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An Enticing Escape: Brick Restaurant In The Arizona Center

Tucked away in the hustle and bustle of Downtown Phoenix sits an enticing restaurant with a seductive menu to match. Dark wood tables, leather lounge chairs and armoires attribute to the restaurants intimate scene. Hanging vintage chandeliers and deep red curtains transport you into another world. Feet away from the numerous downtown sky-scraper buildings resides the restaurant Brick in the Arizona Center.

As a Southern California native and new resident to the Phoenix area, my search for the perfect balance of comfort, fun and good food seemed never-ending. This search came to an end, however, when I discovered Brick after a girl’s day luncheon.

It was a Sunday afternoon. The three of us were ready to satisfy our appetite for girl talk, good times and good food. The Arizona Center, tucked away in the corner of the busy downtown streets, sits like a small cluster of buildings of a Lego city ― precisely placed to contrast itself immediately from the humdrum of office buildings, commuter commotion and work-day rush. We walked into the center, and I found myself immediately transported to another world, an eclectic world of food shops and activity. The choice of restaurants was endless. There is a restaurant to satisfy every taste bud: Greek, Mexican, American, Japanese, Italian and so on.

We pondered what to eat for a minute and found ourselves at the entrance of the seductive restaurant that sits tucked away in a corner of the center. Brick sits with its doors open, offering a peek into a different dimension. Dark red velvet curtains line the brick walls of the restaurant, and deep red candle votives adorn the mahogany tables. Vintage chandeliers and vivid art give the place a contemporary, yet warm feel.

We were seated at a corner table near the outside patio with a view of the center’s fountain outside.  The menu made our mouths water, and I spent a while deciding what to order. Offering everything from salads and sandwiches to calzones pizzas and burgers, the menu is as enticing as the atmosphere. Brick also hosts a hip and savvy bar, which offers an extensive selection of wine beer and infused drinks. It was lunch on a Sunday afternoon, so I decided on a calzone, my first ever, and a glass of sweet Moscato to accompany it. I was blown away not only by my dish, but that of my friends as well. They indulged in their pizzas and wine until their stomachs were content. The atmosphere was warm and comforting, so our girl talk came with ease over our delicious food. The restaurant is set so that every party is intimately connected, and the setting allowed us to hold our private conversations without being deprived of good service.

Brick’s menu offers a variety of food and drinks to satisfy every taste bud. The restaurant aims to offer patrons a relaxed atmosphere without feeling rushed and an opportunity to enjoy a delicious menu without breaking the bank. The restaurant in The Arizona Center is perfect for afternoon luncheons, big group get-togethers, intimate dates or even just a quick escape from the chaos of the city. Being only a block, literally, from everything I do in the city, any chance I get, my inner hippie and I find a way to escape to Brick.


Where: Arizona Center, 455 N.  Third St., Phoenix
Price: $$ (from $5 to $15)
Contact: (602) 258-3665
Online: brickphx.com


Photo: alifemadesimple.blogspot.com

The Sweetest Spot in Flagstaff: Sweet Shoppe & Nut House

Coming from mountainous Manitou Springs, Colo. (population 5,113), Flagstaff seemed like a home away from home. Despite the significantly larger population, the classic architecture and bounty of local businesses made Flagstaff feel like a dilated version of the tiny, hippy town back home that I had grown to love. Despite my Colorado Springs residency, neighboring Manitou Springs became a home to me because I spent my entire senior year and post-senior year summer behind a local store’s candy counter slicing fudge and throwing chocolate-covered goodies into bags for tourists ranging from Mississippi locals to Scotland natives.

I discovered Flagstaff because my best friend, who also worked at the chocolate store and whose mother owned it, had her orientation for Northern Arizona University, and I went along for the ride. My Arizona State University orientation was just a few days later, so we decided to head out to the Grand Canyon State together. We roamed through downtown Flagstaff and along Aspen Street on our final day there before heading back down to Phoenix for my orientation. We ventured into quirky clothing stores and passed by little restaurants that filled our noses with delicious-smelling homemade cuisine. All of a sudden, we were stopped dead in our tracks by a colossal window display filled with mouth-watering caramel apples.

sweet shoppe & nut house

Our chocolate store back home had just begun experimenting with caramel apples, so naturally any intelligent owner would want to go in and check out the competition and possibly steal some inspiration. The three of us walked into The Sweet Shoppe & Nut House and were greeted by a friendly staff and trays upon trays filled with the prettiest, almost artistic fudge I had ever seen. I tried the dark chocolate, sea salt and caramel fudge and was hooked. Because I had spent so long working with every sort of chocolate treat known to man, I had built up immunity to how delicious it all is; but with this fudge, it wasn’t the case. I ended up buying a little chunk, along with a couple chocolate-covered potato chips, and it was definitely the best money I spent during my time in Arizona.

The Sweet Shoppe & Nut House originally opened in 2011 in Flagstaff but has now been franchised into Bridgeville, Pa. In a way it saddens me that this hidden gem is no longer one-of-a-kind, but then again, the East Coast should not be denied the bliss that comes after biting into The Sweet Shoppe’s signature fudge. I hope to pay another visit to this wonderfully decadent store as soon as I can persuade one of my car-owning friends to suffer through the two-hour drive to Flagstaff. But don’t worry, Sweet Shoppe; one way or another I’ll find my way back to you.

If You Go: The Sweet Shoppe & Nut House

Where: 15 W. Aspen Ave., Flagstaff
Contact: (928) 255-4919
Web: sweetshoppecandy.com

West Fork Trail

An Adventure on the West Fork Trail, Sedona

The rising sun illuminated the vibrant reds, greens and purples that paint the canyon. The crisp morning air carried the fresh aroma of Arizona Cypress. I, along with my companions, took our first step onto the West Fork Trail and began our adventure through Oak Creek Canyon in Sedona.

Start of the hike at West Fork Trail in Sedona. With me were my great friends Alyssa, Lance, Mike and Si’on. As full-time students at ASU, it is not often that we can indulge in our love of the outdoors and our desire to explore. We could not, however, surpass the opportunity to hike in the Coconino National Forest; and so, we embarked from Tempe on an early Saturday morning in September.

The two-hour drive up Interstate 17 passed quickly as we surveyed the morning desert transform into a red-rock mountain wilderness. A few miles up State Route 179 North stood Sedona’s awe-inspiring Bell Rock — a triumphant red-rock formation, home to twisted Juniper trees, and vivid green and yellow agave plants.

Numerous turns up the mountainous road of highway 89A disoriented the group. Considering the possibility that we had already passed the trail, we stopped at a convenience store for directions. When asked where the West Fork Trail was located, the clerk’s smile alluded to the commonality of the question. “It’s actually just a half-mile up the road,” he replied. Sure enough, in a half-mile we arrived at the trailhead lot. Parking cost $9 in the lot, which is guarded and maintained by park rangers. The lot was littered with walking sticks used by past travelers. We each selected our respective walking stick, grabbed our gear (lunches, water and a camera) and began our journey through the canyon.

A small bridge guided the group over the creek and onto the West Fork Trail. My curiosity was sparked at a peculiar site on the outskirts of the canyon. An old, brick structure lay in shambles next to a small cave carved into the red rock. The site was once home to the Mayhew Lodge, home to tourists and travelers in the early 1920s. As we sprinted toward the ruins, I was overcome with a sense of nostalgia. My childhood dreams of being an adventurer in the wild were being fulfilled.

As we journeyed further along the trail, the tranquil sounds of the creek grew nearer. We had reached our first, true creek crossing. A trail marker sat across the water, but this time there was not a bridge to leisurely stroll across. Being accustomed to such circumstances, due to his years spent backpacking, Lance guided the group across one by one, jumping from one stone to the next. Our first crossing was a success; our hike would consist of over 10 more.

West Fork Trail streamAt every chance possible, we climbed the massive, fallen rocks, which, for many years, have rained down the mountains to the bottom of the canyon. Each rock surmounted grew larger and increasingly difficult to climb until we finally met our match. “Let’s eat lunch up there,” Alyssa said as she pointed to the top of a 40-foot, rock cliff.

After contemplating the possibilities, Lance disappeared behind the cliff, determined to find a way up. Minutes later, he appeared atop the rock, triumphant, and again guided the group to the summit. I couldn’t help but smile as we enjoyed our cliff-top picnic.

Descending the rock was quite easy for everyone, except me. As I scaled down, I lost my footing and quickly grabbed onto a protruding branch. Knowing it wouldn’t hold for long I signaled Mike who stood on the ground below. The branch finally gave way, and I slid down; Mike braced for impact and broke my fall. We couldn’t help but laugh as we dramatically retold the story to the rest of the group of my treacherous five-foot fall.

Soon after, we arrived at what many would have considered the end of the trail. A pool of water filled the middle of the smooth canyon walls. Before I even had the chance to take off my shoes, Mike and Si’on ran straight into the creek bed; Alyssa, Lance and I followed. With the sun beating on our back, we waded through the cool, waste-deep water. I paused for a moment and gazed into the air; I sighed in contentment.

Surrounded by nature’s green giants and enclosed by the canyon’s massive red walls, I couldn’t help but feel at peace. Just for a day, I hadUpward gaze escaped the stresses of day-to-day life. For a day, I had escaped into the wild, carefree, with four of my greatest friends. It was now time to make the journey back.

After wading our way out of the creek, we grabbed our gear and returned to the trail. Passing by the familiar sights of the trail, we recalled the events of the day as if they were distant memories.

At last, we emerged from the canyon. We signed our names in the trail log, returned our walking sticks to the ground, and began the drive home. As we drove away, I turned and watched my walking stick disappear. I smiled at the thought of the next adventurer beginning his or her journey, choosing the same walking stick I had chosen.

For more information about the West Fork Trail go to sedonahikingtrails.com


English Rose Tea Room in Carefree, Photo: Carolina Lopez

Sonoran Desert And Tea In Carefree

Leaning saguaro cacti and palo verde trees line the roads and cover the Sonoran desert grounds. The sun is bright, but the weather isn’t its usual hot, soul-sucking self. That means that at least I have a chance at surviving longer than usual if I get lost in the desert or stranded somewhere. I roll down the car window and listen for the natural sounds of the desert. I hear mostly the hum of insects. I take a breath in the air deeply. It’s hot and smells of dry earth. I don’t very often experience the desert even though I live in one. These aren’t exactly my stomping grounds, but on this trip to Carefree, Ariz., I’m experiencing a slice of the Arizona desert.

I had no idea what to expect from Carefree, and in all honesty, Carefree is kind of a strange place. Well, the name of this small town is Carefree, and one of its main roads is Easy Street. I supposed that gives you a clue about the pace-level here. As my mom and I arrived to the town center, we noticed the amount of people out and about on a Sunday morning. There were people that looked like they were on a leisurely hike or walking their dogs. The small streets allowed for easy pedestrian movement, and it was clear the people of Carefree took advantage of the pedestrian-friendly streets. This movement made the town even more interesting and quaint. Seeing so many people walking about inspired my me and my mom to join them and explore the town for ourselves.

English Rose Tea Room in Carefree, Photo: Carolina LopezMy mom and I walked toward the Town Center park, and we were greeted by a giant Gila-monster-shaped slide. A slide is a slide, though, and slides are meant to be slid on. Needless to say, I did my best sliding. Upon further exploration, we found a giant sundial that points toward the North Star. I don’t exactly know what the sundial meant, but it was interesting.

In addition to the beautiful desert scenery, which included a great view of the peaceful, yet intimidating Black Mountain, Carefree offered a good variety of shops and places to eat. During our explorations, we spotted an interesting-looking restaurant. What attracted me to it was the English flag waving side by side with the American flag. It was an English-style tea house, aptly called English Rose Tea Room. We decided to go in and have a leisurely afternoon tea. The place was incredibly decorative and had shelves full of knick-knacks. The main room of the space was full of customers, some of which were sporting giant hats in royal wedding fashion. They offered a variety of hot and cold teas along with salads, quiches, scones and other finger foods. It was quaint, and the quiche was delicious. What more could I have asked for?

Carefree is less than 10 minutes away from the cute town of Cave Creek, and one might easily choose to skip Carefree and head towards Cave Creek for a getaway within Arizona, but Carefree, with its amazing scenery and interesting food offerings, deserves some love, too.

For more information about Carefree and its attractions, visit visitcarefree.com.

"A" Mountain (Tempe Butte), Photo: Daniel Escobedo

A Harrowing, Hilarious Hike Up Tempe Butte, Or “A” Mountain

Standing at the base of the mountain, I look up toward the black asphalt path that lies in front of me. It seems smooth with a slight incline. Heat is rising off the asphalt up into the sky as the sun repeatedly bakes and pounds the pavement with unrelenting heat. Wary that my competitors are quickly approaching, I must make this hike fast. I begin my ascent to the peak of the mountain, appreciating all of the native foliage that surrounds me: small shrubs lining the main hiking path, with small cacti sprinkled across the dirt terrain.

I’ve barely made it around the first corner to reach my destination, and I’m already out of breath. As I make the slight turn that will lead me up to the finish line, wood stairs appear in front of me, each one carved deep into the earth. I begin to climb the stairs but get tired quickly due to the heat. I barely make it halfway up the stairs when I begin to panic because I’m already exhausted; my heart is beating dangerously fast, and I’ve brought no water with me on my journey. Small beads of sweat begin to collect on my forehead, while streams begin to run down my back. I can’t make it up this hike. It is just much too difficult for me, despite the fact that I’ve only been exercising for about 10 minutes.

Tempe Butte ("A" Mountain), Photo: ASU“A” Mountain (Tempe Butte) proved to be a lot tougher than I thought.

Now, I realize that it may seem like I just described hiking up Camelback Mountain — a large summit that rises 2,700 feet high to a peak that can take some up to two hours to reach — located just behind Camelback Rd. and 44th St. But before you make fun of me for hardly making it up “A” Mountain, the iconic hill that lies directly north of the ASU Tempe campus, let me give you some back story on why this adventure was so dramatic.

It was last August 2011, and I had just been hired to be a Community Assistant (CA) in the residence hall of ASU’s downtown campus. The 24 of us that had been hired were required to undergo a two-week training course, and at the end of this training, we had to engage in a team bonding activity. So, one of the veteran CAs decided that it would be fun to do a scavenger hunt from Phoenix to Tempe, and we were split up into groups of four or five. Each group was given a list of clues that represented a place, and we had to solve each puzzle, head to the location and take a picture in front of it. When it was time to solve the final clue, it was soon determined that the location was “A” Mountain. However, what the teams didn’t expect is that we had to hike up to the top in order to win the competition. And, to boot, we had to do it in 116-degree heat!

Because none of us carried water to share, all 24 of us were exhausted fast. Some of the team barely made it halfway up the hill and turned around to get water, while the rest was randomly scattered on the hiking path. Two people from the team were suffering mild symptoms of heat exhaustion, and, thankfully, we were able to get them water from a restaurant nearby.

I know that this adventure seems like a horror story and some of you may not be feeling up to a hike anytime soon, but there are ways to avoid having an experience like the one I had. First and foremost, do not go for a hike when it is 5 p.m. and 116 degrees. It is probably best to do it early in the morning while it is cool or later at night. Secondly, drink water before you decide to do any sort of physical activity. In fact, according to WebMD, you should also drink water every 15 to 20 minutes during your exercise activity, as well as after you are finished, to avoid being dehydrated. Be sure to wear proper athletic attire (and not black jeans paired with black Toms like I did) so that you are more comfortable and have better foot support.

My colleagues and I have learned from our mistakes and have hiked up “A” Mountain many times since. With proper preparation, hiking can be quite an enjoyable experience.

The best part? When you reach the top of, you’re exposed to expansive views of Tempe, Phoenix and the whole Valley — all while enjoying the fresh air and the serene, quiet oasis that exists only high above the city lights.

For more information about Tempe Butte (“A” Mountain), visit millavenue.com.

Red Mountain trailhead, Photo: Kristine Cannon

The Fall And Ensuing Therapy Session On Red Mountain

The walls of Red Mountain feel entirely too far apart at this point. I could feel myself breaking into a cold sweat. The orange-hued walls tower above me; the sunlight receding until it leaves me in the mountain’s chilly shadow.

That’s all this place was anyway – a large cave, it felt. Really, it’s a volcano with a natural amphitheater cut into it. And I felt trapped. I was left battling for my bones, even my life, to be spared.

Red Mountain, Photo: Kristine Cannon

Red Mountain, about 25 miles north of Flagstaff, is where Frank and I decided to spend our Saturday afternoon. This popular hiking site is definitely a kid-friendly, easy stroll, but this trail had never scared me quite this much before — because I decided to take a risk.

My footing slips a little bit, setting loose tiny rocks and kicking up a small cloud of dirt and heightened fear. My breathing and heartbeat quicken its pace. The rocks descending down the slick, steep slope aren’t nearly as audible now. They’ve been falling for a while, it seems …

Frank reminds me to hold on, that he’s going to pull me back up. I had to muster up the courage to move from my face down, arms-and-legs-outstretched position, clinging for dear life.

And then I lose my footing.

A shrilling shriek echoes through the amphitheater.

“Hold on!”

Adrenaline is pumping through my veins; I can’t feel anything but my feet sliding against the wall while trying desperately to stop this epic fall. I can’t hear anything but the rocks from above, below and alongside us falling rapidly down the slope. I can’t see anything but Frank clouded in the kicked-up dirt, tightly gripping my arm.

My eyes close, and suddenly we’re stopped, about 25 feet above level ground. It felt like it lasted minutes, but I’m sure it lasted a mere 15 seconds … maybe even less.

Our heavy breathing slows to a steady pace. “Well, we’re not dead,” I thought to myself, “But, whoa, what a rush!”

Red Mountain, Photo: Kristine Cannon

I’m not an adrenaline junkie by any means, but that was the first time in my life I had experienced something so frightening yet thrilling and exciting. I swore I would walk away with at least a broken finger. Instead, I walked away with an incredibly painful gash in my forearm, cuts and scratches all over my legs, and a newfound respect for safe hiking.

I can safely say this was the most amazing, exciting, scary, wonderful, fun experience I’ve ever had in Arizona. Yes, I walked away bruised and battered, but aren’t those technically the most memorable experiences one could have?

And I mean really memorable … you remember the pain, the fear, the rush, the innocent hike preceding the horrendous fall, the nervous laughter afterward and overcoming the fear of taking a chance and stepping foot onto that mountain ever again. [I eventually did.]

Red Mountain, Photo: Kristine Cannon

But that’s life.

You never know what will happen the next minute. You never know you’ve made a mistake until you’re experiencing the repercussions of it. But the real test is how you handle it all — the fall and the aftermath.

On Red Mountain, I didn’t expect a cathartic experience. I expected to have a few hours of “getting away from it all” but ended up with a different take on life.

So, Frank helped me stand up on my shaky, unstable legs; I brushed myself of the dirt and debris, took a sigh of relief and thought to myself, “I’ll get back on this mountain soon … and this won’t happen again. And if it does, then I can call myself an idiot.”

Jacks Canyon Sunrise, Photos: Travis McKnight

Rock Climbing Excursions In Jacks Canyon

Vivacious beams of sunlight pierce through a layer of thin clouds listlessly drifting across the vivid blue sky, illuminating a seemingly hidden canyon nestled 30 miles north of Winslow, Ariz. Within its depths reside numerous chalk-stained, 70-foot limestone cliffs plastered with strategically placed stainless-steel bolts that establish nearly 300 sport climbing routes. This is Jacks Canyon, and it’s known as one of the best rock climbing places in Ariz. — for some, the entire country.

My latest trip to the canyon occurred with an Arizona State University organization, The Arizona Outdoors Club, on the weekend of June 16 — mere weeks prior to wildfires erupting throughout Arizona and tearing through the destination, scarring its lush green scenery with blackened trees and brush. My four-person group departed Phoenix at 7:15 p.m. and arrived at the dispersed campground shortly after 9 p.m. Getting to the camping area an hour before we did, the other six members of our entourage relaxed around a fireless fire pit, eating chili and joking about previous adventures. After preparing our tents and socializing for an hour, everyone departs to their respective areas and retires for the evening. I would have, too — if it wasn’t for the rambunctious wind and a very vocal owl.

From my previous trip to Jacks, I knew the nightly wind buffets across the canyon’s rim and vowed to bring ear plugs on this trip. Naturally, I forgot them. After listening to the wind slamming itself against my tent every five minutes or so, an owl, residing in the tree I established my base under, decided to join the vocal chorus of distant coyotes. Its hoots and hollers seemed to taunt me; whenever the wind settled enough for sleep’s dark embrace to approach, a loud screech would emit above my head, jolting my senses into an alert position. The night seemed to last forever, but eventually the sun peaked over the trees, and the excitement began.

Jacks Canyon, Mental Block Party

Jacks Canyon, Mental Block Party, Photo: Ethan Holshouser

People began stirring out of their slumbering state around 6 a.m. and stumbled into the bitter-cold morning air. After a breakfast of peanut butter and Cliff Bars, I grabbed my climbing gear, two pairs of climbing shoes, an ATC belay device and a harness, and descended into the shade infested canyon. Soon three others joined me, and we embarked upon the 10-minute hike to “Cracker Jack Cliffs.” Upon our arrival, we glanced up at the 40-foot wall in front of us. Three warm-ups greet our gaze, “Betty Cracker,” “You Don’t Know Jack” and “Step Right Up.” Each of these climbs is 5.9, as rated by the Yosemite Decimal System. (The higher the numerical rating, the harder the climb; after 5.9+, the letters “a” through “d” are assigned to the rating to establish slight differences in difficulty.) Putting on my harness and grabbing eight quickdraws (safety slings with carabiners on both ends), I tied myself into the rope with a figure-eight-knot, checked with my belayer and began the morning’s first ascent.

The climb went smoothly, although I could feel the lack of sleep already taking its toll. I belayed the other climbers and begin to study my next conquest, a 50-foot 5.11a named “Mental Block Party.” The sun illuminated the wall 20 yards to my left, but this route is draped in shade, and the rock is bitter cold. Deciding upon the path I anticipated taking up the cliff’s vertical face, I checked my equipment, made sure I’m on belay and began.

My hands felt frozen, but right at home in a sharp, two-finger pocket and small crimped starting holds. Finding a dime-sized toe hold, I pushed myself off the ground. After two more moves, I’m about eight feet off the ground and at my first bolt. Unclipping a quickdraw from my harness’s gear loop, I slid one of the carabiners through the bolt, listened for the satisfying click, and attached the remaining carabiner to the rope. My left hand resided comfortably inside a large, three-inch pocket, and I dipped my right hand behind my back, grabbed a fistful of magnesium chalk to eliminate sweat and improved my grip, repeated the process with my left hand and continued upwards. Eleven feet higher, I ran into my first snag. The hold I anticipated using while scoping out the route on the ground was terrible. Sighing, I searched for nearby holds but found nothing within reaching distance. My only hope was an extremely thin side-pull seven feet diagonally from my fully extended arms. Glancing down at my feet, I slid my toes into a quarter-sized pocket, and stood up for what I believed in.

Jacks Canyon, Crosstown Traffic

Jacks Canyon, Crosstown Traffic

My fingers barely brushed up against the target hold, but not enough to get an acceptable grip. Returning to my previous position, I chalked up and kept searching. My legs began to violently shake from fatigue, but I still didn’t see salvation. Upon reaching my stamina’s limit, I knew it was time to move now or face a 10-foot fall to my last bolt, losing my on-sight attempt. A tiny, one-finger pocket, the size of a popped popcorn kernel, is between the hold I needed to get to and where I stood. I stood up and stuck the tip of my pinky finger into the hold; using it to gain momentum, I strained against the cold limestone, let go of my current hold and finally reached the target. Four movements higher, and I reached feet holds large enough to rest on without holding onto the rock, giving my fingers a well-needed rest.

Feeling rejuvenated, I continued up the route, with only 20 feet to go. The route has reached its crux — three moves between crimp holds with smaller than an inch and virtually no feet. Preparing myself for the movements, I began the transition and weighted the first hold, then moved onto the second and finally the last. My forearms were pumped and tense from fatigue, and in consequence my grip weakened, but I made it. Five more moves, and the route was complete. Panting from tiredness, I clipped my final two quickdraws in to the anchors and lowered down the route. Victory is mine.

Worn out, I spend most of the day belaying and coaching others, doing a few easier climbs and falling at the anchors on another 5.11a, “Crosstown Traffic.” Despite the exhausting sleepless night, the trip turned out to be an enjoyable and successful adventure.

For more information about Jacks Canyon, visit rockclimbing.com.

Lake Powell

Lake Powell: A Great Day, Or Week, Vacation Destination

Northern Arizona seems to have notoriety for its giant canyon, and almost to a fault, other smaller places don’t get as much fame. I am here to tell you that Lake Powell is quite an experience that allows for a full day of activity or even a full week — based on your time allotment and discretionary income.

On one of our many weekend excursions, my family and I decided to rent a boat on Lake Powell and spend the day traveling to its many beaches and breathtaking rock formations. When I say family, I am including my wife, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, nephew and our two little dachshunds. So we had a good size group for this outing.

Luckily we had a copy of “Experience Arizona” that featured Arizona’s marinas and found out that Wahweap Marina was just five miles from where we were staying. We called and made our reservation for the day.

After checking in at the marina and getting our boat, we were off on our own excursion with Captain Firle at the helm. Wahweap Marina had provided us with a map earlier of the most popular sites for boaters. We decided to find our own way, and after about 15 minutes on open water, we found a beach waiting for us that had no other inhabitants. The beach offered up views of skiers and tubers passing by with a tall rock formation back drop. It was a great spot to spend the day playing in the water and relaxing under our canopy.

After eating lunch in our own little oasis, we decided to hop on the boat and motor around for photo opportunities. The great thing about Lake Powell is that there is no shortage of room on the lake; every boater has his/her own space, and it truly makes for a majestic trip.

After about 45 minutes of travel, photos and swimming in the middle of the lake next to the boat we returned to our beach site for more rest and relaxation. A few hours had passed and so did many games of water football and toss. As the sun began to dip behind the rock formations, we were reminded that our day was sadly coming to an end. We packed up all our fun equipment and headed back to the marina.

Lake Powell has many offerings for every type of visitor, whether you want to rent a speedboat for the day or a house boat for several weeks. So even if your stay is for just a day or for an entire week, you’ll still have a great time with family and friends out on the lake.

For more information about Lake Powell, visit lakepowell.com.

Red Rocks, Sedona

Rejuvenating In The Red Rocks

Arizona is filled with astonishing scenery known for dropping jaws and stopping hearts, but I experienced an overwhelming amount of breathtaking beauty when I made the Red Rocks my playground.

Stunning monoliths and buttes surrounded by lavish green forestry create the perfect atmosphere to relax and rejuvenate in Sedona.

What makes Sedona so special? That’s up to you to decide. The beauty of it is that each person walks a way with an experience that is different. For me, it was a break from the seriousness of life.

It’s hard to find quiet time when you’re surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city (the Valley). Demands from life, and stress in general, make it almost impossible to find time for self-care.

Sedona makes it easy. You can escape the life of demands for as long as you wish and lose yourself in a place that will keep you sane and carefree.

Everyone needs a getaway once in awhile. Sedona is the ideal home away from home.

From hiking up to Chapel of the Holy Cross to exploring various shops and restaurants, I was able to forget about my worries for a while and immerse myself in nature.

During my trip, I reflected on life and remembered the treasures that come with it. The beautiful rocks reminded me of God’s impeccable creations. The majestic trees reminded me of life and how precious it is.

There are simple things that I often take for granted each day, and it’s refreshing to recall those things and why they are special.

Not only is Sedona an escape from the business of life, it reinforces the idea of life as a gift. Surrounded by perfection, you can’t help but appreciate the life you’ve been given.

For more information about Sedona and/or the Red Rocks, visit visitsedona.com or azstateparks.com, respectively.


I-17 Traffic

I-17: The Worst Place To Be Stuck In Traffic

I headed up to Flagstaff Friday evening in attempt to escape the heat and regain my sanity. The two are not mutually exclusive. Also, my roommate was moving out. Insert cynical comment here.

The weekend went beautifully; a comfortable mid-70 degrees at the day’s high point. Saturday and Sunday morning were perfect for sitting in my mini-forest of a backyard with a cup of strong coffee and my book (Fifty Shades of Grey, have you heard of it?). It’s cathartic and very much needed. Those Ponderosa Pine trees just get me every time.

I finally mustered up the motivation to remove myself from the two lawn chairs I was sprawled out on around noon on Sunday. After showering, packing, and an extra drawn out goodbye to my dog ― forget my roommates ― I left for the Valley, under the assumption it would take me two and a half hours, as usual.

Boy, was I wrong.

About 65 miles out of Flagstaff I hit traffic and I hit it hard. I have never been stopped, or even slowed below 50 mph, on I-17 before. Two lanes, no exits, but a nice view of a line of cars for as far as I can see. And, as these things always go, now I have to pee. I can practically hear my empty Starbucks cup laughing at me.

A sign I passed several miles back said there was a fire and I can’t help but think I have the worst timing in the world.

I crawl at a steady 5 mph for a while then just park on the interstate. I’m driving alone and have been sitting in traffic for a solid 30 minutes at this point. I’m getting nothing but static on the the radio and my auxiliary cord for my iPod is broken, of course. So, I pull out my book. Twenty pages later I was able to start rolling forward again.

The sluggish progression went on for about another 45 minutes. When I finally turned the radio back on I caught Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On. I rolled my windows down, blasted it and sang like there was no tomorrow. For about three and a half minutes I didn’t hate my life for sitting in traffic.

By the time I got to the actual fire, it was out. I sat in all that traffic for almost two hours and didn’t even get to see what all the fuss was about? Like I said, worst timing in the world.

I learned a valuable lesson that I will never forget since it was seared into my brain over two hours. Always check I-17 road conditions ― even when it’s not winter!

When I got back to the house I told a friend about my drive and all she said was, “Didn’t you check the road conditions online?” No, I clearly did not. But from now on I certainly will.

Always check traffic conditions. And never get Starbucks before embarking on an interstate with limited exits.

Crowd at the Arizona Renaissance Festival Photo: neepster, Flickr

The Arizona Renaissance Festival: A Trip Back In Time

I never thought it possible to travel back in time until I went to the Renaissance Festival. From the moment you step past the entrance you are transported into a different world. There are old-fashioned shops, rides operating on man-power, jousting tournaments and plenty of live entertainment.

It was my first time attending a festival of this kind and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Once there, the 16th century atmosphere instantly surrounded me. I began the day by browsing the over 200 shops that offered many things typical of the period including homemade natural soaps, celtic jewelry, swords, even beautiful carved ostrich eggs.

With shows being held on 12 stages all day long it’s crucial to know which events you’re most interested in. The schedule of events, located on the back of the festival’s map, was helpful with this. I knew for certain that I wanted to watch the jousting tournament so I planned accordingly.

As you walk from stage to stage there are plenty of sights to see, making boredom impossible. The costumed street performers portray historical characters while interacting with the visitors, turning the festival into a stage in itself. There was an instance where my boyfriend and I walked past a table seating a dozen or so acting women that shouted out to us, “Ahh lovers!” This type of interaction makes the Arizona Renaissance Festival a unique experience for each individual.

What captured my attention the most were the costumes. There were people dressed as pirates, fairies, wenches, magical trees, the list goes on. Not only was their attire historically correct but their manners were as well. The pirates were well, typical pirates, they shouted and traveled in groups causing ruckus and overall being rambunctious. The fairies played instruments, usually flutes. It was easy enough to spot the wenches since they were usually at bars serving beer to customers. I was also lucky enough to spot the queen donned in a beautiful, intricate dress and accompanied by her royal court.

Besides the shows and actors there are also contests and rides, all of which follow the theme of the Renaissance era. Vegetable Justice for instance is a game where the object is to throw tomatoes at an insulting peasant. There is also knife and axe throwing as well as a myriad of other unique games.

However, the main attraction of the Arizona Renaissance Festival are the jousting tournaments. These occur three times throughout the day (12 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.)  in the King’s Tournament Arena. Four knights fight to the death for royal recognition. This exciting show has the audience cheering for their favorite knight and insulting the opposing teams.

After all these activities you’re sure to be hungry. The Renaissance Festival offers a large variety of food items such as roasted turkey drumsticks, bread bowls, pizza, steak-on-a-stake, salads and stews. The prices were reasonable and the food was surprisingly tasty. For dessert the Monk’s Bakery, the Cappuccino Inn and the Chocolate Shoppe tempt you with their different variations of chocolate covered strawberries and other sweet treats.

If you think this might not be enough to satisfy your hunger book a seat at The Pleasure Feast. This 1 and a half hour meal includes a five course meal and lively entertainment. There are two held during the day, one at noon and the other at 2:30 p.m. You can view the 2012 menu here.

The Renaissance Festival’s unique characters, sights and food had me believing I had traveled back in time to a world where pirates and fairies still existed and magic was real.

The Arizona Renaissance Festival is open from February through March. With over 30 acres of music, shows, street performers and shopping there is no shortage of entertainment. The festival is open every weekend from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

For more information visit the Arizona Renaissance Festival’s official site at royalfaires.com

Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix

A Stroll Through The Japanese Friendship Garden

Looking for a place to relax and de-stress? Then the Japanese Friendship Garden is the perfect place for you.

As you stroll down the path of this 3.5-acre Japanese garden, you’ll see a 12-foot waterfall, a koi pond with more than 300 colorful and friendly koi fish that you can feed, flowing streams, a stepping stone path, a tea house and more than 50 varieties of plants — including two types of bamboo. Once you’re inside this beautiful garden, it’s hard to believe you’re still in the center of Phoenix’s bustling downtown.

My trip to the Japanese Friendship Garden took place in January on First Friday; the entrance fee is free on the first Friday of every month. However, on any other day the entrance fee is $5 for adults and $4 for students, military, seniors and children over 6 years old; children under 6 years are admitted free of charge.

Once there, the atmosphere made me forget all my worries. The scenery of the sunset against the picturesque tree tops and the sound of the cascading waterfall transported me to another world. The garden path took about 15 minutes to complete, unless you’re like me and stop to “ooh” and “aah” at every flower, stone and tree, then it will probably take you half an hour.

Feeding the koi fish was an experience like no other. The fish were very amicable and would swim up to the surface with open mouths, waiting to be fed. They were certainly not afraid of people; instead, they greeted them excitedly.

In addition to taking a stroll along the garden’s path, you can also take part of the Japanese Friendship Garden’s public and private tea ceremonies. Public tea ceremonies take place the second Saturday of the month at $22 per person, admission included. Private tea ceremonies require a minimum of 10 guests, and the cost is $25 per person, which includes admission and a guided tour. Reservations are required for both public and private tea ceremonies.

The Japanese Garden took several years to complete. More than 50 landscape architects from Himeji, Japan designed the Japanese Friendship Garden. The plants were brought from Himeji, a Phoenix sister city, while many of the rocks in the garden were found locally.

Although all plants species were chosen by designers to withstand the desert environment, the garden closes from May to October, during the hottest months of the year, to protect the plants.

The garden is not only a beautiful place, but it is also one that expresses the cultural acceptance and shared view of Himeji and Phoenix. This makes the Japanese name for the garden — Ro Ho En — an appropriate one. Ro Ho En is a combination of three words: Ro means Heron; Ho means Phoenix, the mythical bird; and En means garden.

I left Ro Ho En feeling refreshed and tranquil, and I find myself wanting to go back whenever I need a break from everyday life.

Japanese Friendship Garden
1125 N. 3rd Avenue
(602) 256-3204

Downtown Flagstaff

Flagstaff: A Day Of Discovery

Every year before Christmas I take a trip to Flagstaff. This trip has happened so often it has turned into a tradition for me, so this year was no exception. However, this was the first time I ended up venturing into town rather than just staying in the snow on the outskirts of Flagstaff. My visit definitely left an impression on me.

Walking through Flagstaff is a breath of fresh air — and not just in the literal sense. Flagstaff’s quaint, small-town feel, friendly inhabitants and specialty shops are a refreshing change from the Phoenix city setting. There is also another major difference between Phoenix and Flagstaff — at an elevation of 7,000 feet, Flagstaff receives an abundant amount of snow during the winter months, adding to the charm of this beautiful town.

I arrived in the early afternoon. After taking a stroll around the town, admiring the breathtaking view of the snow-capped mountains and chuckling over the witty shop names (Late for the Train Coffee Roastery and Granny’s Closet Bar and Restaurant just to name a few), my boyfriend and I decided to stop somewhere for some hot chocolate.

We came across The Sweet Shoppe and Nut House located on 15 E. Aspen Avenue, which offers a variety of homemade fudge; their flavors range from apple fudge and peanut butter fudge, to the indulgent Reese’s Pieces fudge. They also offer other sugary confections, many of them hard to find and sure to make you experience a blast from the past.Starrlight Books, Flagstaff

With our sweet tooth satisfied, we continued to browse the shops in Flagstaff. To my delight we came across a bookstore selling used books. Starrlight Books offers a large selection of both old classics and newer fiction titles. These books are priced at around half their retail price and are in excellent condition. The dark wood bookshelves and cozy reading corners make this the perfect setting for any bookworm. Also, make sure not to miss the amazing case of rare books containing a signed copy of a Virginia Woolf book.

As the trip came to a close I noticed a large marquee counting down to the new year and a large metal pinecone beside it. Flagstaff’s annual Pinecone drop is held on the last night of the year; it’s Flagstaff’s version of New York’s Time Square Ball Drop. Although I didn’t get the chance to attend this event I’m sure it’s just as memorable as everything else that makes Flagstaff such a wonderful place to visit.

For more information about the Flagstaff businesses mentioned in this blog, visit the following websites:


Downtown Flagstaff

Flagstaff: Through A Massacusetts Native's Eye

Flagstaff may be known for snow, skiing and various other winter activities but what really makes the city unique is the atmosphere. It has a cozy, relaxed feel and the people are nothing but welcoming.

I first experienced Flagstaff last October when a friend invited me on a weekend trip to check out the third annual Oktoberfest. I had previously heard of Oktoberfest but only about the festival held in Tempe. And let me tell you I’ve heard some wild stories.

I debated going because I didn’t want to go to another wild boozefest, especially outside. Too many drunken college kids can make a field very gross, very fast. But to my surprise my experience in Flagstaff was very pleasant and relaxed.

I was unaware of the diversity of climate and culture in Arizona because I recently moved here from Massachusetts. Can you say culture shock one more time! The Arizona I knew consisted of desert, cactus and year-round sun. I knew it could snow in Flagstaff but I guess you could say I didn’t really believe it. I was amazed the city reminded me of a ski town in Vermont.

I was fascinated on the drive when the mountains began to morph from desert sand and a few scattered cacti to being covered in pine trees. I was in awe much like a child that saw a plane takeoff for the first time. It ‘s something that is normal to people who have grown up with it but it was completely new to me. I was amazed the climate could change so drastically so quickly.

As we walked to Oktoberfest the first thing I said was, “grass, it’s been months since I walked across a patch of grass.” Flagstaff not only looked like New England but it felt like it too. It was brisk, overcast and a perfect day to zip-up in a hooded sweatshirt.

The festival itself was not what I was expecting. It was small and laidback, which was very refreshing. There was beer, wine and music as with every Oktoberfest but it had more of a feeling of enjoying a couple of casual drinks with close friends opposed to a rambunctious college party.

The Flagstaff Oktoberfest was intimate and hosted several local artists and companies that set up in tents for festival-goers to peruse at their leisure. But the icing on the cake was the Flagstaff natives. They were friendly, laid-back and happy to share the best of their town with visitors.

I would recommend Flagstaff to anyone who wants to get out of the desert for a weekend or even a couple weeks. It’s a great way to experience a cooler climate right here in Arizona. And be sure to visit Flagstaff’s Fourth Annual Oktoberfest at Wheeler Park on Saturday, Oct. 6 from 11a.m. to 8p.m.

For more information about Flagstaff visit flagstaffarizona.org

First Friday in Downtown Phoenix

First Friday In Downtown Phoenix

The First Friday evening of every month in downtown Phoenix will provide you with all flocks of life gathered around multiple forums of artwork. From dancing and singing, to high-priced artwork lining gallery walls and local street vendors selling their handcrafted delights, First Friday has every culturally stimulating experience you can imagine without having to leave the city.

Phoenix’s First Friday event started as an annual event in the spring of 1988 known as the annual Art Detour. Met with large crowds and a new life to the downtown art district, the annual event turned monthly in early 1994. Since then, huge numbers of Phoenix locals and city visitors continue to fill the streets of Phoenix’s art district to share and explore their interest in local art, making this First Friday art walk the largest monthly event in the United States.

Free to all attendees, arrive on the  Valley Metro Light Rail or park at the Phoenix Art Museum and travel to all the hot spots by a free shuttle to soak up all that the night has to offer. Comprised of more than 70 galleries, venues and street vendors, you’ll surely find something to please everyone’s interests with this self-guided walking tour.

For me, the event’s convenient location off the city’s beloved light rail system made First Friday a regular monthly outing here in my home away from home. Just four years ago I packed up everything I knew to move out of state for college and began looking for other off-campus experiences to take in what Phoenix had to offer. With several hits and misses, I quickly found refuge in the streets of Phoenix’s art district, as I became a familiar face at First Friday.

With every first Friday of the month, my frequent visits are met with new sights, smells and sounds. Although the usual, art-loving crowd is to be expected, you can never really predict what little wonders you’ll find that night. After attending a few times, I began to know which galleries are worth lingering in the longest, which shops have the best vendors in their yards and what artists will stimulate my desire for unique works of art.

Despite art snobbery stereotypes, First Friday is more about the “come as you are” philosophy while you comfortably stroll the town enjoying an evening of good art, music and food. As a poor college student in love with all artistic forms, this event has truly fed my hunger for great art without having to endure the stuffy galleries quiet enough to hear a pin drop.

Rather, in the streets, yards and galleries of downtown Phoenix, you are greeted with open arms despite your level of love or knowledge for art. As a safe haven for those looking for a lively event full of spirit and culture, First Friday has served as my regular form of entertainment along with being a must for any visitors asking for something to do around Phoenix. In that, I will continue to attend the monthly events and encourage all to join in on the evening of great festivities.

For more information about First Friday visit artlinkinc.wordpress.com.

Shamrock Farms

Shamrock Farms Dairy Tour

Sometimes the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. For Shamrock Farms dairy cows, it’s greener right where they are! Shamrock’s motto is “happy cows produce the best milk,” and getting the chance to tour the dairy farm proved that to be true.

Shamrock Farms dairy products are different from other dairy products because they are guaranteed to stay fresh up to 90 days when unopened and up to seven days after the product’s expiration date. This is due to the unique pasteurization of the Shamrock Farms dairy products and the quick processing time.

I think it’s safe to say that taking the Shamrock Farms dairy tour last weekend really moo-ved me!

The dairy farm, located in Maricopa, south of Phoenix, is located on 1,000 acres of land and is the home to approximately 17,000 cows. The farm doesn’t have an address, so to get there, follow the directions from Shamrock Farms’s website.

We arrived 15 minutes early as recommended and checked in for our tour in the big red barn that is also the gift shop, museum and snack bar where you can get some delicious Shamrock Farms milk or ice cream.

When we heard the cowbell ring (no pun intended), it was time to climb aboard the black and white, cow-spotted tram.

Shamrock FarmsDiane, our tour guide introduced us to the history of Shamrock Farms, which began in Tucson in 1922. She told us how it came to be the leading dairy processor and distributor in the Southwest.

The dairy tram took us around the farm where we stopped by the Desert Oasis that boasts, “World Class Services, Balanced Dining, Full Body Care and Stress Reduction.” The milking cows are kept in this climate enhanced environment and when they are milked, they have a “cleaning service” that rakes and sanitizes the pens.

Then it was off to the milking barn; but first, the tram stopped at Roxie’s play place so visitors could feel how the milking machine feels to the cows, dispelling the myth that it hurts or pinches the cow. Visitors, old and young, climbed in the large tub of cottage cheese, took pictures in front of the large Shamrock Farms milk bottle, or bopped around the over-sized, sour creme punching bags.

Shamrock FarmsFrom the play place, the tour walked to the milking barn where we watched the dairy farm workers sanitize the milking stations before and after each cow is milked. This twin double barn allows the farm to milk 200 cows at the same time.

In the milking observatory, we were treated to a video that explains what happens to the milk after it is shipped to the I-17 processing plant and how it ends up on your store shelf.

After viewing the milking station, the tram drove us through the Desert Oasis where all the cows are kept and on to the nursery where each tour member donned a plastic glove and got to pet and feed the baby calves that will one day become Shamrock Farms dairy cows. The baby calves were so adorable! They loved the attention lavished on them by the visitors on the tour.

The calves are kept in small, individual pens to protect them from the elements and predators, as well as to allow the dairy farm employees to monitor their health and diet.

Shamrock FarmsThe tour also passes (at a distance) the special barn and the free fields where the organic cows graze. Shamrock Farms doesn’t use a growth hormone in any of their cows, so you never have to worry about it passing on to your family whether you buy regular or organic Shamrock Farms products.

The tour finished when the dairy tram stopped next to the red barn, and we were invited to complimentary Shamrock Farms milk. They have the regular flavors of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, but there are also the Dulce de Leche, Café Moocha and even energy-infused milk, Rockin’ Refuel, from which to choose.

We took our time to walk through the museum and view the historic photographs of the beginning of Shamrock Farms and the products it has created over the past 90 years.

The Shamrock Farms belief is to treat their employees like family and their customers like friends.

What to Know Before You Go to Shamrock Farms:

  • To go on the dairy tour, you must make a reservation on the Shamrock Farms website.
  • Arrive for the tour 15 minutes early to allow enough time to check in.
  • Bring your camera and a thirst for locally owned and produced Arizona dairy products.
  • Before you leave, stop by the gift shop to get that cow-loving friend something new to add to the collection!

Visit www.shamrockfarms.net for more on Shamrock Farms and its dairy tour and its special Joy to the Herd event the first weekend in December.


Alcantara Vineyard and Winery

Northern Arizona Wineries: Alcantara Vineyard & Winery

Alcantara Vineyard & Winery is nestled in the hills outside of Cottonwood. The warm days and cooler nights allow for the creation of delicious wines and the perfect atmosphere to go on the vineyard tour.

Alcantara Vineyard & WineryBefore you even step inside the modern stucco house that serves as Alcantara’s tasting room and gift shop, you will hear the crooning of Frank Sinatra. The foyer of the house is bustling as is the sitting room and the kitchen. It feels more like a casual cocktail party where you can make yourself at home.

I pulled up a seat at the tasting bar and acquainted myself with the wine tasting list. With 16 wines to choose from, I read the descriptions carefully. It was difficult as the majority of the wine list catered to reds, and I love reds. Check out the wine list by visiting Alcantara’s website.

I tasted the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, and for a white wine I enjoyed it. It was a crisp, medium-bodied wine with hints of nectarine and pears.

Alcantara Vineyard & Winery

But I couldn’t wait to taste the reds! I tasted nearly the whole list, so I’ll just list my favorites.

The 2008 Syrah was clean with a taste of black berry and rose hips, a hint of violet and pepper. It was soft, yet weighty and definitely delicious.

The 2007 Meritage, a Bordeaux blend, was very dark, bold and spicy. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec grapes create a wine that exhibits dark cassis and currant flavors with hints of baking spices, lavender and soft tannins. This wine is blended beautifully.

But now I introduce you to the 2008 Petite Sirah, this wine was absolutely perfect to my palate. It was opaque, almost like ink. It was weighty and consumed the tongue in flavors of lavender, blackberry and spice combined with big tannins. All I wrote in the note box next to this wine on my tasting sheet was, “AMAZING!”

It had been quite a tour for my palette, but I still had the dessert wines to try. Normally dessert wines are not my favorite. They usually end up being too much like semi-sweetened white wine, but I fell in love with a dessert wine at Alcantara vineyards. The 2006 Late Harvest Semillon was sweet liquid gold as it flowed down my throat. It was sweet, but it was balanced with a crisp acidity and the flavors of orange blossom, honeycomb, honeysuckle and peach. It was a wonderful finish to a superb day of wine tasting.

Alcantara Vineyard & Winery

It is $10 for five tastings, including a souvenir wine glass, $15 for the VIP tasting that comes with a crystal goblet, and if you are lucky enough to make it to Alcantara Vineyard on Friday or Saturday you can opt to go on the vineyard tour for $18 which includes the tasting.

After the tasting, I spent some time on the outdoor patio enjoying the cool Cottonwood air and then walked around the vineyard looking at the bunches of grapes on the vine ripening for this year’s harvest. I happened to visit on a Sunday, so I missed out on the wine tour, but Alcantara Vineyard has a list of events coming up this fall and both at the vineyard and in Northern Arizona.

If You Go:

Alcantara Vineyard
7500 Alcantara Way, Verde Valley
(928) 649-8463
Daily: 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.


San Dominique Winery

Northern Arizona Wineries: San Dominique Winery

Napa, Napa, Napa! It’s all about Napa right? Not anymore. Napa Valley still has seniority in the wine game, but you won’t hear wine-ing laments from younger wineries in Northern Arizona. They stand very well on their own and have something a little bit different to bring to the wine enthusiast.

Recently, I took a trip to Northern Arizona to visit two of the 13 wineries on the Northern Arizona Wine Tour Map near Camp Verde and Cottonwood.

San Dominique Winery

My first stop was the San Dominique Winery also known as Garlic Paradise. Aside from my enjoyment of wine, I love garlic. I put it in or on just about everything I cook. I’ve even had the opportunity to taste garlic ice cream which was delicious, but sadly, is one of the only things not offered at Garlic Paradise.

San Dominique Winery is run out of a small shop by owner and cellar master, Bill Staltari. San Dominique Winery has the feel of an Italian general store with the products of Garlic Paradise lining the shelves and bottles of wine behind a big wooden counter.

The Wine
The wine tasting list offers 17 wines to taste, reds, whites and the specialty wines. There is also a separate list of “Specialty Private Reserves” that states “Serious Inquiries Only.” It’s only $10 for four tastings, and you get a souvenir glass. I am not sure if this includes wines off the private reserve list, but I doubt it.San Dominique Winery

I tried the 1998 Cabernet, 2005 Cabernet and Black Cherry reds, the Arizona Blush, the Muscato of Alexandria whites, and the three specialty wines, Hot Pepper wine, Amerita, and Almondino.

My favorite red was the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon; it had a light spice, a hearty bouquet and a smooth finish — no wonder it is a Silver Medal winner. The Black Cherry wine was another favorite, it is a sweet summer wine made purely from black cherries — very fruity and rich.

But what really excited me was the list of specialty wines. The Amrita is an orange marsala dessert wine. It has flavors of honey and orange, and it’s not as sweet as expected. The Almondino was a rich and smooth almond-flavored, sherry-based wine. And lastly there was the hot pepper wine. This is not a dessert wine and even following the recommendation to “serve chilled” won’t cool it off! It’s a blend of Chenin Blanc and French Colombard grapes infused with hot pepper. If you buy a bottle, you get a complimentary recipe card that suggests how to use the wine to spice up your favorite dishes or that happy hour margarita.

San Dominique Winery

The Garlic
The amount of items that include garlic are incredible — BBQ rubs and sauces, pasta sauces, salad dressings, dipping oils, sandwich spreads and meat glazes. And even if you or someone you know doesn’t love garlic, there are a few items sans garlic worth a try. And if you can’t make it to San Dominique you can always order your favorites online at www.garlicparadise.com.

The Dinners
Staltari cooks up dinner’s right in his shop, and every three to five weeks on a Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. he hosts dinner for a group. The dinner is seven courses for a reasonable price.

“Don’t expect to rush away,” Staltari says. “It’s at least a three hour affair where you can relax and enjoy yourself.”

He has been doing these dinners for 18 years and enjoys hosting as much as the guests enjoy eating. If you are interested in the Sunday dinner, give your email address to San Dominique Winery, and you will be emailed a menu and date of the next dinner.

San Dominique Winery

Bill Staltari in his kitchen preparing to serve guests.

If You Go:

San Dominique Winery
I-17 & Cherry Road (Highway 169), Camp Verde
(602) 549-9787
Open Daily: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.


Out of Africa Entrance

An Out-Of-Africa Arizona Safari

Ever dream about a safari vacation in the Serengeti? Have your kids been begging you for a day where they can play with impalas and jaguars? (And I’m not talking about cars, you American junkie.)

Well, look no further than our own Southwestern jewel of Sedona for an African experience that’s Out of Africa … and this world.

Out of Africa Wildlife Park sits on 104 acres of land atop Mingus Mountain, overlooking the spectacular red rocks and San Francisco Peaks.arizona safari out of africa

In its 23 years, Out of Africa has held no boundaries. Founders Dean and Prayeri Harrison dreamt of a land where species could interact with one another as naturally as they do in Africa, and as their homepage suggests, “the concept of oneness is illustrated with unsurpassed majesty.”

Although I visited the park two years ago, my mother still talks about how she came to understand the expression, “you’re laughing like a hyena!” She saw them in action, laughing, well, like hyenas. My most memorable experience from the park? A giraffe steering his neck to lick pellets out of my hand; I really did feel at one with nature at that point.

Your standard jeep safari is a double-decker trolley that’s usually filled to capacity, but don’t let that turn you off; the tour-guide-slash-walking encyclopedia that knows everything you’d ever want to know about animals makes up for the crowded space. An ostrich egg, the world’s biggest egg, is even passed around to be admired — and boy, let me tell you, that thing is HEAVY. To be precise, they weigh 3 lbs on the average; that’s over 20 times the weight of a chicken egg!

arizona safari out of africa

Hope to see you soon!

If you’d like to keep it personal with your family, there are also more authentic, private tours that come equipped with a park guide and your dream jeep.

The park also has three once-daily shows. Unfortunately my family did not get there on time to watch these seemingly awe-inspiring shows. The Tiger Splash, everyday at 1:15 p.m., has Bengal and Siberian tigers playing fetch and swimming together all the while the MC teaches the audience about how various instinctual, animalistic behaviors become habits.

With the help of a stick and the fence between you, you can also feed a tiger for just $5 (daily at 2 p.m.). If you’d rather watch trainers do the feeding, every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday from 3 – 3:45 p.m., you can see just how much lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) eat as their caretakers lunge up to 800 pounds of raw meat their way in the Predator Feed.

Reptiles more your thing? The interactive snake show occurs daily at 2:15 p.m., where guests are able to touch, pet and hold the serpents as they wish. If you want to paint a big picture of the beauty of wildlife and each animals’ way of life, the best show to see is the Wonders of Wildlife, occurring Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 3 p.m. No matter what route you take, a day at the park is sure to be fun for the whole family, at any age.

The Arizona Safari park is open 7 days a week except Thanksgiving and Christmas day, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission closes at 4 p.m. Children 3 to 12 are $20, adults are $36. Seniors and veterans/active military get discounted. Annual membership is also available.

Canyoneering at Christopher Creek

Canyoneering at Christopher Creek

Outsiders picture Arizona as nothing but a hot, dry desert, completely devoid of water, life, and relief from the oppressive, omnipresent sun. Being early August, most people around Phoenix would be inclined to agree with this statement.

But if you stop for a minute, and take a look – by which I mean actually go out and explore Arizona – you might be surprised what you find. There are stunning mountains, valleys, rivers, and if you look in the right place, these green things called plants. They’re pretty cool. Last fall, I stumbled upon my own Arizona oasis tucked away in the hills near Payson. It’s called Christopher Creek.

Christopher Creek actually isn’t all that hidden or secret. It’s actually an extremely popular destination for families all around central Arizona. It offers the sun-scorched residents of Phoenix a chance to splash around in crystal-clear pools while enjoying the cooler air of the Mogollon Rim.

A downside to the creek’s popularity is that the entrance is littered with plastic bottles, beer cans and an assortment of other trash. But a long, rambling complaint about the pollution and degradation of Arizona’s wilderness is a sad story for another day. I’m sure what you, the reader, really want to hear about is what kind of exciting, fun things you can do at Christopher Creek.

During my trip to Christopher Creek (or C2, as how I will refer to it for the rest of this post), I was lucky enough to go with my friend Brent, who just so happens to be an expert canyoneerer[1]. Canyoneering the act of traversing through canyons – often by whatever means necessary. This includes everything from hiking, scrambling, climbing, jumping and most famously rappelling. (During my various adventures with Brent, I have rappelled down cliffs as high as 300 ft.[2]). Accompanying us on our trip was my proud, Chicano amigo Rene[3], and my other friend Star, a first time canyoneererer.

C2 is an amazing place for canyoneering. The water is clear and cold; so even on a pretty warm day you have to wear a wetsuit. Over hundreds, or possibly thousands, of years, the flowing water of the creek has etched into the rock, creating all kinds of cool formations and markings that I could tell you about if I knew anything about geology.

All sorts of green trees, shrubs and cacti grow from the edge of the creek up the canyon walls. Once you pass the point of the first technical rappel, its unlikely that you’ll see another person from outside your group. Being down there makes you feel cut-off and isolated, but in an incredibly exciting and uplifting way. It’s like you’re an explorer venturing off in to uncharted territory, or an astronaut who’s just discovered a new world. It’s a feeling that all outdoorsmen[4] strive to experience.

Christopher Creek is one of my favorite canyoneering spots in Arizona. It has so many climbs, jumps, slides and swims that you feel like you are in a water park. Only, you know, without all the urine.

Everyone was having a great time, especially Star, who was being converted to avid canyoneerererer.

After a few hours of swimming and hiking we were nearing the end of the creek. At the last waterfall, our guide Brent announced that we had the option of jumping, rather than rappelling down. The fall would be about 30 feet.  Being the cavalier, young thrill-seeker that I am, I shouted, “Lets do it!”

Without consulting the other members our group, Brent picked up the rope and the rest of the gear and chucked over the edge.  Now, we had no other option but to jump.

Brent was the first one over the edge; grizzled and experienced, he showed no hesitation in leaping into the water below. So as not to appear less manly, I quickly followed suit. Next up was Star, but she didn’t seem to have the same enthusiasm for falling from high places like Brent and I did. It was a team effort trying to get her to jump.

Standing behind her, Rene attempted to reassure Star and calm her fears, while Brent and I teased her from the water below. Finally, after what seemed like half and hour, Star was able to summon the courage and go for it. She backed up, and then started sprinting towards the edge of the cliff.

Canyoneering at Christopher Creek

Unfortunately, Star seemed to use up most of her courage during the run. At the very last second, she tried to stop. But it was too late; momentum and gravity had won. What resulted was either a terrifying fall, or the worst looking dive I have ever seen. Star tripped, rolled down a steep incline, and then fell 30 feet into the water below – landing on what appeared to be her face. Terrified, Brent and I rushed back in to get her; I thought she was knocked out.

Luckily, Star turned out to be okay. Everyone was tremendously relieved that she wasn’t hurt. Well, to be honest, I thought the whole thing was hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing for about 10 straight minutes[5]. Still, Brent said it was the closest anyone has come to dying on one of his trips.

I have great memories from Christopher Creek.



[1] Yes, I know that’s a lot of er’s

[2] It’s actually not as hard or as dangerous as it sounds.  You just need to make sure you tie your knots correctly.  Also, don’t let go of the rope.

[3] I’ve actually never heard him use the word “Chicano”.  But I like the way it sounds so I’m going to use it.

[4] And outdoorswomen! This isn’t a sexist blog!

[5] But only after I knew she wasn’t hurt.  I’m not a monster.  So don’t judge me; if you had seen it you’d be cracking up too.

Sedona, Ariz.

Exploring Around Sedona

With summer quickly coming to an end for those on summer break, my good friend Reanna and I decided to take a day trip somewhere up north to escape the Valley heat, if only for a little while. We both agreed that Sedona would be the perfect place.

Leaving in the late morning, we began driving on the highway. We blasted our music and talked about everything, making the drive go by quickly. About an hour and a half into the drive, we saw a sign promoting Montezuma Castle. I have visited the castle many times with my parents when we would go on day trips when I was younger. Reanna, on the other hand, had never visited, let alone heard of the place. We decided to check it out.

Montezuma Castle is a cliff dwelling made by the Sinagua people over 1,000 years ago. It’s one of the most well-preserved dwellingsMontezuma Castle, Ariz. in North America, and thousands of people come to marvel at how it was constructed and see how intact the apartment-like home still is.

After we walked into the state park, we headed down the path to look at the historic ruin. Even though I have seen it many times, the huge structure still amazes me. The dwelling is so high up on the limestone cliff, it’s unbelievable to imagine that people had to climb it every day.

While walking around the park, a park ranger informed us that another ranger was about to start talking to a group of visitors. Awesome, we would get to learn more about the Sinagua people and how they managed to build a house so far up from the ground. We walked and sat down, ready to be educated.

Well, the ranger didn’t talk about the cliff dwelling at all. Instead, he spoke to us about the dangers of rattlesnakes, strangely. I suppose Reanna and I are now well informed on that subject.

After taking one last look at Montezuma Castle, we got back in the car and headed down the highway. We made another stop at Montezuma Well, which is 11 miles north of the cliff dwelling.

Montezuma Well, Ariz. , Photo: psyberartist, FlickrThe well contains over one million gallons of water that flows in daily and was a water source to people and animals for thousands of years. There are smaller cliff dwellings surrounding the walls of the well, and it must have been a serene, beautiful place to reside.

After climbing down to the water and exploring around the ruins, our stomachs were growling. We agreed to drive to beautiful Sedona and get some lunch.

Reanna and I ate at Wildflower Bread Company, and the food was delicious, especially the potato cream cheese soup. With our hunger completely gone, it was time to explore the area.

After visiting a few stores, we drove to Highway 89 and went north. This winding, scenic road is absolutely stunning. It twists and curves around red rock cliffs and is so green, with towering trees and water on the side of the road.

After gazing at the gorgeous scenery, we parked our car on the side of the road and went down to Oak Creek. We climbed doOak Creek, Sedona, Ariz. wn some rocks and put our feet in the freezing water. The area surrounding the creek is so peaceful and relaxing; the water flows over river rocks and creates a soothing sound.

After spending time at the creek, we climbed back up the rocks and decided it was time to head home after spending almost the entire day exploring.

We hopped back on the highway and began heading home, but first we stopped at a stand on the side of the road and bought organic apple cider. It was delicious, and we drank it on the way home, reminiscing about our fun and enjoyable day we spent sightseeing.

Skydiving, Desert Skydiving Center, Buckeye

Throw Momma from The Plane

Tired of buying the usual perfume bottle, purse, spa gift certificate or other stereotypical woman’s gift, I decided to make my mother’s 60th birthday more interesting by taking her tandem sky diving at Desert Skydiving Center in Buckeye.

When I told people I was taking her skydiving they thought it was the coolest thing ever—and the craziest.  My dad was particularly concerned about it because of her prior medical history (she used to suffer from high blood pressure), but as she got older she adopted a healthier lifestyle and lost weigh so oddly enough, 60 was the most appropriate age for her to start living on the edge, or off of it.Skydiving, Desert Skydiving Center, Buckeye

So I decided to take my first leap with my mom by my side.  Whenever I had ridden a roller coaster in the past, I cried for my mommy so jumping out of an airplane at 11,000 feet would warrant something more, i.e. her physically there holding my hand.

Unfortunately things didn’t work out quite that way.  The plane wasn’t big enough for my mom and I to jump at the same time so I had to “let” her go first.  She was, of course, more than thrilled with not the slightest hint of fear.

Our reservation was at 11:30 a.m., not 10:30 a.m. as we thought.  By the time our paperwork stating that we might die and if so our family won’t sue – all that boring stuff – was filled out and we were in full gear, it was past noon and well into the 100 degrees already.

My mom and I don’t do hot weather.  When I say, “don’t do,” I mean we become highly irritable mainly because of the small pools of sweat we each create on our upper lips, which is NOT attractive.

That might be why we were too preoccupied complaining about the heat to think about the fact that we were about to throw ourselves from a plane two miles in the air entrusting our lives to strangers for nothing more than a quick thrill.

When we were told the temperature was much cooler in the air, my mom and I nearly had a wrestling match to see who would go first.  But alas, being that I’m such a good daughter I stepped down and watched my all too happy mother fly off into the air with four men, who by the way didn’t speak a lick of Spanish—my mom’s primary language.

I hadn’t considered the language barrier until the moment before I waived her off when one of the jumpers asked me how to say “no” in Spanish.  That was scary.

Twenty minutes later the cameraman fell from the sky as I saw my mom in the distance, only it wasn’t her.  It was the man who asked for the “no” translation.Skydiving, Desert Skydiving Center, Buckeye

I just about had a heart attack wondering where my mother was until I was told she was coming and Mr. “No” had just hitched a ride on the plane.

Finally I saw my mother approaching and I heard the instructor yelling “put your feet up” to my mother who unfortunately was not able to and scraped the dirt with her knees and stomach.  But she’s a trooper; she dusted herself off and smiled for the camera.  Later she said the circulation in her legs was weak because of the leg straps.

Five water bottles and an equal amount of trips to the restroom later it was my turn and still, the nerves hadn’t kicked in.  It had only gotten hotter so the heat was the only thing I feared at that moment.

I calmly got into the plane and enjoyed the ride and then something weird happened.  It wasn’t hot anymore.  I then realized what I was about to do.  As the door swung open and the air flew in and out of the plane I had definitely forgotten about the heat and the fear kicked in full force.

I first stuck my foot out, which was rather difficult because of the wind’s force, I then held on to the plane only for a few seconds for fear that I would not let go.

As we dove into the air there was no crying for mommy.  The only thing I could utter was “Oh my God.” But there was no fear at that moment.  It was surprisingly calm and peaceful.  I just enjoyed the free fall, which felt like a lot longer than the five to seven minutes promised.Skydiving, Desert Skydiving Center, Buckeye

My legs and arms began to feel numb so I told the instructor because I surely didn’t want to take a belly dive like my mom did.  When he loosened it I feared he would do it too much and I would fall off so I held my shoulder straps for dear life, literally.

As we approached the ground, I lifted my feet up and pretty much had a textbook landing, thanks to mom.  If anyone ever said you’ve never taught me anything, they certainly can’t say that now.

The initial jump was the best moment of it all.  Going from a quiet ride up to the sudden burst of noise from the propeller and the wind, not to mention the fear, gave me such an intense adrenaline rush.  I’m glad I was a “little” scared.  And it was nice to have mom there as well.


Photo: runnr_az, flickr

Skydiving Arizona

Near the end of my first year at Arizona State University, myself and two other friends decided to take a leap into something we’ve never done before.

The chance to jump out of an airplane from 13,000 feet in the airPhoto: Ryan Harvey, Flickr was presented to us, and we weren’t going to turn it down. Getting the three of us on board with the plan was an easy task; we had all been craving a new thrill, and skydiving was high on our list.

In the early morning we gathered together into one car and made our way to Eloy for a visit to Skydive Arizona, a company that provided everything we would need to complete our skydiving adventure.

After about an hour-long drive from Tempe, we arrived at our destination where we wandered the site a bit and watched other skydivers coming in for their landing. Soon we learned the basics of skydiving safety and how our jump would work. Next we put on our harnesses and headed to the plane that would take us up into the sky.

A little car that looked like an elongated golf cart with no roof took us to the plane just as our nerves came into full swing. We hopped off the cart and climbed into the plane that had benches lining the Skydiving, Eloy, Photo: Ryan Harvey, Flickrwalls instead of the rowed commercial airline seating that I was used to. This was definitely the smallest plane I had ever been on.

After a fairly quick take off, we were headed up to our destination of 13,000 feet. Hip hop music played over the speakers as we nervously joked around and took pictures with each other.

Soon it was time to jump out of this plane that I had just started to get used to. I watched the first two people, who were experienced jumpers, flip out of the plane and quickly fall away into the sky. As I inched forward and approached the door, I got my first real glimpse of the wide open sky and a small world down below. In one swift motion the entire world was flipping above and below me, like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was amazing to see and feel such a huge mass of land being thrown around me like it was nothing.Skydivers, Eloy, Arizona, Photo: runnr_az, flickr

After free falling for a short time, I pulled the cord that released the parachute, and while pulling on the handles to steer the parachute into some drastic and very amusing turns, I gently floated back to ground level. I landed smoothly into the grass, quickly followed by my other two friends.

The rest of our day and night was spent in a euphoric state, reveling in what we had just experienced, and eager to do it again.


Boating Adventure at Saguaro Lake

With the start of summer freshly upon us college students, my friends and I decided to start the much anticipated break with a memorable trip. What better way to celebrate our hard work than to pack up our truck and boat and head to beautiful Tonto National Forest here in east central Arizona to relax and swim in the refreshing water at Saguaro Lake?

Starting early in the morning, our group drove to the east side of the valley past Tempe in search of our summer destination. After the 45-minute drive full of rowdy college students talking, laughing and singing to the latest tunes on the radio, we made it to the dock where we unloaded the boat into the water.

After everyone was situated, and after we were unpleasantly surprised by the wind’s decision to direct the sunscreen’s blasts in our mouths, we departed for the east side of the lake to start our fun. The brisk, cool wind whipped our hair on our faces as the boat flew across the water.

The temperature was perfect; the Arizona heat wasn’t too hot for May, and the water was refreshing to the touch. Saguaro Lake, Tonto National Forest, Arizona, Photo: Andrea Crandall

The boat came to a stop, with the group deciding that our first water adventure was going to be wakeboarding. One by one, all 10 of us took our turns, some more experienced than others. This was my first attempt at wakeboarding, and to be honest, I found it quite challenging. I would successfully get pulled up to be on top of the water, only to fall over a split second later. My good friend Miranda boarded the water with ease, making the sport look all too easy to do. Nevertheless, we all had a good time in the water.

After a few hours of wakeboarding, our stomachs were growling with hunger. We pulled over to an area between canyon walls, which offered shade from the now scorching sun. We all ate, relaxed and bobbed our heads to the loud music, resting our bodies before our next activity took place.

With our minds and bodies recharged, our next course of action was to go tubing. With a rope connecting a large water tube to the boat, two by two we went out with our life jackets and faced the adrenaline of being whipped around the lake with the fear of being thrown off and a chance to become airborne while hitting a wave.

Without a doubt, tubing is unbelievably fun, and even more humorous to watch. To watch the faces of pure excitement turning into concentration and fear is amusing. It is a good idea to wear tight shorts while tubing, however. Getting thrown off and hitting the water at an angle gives you a high possibility that those may come completely off, which a few of us experienced that day.

The tubing left us all exhaustePhoto: hydrollix, Flickrd. We laughed about the wipe outs and how much fun it was. With our recently sunburned faces and tired bodies, we cleaned up the boat and headed to the dock. We easily hooked the boat back up to the truck and headed home just as the sun was setting, remembering all the fun moments we had just previously shared.

Wakeboarding, tubing and swimming at the lake was successful, with everyone having a great time. It was a perfect way to start off the summer break and left us determined to do it all again sometime very soon.