Buddy trip hits the rocks and resorts

Plenty of great things to do in the desert that don't involve whacking a little white ball


Advertise with us

Two guys. No golf. Millions of square miles of desert. What to do?

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe with this special offer:

All-Access Digital Subscription

$1.50 for 150 days*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles

*Pay $1.50 for the first 22 weeks of your subscription. After 22 weeks, price increases to the regular rate of $19.00 per month. GST will be added to each payment. Subscription can be cancelled after the first 22 weeks.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/01/2017 (2081 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Two guys. No golf. Millions of square miles of desert. What to do?

An astounding amount, actually, in a state that is a lot more — in every way — than the sand and cacti on the postcards your uncle used to mail you every winter.

Here’s the premise: two lifelong friends (more or less, most of the time) travel to Arizona for 10 days of everything the state has to offer, with the lone exception of what has long been its most popular offering — golf.

The bags of golf clubs can outnumber the actual passengers on many Phoenix-bound flights out of Winnipeg in the wintertime, with snow-bound Winnipeggers attracted by the state’s embarrassment of riches when it comes to championship golf courses.

But what if you don’t golf or, alternatively, have finally decided you’ve had enough frustration in your life without paying a green fee for even more, then what would you do in Arizona?

World-class hiking, top-notch biking, five-star eating and some of the world’s great spas, hotels and resorts — that’s what.


Photos by Steve Lyons / Winnipeg Free Press Sedona, Ariz., is world-renowned for its breathtaking trails and otherworldly rock formations.


Where to begin?

Arizona is nothing less than a paradise of outdoor recreation, from the otherworldly red rock formations in swanky Sedona to the 2,700 kilometres of trails outside quirky Prescott to the otherworldly boulder formations around Cave Creek.

The state, in conjunction with local governments, has invested big money and resources in putting together a massive trail network they think will eventually put Arizona right alongside Colorado and Utah as the place to go in the United States for tourists looking for outdoor recreation opportunities.

The trails outside Sedona are already world-renowned, thanks to the iron oxide content that make them red and the utterly unique erosion patterns that have combined to create some of the most unique geological formations you’ll see anywhere.

The most famous of all is Bell Rock, a dome-shaped formation walking distance from town, which offers a myriad of trails up it, through it and around it that will appeal to any skill level. The hike up Bell Rock is worth the view and for those not faint of heart, there are crevices to be found in an otherwise smooth belt that runs across the formation.

Paul Wiecek takes a break on West Fork Trail.

That belt serves as the stopping point for most climbers, but find one of those crevices to give you some purchase and it will spring you past the impasse and from there it’s smooth sailing for hundreds more vertical feet, all the way to the base of the spires that sit atop the Bell Rock’s dome.

You’ll know you’ve climbed higher than most when you look down and groups of people are pointing up at you.

Think of those crevices as Sedona’s Hillary’s Step. Just be careful, all right?

If the crowds, prices and occasionally annoying New-Agey-ness of Sedona isn’t your speed — Good Lord, how many crystals does one person need — then barely an hour away is the once wild west town of Prescott, which has trails and rock formations every bit as appealing as Sedona.

Yeah, you’ll give up the red rocks that are Sedona’s trademark. But what Prescott lacks in iron content, it makes up for with an amazing network of trails, moderate prices and a quirky history that has seen a city once infamous for its red light district and notorious Whiskey Row reinvent itself these days as a tourism hub and, wait for it, headquarters for an overabundance of addiction rehab centres and sober living houses.

The recovering addicts come to Prescott for the same thing as the hikers and bikers — big sky, crisp air, unparalleled beauty and a network of trails so elaborate and lengthy that even the city’s longtime trails director told us he still had hundreds of kilometres to go before he had hiked it all.

The network would be impossible to build, much less maintain, for a city of just 40,000, but the locals took advantage of arguably Arizona’s greatest single resource — its retirees — to establish the network.

A group called “The Over The Hill Gang” — which includes guys well into their 80s — heads out on the trails at least twice a week, maintaining existing trails and building new ones. The retirees get exercise, Prescott gets a big tourism draw and the rest of us get a network of great trails.


Cactus near Gateway Loop.


Scottsdale’s spectacular 35-km Greenbelt bike path winds its way through the centre of the city, through a maze of golf courses, parks and public lands that offer — for our money — one of the most scenic urban bike routes you will find anywhere.

And bring your fishing pole. Many of the parks have man-made lakes stocked with fish and everywhere you go the shorelines are dotted with fisherman, a sight that would not look out of place in Gimli but seems completely incongruous in the downtown of a major American urban centre which is located, it bears repeating, in a desert.

The best rainbow trout fishing in Manitoba for our money is at Chocolate Lake outside The Pas; we saw a guy pull out a 20-incher in downtown Scottsdale. Go figure.

But it’s not just the fishing that is spectacular.

The paved Greenbelt that weaves its way through Scottsdale comes complete with overpasses and underpasses to allow for seamless passage under and over the city’s major streets. It is smooth, beautifully designed and nothing less than a gorgeous piece of civic engineering.

If Winnipeg had a road even half as nice as Scottsdale’s bike path, you would drive up and down it for hours just to marvel at the wondrous possibilities of first-world infrastructure.


Paul Wiecek / Winnipeg Free Press Wiecek, left, to Steve Lyons. "I love you man!"

The Resorts, Spas and Hotels

Frank Sinatra once said he’d have lived his entire life in a hotel if he could have. He was thinking of The Boulders in Carefree, Ariz., when he said that.

Set amidst a breathtakingly weird geological formation of boulders as big as houses stacked upon one another, the resort that draws its name from its surroundings is quite simply second to none for comfort, service and just over-the-top opulence.

Championship golf courses? They got two. Five-star food? Everything is spectacular, from a unique oatmeal souffle served up for breakfast to the perfectly seared Ahi tuna wraps for lunch to the elaborate dinner entrées, including a Steelhead trout number that might be the best version of that dish this side of a lakeside northern campfire.

Finely appointed accomodations? The 550-square-foot casitas that dot the border of the golf course have been freshly renovated, with massive bathrooms and walk-in closets that will, in all likelihood, be both bigger and nicer than anything you have at home. Plus, you’ll have a front-row view from your private patio of the golf (revelation — golfers cheat a lot when they don’t realize someone is watching them).

But if you really want to get a flavour for what it’s like to live like the one-percenters, check out the 2,000-square-foot privately owned villas the resort also rents out.

For prices ranging from US$800 a night on the low end to US$3,000 a night on the high end, you get a massive home with nothing but the best of everything including two master suites, a kitchen to die for and an outdoor living area that seems to be just begging for a Bud Light commercial to burst forth.

You’ll probably never be a millionaire, but rent one of these babies and you can pretend to be — at least for a night.

And yes, in case you were wondering, there is a Carefree Highway in Carefree. And yes, the folks there will tell you theirs is the highway Gordon Lightfoot was singing about in that song.

Back in Scottsdale, meanwhile, the Valley Ho and it’s uniquely Mad Men aesthetic offers an utterly unique lodging experience in an age when hotels — particularly in large urban centres — seem to all come from the same cookie-cutter.

Not so at the Valley Ho, where a US$80-million renovation turned what was once a tired old Ramada into what might be the hippest hotel in the southwest. What was once dated is now the coolest kind of retro and walking through the place, you cannot help but wonder if this is the future of tired old Best Westerns and Holiday Inns everywhere.

Valley Ho’s historic Zuzu’s restaurant and lounge, with its huge oval bar and neon lighting, is all Don Draper, while the aqua banquettes at the back of the room are the place in Scottsdale to do business, much of it of the monkey variety judging by the all the canoodling we saw going on back there.

The food in Zuzu’s is as spectacular as the setting. We could go on forever — it’s all fantastic. But in homage to the period it seeks to capture, the crowning achievement coming out of that kitchen is also its simplest creation — a shrimp cocktail so big and so delicious and such an utterly perfect take on the kitschiest of appetizers that it will spoil you for all others forever.

And then there are the spas. It will come as no surprise that, like everything else, the spa at The Boulders is first rate, with offerings that include a variation on the unique Hawaiian Lomi-lomi massage, a low-to-moderate pressure massage that features long sweeping toe to shoulder motions that are said to mimic the South Pacific’s waves. Whatever — it just feels great.

But maybe some of the best pampering in the entire region goes on at Scottsdale’s Omni Resort at Montelucia, which unlike most of the major Scottsdale hotels doesn’t offer its own golf course, choosing instead to make its superb Joya Spa the major drawing card.

There’s something to be said for doing one thing and doing it well and the Omni gets the spa experience exactly right, right down to the most minute of details in a facility designed by leading spa designer Sylvia Sepielli, the brains behind a number of world reknowned spas, including another in Arizona — the MiiAmo in Sedona.





Supplied Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia.

Gateway Loop, Sonoran McDowell Preserve.
Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

Report Error Submit a Tip


Advertise With Us