in the air with the sounds of African mammals and birds drifting through the night air is truly worth the splurge – and far cheaper than a trip to Africa.
Thanks to Safari West for providing a discounted media rate and to Napa Valley Wine Train for hosting us.
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Alisson is a freelance writer and journalism teacher based in Florida. Her first trip out of the country was to the Bahamas at age five, where she told everyone who would listen that she was from another country. No one was impressed, but the trip did leave a lasting impression of the transformative power of travel. Her writing appears in National Geographic Traveler, the St. Petersburg Times and mental_floss as well as newspapers, magazines and web sites in the U.S., Canada and Australia.
Located: Gainesville USA
Likes: outdoors, family travel, Florida, off the beaten path