often referred to as the "true" Grand Canyon, the south rim entrance is popular among visitors

Santa Fe to Grand Canyon South Rim

Last leg- Santa Fe, Flagstaff, South Rim Grand Canyon and Sedona.

It wasn’t a good day to drive anywhere, especially down to New Mexico. At Cortez, we could see dark clouds on the horizon and rain was a certainty. So instead of taking US-160E and US 84-E as planned, we took the advice from the friendly young man at the hotel reception and headed south using a direct but scenic route to Santa Fe. The route he suggested was US 550-S then 1-25N/Old Pecos Trail in Santa Fe County. This was an estimated 278 miles and 4.5 to 5 hours drive on a good day.

route we took from Cortez to Santa Fe

route we took from Cortez to Santa Fe

As soon as it was possible, we started our journey to Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico. However, a couple of hours into the drive, the heavens opened with such ferocity that it affected our visibility. We needed to slow down to 30 miles an hour but we weren’t alone. We saw a few of our fellow road travellers on their Harley Davidsons soaked to their skin and some sensible ones took shelter at petrol/gas stations. Lucky our caddy was waterproof!

The rain was relentless. It didn’t get any better when we finally reached historic Santa Fe a few hours later. The heavy downpour seemed to follow us from a few hours back and it somewhat spoiled our plans to explore the town proper that evening. We wanted to head straight to the heart of the city and its renowned Plaza to soak in its distinctly old world Spanish ambience but the rain was a real spoiler. Fortunately, the intimate Santa Fe Motel and Inn was a lovely and delightful refuge from the rain. The staff were efficient and friendly and suggested we try the Italian restaurant, Andiamo, just next to the motel. We really didn’t want to drive in the rain to search for a good meal so this was a welcome option. We weren’t disappointed. The menu featured some of our favourite Italian classics and the restaurant’s atmosphere lent a unique Santa Fe twist to the whole dining experience.

delicious Italian meal at Andiamo restaurant, Santa Fe, New Mexico

delicious Italian meal at Andiamo restaurant, Santa Fe, New Mexico

But in fact, the evening was also made more interesting by an encounter with a lone English traveller dining by himself. Seated at a table next to us, we noted the bottle of red wine he was enjoying while perusing a USA road trip travel book (as one does when travelling solo). To break the ice, my husband enquired whether he would recommend the wine he was having… the rest of the evening was a pleasant exchange of travel stories, opinions and suggestions. It turned out our new acquaintance was a fan of American music and earlier in his youth, was inspired to see America by road, on a Mustang to visit towns and cities he has heard in pop tunes. He was pretty much exploring the south west as we were doing but stopping also at places like Wichita (from the well known tune sang by Glen Campbell -Wichita Lineman) , San Francisco ( Scott Mackenzie’s If you’re going to San Francisco) Lodi ( Credence Clearwater Revival) Las Vegas ( Viva Las Vegas by Elvis Presley) San Jose ( Do you know the way to San Jose) and the list went on. He said, growing up, he had a map of the USA on his wall with different coloured pins so he could plot a route for an adventure he swore he would experience one day. It was to be a trip of a lifetime with a friend who shared the same wish. Unfortunately his friend died unexpectedly. What a wake up call! His sympathetic wife didn’t want to travel but nevertheless urged him to realise the dream on his own. So here he was, seeing and experiencing America on his rented Mustang with the American tunes he downloaded on his iPod, blaring away. The next day after breakfast, my husband showed off our rented caddy and in turn was invited by the Englishman to take his rented Mustang for a spin. Men and their toys! And you don’t have to be Einstein to figure out that there will be another American road trip for us down the track on a Mustang.

We only had half a day to have a slice of the Santa Fe experience, so after breakfast we headed straight to the Plaza. What we saw of this picturesque and conspicuously Spanish –Mexican influenced town was so impressive; we earmarked it for a longer visit in the near future.

delicious, freshly baked rolls at theSanta Fe Motel and Inn .

delicious, freshly baked rolls at theSanta Fe Motel and Inn .

On the road again taking 1-40 W, this time we were going to head straight to Flagstaff for a couple of nights where we were going to visit the south entrance of the Grand Canyon and a day trip to Sedona. The afternoon trip was more pleasant than the drive to Santa Fe the day before and traversing the 384 miles took us only a good 6 hours.

After a long drive, once settled in Flagstaff, we didn’t want to venture too far from our motel for dinner. We ended up going to Buffalo Wild Wings across the road at 2700 S Woodlands Village Blvd. A lively and noisy venue for sports enthusiasts, the bar/restaurant boasts of more than 30 large flat screen TVs tuned to various sports games. The menu was typical of American bar food and we naturally tried the wings (which they are famous for) and shared a plate of fries and chicken quesadilla. I’m sure the wings would have pleased my palate had it not been smothered with their legendary sauce but apparently that’s how the local patrons like it. Hmmm…

Finally, the last major sight to visit transpired the next day. The 80-mile drive to the South rim Grand Canyon from Flagstaff was pretty and took approximately 2 hours (via route I-40 W then highway 64 N). This entrance to the Grand Canyon is open all year round and very popular among families and overseas visitors. On arrival at the park gate we drove to the parking area (be sure to come early specially at the height of the summer season as the four parking areas can get crowded) and made the Visitor Centre our first stop. While there, we watched a 20-minute movie of the Grand Canyon rim and river, called Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder. It was engrossing and educational.

This is how the Grand Canyon looks like as explained by and courtesy of the Visitor Centre

This is how the Grand Canyon looks like as explained by and courtesy of the Visitor Centre

We then took the free shuttle bus to the overlooks and walked along Mather Point and Yavapai Point. Needless to say, the views were spectacular and from this vantage point, we could clearly see and feel the difference between the north and south rims.

breathtaking views from Mather Point

breathtaking views from Mather Point

overlooking the south rim from Mather Point

overlooking the south rim from Mather Point

another vantage point to admire the Grand Canyon south

another vantage point to admire the Grand Canyon south

As we have earlier visited the north during our stay at Kanab we were somewhat more knowledgeable about the geology of the Grand Canyon. Regardless we made an effort to visit the Yavapai geology museum which is situated at Yavapai Point overlook. There we had a more thorough orientation on how the almighty 1,450-mile-long (2,330 km) Colorado River and nature sculpted the Grand Canyon. It is highly recommended to visit this museum, if not for the views one can see through the panoramic windows. At the end of this exploration, I personally felt so privileged to have seen the staggering beauty of the Grand Canyon and the many natural attractions within the Colorado Plateau. Everything we saw was spectacular but I still somewhat favour Grand Canyon North overall as it really was a very peaceful spiritual place and I felt connected to nature and God. A truly humbling experience.

unique and spectacular vista of the Grand Canyon- south

unique and spectacular vista of the Grand Canyon- south

Since we had an extra day at Flagstaff, we decided to enjoy our stop here with a day trip to Sedona. It wasn’t far to drive, about an hour and a few minutes to traverse the 30-mile distance on AZ 89-A. But my husband who was driving the wide caddy didn’t like the winding road at all and took a little bit of care and time to take us to our destination. Surrounded by pine forests, red buttes and canyons, the pretty little town resembled a village out of a fairy tale book cover. The main street was lined with interesting little shops selling arty things, gemstones, galleries and restaurants. The town had a ‘New Age’ feel to it which reminded us somewhat of Byron Bay in New South Wales, Australia and Noosa , north of Brisbane, Queensland Australia. We enjoyed the day just meandering and leisurely taking in the town’s views and character while fossicking and perusing the various shops. Though we liked the pretty town, it was a bit anti-climactic and felt that seeing the various places within the Colorado Plateau, unfairly made us accustomed to the beauty around us. In the outskirts of the village there are camping and picnic grounds for families, most notable being Red Rock State Park.

Soon it was time to pack and move on to make our way to California and visit my family. We were also scheduled to return the caddy there. Having finally completed and crossed off one of the things we wanted to experience before we get too old, I can guarantee that the road trip was one big awesome experience and confirms what Stephen Fry said… that America is a beautiful, vast, country and interesting in its diversity. It is definitely God’s country !

 

 

 

 

Anasazi Heritage, Spruce Tree House

Cortez, Mesa Verde and Canyons of the Ancients

The detour to Canon de Chelly delayed our arrival at Cortez by half a day but we had NO regrets. Canyon de Chelly was inspiring and we learned so much about the ancient people of America and appreciated the mysticism associated with the desolate setting of the Navajo land and its people.

Our next destination was to visit the Canyon of the Ancients near Cortez. We drove north from Canyon de Chelly via Indian route 64 and then US 49. US 191-N then 160-E would have been a more direct and quicker route, but what was the hurry?

Inching closer towards Cortez, we noted the changing colours of the rocks, desert and cliffs; from the ‘Red Rock Country’ in and around Kanab and Monument Valley to the limestone and green colours of the shrubs in Colorado. Once again, the vast, rugged and diverse beauty of the region known as the Colorado Plateau captivated us. It was a delight to observe the changing colours and landscape mile by mile as we approached our destination.

We pre-arranged to make Cortez our base for 3 nights and visit the territory where Ancient Puebloans lived for hundreds of years. Nearby sites at the Canyons of the Ancients, mainly Lowry Pueblo Ruins, Hovenweep National Monument and Mesa Verde were going to be the feature of the last two major stops of our American Southwest road trip.

That evening, for dinner there were notably more restaurants to choose from compared to Bluff. We were after all in the most populous municipality of Montezuma County. The meal we had at Destination Grill was a delicious surprise. The quail pleased my husband’s palate and the entire atmosphere was relaxed even at its busiest.

delicious quail for dinner at Cortez

delicious quail for dinner at Cortez

Canyon of the Ancients in southwestern Colorado is home to numerous archaeological sites within the 170,000 acres administered and protected by the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation System. Collectively, the numerous archaeological finds represent the largest in the USA and are mostly those of Ancestral Puebloans’ ruins. The ancient people inhabited and established communities here around AD750 to 1100.

It is important to note that most of the roads around the sites are not sealed and the attractions are what they call ’outdoor museums’. Because of the vastness of the area and the fact that some places are best explored on foot, to visit the Lowry Pueblo Ruins and Hovenweep National Monument one must obtain information and maps from the Anasazi Heritage Center, 10 miles north of Cortez. The ‘must stop’ at the Anasazi Heritage Center is important because there is also a museum in the visitor centre that provides rich information about the life of the Ancestral Puebloans as well as a very interesting interactive exhibit that offer insights on ancient dwellers’ way of life. This first point of contact is highly recommended.

We began our exploration at the 1000 year old Ancestral Puebloan archaeological site of Lowry Pueblo Ruins, located 28 miles northwest of Cortez, off Highway 491 at Pleasant View on County Road CC.

Archaeological relics and ruins suggest that Lowry Pueblo began as a small village when it was first built around 1060 AD. The ancients who inhabited Lowry Pueblo started with a few rooms and kivas (the traditional pit house dwellings of the Anasazi or the Ancient Puebloans and ceremonial underground rooms). Among the notable discoveries were a Great House, a multi-story structure with a pre-planned, rectangular layout with large rooms and a Great Kiva.

We spent a good part of the day at Lowry Pueblo ruins before we drove to Hovenweep National Monument located 40-45 miles from Cortez and only 24.5 miles southwest of Lowry Pueblo Ruins, via road 10. As always, we suggest that it is best to get the lay of the land and follow instructions from the rangers at the Visitor center.

ruins at Canyon of the Ancients

ruins at Canyon of the Ancients

Lowry Pueblo ruins

Lowry Pueblo ruins

wildlife at the Lowry Pueblo Ruins

wildlife at the Lowry Pueblo Ruins

Hovenweep was a very interesting stop because of the castle and tall towers perched right on the canyon rims. Clearly these are indications of how the early dwellers were skilled with masonry. They also showed the Ancient people’s determination to build a community in the rugged southwest corner of Colorado. From other discoveries of tools and varying remnants of plants, these proof suggest that the people were hunters and farmers. They cultivated corn, beans, squash and even cotton.

Hovenweep

Hovenweep

We began our exploration of Hovenweep on foot at Square Tower Group in Little Ruin Canyon near the Visitor Center. Then we went around the Rim Trail Loop, which took approximately a couple of hours as we lingered a fair bit to see the towers up close. By this time, we had our fill of history and suitably impressed with the fierce determination of the ancient people in the way they lived and survived the harsh environment. We then drove back to Cortez for a fabulous dinner at Farm Bistro on Main Street.

castles and towers at Hovenweep Ruins

castles and towers at Hovenweep Ruins

ruins at Hovenweep

ruins at Hovenweep

castle and tall towers perched right on the canyon rims

castle and tall towers perched right on the canyon rims

Mesa Verde was a highly anticipated visit, our last national park for this American road trip. Dubbed as the ‘first national park set aside to preserve the works of humankind’ Mesa Verde is a UNESCO designated World Cultural Heritage Park and one of the ‘must see places’ for our road trip. The phrase mesa verde is Spanish for green table. Mesas are flat-topped mountains or hills and from 600 to 1300 AD, the Ancestral Pueblo people made the cliffs of these flat-topped limestone and sandstone mountains their home for over 700 years. Like previous visits to different parks, we began our exploration of Mesa Verde at the Visitor Center, located just off Highway 160 near the park entrance. For us it’s a pre-requisite to get our bearings and to map out what we really needed to explore as we only had a full day allotted for this all-important stop. After paying our entrance fee and obtaining the information we needed, we were directed to the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, just 22 miles from the Visitor Center for a more in depth orientation on the park and trail conditions; but more importantly, to have a better understanding of the Ancestral Puebloans and their lives at the cliff dwellings. The museum provides a 25-minute video every half hour for visitors as well as a store with books and gifts. I loved browsing at this particular store and bought a few books. Seeing that the entire Mesa Verde park was made up of a several sub-mesas and archaeological sites that were closed off to visitors we decided to focus our time and energy around the scenic Chapin Mesa area. Which in fact had the famous Spruce House and Petroglyph trail.

Although there are ranger-guided tours for visitors but we decided to explore the hiking trails on our own. From the museum we set off to trek to Spruce Tree House, the third largest and best-preserved cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, estimated to have been constructed between 1200-1278 AD. We were treated to glimpses of how the Ancient Puebloans lived in their community made up of several kivas (8 in total) , 120 rooms, 10 ledge rooms and 2 towers. The alcove is 66 meters long and 27 meters deep. It was just so fascinating!

Spruce Tree House, the third largest cliff dwelling constructed by the Ancient Puebloans

Spruce Tree House, the third largest cliff dwelling constructed by the Ancient Puebloans

glimpses of how the Ancient Puebloans lived in their community , Spruce Tree House Mesa Verde

glimpses of how the Ancient Puebloans lived in their community , Spruce Tree House Mesa Verde

Then we decided to take up the task of going through the Petroglyph Trail which was a 3 mile round trip loop trail that afforded views of the scenic pullouts, canyons, an introduction to the fauna and foliage in this part of Colorado and the highpoint being the Indian petroglyphs. The rangers warned of the very steep climb (and I mean almost 90 degrees climb on some of the points. Warning: wear sturdy walking shoes, take bottled water and be very fit. This trail is not for the faint hearted)

The steep walk and climb Petroglyph Trail, Mesa Verde

The steep walk and climb Petroglyph Trail, Mesa Verde

on our way to explore the difficult and steep climb to Petroglyph Trail, Mesa Verde

on our way to explore the difficult and steep climb to Petroglyph Trail, Mesa Verde

petroglyphs, Mesa Verde, Colorado

petroglyphs, Mesa Verde, Colorado

It took us approximately 3 hours to complete the loop and though challenging indeed, the views and the sites were worth it.

Santa Fe in New Mexico was the intended next stop from Cortez. From there, we were going to make the final stop at Flagstaff to visit the West entrance Grand Canyon and surrounds. Early next morning, we took off…

 

 

iconic Monument Valley

Monument Valley to Canyon de Chelly

Monument Valley- Kayenta, Mexican Hat, Bluff and Canyon de Chelly

Our brief sojourn at Lake Powell Resort was very pleasant. Stephen Fry will be happy to know that thanks to him, our USA road trip with Lake Powell as the incentive was due to his fascinating TV series on America. We would have liked to linger for a few more days but unfortunately we had to continue this fabulous American southwest road trip and make our way to Monument Valley via highway 160. We estimated approximately 3 hours of continuous driving to cover the 126 miles (203 km) distance between Page, Arizona and Monument Valley.

Thanks to John Wayne and iconic western (cowboy) movies, Monument Valley is recognisable due to its various landscape used as the setting for many Western films. Located within the Navajo Tribal Park, Monument Valley is 5,564 ft. above sea level and lies on the border between southeastern Utah and northeastern Arizona. Driving into what is seemingly desolate flat land, the red rock formations of buttes and mesas, route 160 took us to the heart of well known images of the valley, that of stark red cliffs and the mesas at Monument Pass .
Our guidebook suggested to head towards the valley (on the Arizona and Utah border) from the north as it apparently provides a spectacular and dramatic image of the Southwest area. One drives through a long and flat road for miles and miles to the crimson desert towards the 1,000 foot cliffs. Cutting through the sealed road towards the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the Visitor centre is easy to spot. The centre complex has the usual gift shop and amenities as well as an area to view the stunning landscape, the Lookout Point. Here, one can clearly see the identifiable group of red cliffs and buttes.

Monument Valley

rugged landscape Monument Valley

For a closer look at these rock formations, the park’s scenic road or Valley Drive takes visitors deep into the impressive landscape. We made a choice not to go through Valley Drive, as this road is unpaved. What would it do to our rented ‘caddy’ then? It wasn’t an option at all so we stayed near and around the complex using sealed roads. Regardless, we saw everything we wanted to see from the lookout and had time to explore the visor complex, which had an informative exhibit of the Navajo Tribe.

Some handy tips:

1. Find out when daylight saving is inasmuch as Navajo Nation observes daylight saving. So depending on the time of year one wants to travel, when daylight saving kicks in, there will be a time change from the southern routes such as Page Arizona, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas to Monument Valley.

2. There is so much to see along Valley Drive and if one is adventurous and want to really explore, options include horse rental, a basic tour of the valley, and more involved but expensive tours that are off the beaten track.

Having had our fill of the magnificent panorama, we headed north, using route 163-N towards Mexican Hat and eventually Bluff where we had previously arranged lodgings at the Desert Rose Inn. Mexican Hat is actually a small town on the San Juan River on the northern edge of the Navajo Nations’ borders in south-central San Juan County, Utah. It is named after the strange rock formation that resembles a Mexican hat

Mexican Hat

Mexican Hat

The Dessert Inn at Bluff was a very welcome respite from the drive. It somewhat took us by surprise, albeit a pleasant one. The expanded guesthouse seemed like an oasis in the midst of the rugged country. After settling in our beautiful and comfortable suite, I went for a swim in the well-appointed indoor pool while my husband chatted up a group of middle-aged German men as they parked their great big motorbikes in the driveway. It would seem that as Harley Davidson enthusiasts, high on their bucket list was to explore America on their rented Harleys. What fun! Come to think of it, we noted that all throughout our drive in the southwest, there were indeed quite a few of these legendary bikes but the interesting thing was the motorcycle drivers didn’t ‘speed’ like they do in Australia. Instead, they took their time and roared through the interstate highways while maintaining a speed limit slower than what I would do, if I were to get on a powerful motorbike. Note that I say ‘roar’. This is because the distinctive sound of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine is recognisable. It is such a distinguishing feature of the Harley Davidson engine that the company tried to file a ‘sound trademark’ on February 1, 1994. This resulted to an outcry from its competitors and litigations followed, which in turn made Harley Davidson drop their trademark application in the year 2000.

Soon, it was time to sample the cuisine this small town founded by early Mormon settlers had to offer. After a quick drive around Bluff, we settled for a table and a meal at the Twin Rocks Café. We were fleetingly reminded that we were indeed back in Mormon country and Utah’s restrictive liquor laws. We nevertheless indulged in a glass of wine and one of Utah’s boutique beers, ‘Polygamy Porter’ but it had to be consumed with our meal of a serve of classic buffalo chicken wings and marinated gilled sirloin steak. Delicious and inexpensive!

Twin Rocks Cafe was named after this Twin Rock

Twin Rocks Cafe was named after this Twin Rock

Polygamy Porter

interesting label of Polygamy Porter beer

Utah beer

deliciousPolygamy Porter Beer

The next day, we intended to head straight to Cortez in Colorado but got side tracked. We were told that another nearby attraction, the lesser known Canyon de Chelly (pronounced shay) National Monument, owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust of the Navajo Nation is an easy drive from Bluff . Situated about 98 miles (158 Km) south of Bluff, we travelled via highway 191, approximately 2 hours to Chinle (Apache county in Arizona) a community that serves as a gateway to Canyon de Chelly.

Navajo Indian Hogan at Chinle

Navajo Indian Hogan at Chinle

This change of plan meant delaying our arrival at Cortez by half a day but it was well worth the detour. The scenery along the way was simply exquisite.

At Canyon de Chelly archaeologists found numerous evidence that this area was occupied as early as 5,000 years ago and home to many American Indian tribes as well as the *Ancestral Puebloans.( also referred to as Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning “ancient ones.”)

*an ancient Native American culture in the area of southeastern Utah, northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado.

The recognisable features of this park are the 1,000 foot steep sandstone walls, one called by the Dine Indian (Navajo) Tribe as Spider Rock, images on the cliff walls and well-preserved Anasazi pueblo ruins on the canyon walls and prehistoric rock art.

Canyon de Chelly washome to many American Indian tribes as early as 5,000 years ago

Canyon de Chelly was home to many American Indian tribes as early as 5,000 years ago

Spider Rock

spider rock spectacular red sandstone monolith formed 280 million years ago, standing 800 foot high

Canyon de Chelly

steep sandstone walls, images on the cliff walls and well-preserved Anasazi pueblo ruins on the canyon walls

steep sandstone walls, images on the cliff walls and well-preserved Anasazi pueblo ruins on the canyon walls and prehistoric rock art

steep sandstone walls, images on the cliff walls and well-preserved Anasazi pueblo ruins on the canyon walls and prehistoric rock art

The few hours it took to explore the different sites at Canyon de Chelly were enchanting. In fact the experience was awesome! Once more, a delightful discovery of one of the most sacred lands in the Navajo Nation cemented the indelible fascination my husband has for America. Alas, it was time to head north to Cortez in Colorado.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2015-05-12-09-43-35-1000

The American southwest- the Colorado Plateau region by car

An amazing discovery of the mystery and awesomeness of the Colorado Plateau created by nature billions of years ago… stunning canyons, buttes, vibrant colours and many hidden secrets of the natural beauty of the American Southwest.

Las Vegas, Valley of Fire, Zion Park and Kanab:

Many non- Americans are fascinated by the American Interstate Highway not only because of the impressive modern engineering marvel that it is but also the fact that it was a catalyst for economic progress and changes in American cultural expression. In fact it was President Dwight Eisenhower, 34th president of the USA who made it his mission to have the major arteries of America built and improved for security reasons. He signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which initiated the largest public works program in American history. Since then the longest and most modern system of highways in the world brought America closer together but paradoxically also widened its differences in culture and living conditions.

The highway was also a result of America’s car culture, thanks to the introduction of Henry Ford’s ‘Model T’ in 1908. To underline this phenomenon, in recent times it is estimated that the USA has over 250 million cars and trucks plying the roads and sophisticated interstate network either for work, play and adventure. It is this ‘mythical romance’ attributed to the American highway system that brought us back to our wish list of exploring America by car. So when a planned surprise visit to our son in Vancouver didn’t happen, my Yankeephile husband thought it wasn’t a big deal. We would still go to North America and explore the region that is considered one of the most beautiful in the USA and the world… and this time, by car. The drive would roughly cover the Colorado Plateaus, which is actually the physiographic province that comprises southwestern United States, the southeastern half of Utah, the extreme western and southwestern parts of Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and the northern half of Arizona.

The Colorado Plateau

a large and uplifted region covering areas of Central Utah, Northern Arizona and parts of Colorado and New Mexico.

It was the perfect excuse to realise his ‘wish’ to hire and drive the quintessential American Cadillac. With this in mind we flew to LAX then on to Las Vegas where we spent a couple of days to get over the jet lag, re-visit ‘ The Strip’ and pick up the hired caddy. It was also a chance to check out Rick Harrison and his mates at the world famous Gold and Silver Pawnshop, located in the ‘seedy’ side of town.

Gold and Silver Pawnshop Las Vegas

Rick Harrison ( wax) at the Gold and Silver Pawnshop

Gold andSilver Pawnshop Las Vegas

Rick (the wax) and Bob at the Gold and Silver Pawnshop

Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert is the most populous city in Nevada with 583,756 inhabitants. Vegas is known though for its glitzy ‘strip’, gambling casinos and resorts. In 2015, it welcomed 42,312,216 visitors, 16% of which were from overseas and reported gambling revenue of US$6.3 Billion. Impressive? Perhaps, but a few months before our visit to Las Vegas, we were in Macau, also known as the Las Vegas of Asia. This small peninsula in China reported gambling revenue of 360 billion patacas or US$45 billion in the year 2013. This clearly makes this tiny enclave in the Chinese territories the undisputed winner in the gambling industry. More recently though, there was a dramatic decline in earnings due to a crackdown from the Chinese government on corruption associated with the industry and a ban on smoking in the casinos. But back to Vegas…

We took our sons to see the Grand Canyon when they were young in tandem with stops in LA to visit family and Disneyland. Las Vegas was our base enroute to attractions nearby. At the time, we witnessed the makeover of the city to be equally family friendly and not just a destination for conventions, gambling and all sorts of hedonistic pursuits associated with gambling. Back then ‘The Strip’ was already interesting, its bright neon lights providing an aura of glamour and magic to visitors who wandered around.

The Strip

The Strip, Las Vegas

The Strip Las Vegas

The older hotels and casinos in Las Vegas

Bellagio, Las Vegas

The dancing water fountains Bellagio, Las Vegas

Magic in Las Vegas

‘Magic’ on sidewalk at The Strip, Las Vegas

The Strip, Las Vegas

The Strip, Las Vegas

For this visit without kids, we explored the newer hotels and resorts that have mushroomed through the years. Over the 2 evenings, we delighted ourselves with the bright lights along ‘The Strip’ and sampled a few of Las Vegas’ bars and restaurants. Like most destinations that rely on tourists’ dollars, cuisine from all over the world was available and cocktails of various influences aplenty. While we had no gastronomic expectations on this road trip, we thoroughly enjoyed the meals in Vegas.

international cuisine

gourmet sushi meal in Las Vegas

On our third day in America and having regained our equilibrium, it was time to leave Las Vegas and pick the infamous ‘Caddy’ on my husband’s ‘bucket list.’ We had a schedule to follow for the next 12 days. Roughly we were to follow this route, encompassing what many refer to as the Grand Circle and beyond:
Las Vegas to Valley of Fire to Zion Park to Kanab(our base for 4 nights) where we were to explore Bryce Canyon, North Rim Grand Canyon Coral Sand Dunes, Grand Escalante; and then move on to Lake Powell ( Page, Arizona), Monument Valley, Bluff, Cortez-Mesa Verde , Santa Fe, Flagstaff for the South Grand Canyon and Sedona. The last leg was to slowly drive back to California to visit family. This ‘road trip’ would roughly cover almost 2,000 miles.

Roadtrip to discover the American Southwest encompassing the Colorado Plateau

Roadtrip to discover the American Southwest encompassing the Colorado Plateau

In mapping out this itinerary, we were really keen to see Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend in East Grand Canyon. Inspired by Stephen Fry (British actor, writer, comic, author and TV host) we wanted to visit and explore what he called the True West; episode 5 of the six part BBC series ‘ Stephen Fry in America’. This fascinating 2008 program in which he travelled all 50 states of America driving his black London Cab featured the magnificent mesas and buttes of Arizona and New Mexico and the spectacular beauty of Lake Powell. The series by the way is so interesting; it should be compulsory viewing for both American and non- American audience.

Our rented Cadillac was not as exotic as Fry’s London Cab but my husband couldn’t wait to try out his rented ‘toy’. As soon as we were satisfied that the GPS and everything else in the Cadillac worked, we hit the road using route I-15 N to make our way to our first stop, the Valley of Fire State Park about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Las Vegas. Considered the oldest state park in Nevada, USA, Valley of Fire covers an area of about 36,000 acres of red and crimson sand and rocks.

Black Caddy

Black Caddy

On arrival, the sight of red sandstone formations, rocks of various shapes and sizes, greeted us. Over 150 million years ago, Mother Nature crafted the odd shaped rock formations through a shift in the earth’s crust, faulting and also effect of erosion by wind and water. It was a virtual ‘sea of red’ of fossilised sandstone and sand dunes in the middle of the dessert interrupted only by vegetation of cactus, yucca, mesquite tree, prickly pear and beaver tail.

Valley of Fire, Nevada

Valley of Fire, Nevada

Valley of Fire, Nevada

Valley of Fire, Nevada

From Valley of Fire, we continued northeast to southwestern Utah and stopped at the town of Springdale within the Zion Park. This Utah Park formed 250 million years ago is right along the edge of the Colorado Plateau. Armed with a map and information obtained from the Visitor Centre (located at the South entrance of the park in Springdale) we hopped on the free shuttle in Springdale for a drive up Zion Canyon and to catch glimpses of the park’s highlights. Zion Park is accessible to many visitors and attracts approximately 3 million visitors each year.

Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

on our way to Kanab from Zion Park, Utah

on our way to Kanab from Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

To Kanab from Zion Park, Utah

To Kanab from Zion Park, Utah

The breath taking natural beauty of the 2 parks we just visited was a refreshing change to the bright lights of Las Vegas. Soaking in the wondrous splendour of these geological formations, we slowly drove to Kanab where we stayed for four nights. Kanab is the ideal base for those who want to explore southhwestern America’s park heartland due to its central location to major places of interest. On our ‘must see’ list nearby were the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park (very close to Kanab), Zion Park of course, and the Vermillon Cliffs National Monument( in Arizona but so close to Kanab and located south of the Utah and Arizona border). After the four-day stop, we would make our way to Page and Lake Powell.

Kanab is centrally located and an ideal base to visit and explore Zion Park, Bryce, North Rim Grand Canyon and Lake Powell

Kanab is centrally located and an ideal base to visit and explore Zion Park, Bryce, North Rim Grand Canyon and Lake Powell

Kanab is situated on the western Colorado Plateau in the county seat of Kane in South Utah, just north of the Arizona border. Long before the Mormons came, Native Americans settled Kanab for thousands of years. Then in 1776, the Spanish explorers led by Franciscan missionary Silvestre ‘lez de Escalante discovered the region. About 100 years later, the Mormon pioneers followed the Spaniards in waves of migration between 1850 and 1870. However, the more interesting transient occupants were from tinsel town. In the early 1920’s, 40’s and 50’s, location scouters of Hollywood favoured the authentic natural Western Frontier setting of the Kanab area for Western movies. Consequently, more than 100 movies and TV shows were filmed in Kanab with the likes of John Wayne starring on ‘Stagecoach’ , Robert Taylor in ‘Billy the Kid’, Clint Eastwood in The ‘Outlaw Josey Wales’ and many more, filming in the region thus making Kanab earn the moniker of ‘Little Hollywood’ .

Driving all day works up quite a thirst. On arrival at our lodging, the first thing we were hankering for was a nice cold alcoholic beverage. Knowing my husband’s ‘cocktail hour’ habit, I knew he was looking forward to a cold drink. “A cold beer would really go down well” …he would say; but surprise, surpise! Not a bar or pub as we know it in Australia was in sight. Our friendly hotel receptionist informed us that liquor laws in the state of Utah is a bit different from the rest of America. We later found out that this was an understatement. In fact the liquor law in Utah is quite restricted…to say the least. It is, in our opinion, heavily regulated and a bit complex. It sets a limit of 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (4 percent by volume) in beer sold at supermarkets or convenience stores and higher alcohol content beer are only available in bottles or something to that effect. Cocktails also have a pre-determined limit to the proportion and amount of alcohol that can be used with mixers while all types of liquor including wine and strong beer can be purchased only at state run stores that have very limited trading times. One can have alcoholic beverages at restaurants that have licenses to serve these drinks but food must be on the table first. By the time we worked out how and where we could have our aperitif, we gave up on the ‘pub search’ and headed straight to the restaurant recommended by everyone to try; the Rocking V Café . This was a pleasant dining experience despite the wait for our wine and beer (remember we had to have the meal on the table first). As I said, we designed this trip to discover the natural beauty of south-western America and didn’t harbour exigent culinary standards but some of the restaurants specially the Rocking V Café were satisfying discoveries. For four evenings, we tried some of the eclectic mix of dining establishments at Kanab. Mexican at Escobar’s ( NO Margaritas and tequilas though to my dismay) Chinese at Luo’s Café and in fact on our last evening in Kanab, we uncovered a ‘western themed’ saloon restaurant with a full service bar. Their unique selling proposition (USP)? “ Iron Horse Restaurant and Saloon- Kanab’s only full service bar where you can drink without having to eat. “ Now, why didn’t we find this place earlier on?

On our stroll back to the lodge, we saw an outdoor advertising billboard for family dining with a message that said:
“Were history and culture meet ” …

Let’s see if you can spot the error.

The next day, after a full breakfast at the rustic and well-situated Canyons Lodge, we drove off and made our way to Bryce Canyon National Park.

USA

Discovering Gods country by train boat plane and an awesome road trip

A person who is fond of France, or has a great affinity to things French is called a Francophile. So what does one call a person who loves the USA and everything Americana? Perhaps a word has not yet been officially coined but it seems that Yankeephile or Yancophile followed by Americanophile are the top most Google searched word for this.

Regardless of what is acceptable, either one of these words is what I would call my husband. His fondness for America,this beautiful and vast country started when as a child, he lived in San Francisco with his parents and spent considerable time with the locals. Since then over the years, trips to the West Coast of America to visit relatives and friends or feeble excuses of ‘business trips’ to New York were not unheard of. His interest in America centres on food; specifically ribs and cherry pie. And there is also the quintessential 50’s icon… ‘Elvis the king’ and his music. Among many other things are his obsession of American cars, with America’s luxury car the Cadillac (caddy for short) and Mustang heading the list.

Soon after our sons ‘flew the coop’, we decided to re-visit our list of globe trotting adventures. Between us, the joke was to do as much as we possibly can… while we can. Getting into the spirit of travel, the ‘inner foodie’ in us also wanted to infuse our intended nomadic adventures with food… to taste and eat our way through every destination we visit, so to speak. And so, when Qantas announced the launch of their non-stop Sydney to Dallas route which is a 13, 804 km distance between Sydney and Dallas Fort Worth, and almost 16-hours of non stop flying, we were tempted. Despite the fact that this route is considered to be the world’s longest flying distance, landing somewhere near the centre of America was appealing in the sense that Dallas was going to be an efficient connecting point to any part of the United Sates. Yankeephile won over common sense and the distance didn’t deter us from taking advantage of the specials Qantas had on offer. With no particular American destination in mind we booked our Qantas return tickets allowing a month to explore good ole United States of America.

How do we fill in a month in the heart of America? Well, considering Dallas Fort Worth is the major hub for American Airlines we figured connecting to many destinations within the USA was not going to be a problem. Furthermore, if flying in and out of cities in America wasn’t going to work, there is always Amtrak, the passenger train service partially owned by the government with the (US) National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Having just experienced once more the fun of train travel across northern Spain, my husband, an avid train traveller wanted to try out America’s train service. Mindful of the decline in popularity and numbers of train travel in the USA since the latter part of the 20th century, (partially due to the car or auto cult that has taken over American’s mode of travel), we were curious about what Amtrak had to offer. We wanted to see America without worrying too much about speed limits and driving on ‘the other side’ of the road. Plus… the idea of zipping across various destinations by plane and having to go through the necessary stringent security controls at US airports turned us off plane travel within the USA completely.

Amtrak has over 500 destinations within 46 states in the USA and 3 provinces in Canada. It covers 34,000 km of track with 300 plus trains operating each day. Surely, with the time we have, we should be able to see more of America than we ever had during our past visits?

One service we always wanted to try is the California Zephyr between Chicago, Illinois and Emeryville, California ( close to San Francisco). California Zephyr goes through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado Utah and Nevada. Considered one of the prettiest and scenic Amtrak routes, it covers a total of 3,924 km as it goes through the plains and valleys of mid-America and climbs through the Rocky mountains and the Sierra Nevadas( also called Sierra Nevada). The scenery should be stunning to say the least.

Undaunted by the mixed feedback on Amtrak trains we sought the advice of Vacations by Rail USA, one of America’s train travel experts. Being looked after by Efi of Vacations by Rail made planning this trip so easy. Not only did she propose an itinerary that was adventurous and fun but it also allowed us to explore America at a very leisurely pace, in comfort and value for money. They call it a customised Amtrak Independent package. Vacations by Rail took over where Qantas left us at Dallas Forth Worth international airport. They booked all our hotels and train routes to make our first train adventure in America an experience to talk about and remember.

Amtrak