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Sedona, Arizona

Red Rock Country, “The Most Beautiful Place in America”

Wandering around Sedona , visitors might imagine that they've stumbled onto a film set. The red rock scenery is so other world it's hard to believe that the stage won't soon be struck and that the mountains won't disappear with it. Anyone brought up on the exploits of a pantheon of stars-- Randolph Scott, Maureen O'Hara, John Wayne, and the blue-eyed Indian warrior Jeff Chandler--who plied these canyons in dozens of Westerns, will feel a sense of déjà vu. As movie fans sitting in darkened theaters during Saturday matinees they rode the horses along with their screen heroes while scenes of Oak Creek Canyon, Bell Rock, and Bradshaw Ranch flew by.

The making of Westerns in Sedona began in 1923 when “Call of the Canyon,” based on a Zane Grey book, was filmed. Although Robert de Niro starred in the last movie produced here, “Midnight Run,” in 1988, the curtain came down the year before on the genre for which Sedona was famous, plots involving outlaws and Indians, when “The Quick and the Dead” was shot in town.

Red rocks of Sedona

The reenactment of melodramatic exploits in times long past were about as spirited as it had ever been in Sedona. While Tucson , Carefree, Scottsdale , and Phoenix prospered Sedona remained until 1980 a sleepier town with a population of less than 6,000. Then almost overnight it became one of the most favored resort areas in the Southwest. Artists, writers, and other smitten creative types, as well as retirees, flocked here to put down roots and the number of tourists passing through grew substantially. Call it the latest wave of “red rock fever.”

As far back as 10,000 years ago people drawn to the out-of-the-ordinary surroundings made homes in the region. Some unique geological event occurred in the very distant past, perhaps as much as 200 million years ago, when a particularly thick, bright red layer that solidified into rock was deposited below the Colorado plateau's southern boundary, Mogollon Rim. Wind and water carved the layer into fantastic configurations of mesas, buttes, and pinnacles in this vast sculpture garden. The Sinaqua tribe thrived for a time in protective cliff dwellings called Honaki and then mysteriously disappeared around 1300. Vavapai Indians lived here in the 1870s and 80s, but the U.S. Cavalry, hoping to find copper deposits in the hills, forced them to leave. A few pioneers trickled in during the late 1870s and the1880s and built homesteads along Oak Creek . Pioneer T. Carl Schnebly is most famously associated with the establishment of Sedona. He applied to the United States Post Office to open a station and named it after his wife. Business began on June 26, 1902 in the back of the Schnebly residence. Official incorporation as a city did not happen until 1988.

Cowboys and Canyons, Red Rock Jeep Tours Credit: Vivian K. Fancher

The birth of Sedona's “new age” kicked up the number of inhabitants to 10,500 and brought more vacationers. Native Americans and former inhabitants believed that the land was sacred and they were very much in touch with the mystical environment. Jamie Taucher, our guide on a “Vortex Tour” arranged by Red Rock Jeep Company, said that the current interest in spiritualism came about in 1980 when Page Bryant, a psychic and intuitive counselor, declared that vortices could be found nearby. Bryant asserted that all three types of “hot spots” of natural energy, positive, negative, and neutral vortices fueled by electric, magnetic, and electro-magnetic exist in Sedona. Some psychics and scientists use different language to identify vortices, which are well-known meditation sites. Taucher named a few of them, Dry Creek Overlook, Red Rock Crossing, and Airport Mesa and said that “anywhere you go you can have an amazing experience.” The Sedona Metaphysical Spiritual Association asserts that “in Sedona beauty awakens spirit.”

Jamie reappeared with Doug for the “Cowboys and Canyons” tour. Both were dressed in costumes like those worn on the ranches in the Old West. Besides revisiting parts of Coconino National Forest we saw the Van Deren Cabin, a preserved old homestead no longer in use and the setting for “Blood on the Moon,” a film about frontier days.

Red Rock Jeep Tours . Tel. 928-282-6826, 800-848-7728 . http://www.redrockjeep.com

As interest in the metaphysical spread so did the number of practitioners and outlets proffering new age products. Crystal and light healers; psychic, numerology, card and tarot readers; aura soma color systems; astrologers; retreat centers; hypnotherapists; and dream analysts migrated to the Greater Sedona region and hung out their shingles.

The year 2003 saw a further upsurge in tourism when Sedona was named by “USA Weekend” as the “most beautiful place in America ” and described as one “that looks like nowhere else.” Sightseeing and outdoor recreation keep active vacationers as involved with physical activities as spiritual seekers are with metaphysical experiences.

Among the outdoor activities four-wheel drives into the 1.8 million-acre Coconino National Forest are at the top of the list. Pink Jeep Tours combination late afternoon outing “ Broken Arrow / Scenic Rim” draws the most participants. The tour is named after the movie “ Broken Arrow ,” the true story of how Tom Jeffords (Jimmy Stewart) tried to make peace in 1870 between the settlers and Cochise (Jeff Chandler) the leader of the Apaches, Andrea Goldberg, our driver/guide, alternately had us laughing and screaming as though we were on a roller coaster. She steered us on “The Road of No Return,” a one-way bumpy, narrow, winding, dirt path that included ascending and descending steps. Frequently she stopped the jeep short at a 45-degree angle or made a sharp turn at a precipitous edge of a mesa. As Goldberg pointed out a variety of plants, she spoke of the forest as a Native American supermarket and the uses to which the flora were put. To reach the scenic rim and see the sunset we drove to the 5400-feet high Cowpies outlook . The tour is not for the faint of heart, but everyone in our adventurous group of six had a rip-roaringly good time.

Pink Jeep Tours , 204 N. Hwy. 89A, Sedona 86336. Tel. 928-282-5000, 800-873-3663 . http://www.pinkjeep.com

First-class on the Verde Valley Train
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

The Verde Canyon Railroad billed as “ Arizona 's longest-running nature show” is not strictly speaking a Sedona attraction. Because it is frequently mentioned as a popular excursion, only 25 minutes from town to the boarding depot in Clarkdale , we chose to use our precious time, four hours round-trip, to ride through Sycamore Canyon to Perkinsville and back. “It's not the destination, it's the journey,” said the brochure. We don't know about the destination as we never got off the train, but the journey was rather tedious. In fact, we were bored as the views did not hold our attention. The descriptive tape that played was not synchronized with the scenery. We were told that the time of year counts and perhaps August was not the best month to take the trip. Our opinion may be a singular one. Robert Hicks, a passenger in the first-class coach, said he had a “wonderful experience standing on the open platform with Bill, a railroad employee, who explained much of the landscape.”

Verde Canyon Railroad, 3000 North Broadway, Clarkdale , AZ 86324 . Tel. 982-639-0010, 800-293-7245. http://www.verdecanyonrr.com

For shopping with a local flavor visit Tlaquepague Arts and Crafts Village . Named after a colorful suburb of Guadalajara, which was once Mexico's leading producer of crafts and glassware, and built like a Mexican village surrounded by masonry walls, the enclave features more than 40 boutiques, restaurants, and galleries. Four different cobbled plazas lined with stately trees, second-story verandas, iron railings and gates, potted plants and cascading vines, hand-painted tiles, graceful arches, bubbling fountains, large wooden doors, and antique ornamentation foster an authentic Colonial Mexican atmosphere. Merchandise fabricated by artists, artisans, and craftsmen is uncommonly original. You might even watch shop owners plying their art within the compound.

Tlaquepague Arts and Crafts Village , 336 Hwy 179 at the Bridge, Sedona 8633.9 Tel. 928-282-4838 . http://www.tlaq.com

Exploring ancient ruins is another must-do activity when visiting Sedona. Palatki and Honaki , 800 to 1,000 years old, are large, beautiful ruins with displays of rock art. Rock art and petroglyphs can also be seen at V Bar V . Montezuma Castle National Monument , a 20-room ruin, the largest and oldest cliff dwelling in the entire Southwest, housed the Sinagua in the 12 th century. Nearby Montezuma Well , an enormous sinkhole, supplied water to the natives. Tuzigoot , another remnant of a Sinagua village, is also a National Monument and part of the National Park System.

Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

The spiritual environment of Sedona calls for the best of spa services. Treatments are a medium for healing and renewal. Among the several destination spas in the area, Mii amo , the spa, at Enchantment , the resort, has by far the best reputation for providing the very finest facilities, program, accommodations, food, and beauty therapies. You must, however, be a guest at the resort or spa in order to secure an appointment with one of their therapists.

Mii amo, a destination spa at Enchantment, 525 Boynton Canyon Road, Sedona 86336. Tel. 888-749-2137. http://www.miiamo.com

Day spas offer an alternative for those who stay at accommodations without spa facilities. Breathe Spa , located in the Hyatt Pinon Pointe Shopping Mall is a freestanding center that provides services for an hour or two, a morning or afternoon, or a full day. Guests are greeted at the facility by a sign that says, “Welcome to a New Day.” The list of customized holistic treatments focusing on stress reduction and anti-aging is a long one. We prepared for a couples aromatherapy massage by smelling a variety of essential oils. One of us opted for “healing balm,” which was individually blended with marjoram, lavender vera, sweet birch, and peppermint to “relieve muscular tension and soothe aches and pains.” The other chose “joy—inviting the juice and joy of life” and made up of a combination of ylang ylang, mandarin, lemongrass, and vetiver. Liz and Stacy, our therapists, worked on problem areas. The peaceful massage room was not dark as is most often the case, but open to natural light and the outdoors. Unusual art decorates the walls of the upstairs lounge, which doubles as a gallery. There is a small boutique on the premises selling workout clothes and body products.

Breathe Spa at Hyatt Pinon Pointe, 101 North Hwy 89A Box 12 , Sedona 86336 , Tel. 928-203-9445 . http://www.breathespa.com

Where to Stay

L' Auberge de Sedona is an anomaly. Its main charm emanates from a countrylike atmosphere, rather than Sedona's red rocks. If you drive west on Route 89A in uptown Sedona, the part of the main thoroughfare that is home to Arizona-themed boutiques, and make a very sharp turn at the “Y,” a fork so-named because of the road pattern, you reach L'Auberge Lane , the rustic road leading to the inn. The contrast with the scene of moments ago astonishes. You could be in the Adirondacks . O.K, so the color of the mountains is different, but it is still difficult to believe that you were just in the desert. Your wheels carry you a little further and suddenly you are engulfed by an 11-acre wooded community sitting on the shores of Oak Creek . With sightings of a towering timber and stone lodge, old-fashioned porches attached to log cabins, tall sycamore and cottonwoods, generous flower beds in riotous shades, water flowing through the entire property and garrulous ducks flapping about, the picture is complete.

Log Cabins, L'Auberge de Sedona
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

The lodge has 21 rooms and suites and the 33 cottages have fireplaces. Ours had a mix of antique and Southwestern décor. Particularly impressive was the massive carved headboard. We enjoyed sitting outside in the Adirondack-style deck chairs and watching the ducks waddle in the brook. Eleven acres is quite a bit to wander when there is so much to see and to smell. Narrow the focus by joining the chef who hosts daily herb cutting sessions at the herb garden.

L'Auberge de Sedona has a 20-year-old history, but the most meaningful part is the most recent, when the West Paces Hotel Group under experienced hotelier Horst Schulze took over. A new broom sweeps clean and new ownership always renovates. But more than a change in paint hues and furnishings took place. L'Auberge now provides much more than bed and board. The fresh approach to hospitality includes “Sedona by L'Auberge” individually designed activities that meet a guest's or group's interests. Some of the activities are on-going; others are customized. L'Auberge Customization Concierge arranges helicopter rides over the Grand Canyon , ballooning jaunts, tours to the Hopi Indian villages and to cattle ranches, horseback riding, jeep trips, golf, hiking, tennis, a ropes course, and more.

The recently installed Enlightenment Series features visiting specialists who share their expertise in yoga, tai chi, aromatherapy, and creative arts. During our August stay we could have engaged in catch and release fly fishing for trout, yogalates at the creek, or joined the birdwatchers and their guide. Also scheduled were a pastry design demonstration and a personal aura painting workshop. On Fridays in the warmer months (April through November) guests can take part in a narrated tour of the night sky (Sundown Stargazer) with resident astronomer, Dennis Young. Friday night sommelier receptions feature local wineries and wine tastings are scheduled for Wednesday evenings. The dates for the weekend January and February 2006 Winemaker's Discovery Program—Winemaking 101 have just been announced. A tour of Sedona's Page Springs Vineyards and Cellar is on the agenda. The inn has a partnership with Echo Canyon Winery, the only local operating winery.

The emphasis on pleasing guests has led to establishment of a variety of packages that focus on specific themes and include accommodations and dining. “Spring into the Arts” in conjunction with the Sedona Arts Center provided many opportunities to enjoy creative classes. Local artists and distinct crafts are also showcased at seasonal Sunday Artisan Brunches when sculpture, weaving, and jewelry are presented. “Romance Under the Stars” centers on a private stargazing session along with other romantic endeavors. “Personal Pursuits Customization Package” allows the guest to choose from a smorgasbord of activities.

Plans are underway to open a spa. Treatments will be formulated to use indigenous Arizona products.

L'Auberge de Sedona, 301 L'Auberge Lane , Sedona, 86339. Tel. 800-272-6777, 928-282-1661. http://www.l'auberge.com

Where to Eat

L'Auberge Restaurant

Marco Bustamante, late of Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York , has taken the helm at the L'Auberge's two dining venues, L'Auberge Restaurant , the only-four diamond eatery in Sedona, and the Terrace on the Creek , a seasonal al fresco bistro. In an interview with Bustamante, his boundless enthusiasm for his position exploded. Freshness is paramount in his larder. He modestly attributed his success to his purveyors and soft pedaled his own ability. He long-distance shops in Los Angeles and Hawaii and local farmers grow special foods and provide fresh eggs. To make the menu more contemporary he uses only natural beef and veal. Herbs, peaches, apricots, plums, and pomegranates are raised on the grounds. A la carte dinners rotate seasonally. Regular four-course tasting menus depend on what purveyors offer. The chef has even cooked 10-course vegetarian and vegan meals. Bustamante describes the essence of his Auberge kitchen as “a place to go from where it was to what it can be.”

Terrace on the Creek, L'Auberge de Sedona
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

The a la carte menu had only five to six choices for each course. In a top quality restaurant a smallish menu almost always insures that the chef is concentrating on a few stellar dishes rather than spreading himself all over the map. An appetizer, a trilogy of tuna, was the simultaneous presentation of different styles of the same ingredient: a handroll was a rice wrapper filled with chopped spicy fish; Nicoise was slivers of tuna tossed with potatoes and salad items; and a small fillet simmered in a lemon grass-coconut broth. Malpeque oysters were as briny as the sea. Beef tenderloin was succulent and its sides, corn spaetzle with ham, onions, cheese, and mushrooms; trumpette royale; English peas; and Bordelaise were as satisfying as the main ingredient on the plate. Duck with chickpeas, parsley puree, and cured lemon couscous was a divine medley of flavors. The strong lemony flavor of the couscous was a good foil for the duck. Warm almond cake with Meyer lemon sabayon and lemon curd brulee was dessert reverie, a perfect harmony of contrasting palate pleasers. The wine list is a major one.

Cowboy Club

More than 60 years ago when Sedona was a pass-through place rather than a stop and stay town, the Oak Tree Tavern was the center of social life. A grocery store and a pool hall crowded into the same structure. In the 50s after a day's filming of the many movies that were shot here ended, Hollywood legendaries went to the Tavern for camaraderie and a cool one. Then in 1965 Cowboy Artists of America was organized under this very roof for the purpose of promoting Western art. Today the tavern premises exists as the Cowboy Club , a restaurant serving “high desert” cuisine. We don't know how to define “high desert,” but the words appear on the menu preceding a list of entrees that might be served in any American restaurant.

Even with reservations the wait for a table is a long one, no matter how early the dinner hour. You are given a beeper when you arrive and told that you can wander around and will be summoned when it is time to be seated. Patrons of the Silver Saloon, adjoining the main dining room, are as casually dressed as those who eat in the Club. The difference is that the décor in the Saloon is somewhat fancier. The style is Old West with wrought iron and antler chandeliers, roomy leather banquettes, oils of cowboys and horses, beamed ceilings, an oversized saddle, and a stone hearth.

An appetizer house salad with vinaigrette was pedestrian. The preparation of “Great ‘Mid-West' Steaks” is where the kitchen shines. Of course, sourcing the best meat is most of the battle. Angus tenderloin with roasted garlic-blue cheese butter and buffalo filet mignon with brandy-peppercorn cream were very good. To give the appearance that “classy” meals are being served, tapenade was added as an amuse guele and citrus sorbet as an intermezzo, a basket of sourdough and corn bread was on the table, and a creditable rendition of that darling of refined desserts, warm molten chocolate cake, came with crème anglais and home-made vanilla ice cream.

Cowboy Club, 241 N. Hwy. 89A, Sedona 86336. Tel 928-282-4200 . http://www/cowboyclub.com

The Gallery at Oak Creek

Amara Creekside Resort's restaurant, The Gallery at Oak Creek , is imaginatively decorated. No more boredom while waiting for your drink or dinner to arrive. There's too much to look at. The interiors of the lobby, restaurant, and lounge are crowded with original art and sculpture created by local, regional, and national artists. Pieces from the collection not only hang on walls and sit on surfaces, but they are showcased at every table. Along with the food menu diners are given an art menu, which provides information on the artists, their representative galleries, the names of the rotating works, and the prices. Fourteen sculptures, “appetizers,” swing from the ceiling above some of the tables or are placed upon them as centerpieces. “Entrees” appear in the gallery or bar area and “desserts” are displayed in the lobby and outdoors and include bronzes, oils, acrylics, limited edition prints, wind sculptures, mixed media, and red rock and laminated glass. “Thespian” a cheerful piece rested on our table and reminded me of images one sees in during Venice 's Carnivale. The actor wore a joker's hat and sported a double mask, comedy and tragedy.

The regular menu pairs entrees with specially selected wines by the glass every night. At “prime time” on Thursday a three-course, $28 prime rib dinner is available. Between 5 and 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays you can enjoy live music and a four-course pre-sunset menu for $25. For another $15 wine accompanies three of the courses. From the eggplant marinated with orange jest, the Amara duet of tenderloin and crabcake to the “sweet things” finish, the food was superb. The service was flawless.

The restaurant faces the lobby on one side and the terrace with an open fire pit and Zen Garden , fronted by the creek, on the other. If you take your meal outside you enjoy along with the serene surroundings, the matchless view of the red rocks.

Amara Creekside Resort, 310 N. Hwy 89A, Sedona 86336. Tel. 866-455-6610, 928-282-4828 . http://www.amararesort.com

For all its recent additions, like shopping centers, jeep tours, spa treatments, and new age offerings, Sedona is still the red rocks. John “Fire” Lame Deer, a Lakota Indian, said in a quote about nature, “. . . mountains speak . . .pebbles have a soul, rocks have power.”


Winter, 2005-06