Saturday 14 December 2019

Wild West Arizona - bucket list perfection

Arizona, USA
Arizona, USA
Arizona Botanic Gardens
Arizona Botanical gardens

Constance Harris

All my life, I have wanted to visit Arizona, see the Grand Canyon and experience the desert.

I attribute this passion to a life-long love of Westerns: John Ford's epic, The Searchers, TV's Rawhide and The Lone Ranger.  Good versus evil, little guy versus big guy, innocence over exploitation, are always compulsive themes.

Arizona is a state with a fantastic history of frontiersmen and women, be it Native American, the preservation of heritage, the development of the railroad and hotels, photography, art, architecture and more.

Arizona was founded after the end of the Civil War in the 1880s. Physically, it is made up of vast expanses of dry plain, dramatic, rocky, mountains and lush desert plant life. There is very little water above ground, although the Native Americans did build a system of canals around Phoenix, the capital of Arizona, to irrigate their fields that are still used today.

It's impossible not to fall in love with this desert landscape with its prickly, sometimes painful, but entirely beguiling, plant life, rattlers (yes, the snakes) and scorpions.

Thankfully, I didn't see the latter two on my wanders, but the land does now live in my dreams and I definitely want to return.

The moment you get off the plane in Phoenix, the gorgeous, warm, sweet, dry, air fills your lungs and relieves them of the damp oppression of Irish weather. I now understand why so many northern Americans (Arizonians call them Snow Swallows) holiday in the state from autumn through to spring. It's a fast-growing city of only about sixty years of age and the people are friendly and open.

We stayed in the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort, a four-star, family-friendly hotel (also loved by golfers), built in the Spanish Hacienda style. It has several pools, a lovely terrace restaurant and they do a fabulous breakfast.

A great introduction to this unique land is the Desert Botanical Gardens, which we visited on our first day. After an hour of not too strenuous walking and learning, you can then feel entitled to enjoy a pretty excellent nosh up in their restaurant, Gertrude's.

A nice dovetail then would be to visit the Heard Museum, the best Native American history and culture museum I have visited in America so far and well worth a visit. I recommend you start from the first floor and work your way down to best understand the Native American experience since the white man came.

Arizona is Indian country - Apache, Hopi, Navaho, Pino - but the only one I met on my trip was the tour guide at the Heard. Did you know the Choctaw tribe raised and sent money to Ireland to buy us food during the Great Famine, because they saw us as their brothers?

The more time you spend in Arizona, the more tribes you learn of and, of the division between Native American culture and mainstream America. There are plenty of reservations (some with casinos) and you can seek permission from the relevant tribe to visit them.

Our plan was to visit the Grand Canyon and do some nice treks along the way.

As you leave Phoenix, the Sonorian desert landscape opens up to you - high-ridged mountains in a dusty, sunny, haze surround, seemingly only populated by the Saguaro, the state's iconic, very tall cacti.

We drove along route 87 to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon National Park. Passing through little towns like Pine, Bishop and Strawberry, we got a feel for small community life here. Some were very rural, dirt track type towns with general stores and little street markets of local crafts and food and where men sold dogs. It was all so far away from the 'super' retail park reality of urban America.

Along the way we visited Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, believed to be the largest natural Travertine bridge in the world. It is impressive in its formation. You can walk down the crevice and under the bridge, or take the gentle route above it.

Next, we visited Walnut Canyon National Monument, a fascinating site of sheer, mountain terraces where once a village of cave dwellers lived and farmed. The park service provide interesting information as you trek around the site about the plants that were cultivated for food and medicine and how these Native American peoples lived.

In April, temperatures in Phoenix were in the high 20s so t-shirts and shorts were in order. But two hours drive away, as you gain altitude towards Flagstaff, which sits at 7,000 feet elevation, there was snow on the mountains. With such weather extremes, I found my activity-based clothing the best solution to not packing too much. Only in the Hilton in Phoenix and the Four Seasons Resort did we see people dress up for dinner.

Arizona Botanical gardens

Flagstaff, on route 66, is a lovely and interesting town to stop in and rest a while. It's a college town, full of young people, hip, vintage and designer clothing, niche sweets, candles and spiritual stores, Native American art galleries and some cool restaurants such as Pasto Cucina Italiana.

It also has a fantastic observation centre, The Lowell Observatory, which I highly recommend as the night sky is stunning.

We stayed at the Little America Hotel, a friendly relaxed place that does a great breakfast. Around here, it is too cold for snakes and scorpions; the wild life is more likely to be brown bear, elk and squirrels, due to the lush Ponderosa forest.

Between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon south rim are vast plains, land you imagine buffalo once roamed, now stands empty except for a daisy chain of pylons. It's all blue sky and dried out golden grass.

Then, in the distance, a kind of great wall appears to rise up before you in subtle hues of pink, earthy red, blue and purple. It's the Grand Canyon.

There is much to do in the Grand Canyon National Park so I recommend you decide up front how much time you want to spend.

We walked a few short trails and visited some key sites such as the Watch Tower, at Desert View, designed by Mary Colter, and El Tovar, an historic hotel which has a local museum of the area and an excellent restaurant. If you want to experience the Canyon in depth, you can hire horses, ride down into it and stay in lodges on the canyon bed.

But the highpoint of the trip for this philistine and train junkie, was a three-hour train trip on the Grand Canyon Railway to Williams, on a mid 20th century Pullman. Order the best tickets you can get - the carriages are amazing and diverse. The most expensive ticket buys you entry to the last carriage, luxuriously upholstered, with its own private bartender and you can stand outside, at the end of the train, like in North by Northwest and make like it is the end of the world. The train was even held up by bandits. I have never been happier.

Williams looks like a quiet kind of place. Actually, it was a lot of fun as it has some mad bars and cafes. We rested in the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and enjoyed the nightlife.

Next day we drove to Scottsdale (which is conjoined with Phoenix as the two cities have expanded so much). Scottsdale was built in the days of the Wild West so it has older buildings and with it comes an old town attitude of feeling a little superior.

The main street is brimming with upscale art galleries, jewellery stores and restaurants. Chic cuisine is a big deal. We enjoyed a sublime lunch of Argentine tapas in The House Brasserie, which had just been nominated by the chefs in Arizona as their most rated restaurant.

On our last morning, we tried some kayaking and saw an American Bald Eagle. After, we went on to visit Frank Lloyd Wright's self-sufficient, planned, home Taliesin West.

For the last night of any holiday, it would be hard to beat the romantic and luxurious experience of the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North.

Fabulously set, nestling in a truly rugged, desert mountain landscape in what is fast becoming the new 'celeb' rural escape (Oprah has a house here), with its luxury spa, several restaurants, bars and pools, it was the perfect end to a trip of a lifetime.


Desert Botanical Gardens

Small, but perfectly formed, the Desert Botanical Gardens is a great introduction to the natural life of Arizona. A gentle, (all wheelchair accessible) amble around the mini-gardens of cacti, vegetables, Native American farming methods, butterfly facility and dramatic art installations should be followed by a slap up meal in their restaurant, Gertrudes, where the deserts are unusual and incredible.

Lowell Observatory

Flagstaff is a fun university town full of quirky stores, galleries and restaurants. The night sky is truly incredible there due to the lack of light pollution and elevation. The Lowell Observatory, founded in the 1890 and which still has its original Victorian, wooden construct, also houses a state of the art new, observation centre and a great visitors' interactive centre. Even if you think you aren't interested, you'll love it.

The Grand Canyon

Notice the fascinating buildings designed by Mary Colter, a visionary architect hired by entrepreneur, Fred Harvey, who incorporated Native American culture into her designs. The Grand Canyon Railway is a must if you are romantic about American rail-roads. The first Saturday of each month it's a steam train. Part of the trip is a staged hold up by a bunch of a bandits who then are chased through the carriages by the sheriff. Total fun.


Tour America offer six nights in Arizona, return flights from Dublin to Phoenix and car hire, from €1,188pp. Package includes two nights at the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort, Phoenix; one night at the Little America Hotel, Flagstaff; one night at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, Williams; and one night at the Four Seasons, Scottsdale. Price is based on February 2015 departures.

See, or tel: (01) 817-3500, REF 472839.

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