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CRUISE VIEWS

A Shipboard Safari in Wine Country

May 07, 2000|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH

You won't need a designated driver to go wine-tasting by yacht in Northern California's wine country. Three- and four-day sailings this fall aboard the 21-passenger Safari Quest from American Safari Cruises are short enough for a luxurious "insider's" getaway.

The cruise concentrates on fine food and wines, private art collections, shopping in Napa or Sonoma county towns, an onboard collection of kayaks and Zodiacs to putter on the Petaluma and Napa rivers and a top-deck hot tub for soaking. Spa treatments ashore and bicycles for rent are also available. Many of the places visited are not open to the public or are open only by appointment.

The yacht, formerly called Obsession and extensively remodeled since our first sailing on it two years ago in Alaska, has added four "Admiral" staterooms with sliding glass doors that open to a narrow outside deck. Although not large, these comfortable quarters are the most expensive accommodations aboard, with the larger "Captain" stateroom, sans sliding glass doors, next down in price. All cabins have twin or queen beds, VCRs and private baths with shower, and all face the outside. The five redecorated "Mariner" staterooms, the least expensive, have port lights high up on the wall rather than windows.

With its small size, spiffy decor, friendly American crew and gourmet meals, the Safari Quest is the closest thing to sailing in your own private yacht with a tiptop serving staff.

The vessel is not appropriate for children and is not accessible to passengers in wheelchairs because there is no elevator and passageways are narrow.

The Safari Quest cruises San Francisco Bay after dark, then heads north through San Pablo Bay for the wine country, sailing first up the Petaluma River, then back into the bay and up the Napa River. At each winery visited, passengers chat with the owners and winemakers and have private tastings and tours away from the crowds.

A luncheon in the cave at Schug Cellars is included, with an outdoor picnic at a St. Helena-area winery and a tasting at Chappellet scheduled on the three-day cruise, and tastings at Matanzas Creek, Artesa and Trefethen on the four-day sailing, plus a tasting and luncheon at Clos Pegase. More wine seminars and tastings continue before and during dinner aboard the yacht, where menus are planned to harmonize with the vintages.

A day and evening in Petaluma's downtown marina with time to browse through the antiques shops, a midmorning food-tasting stroll in St. Helena and a visit to the Di Rosa Preserve are other highlights on the three-day cruise. Four-day sailings add a visit to the private villa of muralist Carlo Marchiori.

As longtime Californians, we were chagrined that we had never heard of the Di Rosa Preserve, an extraordinary collection of contemporary art from the San Francisco Bay Area--1,600 works from 600 artists spread around four buildings and a vast garden on the family's wine estate.

The winery luncheons are particularly outstanding. On a test run of the itinerary last fall, a luncheon in the cave at Schug winery began with a sparkling Pinot Noir and canapes, then a smoked sugar pumpkin soup, followed by loin of pork with raisin onion marmalade, a yam, apple and leek gratin and fresh vegetables.

Breakfasts and dinners are served aboard the yacht in a pretty dining room with one open seating. A self-service continental breakfast is laid out on the bar, and there's a hot daily breakfast special of eggs and breakfast meats cooked to order. Appetizers are served with wines or cocktails in the lounge, followed by dinner, a soup or salad and a choice of two main dishes, perhaps fresh salmon or steaks grilled on deck, plus seasonal vegetables and dessert.

Public areas include a small library and reading room; a lounge with leather club chairs, upholstered banquettes with a service bar; and top-deck lounging space on an observation deck.

The cruises sail from San Francisco's newly fashionable China Basin waterfront area near Pacific Bell Park, new home of the Giants baseball team. Departures this fall are scheduled each Friday and Monday evening between Oct. 6 and Nov. 13; fares range from $1,395 to $2,495 per person, double occupancy, depending on cabin choice and date and length of sailing.

All excursions, tours and tastings are included, along with all premium wines and spirits. At the end of the cruise, only gratuities to the crew are extra.

If you want to take along as many as 21 family members, friends or business associates, full-yacht charters are also possible on dates when no individual sailings have been booked. Charter rates range from $26,975 to $41,035.

For more information or a free color brochure, call a travel agent or call toll-free at (888) 862-8881, Internet http://www.amsafari.com.

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