SALINAS, Calif. -- I hadn't stayed at many bed-and-breakfasts where arriving guests are treated to a thorough foot licking -- OK, none, actually -- until I hung my hat at Vision Quest, a nicely situated hideaway near this agricultural hub, about 45 miles south of San Jose.
Minutes after we arrived at our room, the staff brought around an amenable young gentleman named Eli, who tended to my insteps and toes with the loving dedication of an enthusiast. It was California, after all, I reasoned, and such things are possible, if not exactly expected. Eli turned his attention from my left foot to my right, and I relaxed, sort of.
My wife, meanwhile, was having a good laugh at my expense. Eli was a serval, a small, leggy, African wildcat with a spotted coat, large pointy ears, and an intensely alert-looking face. In the wild, servals hunt by crouching in tall grass and springing up to pluck birds out of midair. Eli appeared capable of all that and more, but at the moment he was busy dragging his sandpapery tongue over my toes.
When he tired of my feet, he popped up onto the railing of our porch, surveyed his domain, then sat down on the rail and began grooming himself. Not bad for an official greeting.
Every guest at Vision Quest Safari Bed & Breakfast receives a similar welcome, whether from Eli or another animal, and those human-critter interactions are part of the enormous charm of the place. The B&B is part of Vision Quest Ranch, a 51-acre facility that includes kennels, an equestrian center, and Wild Things, a collection of more than 125 birds, animals, and reptiles that are used for film and television work, and educational programs.
Guests can meet Chloe the sloth; Tarzan the python; Tucker the camel; a zebra named Bojangles; a lynx named Gretzky; a trio of African elephants named Butch, Buffy, and Lisa; and Josef, the lion who was the live model for Disney's ''The Lion King."
Charlie Sammut founded Wild Things in 1982 and moved the enterprise to Vision Quest Ranch 11 years ago. He opened the B&B three years ago.
''More and more movies are being made out of the country, and there's less work for anybody involved with the industry," Sammut says. ''Being in Monterey County, we thought we might be able to tap into the tourism business. The B&B has kept us afloat through times when a lot of other companies went under."
Guests encounter not only the animals, but also Sammut's mission to instill in them a respect and appreciation for wild things great and small.
''We provide an avenue where you can interact with animals without having them as pets," he says, adding that many of the animals were rescued after beginning life as pets. ''People come because they can actually touch an elephant, and because it's as close as you can get to being in Africa without actually going to Africa."
Susan LaPorta-Beal of Bakersfield visited the ranch recently with her husband, Ken, and their three children, ages 13 to 20. She, too, draws the Africa parallel -- ''It all feels so open and unobtrusive and natural," she says -- and was struck by the ease with which guests could make connections with the animals: ''There wasn't the distance between us and the animals that I expected; it felt very personal."
My wife and I had arrived eager to see animals, but not sure what to expect.
Forget the cliches of typical B&Bs, with their Victorian pretension and cutesy clutter. At Vision Quest, the accommodations consist of four large platform tents (known as ''African bungalows") overlooking a 5-acre open-air elephant playground, complete with watering hole. Despite, or perhaps because of, their canvas walls and ceilings, the roomy bungalows feel downright plush.
Each features a shaded porch, wood floor, a full bathroom, and hotel-style extras like a TV, VCR, refrigerator, coffeemaker, iron, and hair dryer. Our bungalow, called the ''Big Cat House," included a king-size bed and feline-inspired decor that managed to remain tasteful.
The view from the porch was expansive. We watched transfixed as the adult elephants, Butch and Buffy, roughhoused, kicking up clouds of dust, while Lisa, the youngster, sat on a boulder practicing one of her trained behaviors, lifting a foot while holding her trunk against her imposing forehead. A group of ostriches promenaded near the elephants, ignoring them. To the east, we could see vast fields of lettuce and broccoli in the valley. Behind us, to the west, rose the softly contoured Toro Hills, covered in scrub oak.
As we watched the elephants, another Wild Things staffer came up the path leading a rambunctious young male kangaroo named Elvis. Unlike Eli, the roo wasn't interested in us or our feet; what he mostly wanted to do was demonstrate his burgeoning boxing and kicking skills on his keeper, who attempted to keep him at arm's length while explaining the workings of Wild Things to us. Finally, when Elvis's pestering became too much, she gave us an apologetic smile and led him away.
''It's his dinner time," she said, as Elvis hopped behind her.
Later that night, we heard Josef the lion issue a rumbling growl from the big-cat enclosures at the base of the hill. The sound was impossibly deep and strangely liquid, nothing at all like I had heard in movies, and it sent a chill through me. Josef chuffed and rumbled through the night, making the air vibrate, and I loved it.
Morning dawned bright and hot -- and there was Lisa standing at our porch, offering us breakfast in a picnic basket that she clutched in her trunk. The coffee and pastries were for us, but the apple was for her. She took it gently from my wife's hand with the tip of her trunk, and munched it as we stroked the leathery skin of her forehead. Lisa and her elders were rescued as part of the Elephants of Africa Rescue Society, a group that works to preserve wild elephant habitat and care for the endangered animals in captivity.
Butch and Buffy came from a petting zoo in South Carolina; Lisa came from a circus in Texas.
''A lot of the ranch is run as a means to support the elephant project," says Sammut, one of seven EARS directors. ''Whatever money we make goes right back to caring for the animals, or acquiring others. Right now we're looking at two elephants awaiting rescue. We have the barn space. We're just a donor away from making it happen."
The elephants were especially memorable for the LaPorta-Beal clan, as they are for a lot of visitors. On their second day at the ranch, the family took the half-day ''VIP Tour," one of several ''full-contact" packages available to B&B guests. They met more than 30 animals up close, including Eli the serval, Brandi the bear, and a leopard named Domino, as a Wild Things keeper described in detail the animals' habitat, hunting strategies, and personalities. The tour concluded with an invitation to bathe the elephants.
''It was just the five of us and our guide," says Laporta-Beal. ''We got our buckets and brushes and went to work, and the elephants loved it. I was amazed by how acccepting they were of us -- they're so massive, but they weren't intimidating at all. It was overwhelming, actually. Here are these wild creatures, yet we're able to have this connection to them. It just shows that you can make a difference with any creature you encounter. If you respect them and give them the care they need, they can thrive."
Contact Scott Sutherland at firstname.lastname@example.org.