Until a few weeks ago, I knew as much about Phoenix as I did about Murmansk, that is, very little. It wasn't exactly on our list of top-100 places to visit but with the bottom falling out of our Christmas holiday plans, we unexpectedly found ourselves heading to this unknown city in Arizona. It was time to do some reading up and find out about places of interest nearby, such as the Grand Canyon. Our trip to Arizona turned out to be a real eye-opener, with stunning desert landscapes.
We flew into Phoenix at night so all we saw was a vast tablecloth of twinkling lights covering the Valley of the Sun, as it is known. It actually looked a lot like Mexico City, an unending expanse of urban development, spread over an area almost the same size but with a fraction of Mexico City's population. It wasn't until the next morning that we had a chance to see what Phoenix was really like in daylight. We drove to the Downtown area, easily identifiable from any spot by the tall shiny skyscrapers clustering together in the middle of an immense bungalow-height landscape. It was squeaky clean, new and orderly, but something was missing. Where were all the people? Where were the shops and cafés and the dynamic hub and buzz of urban life? Maybe it was because Christmas was just two days away but it looked like a modern-day ghost town. Little traffic, even fewer pedestrians, almost lifeless at that time. One sleek metro-train whizzed past us, and we saw a lonesome man strumming a guitar at the interesection of two grand boulevards while a second man, Ed the Hotdogger, was selling Italian or Polish sausages at his stand next to some traffic lights. To who, I don't know. At last, we found a small café which was relatively "crowded" and a little while later about 30 people turned up for the inauguration of the city's outdoor ice-rink where you could "go ice-skating in the desert". A stark contrast to the bustling crowds and noise and smell of street cooking in Mexico City, so alive and full of life.
Phoenix downtown area
Ed the Hotdogger at his stand
Warm jumpers and hats are needed in the morning when it's cold - a lady wearing a fun woolly hat!
Outdoor ice-skating rink
Cactus Christmas street lights
Christmas tree in the centre with moon
Phoenix is a HUGE sprawling city in the middle of the Arizona desert, which goes on and on forever. It took us almost one hour just to drive our way out of the vast metropolitan area when we headed north towards the Grand Canyon a couple of days later. It looked like a kind of urban patchwork quilt, built on a grid-like system, where each square is one mile long and has a similar pattern but with a few differences. The broad, airy avenues had lanes so wide you probably couldn't shake hands with the person in the next car even if you opened the door and stepped out. In Mexico City, we have severe problems just trying to avoid hitting each others' side mirror as we drive along. Orderly tracts of small, one-or two-storey houses with shady verandas crouched down low together, overlooked by palm trees and guarded by gigantic cactus plants. Each patchwork square seemed to have its own shopping centre, complete with a drive-thru bank, drive-thru fast food restaurants, some shops and services, plus a gas station and a church or two. Dentists or chiropractors rubbed shoulders with nail parlours and Denny's and Wendy's fast food restaurants, Bug and Weed stores chatted up burger bars, and supermarkets were squashed in between animal clinics and insurance offices. While we were there, the skies were deep, desert blue and the air so pure you could pump it up the oxygen tubes in a hospital. There was no sign of any litter on the roads which are populated by chunky pick-ups and well-behaved traffic doing an honest 35 mph in the town and 65 mph on the freeways.
View of Phoenix from the plane when we left
River Salado at sunset
Phoenix is definitely an "automobile city". Without a car or pick-up or some kind of private vehicle, you will not get very far. It is so vast and spread out that walking is hardly an option. On several occasions, we played a game. "Let's count how many people we see walking!" For the most part, we didn't get past 3, and our all-time high was 11. Unheard-of in Europe or Mexico. Taking a taxi anywhere would cost you a fortune. It cost $2.10 a mile and that was with the "Discount Taxis". Public transport was nice-looking but few and far-between. Thank goodness we had a car. Not the Jeep we had hoped for, but rather a massive black Dodge resembling a tank. Just to find a welcoming place to eat or somewhere to have a coffee, let alone any of the places of interest in the city, entailed a major expedition along mile after mile of boulevards with names like Camelback, Indian School, Baseline and Rural Road, all of which looked suspiciously the same. We felt we were in a labyrinth, going round and round in squares. Our conversations took on a confused monotony. "That's where we stopped yesterday!" "No, it isn't. There was a U.S. Egg on the corner, not a Whataburger." "I'm sure there was a Starbucks here yesterday!" I admit that as fleeting visitors, we obviously lacked inside know-how and were at the mercy of our rather hit-and-miss strategy.
Pick-ups are very popular
Taxis are not cheap! $2.10 per mile
The city's public transport system
Historically, Arizona has been influenced by a number of different cultures, including the Native American Indians and the Spanish. It was also part of Mexico until 1848 when the US bought a huge chunk the size of Western Europe of what was then northern Mexico for a mere $2 million, hence the widespread presence of Mexican tacos, burritos, and salsas picantes and restaurants with names like El Pollo Loco and Chipotle. In fact, in some areas you are as likely to hear Spanish spoken as English and many Mexican families have made their residence there. In its early days, all East-West streets were named after Presidents while all North-South streets had Indian names. It's hard to imagine but the city of Phoenix grew up as a typical far west town, with dusty streets lined with wooden buildings, wide enough to allow the horse-drawn wagons to turn around. In fact, in the late 1880s when it was founded, everything was within a walking distance of 2 miles. Then as the electric streetcar made its appearance, people began moving out as fast as they moved in, especially the wealthy residents. There were no limits on space. No wonder. The Arizona desert is immense and flat here. The town began to grow in size, adding new housing developments which followed a symmetrical, grid pattern, lined with trees to give shade in the high summer temperatures. Nowadays, modern-day Phoenix, which started life out as Pumpkinville in honour of the large pumpkins growing along the canals, continues to attract people, especially those in search of warm winters, heaps of sunshine, golf courses and cactus plants, and has become one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the US. It is truly enormous.
One of the many Mexican restaurants
A bit of both cultures - American and Mexican food
Hot and spicy sauces
Although we wanted to experience the American way of life, I have to admit that we longed for some good strong Espresso coffee. Instead we had to make do with tall, frothy Starbucks cappuccinos or mochas. We drank our coffees American-style, taking them with us in the car and sipping the scalding beverage over the following hour or so. Finding somewhere to eat proved to be a game of hide-and-seek, unless you want to eat burgers with fries three times a day. Where were all the real restaurants? You know, the type that serve up real food at a table with a tablecloth and wine in glasses. Unfortunately, as we were in Phoenix over the Christmas holiday, we discovered that most places were well and truly closed. Trying to find somewhere special to eat on Christmas Eve took us on a bewildering, frustrating hour's drive through the city until we found the Saddle Ranch Restaurant in Scottsdale and had a mighty steak, worthy of a hungry cowboy, with Californinan wine drunk from rather scratched wine glasses at a lamp-lit table. It did have a Far West feel to it though which made up for the lack of finesse. Over the other side of the huge wooden buiding, was a mechanical bull you could ride on after your meal. Maybe if you lasted a certain number of seconds on its back before being thrown off onto the sawdusted floor, you got your meal free. We watched several clients having a go. No-one lasted long.
Where to eat in Phoenix???
The Saddle Ranch in Scottsdale
The mechanical bull
A delicious dessert of double fudge Brownie with ice-cream and berries...
Scottsdale saved the day. Once standing on its own, it has now been swallowed up in the larger Phoenix metropolitan area, but still maintains its small town character in the centre. You could be forgiven for thinking you're in a Far West theme park. As you wander around the Old Town, the single or double-storey wooden buildings with verandas and porches are now colonised by shops selling Native American arts and crafts, leather cowboy boots and belts, gemstones and pottery, or eating places.
Scottsdale Old Town
Old wooden buildings
Horse statues around a fountain
You can go for a horse and carriage ride
Chillies hanging up
Shop selling Native American Indian crafts
Far West style seats
Two other places redeemed Phoenix for us: the Heard Museum, a delightful exhibition and information centre about Native American Indian culture, history and art, and Scottsdale Fashion Square, just one of the city's enormous shopping malls, which had Cristina buzzing around in an adrenaline rush, gawking at the teenage clothing shops and spending all her Christmas money. It's probably where our feet did the most walking, bar Scottsdale centre. Apparently, in the sweltering heat of summer, the immense air-conditioned malls are the place to hang out. These are the modern centres of American community life where you can shop, chat over a coffee or ice-cream, eat burgers or tacos, experience the Hurrican Simulator or Jet flights down the Grand Canyon, watch movies, eat popcorn, and wear out your shoes. I can't imagine what Phoenix must be like in the summer. Temperatures soar to 49 °C, on a par with Baghdad or Riyadh. Their record LOW temperature in summer is an incredible 36 °C, registered one July night in 2003. I sure wouldn't like to be around when that happens.
Indian exhibits in the Heard Museum
Scottsdale Fashion Square mall
Inside another huge mall
Two girls experiencing a hurricane inside a Hurricane Simulator
To be fair to Phoenix, it does have a wonderful winter climate, stunningly clear blue skies and amazing desert landscapes nearby, decent drivers and loads of beautiful art and crafts. We have never seen anywhere so full of horse-themed items (we're horse-lovers) which meant we were spoilt for choice. As it was, the city was really our base for doing excursions to the Grand Canyon, the Apache Trail, and Sedona and not the focus of our holiday. And let's give credit where credit is due. It says a lot for the American pioneering spirit that a city that size has proliferated in the desert, where once a tiny mining town and trading outpost struggled to survive in the midst of the hostile elements. Little wonder they changed the name from Pumpkinville to Phoenix, symbol of rebirth, renewal, immortality... It more aptly describes a city arising from the ruins of a former civilisation, the Hohokam, in the middle of the desert which today is one of the fastest growing cities in the US.
Amazing Arizona sign