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Berry Tramel

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Travelblog: Five days in Arizona

by Berry Tramel Published: September 14, 2012

Time for another travelblog, after almost a week spent in the Arizona desert. Three full days on a mini-vacation at the Canyon Villas resort in Phoenix, then two days of touring the state, using the Buttes, another resort, in Tempe as a base.

I’ve got lots to say about Greater Phoenix and Arizona, which is fast rising on my state rankings, but we’ve got to start with our drive up to Sedona and what could have been one of the most dunderheaded moves in the history of travel.

Finding Sedona

The Dish and I flew to Phoenix on Tuesday. The Dish is my wife of 32 years, which is sort of weird, since she looks only 32. Some old-timer, Blackie Sherrod or Roger Kahn or somebody, wrote long ago that sportswriters always marry beautiful women. The Dish is Exhibit A.

Anyway, we went on Tuesday, and colleague John Helsley flew out Friday. Chopper asked if we wanted to drive up to Sedona that afternoon. Sedona is an artsy resort town that we always heard was breathtaking. Sounded good to us, so off we went.

The drive up Interstate 17 was gorgeous. You gradually leave the desert and enter the mountains, though you’ve still got some semblance of mountains in Phoenix and some semblance of desert in Sedona. It was wondrous weather, too; a light rain fell a good part of the day, and the temperatures were in the 70s and 80s. Phoenix had been in the 100s earlier in the week.

Anyway, you exit I-17 and drive over to Sedona on a state highway, and we coasted into town. Didn’t seem as big as I expected. Not a lot going on. Some shops, some art-type places, the Sedona Golf Resort, quite a few places of lodging. But virtually no traffic, not a lot of tourists.

But on the far side of town stood two majestic buttes. I reserve the word awesome for sights that stun you. The ocean. The Rocky Mountains. The New York City skyline. The Golden Gate. I wouldn’t use “awesome” on the buttes just outside Sedona, but whatever word is just south of awesome most definitely fits.

Anyway, we pulled into a little bakery, had a quick lunch, and the gal in the bakery said the drive from Sedona to Flagstaff was stunning. She highly recommended it. So we drove around some more, the Dish didn’t really see anything that caught her shopping fancy, so we decided to take the scenic drive.

We headed out, drove about five miles and arrived at the most stunning sight: SEDONA, ARIZONA!

We hadn’t even been in Sedona. We were in a village called Oak Creek, which was some kind of retirement community that sort of piggy-backs onto Sedona. The “Sedona Golf Resort” and “Sedona Library” threw us off completely. They are in Oak Creek, but we thought we were in Sedona.

If it hadn’t been for the girl at the bakery, we would have turned around from Oak Creek, driven back to Phoenix and thought, eh, Sedona was just OK. The buttes were beautiful, but we really didn’t see what was the big deal.

In the real Sedona, we saw what was the deal. Charming, charming town, set amid the mountains and more buttes. Fabulous views, tons of cool shops, all kinds of lodging options, people everywhere. A vibrant town.

And we took a Pink Jeep Tour. The Pink Jeep company gives all kinds of tours into the mountains and canyons. We didn’t have a ton of time, so we took a 90-minute tour of Coyote Canyon, which cost $45 per person and was well worth it. We went all over a rugged trail that seemed fit only for bears, seeing the base part of a mountain range that you can’t see from highways. We drove over creeks and along ravines and went deep into the wilderness, finally arriving at a cabin that had been built in the 1930s and is still upright, though decaying. You wonder how anyone could have built a cabin in such a spot 80 years ago; you wondered how the heck you got here, in 2012.

Among the many things we discovered on the tour was a certain kind of agave plant, which are theses incredible sturdy blossoms, 15 or 20 or more per plant, with razor-sharp points. Fall on one, our guide said, and you could die. Just like being stabbed to death. “Cowboy killer,” he called them. Of course, the next night, we discovered that Arizona quarterback Matt Scott was the real Cowboy killer.

Sedona is about 30 miles south of Flagstaff, which is on Interstate 40. We didn’t make it to Flagstaff, which I’ve also heard is a must-see place. Flagstaff, home of Northern Arizona University, is the place that gets massive snow.

Phoenix’s elevation is 1,124 feet. By the time you get to Sedona, elevation is 4,423. Flagstaff is 6,903. So Sedona’s temperature is much more moderate than Phoenix’s heat or Flagstaff’s stiff winters.

Sedona is a place I would gladly go back to. And I’m awfully glad I got there in the first place, considering how close we were to never being there.

Phoenix Fun

My only experience with a Phoenix resort has been the Camelback Inn, which is Fiesta Bowl headquarters. I’ve been to four Fiesta Bowls, and the Camelback mesmerizes me every time. It’s my favorite hotel in the world. But on this trip, I learned there is Phoenix resort life beyond the Camelback.

Back in the spring, Marriott called me, offering a three-day vacation package at a variety of resorts, if we would listen to their sales pitch. Cost would be $149 total, which certainly seemed a good deal. I knew I’d be going to Arizona for the OSU-UofA game, so I booked for Phoenix.\

And it was great. The Canyon Villas are in the Desert Ridge area of northeast Phoenix – I think it’s northeast, I get turned around in Phoenix – and are a Marriott Vacations resort. One- and two-bedroom condos, in a desert setting. Totally, totally relaxing.

Great amenities, with access to the JW Marriott Hotel and Spa, just down the road. Lots of stuff for kids, a serene setting for adults looking to unwind and the Wildfire Golf Club on site, with two courses, one designed by Arnold Palmer and the other by Nick Faldo. My wife spent an afternoon at the JW Marriott spa and said it was fabulous.

The Marriott sales pitch was tempting, too. The Marriott time-share system is owner-friendly – you don’t own a piece of a particular condo, you own the right to stay at any one of hundreds of resorts, with the length depending on how long you stay. It’s a points system. We didn’t buy, because it’s not a good time for us. But it’s something I’d certainly consider at some point.

I don’t mind those sales pitches. I always learn stuff, and I like learning stuff. One of the things I learned is the busy season of Phoenix tourism. And it’s most definitely not now.

We left Canyon Villas on Friday and checked into The Buttes, another resort. This one is in the middle of Tempe, not five miles from Sky Harbor Airport and less than that from Arizona State University. Chopper booked us there and got a great rate, $114, because of the time of year.

The summer, which includes September, is the down time in Greater Phoenix. Too danged hot for most people, although frankly, didn’t seem that bad to us. It was 102 degrees on Tuesday but didn’t seem as hot as back home.

The peak season for Phoenix resorts is February and March. Tourists love the weather at that time, and baseball fans flood the city for spring training. Greater Phoenix now is the spring home of 15 major league teams; that’s up from just eight a decade ago. Five franchises have moved their spring operations from Florida and two more have moved from Tucson. The Cactus League is a huge tourist attraction, with 1.59 million fans attending spring games in 2011.

The Buttes resort sits hard next to the Los Angeles Angels’ complex. We walked out of our room, strolled less than 100 feet and had a good view of the Angels’ main field in Diablo Stadium. From there, we could have watched a game with ease.

The Buttes is a fascinating place. It’s an old resort that was bought and refurbished by Marriott. It’s nestled among two buttes in the middle of Tempe, right next to Interstate 10, but driving past, you’d never know it was there. When you get into the resort, it’s like you’ve been transported outside the city. Even walking outside, you have to work to find evidence that you’re in a metro of four million people.

Hot tubs are strategically placed in the side of a mountain, the pools are hidden, too. Just a charming place.

Mall adventures

The Dish has traipsed around doing stuff with me enough, I thought it only fair that I follow her around a little. So we spent an afternoon Scottsdale Fashion Square, a huge mall. Think Penn Square, only tripled.

Malls are interesting places, though from the inside they all look the same to me, as long as they are void of vacant shops and arcades.

Here’s what struck me about Scottsdale Fashion Square: plenty of workers. Every shop seemed to be well-staffed, and everyone seemed to be well-trained in friendliness and service.

Sometimes, we think we have the corner on that in Oklahoma, or at least in our part of the country. Not so. The good folks of Arizona acquit themselves quite well, too.

Rookie mistake

I did something on this trip I hadn’t done since 1993. I failed to pack underwear. In March 1993, we flew to Kansas City for the Big Eight basketball tournament, and after checking in to the Hyatt Regency, I discovered my error. I figured a trip to the store would be in order, but I didn’t make it that first day. So the next morning, I put on a pair of gym shorts under my jeans. That night, Missouri upset OSU, meaning I’d be headed home the next morning. So I flew home commando, courtesy of the Cowboys.

There was no such improvisation this week. I went to Super Target on Day One.

Television woes

I had another Saturday morning of college football watching. Remember in El Paso, I could Notre Dame-Navy at 7 a.m. Mountain time. This trip, I could watch all those 11 a.m. kickoffs (Oklahoma time) at 9 a.m. Phoenix time.

Alas, my cable at The Buttes did not have FX, so I couldn’t watch Kansas State-Miami. That’s the major downside to the Big 12′s Fox-heavy contract. Hotels are slow to add Fox cable affiliates. They load up on ESPN – the deuce, classic, U, news, they’re all available. But FX, Fox Sports Net, not so much.

Otherwise, the Fox contract is fine. The FX games are national. Some of the Fox Sports Net games are national. The Fox prime-time game, over air, is national. That’s excellent exposure compared to, say, the Big Ten Network, which lots of people don’t have and don’t want.

Good eats

I’ve been to enough Fiesta Bowls that we now have our favorite places to eat.

Grimaldi’s, a New York-style pizza place with a big-time Greek salad and scrumptious thin-crust pizza. We went twice.

The Italian Grotto, in Old Town Scottsdale, where they serve my favorite seafood pasta ever. The sauce is too thick, so it avoids the richness that can turn your stomach into cement, and not thin, so it avoids splattering all over your clothes.

And My Big Fat Greek restaurant, which is just a traditional Greek place that we really like.

Gas, Food, Lodging

We drove down to Tucson on game day, with no spare time for sight-seeing. For good reason. Tucson is not much of a place to visit.

I’d been there before, in 1988 for a baseball regional, and didn’t remember much about it. But the 90-mile drive, southeast of Phoenix, was nothing like driving to Sedona. Desert all the way.

I saw a movie years ago called Gas Food Lodging, about some small New Mexico town that was just a freeway stop in the middle of nowhere. That’s what the drive to Tucson was like. Nothing charming, nothing to see.

Tucson itself I’m sure has some nice parts, particularly out around the small mountain range that rings the city. But you don’t see much driving around the University of Arizona.

The difference between Phoenix and Tucson is stark. Tucson is a big place, 800,000 metro or so, but just nothing much stands out.

Remember when the Oklahoma schools were dancing with the Pac-12, and some of the talk was all the great destinations in the Pac-12, with only Washington State a dud? Wrong. Tucson belongs on the list, too.

I came away from the trip having a better respect for the toughness of the Arizona job. Competing against two schools in LA, two in the Bay Area, two not that far from the Oregon coast, one in Seattle, one in Phoenix, one in Salt Lake City and one just outside Denver.

And then Tucson, which is much closer to Gas Food Lodging than it is to those shining locales in the American West.

In the ‘Zona

Other things I noticed or learned about Arizona I hadn’t discovered before:

* All the municipalities seem to cooperate on architecture. All the colors of buildings have to coordinate with the desert. Lots of Earth tones.

* On the drive to Sedona, we went through Yavapai County. If that name sounds familiar, it should. In 1977, OSU hired Gary Ward as baseball coach, jump-starting a glorious career. Ward was hired away from Yavapai Junior College.

* Phoenix loves it some roundabouts. They’re starting to encroach into Oklahoma, as you know. Seems like a very exasperating way to get people to slow down.

* Saw something I’d never seen before. On the drive to Sedona, we found a Sonic, so I could get my daily cherry root beer. This Sonic, right off I-17, was part of a Chevron station.

 

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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