Friday, August 1, 2008

A Hopeless Romantics View of Arizona

The Grand Canyon State

When traveling in Europe last spring I learned something interesting. When locals asked where I was from and I said "The US", they just responded with a polite "oh". America's esteem over the past decade has gone from lofty to a big swirl downward. Anyone that says otherwise, well they simply don't travel. 

When I said I was from Arizona, however, they immediately smiled and said "Cowboys!" or "The Grand Canyon!" Tensions in the world may ebb and flow, but the world is in love with the mystique of the American Southwest. 

So here is what I think is special about my home, Arizona. I'll start at the top of the Copper State and work my way down.

The Top of the State

• The Grand Canyon and the Lands of the Navajo
OK, its big, its deep, its wide. Yep the most visited landmark we have is the Grand Canyon. Lets be clear, despite what the Las Vegas Visitors Commission would like you to believe, it is now, and will always be, in Arizona.  

The Canyon (rightfully) tops everyone's "you must go here" list. My family and I went there just after the World Trade Center. It was the best place imaginable to clear our heads after the national tragedy. 

A trip to The Grand Canyon can be a drive along the south rim, a walk over that goofy glass overlook (not my cup of earl grey), or the full meal deal (make reservations a year in advance) then hike down to the bottom with a stay at Phantom Ranch. To the hikers I tip my glass of vino (from El Tovar at the top).  

While at El Tovar ask a ranger where the condors are (they frequently nest along the South Rim). Nothing prepares you for the majesty of these creatures. Also, at the South rim be sure and take in Architect Mary Colter's masterpieces: Hermits Rest, El Tovar, Hopi House, and The Watchtower.  

I would be kicked under the table if I didn't mention that many Zonies contend that the best Canyon experience is from the more remote North Rim.

While up north, consider a visit to the Hubble Trading Post, Havasupai Falls (reservations required), or Canyon de Chelly. Google em for more data.

To some, no trip to Northern Arizona would be complete without a motorcycle trip down a stretch of Route 66. To others, it is a raft trip down the Colorado River. For me, it is spending a night or two at the La Posada in Winslow.

• Mary Colter's Legacy
Despite passing away nearly fifty years ago, Ms. Colter left the southwest a timeless legacy of architecture and romantic imagery. She designed everything from the china for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, to a necklace of marvelous Fred Harvey hotels strung from New Mexico to The Grand Canyon. Of those hotels, she frequently expressed a special affection for the La Posada Hotel in Winslow. In fact, a year before her death, when the Santa Fe Railway threatened to demolish La Posada, she remarked to a friend that she now realized that there was a time "when one realizes they have lived too long".  Now run by a husband and wife team the hotel offers beautiful rooms and gardens, and a great dining room: The Turquoise Room.

Even today, since the hotel owns the Amtrak station, the Southwest Chief stops directly in front of the hotel twice a day on its run from Chicago to LA.

• Stargazing in Flagstaff and Bike Trekking to Sedona
Before you start south here are couple of other options to consider. First, spend the night in Flagstaff (zonies just call it "Flag") so that you can go take a look through the historic telescopes at the Lowell Observatory. Forget fine dining in Flag it is a typical college town. Restaurants rely on half interested student workers so the service is spotty. Or as one snotty barista sniffed at me at the local "late for the train" coffee spot "we don't do sugar-free in our lattes". He then proceeded to talk on his cell, get the order wrong, and undercharge me. I felt no obligation to correct or tip the twit. There is, however, a Dairy Queen in Flagstaff (I love chocolate dipped cones, so I always keep track of the location of DQ's).

In the summer consider making a bike trek from Flagstaff to Sedona. It is an all day event, mostly downhill, and drops you thousands of feet in elevation. For the route check in at Cosmic Ray's Bike Shop in Flagstaff (Cosmic Ray's bike book is the best guide to mountain biking in AZ). The route to Sedona uses logging roads and winds up with a final descent down breathtaking Schnebly Hill zig zagging back and forth past the pink jeeps touring through Sedona's amazing red rocks. Then spend the night at any Sedona hotel with a spa! If you'd rather not take a bike, make the drive through the beautiful Oak Creek Canyon.  Maybe take a dip at the sliderock! 

• Sedona to Jerome
Sedona is said to have special cosmic properties "the vortex" and all. I think its all horse crap myself. But do stop for a moment and take in Anshen and Allen's gem: the Chapel of the Holy Cross nestled in the rocks overlooking Sedona. Try your best to ignore the monster house some whack nut recently built below the chapel.  It desecrates the chapel and nature in general.

From Sedona I heartily suggest diverting to Jerome. Jerome is the tenacious little mining town that cycled from virtual ghost town in the fifties, to thriving arts colony today. After a stop for lunch (it will be made by a genuine old hippie wearing birkenstocks, who baked the granola bread, and it will come with sprouts etc.).

Now given my choice I'd travel over Mingus Mountain to Prescott for a stay at the Hassayampa Inn. The easily walkable town square in Prescott is bordered by the notorious bars of Whiskey Row.

• Beautiful Wind Bells and on to Phoenix
After leaving Prescott point the car to Phoenix. Along the way you can stop at Paolo Soleri's ant farm: Arcosanti. The altruistic idea behind Arcosanti has not been realized despite Soleri spending a lifetime convincing a never ending stream of architectural students to work on it for free. The only reason I'd stop would be to buy something in the bakery or one of the wonderful arcosanti wind chimes (tip: you can also buy them in Phoenix if you'd rather not stop).

Central Arizona

• Phoenix
As you approach the Phoenix metroplex the size of it becomes overwhelming. Now the fifth largest city in the US it has been growing and (sadly) chewing up virgin desert at the rate of an acre an hour for most of a decade. 

When contemplating the Phoenix Metro area think of it as a compass. The middle of the compass is central Phoenix downtown.

The far west side of the northern half of the compass is bounded by the White Tank Mountains and all of the "Sun Cities" (age restricted communities) along with the rapid growing cities of Glendale (Luke Air Force Base, antique shops, and the Cardinals stadium - imagine a big titanium wart in the middle of nowhere) and Peoria. 

The far east side of the northern half of the compass is bounded by the MacDowell Mountains, the Salt River Pima Indian Community, Scottsdale (Snottsdale - see also references to La Jolla and Rodeo Drive) and Carefree (ditto). This is where all of the plastic surgeons that missed out on Beverly Hills and/or Palm Springs came to nip and tuck. Here, you can stay in any one of a number of Mobil 4 and 5 star resorts while being blinded by humans with frighteningly bleached smiles. This is also the land of the mega Scottsdale Fashion Square mall that borders the new Scottsdale "waterfront" (translation: slightly odiferous irrigation canal). It is also the realm of amazing cars. Eurocars (usually convertibles) that carry Scottsdale's freakishly augmented women donning their amazing variety of hubcap earings. The men folk in Scottsdale frequently are on a permanent mid-life crisis (for proof see how many have a big old Harley in the garage). Scottsdale residents are all color coordinated and hide in the guard gated communities that line Scottsdale and Pima Roads. Personally, aside from the amazing annual Barrett-Jackson car auction, I avoid anything northeast of Camelback mountain like the plague.

The west side of the southern half of the compass includes the huge South Mountain Park and the sprawl of Buckeye, Tolleson, and Litchfield Park. Here you will find Nascar Heaven (PIR - Phoenix International Raceway). Another place I avoid.

The east side of the southern half of the compass. Aside from ASU and Mill Street in Tempe there is simply nothing in the South East quadrant but trailers, interspersed among Mesa's lovely old citrus groves, bounded by middle class sprawl, more malls, and the high tech industry.

• Phoenix: The Highs

Despite its sprawl, I happen to love Phoenix. It is very well run, has amazing diversity, and doesn't take itself so damned seriously. Some of its highlights are:

The Arizona Biltmore and Wrigley Mansion
This is the hotel that started it all before the depression. It brought Frank Lloyd Wright to the Southwest. He was retained as a "consulting" designer instead of the architect. This commission occurred just after Wright's mistress and her children were axe murdered by a mental case domestic at his estate in Wisconsin while he was in Europe. Hence, it was too controversial for anyone to hire him as an architect at that time. So we all say the hotel was "inspired" by Wright. However, one walk through the hotel and you can see his "inspiration" everywhere. Above the Biltmore is the white fantasy Wrigley Mansion built by Mr. Wrigley as a 50 year wedding anniversary gift. Now because of the covenants on the Biltmore lands it is a private club. Keep in mind anyone can join it for a few bucks and dine there enjoying its sweeping views. Now part of Hilton's Waldorf Astoria Collection, the Biltmore's new owners recently announced plans for a $300 million dollar rehabilitiation. So the old lady will likely rejoin the Camelback Inn as queen of desert resorts.

The Phoenix Burton Barr Central Library
This is Will Bruder's masterpiece. Clad in punched copper, yet built for an incredibly low budget, it creates lofty spaces. Once the library was complete housing prices in all of the historic neighborhoods surrounding it experienced percentage price increases far higher than nearly anywhere else in the metroplex.

Downtown Museums
Downtown Phoenix is (finally) coming into its own. Twenty years ago it was a wasteland. Today Downtown and North Central Avenue are home to the new emerging University of Arizona Medical College, the new Children's Museum, Antoine Predock's startling Arizona Science Center, the Trans-Genomics Institute (T-Gen), the newly expanded Phoenix Art Museum, the historic Orpheum Theater (my favorite with its moving clouds on the ceiling), the wretched Dodge Theater (way ugly), the Herberger Theater, newly revamped Symphony Hall, the Baseball and Basketball palaces, the new Convention Center, and the amazing Heard Museum (American Indian history, art, and craft presented beautifully). 

All of this is soon (December '08) to be reached by a slick new light rail system. Suburban naysayers may whine, but Downtown should now be included on anyone's visit. While there, plan to wait in line for a pizza at Pizzaria Bianco (a James Beard winner).

Papago Park
Here is where you find the wonderful Desert Botanical Garden and the Phoenix Zoo. If you happen to visit around Christmas fight to get ticket to Los Noches de las Luminarias. This event sells out every year, so plan accordingly. Los Noches is one of the only times each year when the garden is opened at night. During Los Noches it is filled with musicians and is illuminated solely by thousands and thousands of paper bags filled with sand and candles called luminaria.

This year (November '08 to May '09) the garden will also feature a show by the Pacific Northwest glass artist Dale Chihuly.

Hiking Piestawa Peak
Reportedly the most hiked urban trail in the US, this is the trail you take to the top of Piestawa Peak. The views from the top are amazing. I always want to strangle the people that can run up and down (as I wheeze along in my near death experience). Of course, the real hardcores think Piestawa is too easy and hike Camelback.    

The Cactus League
Every year the baseball teams come back to the Valley of the Sun like swallows to Capistrano. Cactus League is always a time of perfect weather and wonderful baseball. This is where baseball's stars come back to earth. Here they are still approachable and your kids can walk up and get autographs.

• Phoenix: The Lows

Tempe Town Lake
Well, not really in Phoenix, this is not just merely the worst idea ever, it is sort of the worst of the worst. Like our fake man made "lakefront" communities, it is merely a mosquito breeding ground. This giant evaporation pond serves no morally justifiable purpose (heck, you can't even swim in it!). It does, however, illustrate one of Arizona's most progressive cities complete arrogance about water conservation in the desert. Luckily, nature always wins and the Town Lake's silly rubber blow-up dams are deteriorating faster than anticipated, so Tempe will once again have the opportunity to abandon this folly. (Update Summer 2010: Oh those big blow-up doll dams finally gave up the ghost - letting the town lake meander down the dry old salt river bed. Tempe now has a giant semi-moist town lake bed, showcasing it amazing shopping cart reef building activities. Of course the collapse has led to a heroic level of governmental finger pointing. Sadly, the bozo's in Tempe City Hall have vowed to rebuild the dams and recreate this disaster of the desert once again. I'll keep rooting for nature!)

Urban Sprawl
Comparing towns like Gilbert and Chandler with their "modern - can't get anywhere without blowing gallons of gas, while chewing up acre after acre of land", city planning to the swift moving traffic in urban Phoenix with its simple compact cartesian grid streets is testament to how wrong car centric "pedestrians be damned" city planning really is. Now that gas prices are rising, we are seeing much more dense development and significant changes in planning concepts. Hopefully we will see an easing of the relentless sprawl.

The Flippin Heat
OK, lets be honest, summers in Phoenix are hell. We are the surface of the sun from June till September, stay away. That "but its a dry heat" stuff is pure bull. After 105 days of temps over 105° degrees, you just want to do something mean. 

• Food and Hotels
Food: A few suggestions:
Durants (This one is old school - red flocked interior - luscious steaks and seafood)
El Bravo on 7th Street (Neighborhood hangout - slow service - sit anywhere - amazing vegetable green corn tamales & Navajo tacos) 
The Barrio Cafe (Oh the housemade pomegranate guacamole!)
Lon's at the Hermosa (The most beautiful "special event" restaurant in Arizona)
Hana Sushi (A neighborhood sushi bar proving you can get terrific sushi even in the desert!)
Corbin's Bar and Grille (The neighborhood hangout in North Central, great food, huge martinis)
Bombero's Wine Bar (A focus on South and Central American wines)
Postino's (The other wine bar - yuppies on toast points)
The Vig (One of Ralph Haver's mid-century modern banks updated into a fun restaurant complete with indoor bocce ball on 16th Street) 
La Grande Orange (Great market with wood fired pizza)

Hotels: My Picks
The Hermosa Inn (Old Arizona)
The Maricopa Manor B&B (Classic B&B in Central Phoenix, close to everything)
The Sanctuary on Camelback (Hip, zen, pricey)
The Pointe Hilton's (huge lazy river pools for the kids)
The Arizona Biltmore
The Camelback Inn
The Twin Palms
The Hotel Valley Ho
Any of the Mega Star Resorts

Southern Arizona

• Tucson

When people drive through Tucson without stopping they get the impression from Interstate 10 that Tucson is a dump. In reality Tucson is marvelous.  It has a beautiful and historic barrio neighborhood, numerous terrific resorts nestled in the Catalina foothills, swimming at Sabino Canyon, the stunning San Xavier Del Bac, the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, and the marvelous Arizona Inn.

Of all of Tucson's attractions, the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is by far the place no one should miss. It is a botanical garden, zoo, and museum rolled into a harmonious package. In the summer they open it a few weekends at night. This is a completely magical place. I especially love the river otters and the hummingbird aviary.

Tucson has a bit more altitude and has not suffered the urban heat island quite as bad as Phoenix, so it cools down at night. It makes Tucson a much more livable city than Phoenix Metro.

Leaving Tucson we head south and east.  Destination Kartchner Caverns. Although found in the seventies, the location of this seven acre cave system was concealed until a commitment was secured to preserve it as a living cave. To do this a series of airlocks and trails were installed. Since then various sections of the cave have been opened to the public for tours.  With 99% humidity these caves are uniquely alive, but all that humidity makes it like a quick trip to Miami.  To keep the cave healthy and living, tour groups are limited and reservations are recommended.

After visiting the caverns, our final destination is Bisbee.  

You go through Tombstone on the way. Yes it is the "OK Corral" Tombstone. So stop if you'd like to take in this little relic, then keep on trucking to Bisbee.

Now, nothing really prepares you for Bisbee. You drive miles on a flat-as-a-pancake highway, then you go through a tunnel and Bam!, hanging precariously on the sides of a steep hill, is Bisbee. Bisbee is sort of like Jerome, except it never died.  There are wonderful old hotels like the Copper Queen, galleries, and some pretty good restaurants (don't miss Cafe Roka).

Heck, be adventurous, rent a vintage airstream trailer for the night at the Shady Dell!

This hardly scratches the surface of my state, and I freely admit I've missed huge sections, but it hits the parts I love, and you can find the rest on your own!  Come, explore and find the things you love.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

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