Since it was just July 4th weekend, I thought I would post about my experiences traveling in the U.S this past April. Canadians joke about America in fun, as I'm sure they do about us. The truth is, there is no wonder why Canadians flock there like birds (literally "snowbirds") during the winter months. First of all, where are you going to see palm trees and sunshine? We don't get those things until at least July in Canada. As well as the warm weather, we might not think that the U.S is a major travel destination because we're so close in proximity. Again, there are many things to see and experience that make you appreciate the vastness of the land that our neighbours to the south occupy. After much deliberation of which American destination to go to, we settled on Arizona for a one-week vacation.
When I go somewhere I like to see history and culture. Relaxing by a pool is all well and good, but the destination needs to have something memorable to see. Arizona seemed to have all of these things: history, resorts, national parks, landmarks and scenery. Where there are all of these things, there are usually many tourists. The place definitely caters to flocks of families, retirees and luxury golfers. Arizona seems to appeal to tourists and adventure travellers alike as well as the more passive travellers. We started the trip in Scottsdale, a suburb if you will, of Phoenix, Arizona. Scottsdale is where people go to be seen at the many resort pools, nightclubs, restaurants and shops, including Trader Joes. As a Canadian, I was so excited to stop in at the famous grocery store to pick up breakfast supplies.
In Scottsdale, we stayed at The Saguaro Hotel, a hip and colourful boutique hotel downtown Old Scottsdale. The area is not a cheap one to stay. This seemed to be one of the less expensive hotels even though it was quite nice. Resorts and hotels in Scottsdale cater to the rich and famous. You may have heard of the Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf Astoria hotel where Marilyn Monroe used to stay or The Phoenician, a luxury resort and golf course. When we arrived at the Phoenix airport to pick up the rental car, the attendant asked us which hotel we were staying at and I said the "Sa-gu-aro." "The what?" he said. "Do you mean, the Sah-wah-ro?" My first mistake in Arizona was pronouncing the name of the cactus famous to the area wrong. After we learned how to pronounce the name of our hotel correctly, we were on our way.
The Saguaro Scottsdale had a hip vibe and I loved the bright colours and vintage touches in our room. It had many cozy spots to lounge in outside and by the two pools. I could have sat by that pool all day every day. Plus, the location is convenient right downtown Old Scottsdale steps away from bars, restaurants and shopping. Just be careful in budgeting that you still have to pay daily resort fees on top of the nightly rate. In this case, it was $25 a day.
Among the glitz and glamour is strangely enough, an Old-town neighbourhood in the style of the old Wild West. Stores upon stores on covered sidewalks sell Western and "Indian" souvenirs. It was completely kitschy and somehow not totally unappealing. We stopped for ice cream at The Sugar Bowl, a bright, vintage looking ice cream soda shop. Despite the cheesy exterior, the area is quite full of culture and has one of the highest concentrations of art galleries in the U.S with weekly Art Walks. On our first night there, we ate dinner at Sumo Maya, a Mexican Asian fusion restaurant. Yes, a hip and bustling Mexian-Asian restaurant located in a strip mall. Only in America. The menu had a full range of different options from guacamole to sushi to ceviche and noodles; it sure stayed true to its name.
This was a vacation after all, so I was happy sitting by the pool and soaking up the heat. I know people in Arizona complain about the heat. For us Canadians, it is a welcoming warmth, especially coming from a freezing cold winter. I understand now why many people like the appeal of resorts as vacation destinations. By the time February, March or April rolls around, you are in desperate need of some rest, relaxation and a change of scenery. I liked how Arizona had all of these things without feeling like you're stuck on a resort the whole time.
I was also happy to sit on some cafe patios and drink iced coffee. We found a favourite cafe that we visited twice. The Herb Box serves fresh and innovative lunch and dinner food with healthy options with a patio right next to the downtown canal great for people watching. I would also recommend Snooze an AM Eatery for an easy breakfast or brunch option, which you will need a car to get to. Besides the few kilometre stretch of Old Town Scottsdale for walking, most places are located in malls or outside of the main downtown square, so we found a car is absolutely necessary for Arizona travel.
Scottsdale, as you can see, is only a small tucked away part of Phoenix. Although we drove around extensively, we didn't nearly see all that Phoenix has to offer. Phoenix has a population of about 1.5 million and is located in the northern part of the Sonaran desert. The city is surrounded by mountains and desert landscape. On the second day, we planned to hike Camelback Mountain, a 2706 ft mountain in the middle of city. When we got there too late in the morning, the parking lot was completely full of other people with the same idea.
So we went to the Desert Botanical Garden for an afternoon activity. The thing about planning activities there is to limit your time in the hot sun and make sure you take into account plenty of cool down time by the pool in the afternoon. I didn't mind it so much, as it was neat to walk around and see the desert foliage up close.
The Desert Botanical Garden has several trails that educate you about cacti, agave, saguaros, birds, bugs and everything you would want to know about desert gardening. You see this type of greenery all around Phoenix in the landscaping and not just at the botanical gardens. Coming from Canada, it was bizarre to me to see cacti everywhere I went. It is obviously impossible to maintain a lawn in the the desert heat, which is why many people forgo grass for sand or concrete--unless you count the luscious green golf courses.
Did you know that saguaro cacti can live to 100-200 years old and can weigh up to a ton? Cacti absorb water and also access it underground through "taproots." They then expand and contract over the course of a year as they "drink" water. Arizona also cultivates a lot of agave, plants that we now know as being used for agave nectar. Many of the different species of agave reside in the Sonoran desert. And of course, there are many succulents, one of my favourite plants.
After two nights in Scottsdale, it was on to the next destination: Sedona. Even though you have to drive to get around Arizona, road tripping is always fun. The major cities aren't that far from each other. In total, we didn't drive for more than 2 or 3 hours at a time to get to each place we went. Sedona is about a 2 hour drive from Phoenix. This guy loves doing all the driving (at least I think he does), so I can help navigate, take photos and make sure we have adequate fuel, meaning food and drinks.
As well as day trippers looking for something different than Phoenix, the area is also famous for having some kind of sacred energy known as "vortexes." There are vortex sites around Sedona that healers believe circle energy. The redness of the mountains is caused by iron oxide "rusting" over the sandstone and limestone that eroded over millions of years. One great scenic view in Sedona is Airport Rd. At sunset, hundreds of people go up there to see the red and orange light hit the colourful mountains. I would say avoid the downtown as much as possible.
That is why we stayed about 10 minutes from the downtown at the quiet Butterfly Garden Inn. Nestled in Oak Creek Canyon, we found some peace and relaxation in these quaint cabins. Don't mistake quaint for shabby, as these cabins were incredibly cozy, clean and full of amenities. There are 18 cabins ranging from one and two bedroom to full suites with kitchens. There is also a general store and restaurant attached with everything you need to for "roughing it."
In the morning, breakfast in a lovely basket with mason jars was delivered to our cabin door. The basket was full of juice, milk, cereal, pastries and yoghurt. I mean, it was like Disney-like birds carried it over to our cabin while I sung to them or something. I loved waking up to the sounds of nature feeling like we were in the middle of the forest.
The cabin was perfect for unwinding with a fireplace and a good book. One of the nights, we ordered pizza from a local restaurant and brought it back to the room for dinner. Then I was classy as usual and bought a mini box of wine from the general store. It was a nice change from a hotel for once.
On the first morning in Sedona we drove not even 5 minutes from the cabins to the entrance of the West fork trail at Oak Creek Canyon. The easy trail follows the creek as you see canyon walls of up to 200ft. Oak Creek Canyon is a river gorge that flows between Sedona and Flagstaff. You could say it is like the "smaller cousin" of the Grand Canyon. It is actually the second most popular tourist destination in Arizona besides the Grand Canyon.
We criss crossed from forested areas, to canyon walls and then back out to dipping our feet in the creek. Some people were simply sitting by the creek with picnics admiring nature. Sometimes on a vacation, you need to walk out in nature for a few hours to clear your head. That can feel even better sometimes traveling than sitting by a pool or shopping. We're not even serious hikers. Somehow we just want to walk everywhere whenever we go traveling.
After a few hours of walking, we headed back to our cabin for lunch and then back to downtown to pick up a Pink Jeep Tour. As soon as you drive up to Sedona, you will see these pink jeeps everywhere. Hundreds of people get on the jeeps every day for an off-road tour. Honestly, as cheesy as it sounds, it was fun to let someone else drive around the terrain for us. There was no way I would drive an ATV myself through some of those rough roads, even though the driver let me "pretend" with a posed photo:
The tour guide was knowledgable of the rock formations and mountain names, as well as a skilled off-road driver. It was also a chance to take a lot of photos as we zoomed by all of the mountains. Sedona was the filming location for many old Western movies and you may recognize it from those car commercials where trucks are standing at the top of mountains. Elvis even filmed a movie "Stay Away Joe" around there where he played a cattle rancher.
When you think travel destinations with hundreds to millions of years of history, the U.S might not be the first place to come to mind. Depending on who you talk to, the earth might not even have existed yet. There was an odd moment during the tour where the driver tried to test the waters with our group as to whether or not we believed the earth was more than 6000 years old. Our tour group was the two of us and a family from California, so he eventually figured out that yes, we believed the rock formations were formed over millions of years.
Whatever you believe, it is a stunning place. The photo above looks like a backdrop from a photo studio. As you will see from the rest of the photos I will post later including the Grand Canyon, there are more scenic views than you can shake a stick at. Whether you want to find them by car, hiking or jeep, they are there to explore and admire.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my Arizona trip for the rest of Sedona and The Grand Canyon. Learn more about Arizona with the Lonely Planet Southwest USA guidebook.