Taking the time for a vacation, while fun, is often a difficult thing to do. It is hard to justify time away from the demands and business of every day life. And it is maybe even harder to justify that same time away, when your family will stay behind.
Which is why, in 20 plus years of friendship, I had never taken a trip with my girlfriends.
Usually spread across three states and two different time zones, one summer we had the chance to laugh and talk live in the town where we met. That day, our lazy pool party afternoon slipped away much too quickly, but not too quickly for us to commit to a girls’ weekend the following spring.
We had few criteria for our destination – somewhere new for each of us, somewhere warm, something active to do, good food, and a patio.
We settled on the stunning red rocks of Sedona and started making plans.
I’m all for feeling like I’m on vacation time once wheels hit the runway at the airport, but sometimes a little more effort is required to get to your destination. Making the time investment to drive the two hours from Phoenix is not unlike the time investment to maintain solid friendships. It is entirely worth it.
The beautiful desert setting of Phoenix and Scottsdale slipped behind our rental car as we navigated the scenic drive to Sedona. We watched and waited for the red rocks to appear, and while the scenery slowly changed over time, it wasn’t until we were about to Sedona that we saw the stunning red peaks. And within minutes, we were slowing into peaceful, elegant Sedona, nestled among the towering rocks.
We chose the Arabella Hotel Sedona for its central location, great online reviews, and budget price. We planned to be outside more than in, so were careful to check out its patio areas and be sure there was a balcony. If hiking is part of your Sedona plan, you’ll find the Arabella Hotel to be nicely located in close proximity to some great hiking, only a short drive away. In fact, the Margs Draw trailhead is adjacent to the property, allowing easy exploration of Munds Mountain Wilderness. Even if you’re not a hiker, throw on your tennis shoes and walk up the short trail behind the hotel for some spectacular views. It’s worth a visit at both sunrise and sunset, or really, anytime you’d like to look at something that takes your breath away.
We had a great experience there — clean room, comfy beds, enjoyable outdoor spaces, free continental breakfast — and it didn’t hurt that the Elote Café, with its delicious Southwestern and Mexican cuisine, sits on property.
Speaking of the Elote Café, if you are wondering if you should visit, you should. Go early and plan to wait a while (no reservations here). But as we’ve discussed, sometimes a little time investment is worthwhile. Once you’ve got your name in for a table, get in the margarita line and remember to respond with an enthusiastic “yes!” when they ask if you’d like some house seasoned popcorn to enjoy while you wait.
If you’re wondering what to order, get the Elote corn (fire roasted corn with spicy mayo, lime, and cotija cheese), and the Shrimp con Espinacas (grilled wild mexican shrimp with sauteed spinach in chipotle crema) or Carnitas (slow-roasted Niman Ranch pork shoulder with sun-dried hatch red chile sauce and crema).
Elote Café was one of our favorite food stops in Sedona, so it makes sense that chef/owner Jeff Smedstad was named a James Beard Award Semi-Finalist for 2017 Best Chef: Southwest. So if I haven’t convinced you to visit, hopefully that will.
Although pink jeep tours (Google it — it’s a thing) and helicopter tours abound, if you’re able, hiking is the way to really see the beauty of Sedona. It’s one thing to gaze upon the red rocks, and another to be entirely immersed in them. If you’re not able (or plain don’t want to), the jeep tours are off-road and will get you out in nature.
We found the guide book Sedona’s Top 10 Hikes by Dennis Andres invaluable in planning and enjoying our hikes. The guide is comprehensive, sharing logistical information (parking, prices, restrooms, etc.) as well as historical background and great commentary on each hike. It is also quick and easy to reference and small enough to carry on the trail. And most importantly, we found Dennis’ assessment of trail difficulty to be accurate, which aided in selecting appropriate adventures to suit our varying skill levels. If you wonder why that was important to me, ask me about the time I thought I’d die on Kauai.
We visited in May, which meant desert flowers were in bloom but the late mornings and afternoons were beginning to get warm. As such, we chose to start our days with an early hike to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and use the rest of our day for less taxing activity like long lunches and dips in the pool.
My favorite hike was the Brins Mesa Trail. It was a moderate uphill hike to Brins Mesa along Mormon Canyon. It was a lovely outing with the views becoming increasingly spectacular the higher we climbed. From the Mesa, we crossed over toward Wilson Mountain for a rest and snack. For this roughly 5-mile hike, we carried a lightweight daypack with food and water bottles, as well as an additional backpack with a hydration bladder. For the daypack, I love these Eddie Bauer Stowaway Daypacks for travel because they stow easily into an onboard pouch but offer a lot of space. As always, sturdy hiking shoes or trail tennis shoes are a must, and plan on them taking on a red tinge from the soil if you don’t scrub them. We had the trail mostly to ourselves on the way up, but began to cross paths with other hikers on the way back.
A much more leisurely hike is Red Rock Crossing along Oak Creek near the base of Cathedral Rock. This trail is near a park, so it was much more populated with families and such. There are many lovely sights to enjoy on both sides of the creek, particularly toward Cathedral Rock. We were unable to locate a footbridge so crossed the creek barefoot twice (probably not a good idea but we’re here to tell about it). Our only disappointment with this hike was that it wasn’t far enough from civilization.
Big hikes in the morning means leisure in the afternoon. My favorite afternoon was spent with a long lunch with wine flights at Rene Restaurant. Rene is set in the charming Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, which is a beautiful setting for whiling away the day. Wander in and out of shops and galleries, and stop for a bite to eat. Rene has a peaceful courtyard patio that was a perfect place for a ladies’ lunch.
We had two other meals of note, at Bella Vita Ristorante and L’Auberge de Sedona’s Cress on Oak Creek. Bella Vita is a cozy, dinner-only restaurant with excellent service. From our hotel, it was a bit of a drive, but it would be an easy drive for those staying in West Sedona or a great option for dinner after a visit to nearby Jerome or Prescott.
The elegant Cress was our splurge dinner and a really enjoyable night. L’Auberge has two culinary options with indoor seating or patio dining on the banks of Oak Creek which allow diners to take in the lush and serene creek-side, such a contrast to the red rocks just moments away. Cress boasts a prix-fixe menu and allows reservations, where Etch Kitchen & Bar serves an a-la-carte menu and at the time of our visit did not take reservations. Both have an extensive wine list. The food is delicious and inventive, the plating is elegant, and the service here is impeccable — from our personable, attentive, and knowledgeable server to the efficient and friendly valet (complimentary!).
There are many other places to see and things to do in Sedona, but we didn’t have time for them all. For the spa-lover, there are many great options, although we chose other activities to fill our time. We did make a visit to one “tourist” stop, the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Despite the large crowds, which somewhat detracts from the serenity and sacredness of the place, the chapel itself is a wonder and the surrounding walkways offer spectacular panoramic views of the area. I’d suggest asking a hotel concierge or visitor center staff for the best time/day to visit to avoid the crowds. Parking was a harrowing experience on the busy afternoon we arrived, particularly for this driver.
Sedona is a fairly sleepy little town come nightfall, but that worked just fine for us. We were focused on taking advantage of the daylight hours to explore and simply take in all the beauty and peace that is Sedona. The adventures and downtime together nurtured our friendship. I am so glad we took the time.