“We’re just 2,000 meters high,” announces our balloon pilot. John, after what appears to be dozens of puffs on the valve, releasing the propane that sends us skyward.
Minutes earlier, 12 of us had climbed into a metal-framed wicker gondola before it was lifted aloft with four other striped Rainbow Ryders hot air balloons (rainbowryders.com) to watch dawn break over a cactus-speckled horizon.
It’s 5:35 a.m. and only the crackle of radio calls between the pilots and the firing burner breaks the awestruck silence as we take in the 360-degree views during our surprisingly peaceful glide over the Sonoran Desert, a few miles outside of Glendale near Phoenix, enjoy. Arizona.
After a soft landing, our flight will be toasted with champagne – as is usual in balloon circles.
“Thanks for flying with us,” smiles John.
It’s the first day of a bucket list tour of Arizona and it’s not even 7 a.m. yet.
The state offers endless sapphire skies, bone-dry desert, the occasional Joshua Tree, original western saloons and the unbridled Americana of Route 66.
As we set off, it seems like there’s an epic scene from a western around every corner as it weaves through switchbacks and looming red-rock valleys.
Just over an hour’s drive from Glendale along Interstate 17 towards Cornville, we arrive at the Alcantara Vineyard for a delicious cool-off from the dry heat on a water-to-wine kayak tour.
Our inflatables float down the Verde River through the high desert canyons before docking at the Vineyard, where we’re served sandwiches and glorious wines in a dreamy garden restaurant on our doorstep, while a few Dolly Parton tunes belt out.
And then we come right up the road to the historic town of Cottonwood in the shadow of the Mingus Mountains. It has a frontier feel and buildings that date back to the Prohibition era.
We stop on a high street bustling with boutique hotels and restaurants to recharge at Crema Café, where an all-day brunch features melt-in-your-mouth country (white) gravy and biscuits (savory scones) and pink-and-purple prickly pear margaritas are the ubiquitous – and delicious – drops made from the fruit of the native cactus.
Ranging from the sun-kissed desert to the cooler green of the ponderosa pines in the mountain town of Flagstaff, the diversity of Arizona’s topography is something you keep hearing about.
“You can ski and sunbathe in Arizona in the same day,” a local tells me.
Flagstaff is the archetypal outdoor destination, attracting Olympians to high-altitude training camps. We check in at the newly opened High Country Motor Lodge (highcountrymotorlodge.com) there — it’s all inky navy blues and deep turquoises and Native American throws, with rooms opening onto a courtyard with a pool and fire pits.
This corner of Arizona is also home to one of the densest concentrations of designated Dark Sky Places in the world. At a stargazing event at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff, local astronomers track green laser pointers across crystal clear skies to reveal Polaris, Cassiopeia and Gemini. Pluto was discovered in 1930 at the Lowell Observatory on the city’s hilltop.
An hour outside of Flagstaff, I stayed at Papillon Helicopters just off Highway 64 (papillon.com).
Soaring into a cloudless sky in a helicopter while Kenny Loggins fires “Danger Zone” through noise-cancelling headphones has to be serious top gun vibrations.
A few minutes later, as we turn left, the breathtaking sight of the Grand Canyon falls away below us. For the next 40 minutes we enjoy a dizzying silent disco to the soundtrack in our headphones as our helicopter follows the course of the rippling Colorado River from the South Rim to the North Rim.
It’s just before 9am when we land, then board a Buck Wild Hummer — an open-sided, all-terrain military vehicle — for a windswept ride around the rim of the canyon.
Our guide, Stony, is an energy ball that bounces in and out of the Hummer at each stop. Stevie Wonder was recently a passenger with his family and it’s no surprise that Stony talked him into singing. “It was like, ‘There, there, there, there…'” he continues, humming the opening chords of “Sir Duke” from behind the wheel.
Forget airplanes, trains and cars, in a single day, this turned out to be a case of helicopter, lobster and classic western train.
Inside the wood-paneled rooms of the saloon car of the Grand Canyon Railroad, which runs from the north rim of the canyon to the town of Williams (thetrain.com), a guitar-strumming cowgirl in a red leather skirt yells A horse with no name. Then we spot an armed horseman galloping along the tracks.
It’s all part of a staged western heist.
When the train pulls into Williams, the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel across the street is a continuation of the old world charm of the historic depot.
Just one block away is the fabled Route 66, where cyclists and day-trippers come into town to experience one of the most romantic routes in the world.
The restoration of the highway that once carried vacationing families from Chicago to Los Angeles all began in a small barber shop in the tiny roadside town of Seligman further up the road with a 95-year-old barber named Angel Delgadillo, who inspired the animated Disney film cars.
Speaking in his old barber chair in his gift shop, Angel tells me with a tongue-in-cheek smile how he fought to save the “Mom and Pop” shops of “Americans of the past” along winding Route 66 after a new Interstate had taken all traffic off the freeway when it opened on September 22, 1978
It’s now being revived as a historically protected highway unashamedly devoted to 1950s nostalgia, with big old Cadillacs, Route 66 signs, and restaurants serving old-fashioned cheeseburgers and fries.
An hour and a half up the road brings you back to the Wild West ambiance of the town of Prescott, home of the world’s oldest rodeo. Weathered Western facades grace the main drag of Whiskey Row, along with Native American art galleries, cafes, antique shops and jewelry stores.
The Palace Bar, which once hosted Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, still has bullet holes in the walls from 19th-century gunfights.
Walking through the saloon’s swinging half-doors is as authentic a western experience as you will get. The lively restaurant — overlooked from a balcony that once led to brothel rooms — offers a delicious menu of hearty dishes, including steaks and tacos.
A block from the Palace, Hotel Vendome was dubbed “the finest place in town” when it was built in the 1930s. It has been elegantly restored and offers vintage rooms with free-standing baths.
Another 90 minute drive down the mountains is Kay El Bar Dude Ranch (www.kayelbar.com) a few miles outside of Wickenburg and an hour from downtown Phoenix. Rooms in the low-rise brown buildings, which are historically preserved, are decorated with cowboy boot lamps, brown leather sofas, and rustic carpets.
After a breakfast of sizzling bacon, fresh bread, and the requisite biscuits and gravy, I head over to the paddock to meet my white horse, William. I need a leg on a very comfortable western saddle, but then it starts in single file behind cowboy Conor, who trains racehorses part-time.
As we ride through the desert, the horses weave their way across the rocky terrain, past giant flowering wandering cacti believed to be 150 years old. When the horses run into a narrow, sandy pass between parallel ledges, I feel like I’ve become an extra in a western.
Arizona doesn’t just have a bucket list of adventures, it offers a whole tub of must-dos before you die.
After my seven day trip I still have one unchecked item on my bucket list – to see one of the famous rodeos. It’s a great excuse to return to this most American of states.
- Lynne traveled as a guest of the Arizona Office of Tourism (visitarizona.com for more information and instructions).
- British Airways flies direct from London to Phoenix. Other airlines that fly to Arizona include Virgin Atlantic, American Airlines, United, Delta, and Air Canada.
- Rental cars from around €450 per week. For private tours go to detoursamericanwest.com.
- Summer temperatures in Phoenix and the desert regions are hot (late 30s C) so spring, fall and winter are much more comfortable (20’s and early 30’s), but the higher elevation cities of Flagstaff and Prescott are much cooler in the summer (late 20’s ).
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/world/arizona-dreamin-on-planes-trains-automobiles-dummers-helicopters-and-horses-41843569.html Arizona dreams in planes, trains, cars, boobies, helicopters and horses