Arizona, the state where the sprawling Grand Canyon, blazing Sonoran Desert and iconic Route 66 comes to mind. But under the surface, there’s a LOT more to discover. DOSE writer Emily fills us in on how to see the state from a different point of view, while reporting from the road…
Day one: Glendale
Touch down in the Canyon State and we arrived in Glendale. Just 20 minutes from the airport, this is one of Arizona’s most rapidly growing cities. Home to an ever growing entertainment hub, Glendale combines the best of desert history with modern culture. Never forgetting to nod to its roots along the way. Starting our trip as we would mean to go on, we spent the evening feasting at Nineteen 86 Steakhouse, where casual elegance meets exceptional cuisine. Tucked away at the back of the Desert Diamond Casino, this place set the bar high for our remaining week of food, restaurants and bars. Not only did they offer perfectly prepared premium steak and truffle parmesan fries, they even made brussel sprouts taste good by pairing them with smoked bacon. My mouth is drooling just thinking about them, and I don’t even like sprouts. Bravo chef!
Having been up since morning UK time, we were ready to hit the hay and where better than the charming Renaissance Glendale Hotel & Spa. Within walking distance from bustling attractions, the hotel is home to a calming spa, thriving fitness centre and quaint bedrooms with mattresses so comfy that I *almost* didn’t make it up for our 4am start. Key word being almost.
Seeing the city from above
4am and I’m awake, don’t worry. Being up at this time in Arizona means only one thing: we were headed for a sunrise hot-air-balloon ride. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, Rainbow Ryders impressively launch sunrise flights every single day of the year. While the desert always has a certain beauty to it, seeing it come alive as the world awoke below was truly unforgettable. As we floated up into the clouds, I felt a connection to nature like never before. An hour of peace (and albeit a couple of nerves), we had birds eye views of Arizona’s fiery red desert. From the geological rock formations, to the beautiful wildflowers and iconic cacti. As I paused to appreciate the view, the endorphins washed over me for a euphoric high. One I’ll never forget. Wishing I could start every day with this grounding experience, our first bucket list experience in Arizona was check done.
Ready to recharge on a Class A breakfast, we headed to Matt’s Big Breakfast. Locally adored, this cafe offers exactly what it says on the tin. Big portions, hearty meals, friendly service and to my delight, coffee refills. Now this might not seem like a big deal. But when you’re jet lagged and have been up since 4am, I was ready to live like a Gilmore Girl. In terms of the food, whether you go for the signature Big Papa Burrito or classic Griddlecakes, you’re sure to be leaving with your heart and belly full.
Day two: Cottonwood
Come afternoon, we reached the authentic little town of Cottonwood. And boy did this place feel like true western Arizona. With its boutique feel, close knit community and historic old town, Cottonwood is known as ‘the heart of Arizona wine’. You might be thinking, good wine? In the desert? I was too. But thanks to the region’s well irrigated and fertile soil, and one of the coolest temperatures in Arizona, the wineries thrive just as those in France and Italy. With over 20 vineyards and tasting rooms across the town, the pièce de résistance is undoubtedly Alcantara. Here, the volcanic soil and mild winter makes it one of the best grape-growing areas in America.
As the perfect combo of outdoor adventure and relaxation, we spent the afternoon kayaking through their vineyards. Floating along the most magical stretch of the Verde River, we were encased by emerald waters, towering rocks and abundant wildlife. Ideal for any skill level, there were just enough rapids to create some exciting splashes, but an overall easy route to the final stop: the tasting room. And what better spot to quench our thirst. Peaceful surroundings, check. Live music, check. Local wine, check. Ahh, those really are a few of my favourite things.
Where to eat and stay
Staying true to the authentic theme, we later arrived at Best Western Cottonwood Inn, a classic American motel just a couple of blocks from the Old Town. Conveniently located, we checked in and made our way straight to Nic’s Italian Steak and Crab House. Food as good as the service, cosy intimate booths and an overall laid back atmosphere. It’s no wonder that this family-run diner draws a crowd every day of the week. Putting their own creative Arizona spin on classic Italian food, Nic’s is renowned for steamed crab, surf & turf and specialty cocktails. With the perfect blend of spice and salt, I could have sipped on those Chilli Margarita’s forever. Oh, and the drinks taste even better when you discover that the iconic wall bar is inspired by the bar the owners went on their first date over 30 years ago. *heart melting, oxytocin flowing*
Day three: Flagstaff
Where small town charm meets the great outdoors, it was a warm welcome to Flagstaff the next morning. A four-season hub of outdoor adventure, crisp mountain air and breathtaking night skies, this city felt special from the moment we arrived. With the downtown famous for its local breweries, our Flagstaff journey had to start with a sip of something from Beaver Street Brewery. More than a place to just eat and drink, this is impressively Flagstaff’s first (and best) ever brewpub. With flagship beers changing seasonally including the Railhead Red and Flagstaff IPA , every drop tastes better from the outdoor garden. As the famed San Francisco Peaks loom in the distance, it’s safe to say this place really lives up to its name.
If you like to weave a bit of education into your travels then don’t forget to stop at the Lowell Observatory. An astronomical haven, this observatory brings 125 expert years of connecting people to the universe and space. With world-class telescopes, interactive tours and plenty of knowledgeable researchers, Lowell is known for discovering some of the weirdest and most wonderful parts of our world, even Pluto!
One of the world’s best stargazing spots
Leading the way as the First International Dark Sky City, there was only one way we were going to end our day in Flagstaff. A Dark Sky Experience with the Dark Skies Coalition of course! Low humidity, year-round clear skies and minimal light interference, Flagstaff is one of the best stargazing spots in the world. Or as I like to now call it, starbathing. Aiming to combat light pollution and raise awareness of the value of dark skies, the Dark Skies Coalition have been recognised across the city, and worldwide, for their pioneering work in the development and implementation of lighting codes to preserve the night sky.
Regularly coming together to marvel at the milky way, the team of passionate astronomers helped us to tick off some unusual star patterns from our constellation chart. Some of the most well known being the Big Dipper and Gemini. Ensuring our devices were off and no lights could tamper with our sight, I looked up and was reminded that each of us are all simply small dots in this stellar universe. Having never felt so connected to the earth, I have since looked at the universe in a whole ‘nother way. A couple of hours admiring the sky and one shooting star later, I was left feeling, quite literally, starstruck.
Where to stay (NEW to 2022)
Honouring the heritage of its location, the High Country Motor Lodge nestled at the bottom of the Lowell Observatory foothills, was the perfect place to lay our heads. Brand new to this year, we were lucky enough to be one of the hotel’s first customers. And what an honour it was. Describing themselves as on the beaten path with an off the beaten track approach, the boutique hotel blends vintage decor and astronomy vibes with a modern rugged mountain aesthetic. Allowing guests to sleep soundly under the stars, the hotel is perfect for wellness guru’s. Complete with an outdoor sauna and plunge pool, a store with fresh fare and craft beer, plus a fun games room where you can disconnect from the digital world.
Day four (morning): Tusayan
Often described as earth’s greatest geological showcase, you can’t visit Arizona without ticking off the glorious Grand Canyon. They don’t call it the Canyon State for nothin’. Offering a beautiful ensemble of colourful rock layers and impressive buttes, the naturally-carved canyon holds two billions worth of geological history. Large enough to be seen in space, there’s a multitude of ways to explore this natural wonder. So whether hiking, kayaking, horse-riding, or hummer tour jeeping is your thing, they’ve got it.
But for a view like no other, the best way has got to be a Papillon helicopter ride. Worth every penny, this once-in-a-lifetime experience offers a birds-eye-view of the rock formations, cliffs and canyon depths that you’d never witness from the ground. Soaring over the widest parts of the canyons and its majestic vallies, these flights reveal a timeline of earth’s history. Not only are the views unmatched, but so is the music onboard. Think: Learn To Fly, Foo Fighters, Aeroplane, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Fly Away, Lenny Kravitz. You get the jist. Dopamine levels were high and our second trip to the sky this week did not disappoint.
Where to eat in the Canyon
After 30 minutes in the air, we were ready to settle our stomachs. Located within the El Tovar Hotel (one of the few accommodations actually in the Grand Canyon), El Tovar Dining Room offers a world class gourmet experience with the chance to literally dine among history. With cuisine as spectacular as the views, the restaurants menu features Southwestern classics with a fresh spin, like the reimagined yet Traditional Navajo Taco which was actually my *favourite* meal of the whole trip. If you do head here during your visit, be sure to make a reservation (a window seat if you can) as it’s very popular, and for bloody good reason.
Day four (evening): Williams
There was only one way we’d be leaving the Grand Canyon and that was on the good old fashioned Railway. Since 1901, this antique restored train has been taking passengers to and from the heart of the canyon, to the small town of Williams on Route 66. More than just a mode of transportation, the train ride is a trip back in time with onboard entertainers, a traditional bar & dining cart and live music along the way. As the train chugs along, the scenes are unmatched with the landscape changing from deserts and mountains, to prairie and pines.
Evenings in the town
Upon arrival at Williams depot, the adjacent Grand Canyon Railway Hotel is the perfect spot to continue romanticising the Old West experience. With a traditional 80’s theme, this plush 298-room hotel combines the best of Old America with modern comfort. Featuring Bygone Era inspired decor, a private pub with a 19th century hand-crafted bar and an old school horseshoe pit, the hotel allows guests to live in the past for a while.
Just a block away from downtown, the hotel is the ultimate base from which to explore Williams. As a quaint town with an authentic yet quirky personality, Williams is bursting with historic buildings, memorabilia shops and charming restaurants & bars, with Route 66 running straight through the heart of town. Boasting a laid back, family-friendly atmosphere, the outdoor patio of Station 66 Italian Bistro is the ideal spot to sit back and watch the nostalgic Route 66 come to life. Sip on a local craft bear or Arizonian wine, while munching on a homemade wood fired pizza as the classic cars pass by. This is the best of Arizona right here.
Day five (morning): Seligman
As one of the most iconic spots on the Mother Road, we couldn’t miss visiting Delgadillo’s world famous Gift Shop. Thought of as the Guardian Angel of Route 66, owner and barber Angel Delgadillo was born and raised in Seligman. He is the cornerstone that holds the Arizona stretch of the Mother Route together. As we stood inside his cosy gift shop, which felt more like a mini museum of rich history, Angel, now aged 95, tells us the story of his beloved little town. In the early 1980’s when the expansion of the interstate began, Seligman, which saw over 9,000 cars passing through each day, gradually became a ghost town. Struggling to survive and feeling as though his home had been forgotten, Angel knew that the answer to preserving Seligman. And it ran straight through the centre.
Bringing life back
With this in mind, he worked tirelessly for ten years to bring his vision to life. Visiting other towns on the road and winning them over with his charm and enthusiasm. Finally he formed the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona. And many other states followed suit setting up their own (California, New Mexico, Illinois and more). Placing Route 66 back on the map, this story of how and why the Mother Road still exists today, all begins with this one man. Now, having been interviewed more than 1,000 times, Angel has been featured in magazines, newspapers and documentaries across the globe. One chat with Pixar even inspired the fictional town of Radiator Springs in the movie ‘Cars’. A Disney favourite which feels even more special now. Watch it again and you’ll see why.
As we stepped outside his shop, after the stories and memories shared, I felt transported to the past. A more innocent time altogether. Around us, friends gathered at the iconic Snow Cap Diner, families laughed with locals and there was a spirit of freedom around every corner. And we have just one man to thank: Angel Delgadillo. If that doesn’t get your oxytocin flowing, then I really don’t know what will.
Day five (afternoon): Prescott
Oozing cowboy culture and ranch life vibes, Prescott is known for bars, live music and rodeo grounds, which are actually the oldest in the world. As the ex capital of the state, there’s a rich history embedded in the town. And the best way to discover it all is one of the city’s Walking Tours. Conducted by local volunteers with a real passion for their hometown, the tours share the town’s hidden secrets and proudest moments. Stroll past traditional antique shops, pop into one of the local eateries that each hold their own history, or traipse around one of the city’s most prized museums dedicated to cowboy artworks. Not only is the town famed for its wild western vibe, it also boasts a breathtaking mountainous landscape. Making it home to a handful of adventurous activities. Whether kayaking, fishing, or camping, the dark blue Watson Lake shouldn’t be missed.
Come evening, there’s three things that Prescott prioritises: dining, drinking and dancing. And as the oldest operating bar in the whole of Arizona, The Palace Restaurant & Saloon has two out of three. Overflowing with history from the moment you step inside the double swinging doors, the restaurant features walls plastered with western memorabilia, staff wearing authentic saloon gear and a menu offering traditional American favourites that pay homage to its past 140 years. Think Wild West Wings, Rough Rider Ribeyes and a good Old Fashioned cocktail. Sadly, amongst other bars and restaurants in Prescott, The Palace was destroyed by the Whiskey Row fire in 1900. The only thing they salvaged that is still original today was the bar. Ah, they do say that you protect the things dearest to you.
Fed and watered, we were ready to throw it down at one of the city’s top line dancing spots. And where better than Matt’s Saloon. One of Prescott’s last true Honky Tonks, this place has been going strong since 1960. Making it a historical landmark in itself. With minimal tables but instead a dedicated spacious dancefloor, cowboy boots, stetsons and shiny belt buckles are the norm here. A place to leave it all out on the dancefloor, country music blasts from the jukebox night in and night out. Don’t worry if you’re a cowboy with two left feet, I was (and still am), the friendly locals are on hand to give you a two step lesson. It’s all in the fun of learning anyway!
After a day (and evening) on our feet, the nearby Hotel Vendome was calling our name. An independent boutique hotel with just 20 rooms, this place is the definition of a home away from home. Less than a hotel but more of a safe haven, Vendome was originally built in 1917 due to housing demand. Now it combines Prescott’s historic charm and feel of the old west, with a modern twist. Merging old fashioned and contemporary retro decor, the guest rooms feature wood panelling, vintage clawfoot tubs and iron radiators. Each bathroom is also themed with a different pop of colour – dopamine dressing at it’s finest!
Day six: Wickenburg
Rolling with untouched wide open spaces, the west is very much still living and breathing in Arizona. And no trip is complete without a wild west escape. With such a diverse mountainous, desert and forest landscape, Arizona is more than spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing an authentic ranch experience. Lying in the foothills of Bradshaw Mountains, Wickenburg is Arizona’s (and one of America’s in general) most prime dude ranch territory.
Truly a place to adventure back in time, Kay El Bar Guest Ranch dates back to the 1900’s and has been providing an authentic western experience ever since. A traditional all inclusive Southwest package, the rustic ranch can house just 28 guests at one time. Making it feel more intimate than others. The accommodation varies from individual rooms to larger casitas, but all boast a western theme. Our standalone apartment featured custom cowboy drapes, traditional artwork and painted monterey furniture. Making you feel a part of the community, all guests come together at meal times for cowboy cookouts served family-style. In the evenings, the family feeling continues with a communal games room and hangout area.
Riding on the ranch
With a variety of options available for all abilities, come morning, it was time to test our horse riding skills. Providing hats, boots and other dress-up, the riding experience allows you to feel like a true cowboy. Even if you’ve never stepped foot on a horse (like myself). Throwing us in the deep end in the best way, a quick lesson on the ropes and we were off. Our scenic escorted trail ride weaved past Saguaro cacti and through narrow canyons. With an all the gear, no idea type situation on my hands, I have to admit was feeling nervous. But with a guide by our side who was born and bred around ranch life, I quickly realised we were in good hands.
On a side note, do note that the wifi is strong but the phone service certainly is not. A slight draw back when our flight was cancelled but a real positive for disconnecting to reconnect.
Day seven: Tempe
You know how some people say that the best adventures are the most unexpected? Well they weren’t lying. Waking up to a cancelled flight home on the day of departure wasn’t ideal. But if it meant a night at The Westin Tempe then I prefer to call it a blessing. Four stars of vibes, views and elegance. I would willingly have my flight cancelled 10 times over if it meant I could stay here again. Featuring oversized cloud like mattresses, floor-to-ceiling windows with uninterrupted views and spa-centric bathrooms complete with rain showers, the rooms are really something.
But the true crowning jewel is the Skysill Rooftop Lounge and Pool. With breathtaking panoramic views, Southwestern small plates, and hand crafted cocktails, the rooftop welcomes hotel guests and public visitors alike. And luckily for us, they happened to be hosting a sunset pool party the day we were there. Fate? I think so. Music, brews and views. I was beginning to thank British Airways more and more. Feeling like you need to balance party out with wellness? Head to the hotel’s 24-hour WORKOUT Fitness Studio where the Peloton bike is sure to get the dopamine flowing.
What’s the verdict then?
So, if you couldn’t tell already, I would highly recommend a road trip across Arizona. With each drive revealing a little more of the states soul and history, those long, romantic miles are life changing. However long you can spend in Arizona, whether passing through or exploring for the long haul, it’s no question that it’ll be an unforgettable trip. But if you’re anything like us, then you’ll do a lengthy road trip across the state and truly get your DOSE.
Emily was hosted by the Arizona Office of Tourism.
Plan your trip here or for more inspiration, check out @visit_arizona on social media.
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