Discovering the South West – Arizona

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It’s been two months since I got back, and yet the memories of these 3 weeks of road trip across the American Southwest are still so fresh that I just have to close my eyes to be there again.

We chose to travel through the area starting with Arizona, then southern Utah, Colorado and finally New Mexico. A region with very diverse landscapes, where you can go from snow to heat in just a few hours. We chose to go in March because it’s off-season (which means fewer people everywhere, more attractive prices, but also that some places are still partially closed for the winter), hoping that the weather would be kind of spring-ish. And we did well! I’ll tell you more in the next blogposts, but we’ve experienced pretty much all the seasons during our trip, and looking back, I think we’ve had very few days below 15-20 degrees Celsius.

Three weeks on the road is long: it puts your relationship and your wallet to the test, not to mention the lack of sleep, the 7000 kilometers of driving and the not-so-healthy food options. But every day we saw so much beauty that any negative experience was instantly forgotten. And I miss it, so much! The natural red, green, yellow landscapes, the black cows, that feeling of freedom to go wherever you want, whenever we want…

And at the risk of getting even more nostalgic, today I’m finally sharing my stories with you! Let’s begin with the first state on our route: Arizona!

 

We landed in Phoenix, the capital of Arizona, a metropolis in the middle of the desert. The city is your typical American megatown, but in a nicer, chill version – I guess sunshine truly makes people happy!

In total, we spent about 48h in Phoenix, and we managed to do and see a lot. I really loved it, but for the sake of keeping the length of this blogpost under control, I picked my top 5 – in order of occurence:

vovomeena

© Vovomeena

After a short first night of sleep in an average motel, we were up at dawn and hungry as hell. Before we went to bed, we had spent about fifteen hours between airports and planes, exploring a ‘cuisine’ based on calzones served in cardboard boxes and tikka masala in a tinfoil tray. Needless to say, we wanted the first meal of our vacation to be something good, simple, appealing – or anything as long as it wouldn’t come from a chain restaurant that serves reheated chemical stuff.

vovomeena

© Vovomeena

A little search on Yelp and Foursquare tipped us Vovomeena, a small restaurant specializing in breakfast and brunch, with squeezed fresh juices, decent coffee… exactly what we needed. We sat on the terrace and enjoyed our simple and tasty meals, which allowed us to start our first day in a great mood. I apologise for my gluttony, as I did not even take the time to photograph my plate, but luckily I found a very appetising picture of the dish I had on their Facebook page, which should give you an idea of what you can expect!

 

Arizona Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

After a solid breakfast, we went to one of the main attractions of the city of Phoenix – the Desert Botanical Garden: quite a particular garden for us Europeans living in a temperate climate, as it features an incredible variety of desert plants. Cacti of all kinds, aloe vera, yuccas… a real paradise, only a few dozen minutes from the center, where you can get lost half a day and enjoy the idyllic setting.

Arizona Phoenix Desert Botanical GardenArizona Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

The only downside was the price ($25 per person), but personally I thought it was worth every penny. It’s a pretty unique experience, so if that’s your thing, go for it! A little advice to potential visitors: plan it rather in the morning, because the temperatures go up very, very quickly, and there’s not much shade up there. Walking through the aisles and climbing the hill by 25 degrees is great, with 15 more it quickly becomes a pain in the ass.

Arizona Phoenix Desert Botanical GardenArizona Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

 

  • Scottsdale

scottsdale-az

© TripAdvisor

Do you know Parks and Recreation, the TV show? Remember Eagleton, the neighboring clean and fancy city? Well, Scottsdale is the same, but for Phoenix. Modern and luxurious buildings, a mall with white marble floors where you can find all the best luxury brands, a golf course, fancy SUV’s everywhere, parks with so much greenery that your brain forgets for a second that you’re in the middle of the desert, gourmet restaurants with cute private terraces… admittedly, it can sometimes be a little tacky, but to be honest, it was just a very nice place to wander and enjoy the sunrays (and the AC).

 

On our last day, we still had a morning to kill in Phoenix before we had to catch our plane. What to do? Sleep? Wander in the center? Go out of town? Meh.

But when the name Castles N ‘coasters popped up on Trip Advisor, we immediately looked at each other with the same excited look in our eyes: a morning date with mini golf and arcade games? Yes, please! What could be more fun to finish a 100% American trip?

 

Phoenix Castles Coasters

If you spent your childhood in front of Disney Channel like I did, you can imagine the satisfaction of finally being able to experience a completely over the top mini-golf course (with cascades, Far West saloons, castles and of course, the mill at the last hole). Oh and I won 💁🏻 which makes it even better (sorry babe).

After our mini-golf session, we went inside the building to play some Time Crisis, defend a family against 3D zombies and try to beat the high scores on the ‘Addams Family’ pinball.

A third part of the park has attractions, but we didn’t explore it (we had 20 hours of traveling ahead, and no particular need to find ourselves upside down already 😅).

It’s such a great memory, we had a lot of fun! It’s a great activity regardless of your age, and also perfect if you’re looking for something to do with the family.

 

 

Cibo Phoenix

© Cibo

After our adventures at Castles N ‘Coasters, we headed to the city center, as we hadn’t had the chance to see it yet, and the Phoenix airport happens to be pretty much in the middle of the city. We both wanted to have a good last lunch before embarking on our adventures of airports and planes, and as I had been begging for a week for some good pizza, we went to Cibo, apparently one of the locals’ favorite spots. Valet, patio, bottled sodas (it may seem stupid but I don’t think I could’ve handled another ‘fountain drink’ anymore at this point)… this place takes care of the customer, and is yet very unpretentious. The menu is simple, but everything looks delicious! And most importantly, it is one of the few places in the area where you can eat real pizza. No, it’s not as good as ours, but it was very close and in any case, it worked on me! Again, blinded by my hunger and impatience, I didn’t take a picture, but their Facebook page is filled with this kind of appetizing visual aid:

Cibo Phoenix

© Cibo

 

But back on topic. After a first night and a short day of discovering Phoenix (and a burger at In’n’Out, duh), it was already time to hit the road. To start off smoothly, we booked a night in a ‘Tiny House‘, which is a small wooden RV, located on a Verde Valley campground, just outside of Phoenix. As the listing was completely new on Booking.com and had no reviews yet, we were not sure what to expect. So we trusted the few pictures and we were not disappointed at all, quite the opposite actually!

Arizona Tiny House Verde Valley

Every Tiny House has a lovely view of the valley behind and its own little terrace with a BBQ, so after dropping off our luggage, we went to get what we needed to enjoy these perks! A bottle of wine and a few sausages later, we attended the first sunset of our trip with a huge smile on our faces. The Tiny House is compact (ok, it’s really tiny, but at least that was clear from the start) but well-equipped, clean and the two of us felt like we had enough space.

The next morning, our jet lag woke us up to enjoy the sunrise and a good homemade breakfast before getting on the road again to meet Arizona. Beyond the stunning landscapes along the roads, on that day we discovered two places that have remained particularly engraved.

The first, which you’ve probably already seen on TV and such, is the famous Chapel of The Holy Cross, a church of exceptional architecture perched in the red mountains of Sedona. An impressive monument, which we apparently weren’t the only ones to want to visit seeing the amount of cars that were competing for the few parking spaces nearby. We didn’t stay long, and headed to our next destination, but the view from the road below was already quite impressive.

 

Arizona Chapel of the Holy Cross Sedona

Finding the ‘Grand Falls‘, located in the Navajo county, wasn’t a piece of cake. Once we arrived in the immense rock and sand plains, off the paved roads, we basically had to rely on our instincts. Our different GPS’s did not agree with each other, there were no signs to be seen and we had seen very few other cars, when finally we stopped by a road … and heard the sound of the falls! From there, we followed the river and found the point of view, which was really impressive (the photo doesn’t do it justice, sorry, but it was really wow!):

Arizona Grand Falls

But beyond the falls themselves, what I liked most was the road to get there. A surreal landscape (you truly feel like you’re on Mars!), a raw sun that strikes like never before on desiccated plains where the only way to drive is offroad (we were very happy we picked an SUV)… such a unique experience!

Arizona Grand Falls

A few hundred kilometers and a short night’s sleep later, we got up at dawn (again), this time to admire the sunrise over Horseshoe Bend, another must-see monument that we had unfortunately not had time to visit during our trip to the Grand Canyon 2 years ago.

It was so beautiful, the light was indescribable! We could see the line drawn by the sun gradually gaining territory over the shadows, while the moon was lingering in the pink sky, and the heat was getting up at a crazy pace. It’s a great view, and a perfect way to start the day (especially when you’re not totally on the right timezone). Obviously, once the sun was up, we went back to the hotel for a splash in the pool and a deluxe breakfast!

 

Arizona Horseshoe Bend Paige sunrise

For the afternoon, we had planned a guided tour of Antelope Canyon, a park that belongs to the Navajos. There are two parts in Antelope Canyon: Upper Canyon, which is the most renowned and most visited, is located at ground level and is known for its many sun beams. The Lower Canyon, meanwhile, starts at ground level and sinks gradually to several meters deep. It is more difficult to hike (although perfectly feasible for a relatively fit person), and some places are very narrow and dark. Both canyons are accessible only with guided tours, so if it’s sold out for the day, you are screwed, my friend. Take us, for example, careless travellers who did not book in advance: when we decided to make our reservation, all visits to the Upper Canyon were fully booked. Luckily, there were still a few spots available for the Lower Canyon (which, by the way, cost less than half the Upper) at Ken’s Tours and … wow! No regrets. I guess the Upper is even nicer, but this was already pretty breathtaking (and it’s also the time when my iPhone kindly started telling me that it had no space left, oops) .

Arizona Lower Antelope Canyon

I must have taken over 200 photos and they all look gorgeous – but to be fair, the rocks and the light do all the work. And you know what?  It’s even more beautiful in real life. The tour was interesting and safe, although it was a bit too crowded for my taste. All in all, I think we spent an hour in the canyon, but count 30-45 minutes extra to arrive in advance and check in for your tour.

Arizona Lower Antelope Canyon

Alright, I think that’s enough for today! I hope I gave you a good overview of what we did in Arizona, if you go there and have the time, I strongly recommend you to add the Grand Canyon (see my blogpost dating 2015) and the city of Williams to your planning as well, they are well worth the detour.

In the next blogpost, I’ll tell you about our 3 days at Zion National Park, our stopover in Bryce Canyon and our night in Monument Valley!