Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tucson, Phoenix and the Grand Canyon

Whew! We’ve just returned from a whirlwind week-long trip to Arizona where we visited Sue’s cousins, Ed and Nancy (in Tucson) and her sister, Ellen (in Phoenix), with side trips (in no particular order) to the Grand Canyon, Montezuma Castle National Monument, the Sonora Desert, Gates Pass, the Cactus Forest in Saguaro National Park, Sabino Canyon, the Coronado National Forest, and the Phoenix Zoo (to mention just the high points). It was a terrific experience, even if absolutely exhausting!

Ed and Nancy's House in Tucson
For starters, Ed and Nancy are extraordinary hosts and Nancy is not only a wonderful cook but a great tour guide as well. Moreover, their territorial style house on the edge of the Sonora Desert (where we stayed for three days in Tucson) is a veritable museum, boasting outstanding collections of everything from Navaho sand paintings to apothecary jars, from lobster claws to ballet memorabilia, from sea shells to musical instruments, and from rugs and carpets to photos from their extensive travels (to the Galapagos Islands, New Zealand, and most places in between). As a launching pad for our trip, it couldn’t be beat.

But perhaps I’d better start at the beginning.

Since we weren’t able to book a direct flight from New York to Tucson, we did the next best thing: we flew out of La Guardia Airport to Dallas Fort Worth on the morning of Saturday, October 16, connecting in DFW for the second leg of our trip to Tucson. Both segments were uneventful (the best kind of flights to be on!) and both arrived ahead of schedule. An auspicious beginning.

Ed and Sue in Ed's 'Backyard'
Ed met us at the Tucson airport and drove us to his home - the sprawling 2500 square foot “museum” (I mean “house”) described above – and then escorted us in our explorations of his environs all the way down to the “wash” behind his house, while Nancy began preparations for dinner. Sue and I were astonished by the lush foliage surrounding their home; we never imagined cacti came in so many different varieties or in such abundance but if we weren’t totally disabused of that misconception immediately, we surely were by the end of our trip. By the time Ed, Sue and I returned to the house proper, Nancy’s marinated steak was ready for grilling (I guess that Ed has to get some credit for preparing dinner too since it was he who actually grilled the steak). The bottom line: the meal was superb, we were tired and we sacked out early.

Ed and Nancy in Their 'Backyard'
By the time we awoke the next morning (Sunday), Nancy already had prepared tuna fish salad sandwiches (with walnuts and cranberries) for a picnic lunch. By picnicking, she explained, we wouldn’t have to waste time stopping to eat at restaurants, it would be more economical, and it would be more fun. And it worked, enabling us to visit the Sonora Desert, Gates Pass, and the Cactus Forest in Saguaro National Park, stopping for our picnic lunch I forget just where.

Saguaro and Other Cacti
The Cactus Forest is awe-inspiring. As a Northeastern city kid, I always imagined that the deserts of the western United States were sort of like the Sahara with an odd cactus poking up here and there. Boy was I wrong! The saguaro cacti are massive and overwhelming, like a tribe of giant extra-terrestrials, rising as much as 75 feet in the air and living for a century and a half or longer. Encountering them for the first time is quite an experience.

That evening, Nancy went on a chef’s holiday: Instead of preparing dinner herself, she and Ed accompanied us to dinner at Mi Nidito, the renowned Mexican restaurant in Tucson which has played host to such celebrities as former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Julio Iglesias, Bruce Babbit, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Rich Little, William Shatner, Beau Bridges, Fran Tarkenton, Jimmy Smitts, and now us. The food (and the margeritas) were excellent. I had the “President’s Plate,” consisting of a Bean Tostada, a Birria Taco, a Chile Relleno, a Chicken Enchilada and a Beef Tamale; I figured if it was good enough for the President, it was good enough for me and it was. And for $12.75 it was an exceptional deal. If you get to Tucson, make a bee line for Mi Nidito.

After dinner, Nancy took us on a brief tour of downtown Tucson. And back to their house. And so to bed. A long day culminating in dreams of saguaro cacti.

In the morning (Monday), we discovered that Ed and Nancy had arranged for us to have a brunch of bagels, lox and cream cheese, lest we suffer withdrawal symptoms upon being away from New York for more than two days, I suppose. And we had another full day’s activities scheduled, including a drive to Sabino Canyon and a ride on the tram in the Coronado National Forest. Somewhere along the way, I also was directed to pick up a National Parks Senior Citizen Lifetime Pass. This is an extraordinary deal and one which any senior citizen should be sure to avail himself of if he has any intention at all of ever visiting any national park. The pass costs just ten bucks and is good for a lifetime, not just for the year. And it then gets you into any national park free. And not just you, but everyone else in your car (if admission is by vehicle) or for three more people in your party in addition to yourself (if admission is by individual). A real bargain.
Nancy was up to her old tricks again that night and prepared a great shrimp dinner for us. I was beginning to understand why people retire to Arizona

The next morning (Tuesday) we rose very early to drive to Phoenix to pick up Ellen en route to the Grand Canyon. We brought along another batch of bagels, lox and cream cheese to eat for breakfast in the car. And turkey sandwiches for a picnic lunch somewhere.

Montezuma's Castle
After picking up Ellen, we drove on to Montezuma Castle National Monument. With my National Parks Senior Citizen Lifetime Pass, entry to the monument cost the five of us a total of just $5 instead of $25. So I already was realizing a profit on my $10 investment and we hadn’t even gotten to the Grand Canyon yet.

When we finally arrived at the Canyon in the early evening, we checked in to the Maswik Lodge and then briefly hiked a short distance along the South Rim. (Incidentally, entry to the Canyon, normally $25 per vehicle, was free with my National Parks Senior Citizen Lifetime Pass; the profits on my $10 investment were increasing.) When night descended, we returned to the lodge for an evening snack from the cafeteria in the lodge. It had been a long day and we all turned in.

View of the Canyon From the South Rim
We arose early again on the following morning (Wednesday), breakfasted in our rooms on coffee and banana bread (which Nancy had baked before we left Tucson), then boarded the free shuttle bus which circled a segment of the South Rim of the Canyon. Nancy, Ed and Ellen had seen the Canyon before but for Sue and me, it was our first time – and we were truly overwhelmed. We’d seen photographs of the Canyon, of course, and we’d heard descriptions of it from others who had seen it first hand but unless you’ve seen it yourself, you simply cannot imagine just how awe-inspiring it is It is truly one of the modern wonders of the world.

Ellen Alan and Sue at the Canyon
Hating to leave but with a trip of several hours ahead of us before we would arrive in Phoenix, we reluctantly checked out of the lodge in the late morning, lunched at the lodge cafeteria, and returned to our car for the drive back. On the way, we traveled through Sedona and were duly impressed by the red rock geological formations of the area. Once in Phoenix, we dropped off Ellen at her home and dined out with Ed and Nancy at the Thai Café on Chandler Boulevard. After dinner, we checked into the Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham in Chandler/Phoenix while Nancy and Ed drove back to Tucson. Our time with Nancy and Ed had drawn to a close and they had provided us with a number of truly memorable experiences. Thanks, guys, we really appreciated everything you did for us.

Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham in Chandler/Phoenix
 Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham in Chandler/Phoenix provided us with more than satisfactory accommodations for the next three days. Our suite included a bedroom, living area and kitchen/dining area, all of which were clean roomy, well appointed, and comfortable. The staff was friendly and helpful; it was too cool to swim but we sat out at the pool and found it very pleasant; free fruit and coffee were provided in the lobby at all times; full complimentary buffet breakfast were provided daily and included everything from juice, fruit, cereal and yogurt to bacon, sausage, eggs, waffles and pancakes; and both the business center and fitness center, while small, were more than sufficient for our needs. And the price was right. All in all, I’d recommend staying there and I’d certainly stay there again myself.

We spent the next three days (Thursday-Saturday) in Phoenix with Ellen and let her choose what we would do. She opted to see two movies, “The Social Network” (which was excellent) and “Red” (which was a well made and fun movie of a genre which is not particularly to Sue’s or my taste) at Harkins Theatres in the Chandler Fashion Center and to visit the Phoenix Zoo (which we very much enjoyed). We snacked at the zoo and ate two meals at restaurants in the Chandler Fashion Center: Kona Grill (which was excellent) and BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse (which we also enjoyed). 

We checked out of our hotel early Sunday morning and flew home from Phoenix on a direct flight to JFK, again being lucky enough to arrive early. Our trip to Arizona had come to a close and we had had a grand time.

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