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Calistoga Compromise

Castello di Amorosa winery in Calistoga.

We had 24 hours to spend in Calistoga with our seven-year-old son. I wanted to plan something that would be fun for him as well and my husband and I at the same time. It was such a fun getaway for all, I thought I’d share it with all of you.

Our itinerary was set – lunch at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena on the way to Calistoga, wine tasting and a tour of the castle at Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga, “camping” and safari tour at Safari West and lunch the next day at Gott’s Roadside on our way out of town the following day.

Lunch at Cindy’s Backstreet was a treat! The food was delicious and the restaurant quaint and cheery. I love a varied menu that fits whatever you’re in the mood for. We had stuffed roasted peppers, baked oysters, out-of-this-world cornbread, mushroom tamales with chard and a duck burger with fries. Even though this is a real grown-up restaurant that challenges your taste buds, they had a great kids menu as well. We were all happy with full bellies and my chef/restaurateur husband couldn’t have been happier. The dessert menu looked killer, but we were off for our castle tour.

Baked oysters at Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen.

When you pull off of Highway 29 at the Castello de Amorosa sign, you quickly enter a large gate guarded by lion gargoyle statues. I knew right then that we’d made a good choice for our sword-wielding son.

Even though this is quite the tourist spot, the place is so huge that you never feel like you’re in a crowd. We felt like we had our own adventure in this mammoth castle that was built in 2007. Even though the castle is quite impressive as you first see it, only 1/3 of it is above ground. The $32 per person tour takes you in all of the rooms and below ground. You see where the mostly Italian-style wine is made and stored as well as a weapons room, torture chamber and much more.

At the end of the tour, your group of 12 is taken into one of many small tasting rooms. The adults choose the wine you want to taste (included in the tour price) and the little ones (Logan was the only child in our group) sit at a separate table with color crayons and medieval drawings and sip grape juice. Logan was thoroughly entertained throughout the entire tour and tasting. It was a perfect compromise.

You're free to wander the grounds at Safari West.

After the castle, we were off to Safari West just off of Petrified Forest road that runs in-between Calistoga and Santa Rosa. It’s a windy little drive with hills and trees that hide the safari adventure that waits. There are a lot of surprises at Safari West and I don’t want to ruin the adventure by telling them all, but here is the info that will help you plan your trip.

I highly recommend staying overnight in one of the luxury tents. They’re high off of the ground overlooking giraffes, flamingos and more with hardwood floors, big comfortable beds with heated blankets and full bathrooms. They all have front porches with a table and chairs, so bring snacks and enjoy! Check-in is from 3-5 p.m. every day.

After you check-in, a staff member will drive you and your luggage to your tented room in a Jeep. After a quick tour of the room and ice for the ice chest, you’re left alone to wander the property, visit the animals, snack at the base camp snack bar, or just lounge in your room.

We had made plans to eat at SolBar in Calistoga, but found out from our friendly Jeep driver that there is a nightly BBQ at the restaurant at base camp that he said was great. We gave Logan the option since he was in love with the place as soon as he stepped onto the property. He voted for staying for the BBQ and we’re glad we did. It was a full spread with great food, and we’re food snobs for sure. We brought our own bottle of wine and ate community style with the other campers. After dinner you get to roast marshmallows around the fire, then go for a catfish feeding at the small lake on the property. Be sure to make your dinner reservations when you make your room and safari tour reservations as they fill up quickly. We were lucky and were able to get in, but some were turned away.

We found out the hard way that there is no cell phone service, no internet, no phones in the room. Had we known we would have taken care of business before we arrived, but it was a nice break and Logan loved our undivided attention.

We chose a morning safari tour the next day when we thought it would be cooler for us and when we thought the animals would be active, and it was a good call. The animals were running and playing. You load up 12 per safari jeep. Three to four people can ride on the top, the others are shaded on elevated seats below. There isn’t a bad seat and it felt like being on the Indian Jones ride without the blow darts and Indie. You tour the 400 acre property and visit the animals in their enclosures. The really dangerous ones are always behind fences, but others wander right up to the jeep for attention.

It can be expensive (rooms run from $150/$175; dinner is $29 for adults, $17 for kids; safari tours are $68 per adult, $30 for kids) but it was so worth it to get this kind of adventure so close to home. Our son asked several times while we were there if we could return soon and we agreed to come next year with a group of our friends. The stay was comfortable, the staff was great and the animals made it quite the adventure.

After our tour we headed out of town and finished up the trip with burgers, fries and shakes at Gott’s Roadside. Our son wasn’t too upset that our Calistoga Compromise was over as we surprised him with Giants tickets for that night and headed to SF for two more day of fun…

Roasting marshmallows after dinner at Safari West.

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