Even in Texas, winter’s frequent blasts of chill-you-to-the-bones weather easily accommodate thoughts of traveling somewhere blissfully warm. A good choice is Arizona, the land of wondrous red rocks and desert landscapes.
On a recent trip, we split our time between Sedona and Phoenix, and were quite surprised by the different vibes encountered at each locale. They seemed much farther away from each other than they are.
From the Phoenix airport, Sedona is about a two-hour drive — a bit more if you hit Phoenix’s formidable rush-hour traffic. Sedona is known for its arts scene, gorgeous red rocks and a population of spiritually oriented folks — both residents and visitors — drawn here to view or “experience” the effects of Sedona’s four mystical energy vortexes, which many claim have energizing, magical effects.
It’s a must in Sedona to explore the desert and its scenic red rocks, whether by hiking, mountain biking and driving or by taking a sightseeing tour.
Named the Airport Mesa Vortex, Cathedral Rock Vortex, Boynton Canyon Vortex and Bell Rock Vortex, they are described as energy fields in the Earth’s surface and subtle energy centers.
In addition to the usual T-shirts and postcards found in downtown shops, Sedona has an abundance of New Age offerings like crystals, candles, chakra beads and aura photos — the last, taken with a unique camera that supposedly depicts the “energy field” of the person, may be analyzed later by spiritual advisers.
Art lovers find many galleries here, some with really fine work and fine prices to match. The pink-stained walkways of downtown Sedona also have a delightful smattering of statues of mother-and-baby javelinas (wild peccaries native to this region), courtesy of a Javelinas on Parade benefit from a few years ago that was a joint project of the Sedona Arts Festival and the Sedona Chamber of Commerce. My favorite: the “Have-Aloha” pair dressed in Hawaiian shirts and leis.
A rocky time
It’s a must here to explore those red rocks, whether by hiking, mountain biking, staying at yoga retreats, driving or, as we did, getting around by Pink Jeep. Pink Jeep Tours was founded in 1960 and is a U.S. Forest Service permitted company — the only commercial outfit allowed on the off-road trails in the Coconino National Forest surrounding Sedona.
On its most popular tour, the Broken Arrow, our Pepto-Bismol pink jeep climbed over huge boulders and naked rock faces, sometimes at a 45-degree angle, while we oohed, aahed and screamed. The two-hour tour took us to the aptly named Submarine Rock and tumbled us down the “Road of No Return,” during which we held on tightly to the handrails.
Pink Jeep also offers longer excursions, like a tour to the Grand Canyon, just two hours away, and a Touch the Earth vortex tour, plus others that include horseback rides and hikes.
For independent touring, it is mandatory to buy a Red Rock Pass, available in daily, weekly or annual rates. These are available at the Visitors Center in town as well as at many hotels, stores and trailheads, and range from $5 for a daily pass to $40 for the Grand Annual pass.
Many visitors take a half-day or so to visit Cottonwood, a once-dilapidated town about 20 minutes from Sedona that is now thriving and gentrified, with many award-winning wine tasting rooms (yes, Arizona has a big wine industry), cute shops and bistros.
Here, an unusual, relaxing and very pleasant way to spend an afternoon is with the Alcantara Vineyards Water to Wine river trip, a joint venture with Verde Adventure Tours. We paddled in inflatable “ducky kayaks” for about an hour down the very green Verde River, gentle rapids moving us along, and finished up at Alcantara’s tasting room for a wine celebration.
During our outing, children wading in the river waved to us and we saw an enormous honeycomb hanging from the canyon walls. Sometimes, the guide told us, paddlers see javelinas or bobcats, although we weren’t so lucky.
Nearby, another attraction is the former ghost town of Jerome, once a mining town of 15,000 and now a quaint hillside village with artsy boutiques, antique stores and galleries as well as fabulous views of the Verde Valley. Note: This is NOT a place for those who can’t walk well up steep hills.
The next day, we watched as the red rocks diminished and the towering saguaro cacti increased as we headed south toward Phoenix. Gradually, our expansive desert views merged into the suburban sprawl of the city’s metro area, and we marveled at how this huge city grew from having just 65,000 residents at the end of World War II to being one of the most populous cities in the nation.
South of Sedona, Phoenix offers golf, shopping and outdoor dining, as well as world-class museums dedicated to art and history.
Phoenix has a wealth of golf courses, tennis courts, water parks, shopping malls and outdoor patio restaurants — all of which you might expect to find in a man-made desert oasis. In some areas, the greenery is so lush that it’s easy to forget that, sans irrigation, it would all be reduced to cacti and weeds.
But Phoenix is also known for having a selection of outstanding museums, among them the Heard Museum of American Indian art and history, and the Phoenix Art Museum.
My personal favorite is the Musical Instrument Museum, a place with a name that misses its mark in terms of conveying the splendid interactive experience you’ll enjoy there. It’s like a trip around the world, only through music.
Open five years, MIM has a fine concert hall with excellent acoustics, plus an “experience room” where visitors try out instruments — don’t miss the Paraguayan harp. There’s also an artists’ room that pays homage to famous musicians of all genres — from Enrico Caruso to Elvis — as well as huge galleries of international exhibits.
I was thrilled by one area in which I stepped from a klezmer exhibit to one on zydeco to another on the blues. The museum gives visitors special headsets that provide an audio segue into each exhibit. Besides seeing the instruments and reading the information, you’ll hear the music of each country or region.
Offerings include fantastic ancient footage of Delta blues musicians from the ’20s playing on their earthen whiskey jugs and a live performance by Celia Cruz.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that MIM is the No. 1 attraction in Phoenix on TripAdvisor, and is on its list of the top 25 museums in the nation.
Wetting our whistles
Phoenix is also home to neighborhoods rapidly becoming “cool” with the young crowd. One of those is the Yard — once a gas station and now home to three wildly popular restaurants that share a common patio, replete with awnings and comfy garden sofas and chairs.
Arizona is also becoming a hub for craft breweries, wineries and distilleries.
Barrio Urbano, already a hip spot for authentic Mexican food in two other locations, just opened its newest branch here. At lunch, one can get in easily and enjoy a quiet meal with guacamole prepared with pomegranate seeds, overstuffed tortas and specialties such as chiles en nogada — all served in a colorful, welcoming venue.
Arizona is also becoming a hub for craft breweries, wineries and distilleries. One of the most unusual offerings is the Arizona Distilling Co. in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, which makes Desert Durum Wheat Whiskey, the first grain-to-bottle whiskey in the state made with Sonoran durum wheat. (It won a silver medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year.)
Fun fact: Durum wheat is such a big crop in Arizona that much of it is actually exported to Italy. Tours are offered to the public, with tastings of the whiskey and the other gin, whiskey and moonshine products made by the distillery.
Grandeur amid mountain views
We got a taste of both history and glamour at the splendid Arizona Biltmore, opened just months before the Great Depression, situated at the base of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve and dubbed the “Jewel of the Desert.” Owned for decades by the Wrigley family (of chewing gum fame), it is famed for its Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architecture and is a Waldorf Astoria Resort now.
Some 6 million textile blocks in 40 designs adorn the buildings, and six concrete “sprites” (designed by Lloyd Wright) are placed artistically in the gardens amid orange, lemon, banana and other tropical trees and flowers.
Visitors often take advantage of the location to hike nearby, and I followed suit, spending an early morning with a knowledgeable guide who took me up Piestewa Peak. The challenging, steep climb delivered on the reward of panoramic views of the city and a case of wobbly legs afterward.
When heading to the airport and facing the inevitable return to reality, it was easy to reflect on southern Arizona’s many charms. A quick flight from chilly winter to southern Arizona’s desert scene buys a sunny dose of warmth, complete with opportunities to play golf and tennis as well as hike, shop, swim and find your “aura.”
If you go
Getting there: American, Southwest, Delta and Spirit all fly from DFW to Phoenix daily.
- Pink Jeep Tours: The company offers various tours, starting at 1 1/2 hours in length. 800-873-3662; www.pinkjeeptourssedona.com.
- Sedona Red Rock Tours: This is one of the few companies authorized by the U.S. Forest Service to take visitors out on the rocks to the vortex sites to do spiritual work in the heart of the energy field. A wide variety of tours feature yoga, chakra, medicine wheel, reiki, hiking, psychic work and more — or simply take the standard Sedona Vortex Tour. 928-282-0993; www.sedonaredrocktours.com.
- Wine to Water: Kayak tours on the Verde River last about three hours. River time is approximately 1 1/2 hours, followed by wine tasting at Alcantara Vineyard for about 1 1/2 hours. Launch times vary with the season. 877-673-3661; www.sedonaadventuretours.com or www.verdeadventure.com.
- Musical Instrument Museum: Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, with special evening events. Admission ($10-$20) includes the use of headsets, but visitors can bring their own. 480-478-6000; www.mim.org.
Where to stay:
- Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock: About 5 miles from downtown Sedona. Features Sedona Golf Resort Championship Golf Course, designed by Gary Panks, and the Sedona Athletic Club, with fitness and wellness classes. Eforea Spa offers signature treatments with indigenous ingredients. 928-284-4040; www.hiltonsedonaresort.com.
- Arizona Biltmore: Well-situated near downtown Phoenix and mountains. Its 39 acres include lavish gardens, eight swimming pools, two golf courses, a spa and salon, and acclaimed restaurants. 602-955-6600; www.arizonabiltmore.com.