This was right up there, dare I say it, with the day I was married and the births of my two children. The glorious red sandstone canyons of Sedona (most famous being the Grand Canyon) are breathtaking any time of the day, but when you’re hurtling through them in a helicopter with no doors and just a single strap between you and fresh air, boy do they take on a whole different dimension. We had only just met, but throughout that 35-minute flight, Pete the fearless pilot, was my new best friend.
The beauty of taking a helicopter ride through Sedona’s stunning landscape is that you get to see entire sections of it that are otherwise hidden or inaccessible; the 2,000 foot high Secret Canyon, the majestic Mogollon Rim running over 200 miles right across Arizona and the long-abandoned cave dwellings of Sedona’s ancient Sinagua Indians, the region’s first settlers, who after many years of contented living, mysteriously vanished.
Perhaps, it’s the mystery of the Sinagua that first fired the imagination of the new age movement, whose members believe spiritual vortices exist in Sedona’s sandstone.
With vast formations such as Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock and Airport Mesa, standing like red silent sentinels rising out of the surrounding flat desert, it’s hard to argue.
Sedona’s downtown area is equally as mystifying; a collection of arty high- end stores and seriously wealthy habitations co-exist with tourist excursion offices and new age “harmonic convergence centres”. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not tacky — just very unusual. There is even a guitar playing female rabbi in the local shul.
Former nightclub-chain entrepreneur David Warr, together with his daughter Jen, have left the nightlife behind and created a stunning organic vegetarian eatery, The Chocolate Tree Cafe, where “life force energy abounds”.
They explained the ingredients in their food were so natural and powerful, that they did everything from “reducing heart disease to potentially avoiding the onset of cancer”.
Sensing my obvious disbelief, Chef David almost convinced me eating his chocolate cake, made from 100 per cent raw cacao, was so full of “good calories”, I would lose weight eating it. That said, he made some astonishing vegetarian dishes with flavours you would swear were fish or meat. It was pure genius. Just a couple of hours’ drive from Phoenix, Sedona’s charms are very seductive.
Hollywood movies shot here feature everyone from John Wayne to Johnny Depp. The scenery is awe-inspiring, the desert tours are immense fun and there is a style and quality to the place that is hard to beat. Not far from here is Clarkdale, the terminus for the Verde Canyon Railroad; a four-hour train ride retracing the old mining track from Clarkdale to Perkinsville beside the mighty Verde River. Another chance to see some wilderness wildlife and some more of nature’s colourful canvas.
The infamous mining town of Jerome high up on Cleopatra Hill is also not far away. Once one of the wealthiest towns in the USA and dubbed the “wickedest town in the west”, it was the epicentre of the gold and copper rush in the 1880s and a hot bed of vice and violence. Today, whilst many of Jerome’s old buildings remain (along with a few ghosts, I’m led to believe), the town is mostly inhabited by artists, craftsmen and restaurants.
The images of the “wild west” are embodied by these old mining towns, none more famous perhaps than Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone — and by the stunning Sonoran desert, home to the unique Saguaro cactus whose giant arms stretch skyward as if in permanent surrender.
It’s a land steeped in the legacy of over 20 Native American tribes, including the Navajo and Hopi.
Many of the tribes have realised their lands falls outside the US gambling laws and have constructed vast casino-based resorts across much of America. The Talking Stick Resort just outside Scottsdale is a good example.
But don’t forget modern Arizona and its impressive cities like Phoenix, Mesa, Glendale, Tucson and Flagstaff. And what about the architectural wizardry of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose winter home, Taliesan West in Scottsdale, is still a magnet for visitors.
Tempe is a charming small town and a perfect base for touring the busier Scottsdale and Phoenix areas.
I took the opportunity to visit the nearby Papago Park and the Desert Botanical Garden, a spectacular collection of cacti and desert flora, including many more examples of my favourite Saguaros, set in 140 acres and ringed by the fascinating geology of the surrounding Senoran desert.
Scottsdale is a golfer’s paradise and home to the legendary TPC Stadium and Champions Courses. Club manufacturer Ping has its headquarters here and you can tour the factory and have an afternoon of analysis.
Literally every facet of my golf swing was analysed by computer. The tours are free but you’ll need to make a reservation first.
Arizona is a part of the US where you can still experience a bit of that pioneering spirit, find exceptional five star luxury accommodation and let loose the cowboy in you. Of course, the only thing I brought back with me was Chef David’s chocolate cake recipe. Well, a guy’s got to lose weight somehow.
America As You Like It offers a six-night Arizona package for £1295pp (with BA flights direct from London Heathrow to Phoenix), or from £1090pp (with US Airways via Philadelphia) for a late November departure. Includes flights, car hire, two nights at Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Resort, one night at Tempe Mission Palms, two nights at Alma de Sedona (see review) and one night at The Tavern Hotel in Cottonwood.
020 8742 8299