Arizona – A desert beauty

What a day it has been?  What was expected to be the quickest and easiest part of our entire trip ended being the most stressful.  We were supposed to get a cab at 9:30am to go to LAX Airport and depart at 12:30pm to Phoenix.  Notwithstanding the last minute cancellation the night before for the cab and having to book with another company – LA Cabs (no explanation was given, thanks 24-7 car services!) we were all packed and ready.  Lo and behold a message me at 9:10am saying Delta delayed our flights from 12:30 to 2:30pm.  This has been an ongoing thing with Delta and the other American airlines lately due to the Omicron Covid outbreak, holding up many of the airline staff isolated in their homes.  So we were not completely surprised, and at least we weren’t told later at the airport, so we at least got to enjoy the sunshine in Calabasas and went to a park with the little ones.  Then off we went at 11:00 a.m. and made our way past security in the domestic Terminal 2, we were then made to wait another 1:45min being told in 10 min intervals that the airline was delayed.  Thankfully we finally lifted off on the plane at around 4:30pm and landing in Phoenix at around 6:45pm. 

After that it was a nice long walk through the airport and taking some time at the car rental desk (which was oddly far away from the airport – much like in LAX, not sure why American airports don’t have their car rental desks closer to the airport itself, and maybe get rid of the long shuttle bus ride).  Anyway, by the time we made our way through the City to Scottsdale, stopping for a quick bite and Chop Shop (which was good, except for another vomit incident with our 2 year old, the second one after doing the same thing in Anaheim).  Parking was a bit of an issue but we finally made it through the long hallways of our hotel apartments to rest up at around 9:00pm, just enough time to write this and take a shower. We had planned to do Fashion Square and the waterfront tonight, but after a 5 hour delay and some longer than usual period of time to get anything done we are more than happy to finally make our way to a good night sleep.  Hoping for a smoother plan tomorrow with a visit to the Zoo (maybe visit the “Hole in the Rock” park), lunch with friends, and capping it all off at the Botanical Gardens at night. 

(Day 1, Dec. 28 2021, Sonesta Suites Scottsdale Gainey Ranch 11:40 p.m.)

It was a beautiful day with clear blue skies and refreshing Arizona winter air.  A good night sleep did just the trick and set things off right for a productive but great day.  After getting our “Grab N Go” breakfast boxes, another charming tradition due to COVID, instead of the buffet.  We headed off to the Phoenix Zoo.  It was a great day for a stroll, and although the sun started off being strong, some welcome overcast clouds made it more pleasant.  We easily spent 2 hours and got see some great desert animals making this zoo extra special and unique than any other we have seen.  With a beautiful strutting bob cat to a regal Bald Eagle, it was not a huge zoo but we got to see many animals up close and personal including a couple of Orangutans and some animals I have never seen before.  After buying some overpriced drinks and seeing the last enclosures (including a South American bear) we headed to the “Hole in the Rock” park.  It was an easy climb but my little guy slipped because he was not equipped with the right shoes (aka crocs) but we had some great views nonetheless while my wife and daughter stayed back to recover from the zoo.

After taking a short pool break at the hotel we headed to the Desert Botanical Gardens to see the Las Noches de las Luminarias show which was a great vibe and some incredible art.  We saw the desert plants at night surprisingly clearly and got a nice prick from one of the cacti.  Incredible glass art all around and music gave us our cultural fill and was a nice easy going stroll on a beautiful night – very memorable.  Although it seems like we didn’t do a jam packed itinerary the time just flew by.  Oh and of course we did pass through the Fashion Square mall where we had us some great, and sorely missed from our Dubai days – Shake Shack burger.  Even managed to get the “frozen custard” aka ice cream, aka thick ass milkshakes.  Although we had a long wait to get our orders the taste was great and it would be a stretch to say it was worth the wait, but that’s not too far off really.  Great stuff today and hoping tomorrow will be a nice productive one with Arizona Boardwalk on the agenda to see some activities for the kiddies and meet up with friends (who we were supposed to meet up with today but couldn’t make it).  Hopefully another fun day with some incredible weather. 

We did get to see more of the City today and the vibe is great down here.  I love the dry, subtle desert nature and minimalist landscape.  The City seems open and incredibly low dense, mostly bungalow and low rise houses with large open roads.  Not so much a large city vibe but seems like a safe place to live with all the amenities and easy to maneuver.  Although it seems to be going with some areas under construction – so not sure how long this small town feel will last in what seems to be one of the fastest growing cities in the US.  Lots of great things that should be kept so hopefully they don’t get lost as it joins the big league cities at some point in the near future.

(Day 2, Dec. 29 2021, Sonesta Suites Scottsdale Gainey Ranch 11:01 p.m.)

Today was one dedicated to the kiddies – and those acting like little kiddies aka me!  We started off with the OdySea Aquarium after our “Grab N Go” breakfast.  I was pleasantly surprised – we’ve seen our fair share of aquariums so was not expecting much, but surprisingly we got to see some great exhibits including the way too friendly penguins and the “OdySea Voyager” rotating show which was actually a lot of fun.  The view from the 1st floor men’s bathroom was a show stopper (and we were always reminded that it was the 2017 rated best restroom in the world by all staff).  We then headed off for a quick visit to “Surprise Your Eyes” attraction nearby before we were to meet our friends.  It was a little disappointing given the price point with about $70 for two adults and two child tickets.  We expected more “Museum of Illusions” but it was mainly 3D perspective images with a couple of optical illusions.  I think after the illusion attractions we saw in Toronto and Vancouver our expectations were high, especially given the ticket price point.  It was little over two large areas and we were done in a good 30min max (including taking many repeated photos).  We got a few nice pix but it wasn’t worth the 70 odd dollar price we paid.

OdySea Aquarium – Shark Tank (before the Sharks showed up)

After having some coffee with friends and visiting their house for a good few hours (time flies by when you are catching up on 4 years) we headed back to the Arizona boardwalk area to see the other two attractions of the butterfly wonderland and the Dinosaur Pangaea.  The first had a nice video (not sure why we had to see a video first before we got to see the butterflies) but it was a nice quick 3D film on the Monarch migration through North America.  The butterfly “garden” was nice, but unlike Malaysia and Dubai we were not allowed to touch the butterflies, although a couple of them made my Toronto Maple Leafs blue cap their temporary home for a while.  I did manage to grab a few nice photos.  Following which we saw the reptile and small aquarium exhibits (the second one was really unnecessary given that it is right next door to the larger Odysea Aquarium.  I did manage to take a little risk and opt for Salt and vinegar flavoured crispy crickets from an insect snack vending machine, overpriced but an experience nonetheless.  I will reaffirm the cliché that it tastes like chips, and if you don’t look at them they are not too bad. 

The Beautiful Butterfly Garden

The Dinosaur exhibit was kitschy and a tourist trap at best, but the kids liked it, especially the little activities but overall was not something I necessarily enjoyed myself.  The PR and marketing posters were way to ambitious in their presentation and made it seem like a legit place, but it was just some oversized animatronic puppets with some tacky lighting. 

Dinasaur Park – tacky, but the kids loved it

We naively drove to “Sumo Maya” after that, which was to be a fusion of Asian and Mexican cuisine.  We quickly realized this is one of those fancy places where we had to book way in advance and even the parking was to a valet.  After having the same bad luck with another Taco place nearby (Blanco Tacos) we headed to a completely empty “Asian Fusion” restaurant which was really just Thai.  The food was decent and I enjoyed the Penang Shrimp Curry I ordered but nothing special.  Made our way back through the night sky and resting up before a big day tomorrow which includes a quick visit to the Old Town, a PRC Covid test which none of us is looking forward to and then a 2 our drive to Sedona in the evening before the longer drive to the Grand Canyon in the following day.  So it’ll be a couple of slightly exhausting days, but we are nearing the need and hoping to get as much out of the trip as we can.  Also heard that a winter weather system us dumping some snow and creating icy conditions near the canyon, so hopefully that clears up in the next couple of day before we make our way up there.

(Day 3, Dec. 30 2021, Sonesta Suites Scottsdale Gainey Ranch 9:29 p.m.)

What could have easily been another hectic day, trying to pack everything up before check out to make a move to the next leg of the trip ended up being surprisingly smooth.  We took our time using the hot tub and pool of the hotel in the morning, despite some cool and overcast weather, had a nice chat with some visitors from Chicago who are frequent visitors to Scottsdale and got a few interesting perspectives, nice to speak to some of the locals, who generally speaking have been stellar.  I have never know Americans to be this polite, friendly, and open from California to Arizona and it has been a pleasant shock for me.  I have really come to love the people here despite my preconceptions, but then again visiting is not the same as living here with all its warts, based on conversations with family and friends who live here.  But for now, my opinion is firmly on the positive side of a nation and its people despite its politics.

We then took our time resting up for our last phase of the trip after extending our check out for another hour.  In that time we finally got a chance to try out the In-N-Out burger hype.  Despite what looks like long lines, the operations of that franchise are so quick and slick it was one of the fastest fast food service I have ever experienced.  The burgers were delicious and on par with more gourmet options such as Shake Shack but at a lower cost and a much faster time line.  The fries were god, but I wouldn’t say they were the best and the milkshake according to my son is one of the best.

Lived up to the hype – it was really good

We made our way to Old Scottsdale to kill time before our COVID PCR test (which had to happen exactly 72 hours or less before our flight – so we couldn’t do it any earlier).  Got some Knick knacks and walked around the area, had a nice character but it was unapologetically touristy which added to its kitschy charm.  It was flanked by a number of art galleries which raised the cool stock of the area and the people there.  We had some “Pussy Cat” Gelato and were not disappointed (my Passion Mango Sorbet was amazing) and the sit down area had its cool factor.  The waterfront area was smaller than I thought and took about 5 min to walk through, seemed a little weak, but still a nice photographable spot.

Pussy Cat Gelato

After a quick and happy to say comfortable PCR test swab (we shall wait for the results in the next couple of days) – we headed to Sedona.  I must say that I started feeling a sore throat, so hopefully that is just a temporary cold related thing, and should not effect my PCR results – hopefully.  The ride was straight forward, and despite a close call with a hidden traffic police car nothing eventful.  It was amazing to see the landscape change from the valley area of Scottsdale, through to a dryer yellowish flat area and then greener hills that resembled Canada.  But as we come closer to Sedona the dramatic red outcrops were better than expected and were really awe inspiring.  The cold weather made for some fog at the hill tops which were beautiful but as the driver I couldn’t take many photos and at that point we just wanted to rest up so I spared the wifey pic requests – but she did take a few videos through the drive which I’m waiting for her to send.

We made our way to the hotel but the sun was well on its way to setting and darkness was all around, we managed to go to a nearby CVS for some essentials and got some snacks for a possible late movie with our little guy for New Years Eve – keeping it well chilled.  Having waited for our insomniac daughter to sleep (I realized that my wife and son ended up sleeping – trying to convince her to sleep, while she was still awake.  The irony is typical.  So I let them be and decided to plan for tomorrow’s agenda as well as write this little entry of the trip.  So this is me on New Year’s Eve 2021 in a dark hotel room with only my laptop screen light to keep me awake.  Let’s hope the next year I have more interesting experiences that go beyond typing carefully so as to not wake my little guys and wife sleeping since 8:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve! By the way I was almost one of them and barely managed to wake up after I realized my little daughter finally slept through her cute little snores.

Anyway, seeing that weather is cold tomorrow for the Grand Canyon, we’ll have to postpone it for the day after when t gets milder (from -14 to -3 degrees Celsius).  Got some restaurant recommendations for tomorrow and hopefully with a drive around we can see a few landscape features without taking up too much energy.  We’ll need it for the day after apparently.  On another note, and for some reason now of all times, I am getting frustrated with my hygiene and am in desperate need of a shave and some nail grooming – TMI, but had to be noted.

(Day 4, Dec. 31 2021, Sky Ranch Lodge, 11:24 p.m.)

Coming up to the tail end of our trip we are savouring every last minute of this vacation (as we hear about the growing Omicron virus and the restrictions that go along with it as well as the cold weather spell back home – we know depression is only 2 days away).  Although we did get a nice preview with some snow on the ground (enough to freeze over the car and having to wait for it to melt through the vents before we can drive off, a chilly day here in Sedona indeed; but was a nice start to the new 2022 year.

Sedona snow!

Today was all about Sedona, and we headed to the Secret Garden Café for another massive breakfast with some generous all American sized portions that I am shy to say I could not finish and had to leave.  Could be me being under the weather ever since yesterday, I felt it a bit more with some body aches and a sore through, but preserved for another productive day in terms of site seeing.  We hit up a few key view points of the Sedona rocks from the Holy Cross Chapel to the Courthouse Mesa Vista and the Airport Mesa Vista.  In between we stumbled on the little gem that was the Chai Stop where I had Rose Cardamom tea and the rest of the clan each had their Butter Chai Tea. Great atmosphere and didn’t realize it was just on the other side of the Secret Garden which we graced with our presence earlier in the day.

Secret Garden Cafe

After a much needed rest, and some typical days; worth of fights with the kids – we headed out to the Javelina Cantina restaurant for some more massive portions of Mexican food where I had a delicious Shrimp Fajita and capped it off by sharing fried ice cream.  The highlight was seeing a wild boar not too far from the restaurant just hanging around the shrub.

Looking forward for the “big one” tomorrow to see the Grand Canyon (but not so much the 4 hour drive (total both ways), and getting a little paranoid about the PCR Covid test results which are yet to come out (24-48 hours was the promise, and it has been over 24 hours, so starting to look up for some contingency plans just in case which can be very expensive.  Let’s see how it goes tomorrow and hope for the best.  Still waiting for the little devil to sleep (2 hours trying to get her to sleep and counting!).

(Day 5, Jan. 1 2022, Sky Ranch Lodge, 8:40 p.m.)

As expected to day was a tiring one, and as such we wanted to get a good start with a simple breakfast at the delicious Wildflower Café in Sedona.  I was happy we finally got our COVID test results back negative and just in time – so no need for my overly paranoid contingency plans of doing another test tomorrow at the airport.  We filled some gas and off to a picturesque drive to the Grand Canyon National Park.  It was freezing cold, and although I got a mild fever the night before, and thinking I was over it but after today’s freezing temps (and me being perpetually underdressed for this entire trip) I go body aches, coarse throat, lost my voce and another fever throughout our trip.  Having said that the trip itself was productive.  Although I was not able to do the Hermit Route, the Desert View Route was just as satisfying, yet longer with more distances in between the view points.

Each view was more amazing then the one before with awe inspiring views and despite the cold snowy weather which at times made it slightly unbearable, the Canyon itself exceeded expectations.  The sheer scale is a marvel and its just so hard to wrap one’s head around it.  Certainly whatever pix I took did not do it justice.  To be honest I wasn’t sure what to expect going there – but I can certainly say my deep appreciation for nature and the minuscule role we play in the universe has been significantly elevated.  I loved every wandering moment of me staring at the marvel of the canyon and having to wonder about the history of the natives and of the earth in general. 

After loosing internet connection and going the wrong way to Cameron, we headed back with our 7 day pass that we both online (the same one that got us in to the park in the first place) and headed to Tyasan to see the Grand Canyon IMAX movie.  We just made the last show at 3:30 and after it was done (I almost fell asleep not because it wasn’t interesting but because my fever was kicking in again).  I expected it to have more on the geological aspect but it was more historical and focused primarily on a couple of American explorers and just glancing through some of the native heritage – was a nice 30 minute visual piece nonetheless.  Wound our way back to Sedona trying to bet the setting sun and the following darkness and ended up overeating as usual at the Canyon Breeze restaurant were we were placed outside.  The cold air made our dining a little uncomfortable despite having blankets and heaters in the patio but the kids were tired and grouchy.

Did our last minute packing and ready for our flight back tomorrow after a long but amazing trip – a memorable one that we would surely not forget.  Especially given that Covid is getting worst and this could be the last cross border trip for a while.

(Day 6, Jan. 2 2022, Sky Ranch Lodge, 9:50 p.m.)

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