USA: Having a wild time in the old west

You can please everyone if you choose your US itinerary carefully


By Joy Sable, August 27, 2009
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The Grand Canyon with the Colorado River running through it: view by helicopter or hike

The Grand Canyon with the Colorado River running through it: view by helicopter or hike

If there are four of you — two picky teenagers and two exhausted adults — each with a differing view on how best to spend 10 days in the USA, where do you go? In an attempt to satisfy everyone, we embarked on a swift grand tour through three states — Arizona, Nevada and California.

The idea was that there would hopefully be enough variety along the way to satisfy the diverse requirements of the entire family.

Our first stop was Scottsdale, the pretty town adjacent to Phoenix — and centre of Phoenix Jewish life — where we had enough time to get over the flight with some serious crashing out and sunbathing by the pool at the sumptuous Fairmont Scottsdale Princess.

Set against the magnificent backdrop of the McDowell mountains, the hotel provided a peaceful retreat and the April weather was hot but far from unbearable.

The guide books told us we would find plenty of chollas in the town. It turned out these were not the plaited or circular sort you buy on a Friday morning, but cholla cacti.

These prickly plants dot the landscape and, driving along, it is all too easy to imagine yourself back in a time when the West was wild, men were men and the womenfolk did...well, whatever they did back then.

Arizona is Indian — or, more correctly these days, Native American — country and there are plenty of museums and galleries for those who want to learn more about the American Indians’ way of life, from their food and clothing to their gods.

My own two little squaws — Princess Roomzinamess and Princess Little Big Strop —both worship the gods of Abercrombie & Fitch, so we made a trip to Scottsdale Fashion Square. This huge mall houses more than 225 shops, including top names such as Tiffany and Louis Vuitton along with the popular purveyor of T-shirts and jeans.

Laden with extra baggage, we left Scottsdale to begin the long drive to Las Vegas, with a stop on the way to
visit the Grand Canyon.

The route took us via Sedona, a town once voted the most beautiful place in America. And it is easy to see why. The landscape is dominated by huge, red rock formations which soar upwards into the blue sky.

These vividly-hued rocks get their intense colour from iron oxide deposits left by an ocean that filled the valley millions of years ago. The resulting geological phenomenon has made Sedona a magnet for tourists who come here to hike among the rocky outcrops and unusual shaped towers, or — like us — to merely gasp.

There had been several family debates about how best to see the Grand Canyon. A thriving Arizona tourist
industry caters for the thousands who come to visit one of America’s most famous and iconic landmark every
year, providing a whole selection of different ways of experiencing it, from helicopters to hiking.

A flight in a helicopter or plane will take you right down into the canyon itself and offer a bird’s eye view
of this natural wonder.

However, both types of flying machines are subject to thermals — or columns of rising air — which can cause sudden turbulence and turn even the hardiest passenger a shade of green. They are also an expensive option and some who have done them report that the experience feels as thought it is over almost before it has begun.

We opted instead for a drive along the south rim, which is the side of the canyon open all year round to visitors. It is also possible to hire a mule to trek to the bottom of the canyon, or if you are exceedingly fit (and completely meshuggah), you can opt to hike down.

Driving into the Grand Canyon National Park, it was hard to see the canyon at first, as it was hidden by trees. Then suddenly, we looked to our right and there it was as seen in a thousand photographs and postcards: a huge, uneven gash in the landscape that appeared to go on forever.

We walked along part of the rim and grabbed as many Kodak moments as possible standing against such a beautiful
backdrop. But we did it very carefully indeed; there aren’t many railed areas along the rim, and every year a few tourists take one step too many backwards, putting a very abrupt and unpleasant end to their holiday.

If you are feeling brave — and do not suffer from vertigo — there is the new Skywalk which has been open less than two years. A glass-bottomed walkway, it juts out over the canyon so you can experience the sensation of “walking on air” as well as seeing the path of the Colorado River below.

It is located at Grand Canyon West — five hours’ drive from the south rim — so if you plan to take the Skywalk, allow plenty of time for the detour.

At up to 18 miles wide at some points and a mile deep, the Grand Canyon is nature at its most dramatic and awe-inspiring. We were going on to Nevada that evening, so chose to see the canyon by day, but as we drove out of the National Park many others were driving in, since sunset is a popular time to stand at the chasm’s edge and watch the rocks change colour as daylight fades.

Having crossed the Hoover Dam — which marks the state border between Arizona and Nevada — we reached Las Vegas at nightfall. From a distance, the city was laid out before us like a carpet densely studded with Swarovski crystals.

As glitzy as Las Vegas looks by night, it currently resembles a giant building site during the day. Cranes dominate the skyline as developers seek to outdo each other in building hotels which are bigger, better — and in some cases tackier — than all the rest. After four days at the Bellagio, we said goodbyeto Nevada at midday and set off for California, our final destination.

By the time we reached our hotel — the very chi-chi London West Hollywood — we were tired and hungry. The minimalist, stylish accommodation was a refreshing contrast to the opulence of Las Vegas but the restaurant was closed for refurbishment so we headed for West Pico Boulevard, home to numerous kosher restaurants. We queued up at the Pico Kosher Deli (think Blooms with American accents) for generous portions of unfussy, heimische cuisine which was exactly the kind of comfort food we needed .

Our one full day in California was spent having fun at Disneyland in Anaheim. With a few hours to spare before
catching our flight home, we passed our final morning doing the Warner Brothers studio tour. It is not as well known at the Universal Studios tour available at Disneyland and at Disney World Florida, but definitely worth doing. Seated in small buggies, visitors are driven around the huge Warner Brothers backlot. It is a working studio, so what is available to visitors is different on each day.

We walked around a couple of sound stages, including the set of Pushing Daisies, and saw exterior sets for a
number of films including Paul Newman’s final movie, Road to Perdition.

We also saw the famous Central Perk set from Friends, which — despite the series having ended in 2004 — has been preserved due to its incredible popularity.

Prepare to have a few illusions shattered if you do the tour: the dingy entrance to the casualty unit in the late lamented ER is not in chilly, frequently snow-covered Chicago at all, it is in sunny California, and the brickwork is, in reality, a “skin” stapled onto the concrete wall of the set.

The tour also included a visit to the Warner Brothers museum, where Academy Awards (Oscars to you and me) and
clothes from numerous productions, including the Harry Potter movies, are on display.

In 10 days we packed in an incredible amount resulting in four happy travellers arriving back home with a host of good memories. With careful planning, it can be done.

Travel facts
British Airways (www.ba.com; 0844 493 0787); flies to Phoenix from Heathrow from £452 return or £583 to Phoenix back from LA. American Airlines (www.americanairlines.co.uk; 020 7365 0777) flies from Heathrow to Phoenix via Chicago, Miami or Dallas, from £457 return. Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (www.fairmont.com) has double rooms from $125 (£76) per night; Bellagio Hotel (www.bellagio.com) from $149 (£90); and London West Hollywood (www.thelondonwesthollywood.com) from $229 (£139). Grand Canyon National Park costs $20 (£12) per private vehicle. See www.nps.gov/grca for tour information. Warner Brothers VIP Studio Tour (www2.warnerbros.com/vipstudiotour).One-day tickets for the Disneyland Park and adjacent Disney California Adventure Park (www.disneyland.disney.go.com) is $81 (£49) for children aged 3 to 9 and $91 (£56) for over 10s.

The Jewish west
● The Jewish community in Phoenix stands at around 100,000 and is growing – though a large number of Jews remain unaffiliated to any particular synagogue.
● The Jewish population in Las Vegas is also increasing, and numbers nearly 70,000. Visit www.jewishlasvegas.com for more information.
● Los Angeles has one of the biggest Jewish populations in the world, at around 565,000. There are numerous schools and synagogues catering for all denominations, and plenty of kosher places to eat. Visit www.lajewishguide.com for further information.

    Last updated: 3:59pm, August 27 2009