It’s early morning in January. I’m standing outside a nature center at Usery Mountain Regional Park in Mesa, Arizona, waiting for a morning yoga class. A pale peach sky yawns overhead, and all around me the cactus-studded desert unfurls toward distant mountains.
Nearby I see a tiny hummingbird perched in a bush, its iridescent feathers a blend of bronze and green. We stare at each other, connecting on a primeval level for several seconds before he flits away, seeking morning nectar. A few yards away quail stroll in the sand, their heads bobbing, and desert cottontail rabbits lope discreetly among the bushes. No one is near, yet I’m not alone. The desert creatures are keeping me company.
Mesa, located a few miles east of Phoenix, is a nature lover’s playground. I’m here to experience the desert and the people who call it home. What I discover is, besides the region’s natural beauty, Mesa and neighboring cities are populated with forward-thinking visionaries, folks who aim to make a difference, to make the world a better place. Perhaps they are inspired by the landscape, which seems ancient and changeless and yet at the same time provides a comforting presence.
“Nice work, Warriors,” says our yoga teacher, Misty, as she leads the class in a series of gentle poses. Her words resonate, and I do feel powerful and strong. Through the windows of the nature center, I watch the morning grow lighter. I listen to my breath and find a sense of peace and presence.
That feeling continues as we walk along a trail toward Wind Cave. Guiding us is Mandy Snell, who offers “meaning in motion” hikes designed to encourage self-discovery. As we hike, Mandy speaks with us individually, asking questions to help us find awareness. She asks me what was the most important thing I did in 2014, a question I’m unable to answer. I wonder if I’m trying hard enough to achieve and accomplish great things in my life, but Mandy assures me that the path I am on is the one I am meant to follow. Her words make me think about why we choose certain paths in life.
As I reflect, the path to Wind Cave climbs higher, and I pause to catch my breath. I love the air in the Southwest, so piercing and fresh, redolent of herbaceous flora. Mandy asks me to think of an intention for 2015, one word that might help me navigate the new year more meaningfully. After careful thought, I choose honor. As a verb, it can mean showing respect to others, as well as myself, and as a noun, it suggests living with integrity.
Once we reach the Wind Cave, Mandy’s husband takes photos of each of the hikers, holding a chalkboard with the word we have chosen. In my photo I am red-faced from the hike but smiling wide. I am feeling very alive.
After flying in from the East Coast the day before, I hit the ground running. Together with a handful of writers from across the U.S., we dine on an amazing lunch at Flower Child, a new concept restaurant that’s destined for success. Self-described “food fanatics” create dishes featuring organic vegetables and grains in uber-healthy combinations. Wraps and salads, hot pots and bowls round out the offerings. They even have kombucha on tap! My Asian avocado salad bowl overflows with kale, edamame, radishes, and cucumber dressed in sesame vinaigrette—just the pick-me-up I need after a five-hour flight.
My senses are awakened even further at Southwest Herb, a shop featuring teas, bulk herbs, and herbal tinctures using high-quality medicinal herbs. At the helm is Kathleen Gould, who has studied, taught, and lived herbalism for 25 years. When I tell her I have a slight sore throat, she fixes me a cup of their Immune Boost Chai Tea—it’s soothing and delicious. Kathy believes that remedies for many of our illnesses are found in medicinal plants and teaches classes in herbalism and tincture making. I love this place and—not for the first time—wish Virginia and Arizona weren’t so far apart.
In the evening we venture to Arizona Wilderness Brewery, named “Best New Brewery in the World” in 2013. Using local ingredients, the brewers create aromatic artisanal ales. I love their Refuge IPA with aromatic fruit and grassy notes. For appetizers we try Frenched chicken wing confit, and the tasty meat falls off the bone. Next Belgian-style frites fried in duck fat—in a word, decadent. This cozy brewery is a gathering spot for beer aficionados of all ages.
I’m lodging the first two nights at the recently renovated Phoenix Marriott Mesa, located downtown near the Mesa Arts Center. After a busy day, I’m happy to fall into my comfy bed.
Following our hike to Wind Cave the next day, we visit Queen Creek Olive Mill just east of Mesa. It’s Arizona’s only family-owned and operated working olive mill and farm and offers tours, a restaurant, and olive oil products. After an olive oil tasting and a light lunch, we explore the marketplace—flavored olive oils, spa products, and more. I taste a few other olive oils and decide the chocolate-flavored one is my fave. A coffee for the road and we’re off to our next stop.
The Phoenix area is known for its destination resorts and their amazing spas. But heading to a neighborhood spa can save you money and deliver top-quality service. Tucked into Village Square at Dana Park—a fashionable shopping destination in Mesa—is Fuchsia Day Spa, where a variety of services are available. I’m feeling a bit jet lagged, and my muscles are sore from my early morning hike. Happily, a deep-tissue massage melts my soreness away. One nice bonus is you can choose your own music preference.
Dinner tonight is in historic downtown Gilbert, next to Mesa. The pedestrian-friendly area features shops and restaurants with terraces. We settle into comfy chairs at Postino East Wine Café, where servers bring plates of bruschetta topped with savory cheeses, smoked salmon, bacon, pesto, fruit jams, and more. Other menu items include paninis, soups, salads, and delectable desserts. But we are invited to finish our meal with a sweet treat at Liberty Market, a neighboring restaurant. The Salty River Bar is a local’s favorite—a layered mix of salty and sweet ingredients like chocolate, peanut butter, maybe some caramel, and oddly enough Club-style crackers. It’s sinfully good.
Our third day in Mesa begins with breakfast at Joe’s Farm Grill at Agritopia, a planned community that was once a family farm. At breakfast we meet owner Joe Johnston, who transformed his family farm into a village that married rural values with urban needs. “Village life is the best form of community,” explains Joe. “The idea is to bring people together.”
The resulting neighborhood—called Agritopia—features cozy homes, a retirement complex, gathering spaces, community garden plots, as well as Joe’s farm, which grows organic specialty crops and free-range chickens. “It’s important for people to know where food comes from,” says Joe, as we stroll by happy chickens pecking for bugs underneath a grove of orange trees. It’s hard not to fall in love with Agritopia on this gorgeous, blue-sky day.
Another kind of farming is going on back in Mesa, where we visit True Garden, a new vertical gardening business owned by Troy Albright, a compound pharmacist. Vertical gardening, as the name suggests, uses towers as high as 11 feet tall containing 44 plants. Aeroponics is the science behind these towers, and plants are given a balance of oxygen, nutrients, and water to ensure maximum growth. The supplier of the towers, Tim Blank, is also on hand to answer questions about them and his Orlando-based business Future Growing.
The beauty of growing your own vertical garden in towers like these is you eat your produce within minutes of picking it, Tim says. The result is not only tastier, but healthier, too. “Up to 50 percent of the nutritional value of food is lost between picking and buying in the store,” he explains. It’s this nutritional benefit that convinced Troy that Mesa was ready for the Southwest’s first urban garden of its kind. He shows us the greenhouses where the towers are being prepared for their first crop. It’s exciting to see Troy’s vision taking shape, and I am reminded once again about the pioneering spirit of the people I meet here in Arizona.
If you are into shopping, a trip to Biltmore Fashion Park in nearby Phoenix is a must. I love the concept of this shopping destination, where shady walkways wind past colorful gardens, and you can participate in community activities like yoga and concerts—all in a posh setting. If you’re hungry, a plethora of restaurants beckons. We pop in to Juicd, a new cold-pressed juice bar, to sample healthy juices and then nibble on colorful crudités at True Food Kitchen, owned by the same folks as Flower Child.
Afternoon tea at the Ritz-Carlton gives us a chance to relax and unwind in sumptuous surroundings. Teas include herbal botanical blends and rare white and oolong teas. Of course, a tray of tea sandwiches and sweets is presented, and we begin to wonder how we’ll find room for dinner at The Phoenician, where we’re staying the next two nights.
Located at the base of Camelback Mountain, The Phoenician spreads across 250 acres and has a five-diamond rating from AAA. The pyramid-shaped luxury property features 583 rooms, many with incredible views of the valley. The resort features a 27-hole championship golf course, 11 tennis courts, eight swimming pools, a gorgeous spa, and beautifully landscaped gardens.
Before dinner, I take a quick walk in the two-acre cactus garden dotted with 250 varieties of cacti and succulents. Here and there sculptures blend with the landscape, and the effect is stunning, especially in the early evening light. In fact, The Phoenician has a multi-million dollar art collection including Native American art, as well as European and Asian masterpieces. After a gourmet dinner at Il Terrazzo, the resort’s Italian restaurant, I fall into a deep dreamless sleep.
Brrringg. The alarm wakes me before dawn. We are scheduled for a hot-air balloon ride this morning, but after driving to the lift-off site, the pilot says winds are too strong. Back to The Phoenician, where I spend an hour or so relaxing by the pool before heading to The Centre for Well Being. I enjoy the Desert Serenity Scrub, a treatment that combines a salt scrub with a detoxifying wrap of mineral-rich clay, followed by a massage. I feel refreshed and renewed.
A tour of Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden is next on the agenda. I’ve visited this lovely garden before, but its splendid towering cacti and cozy desert setting are worth revisiting. We’re invited to a cooking class, where we meet chef and cookbook author Jason Wyrick, who became a vegan and overcame Type 2 Diabetes. Jason shares a couple yummy recipes: wilted salad with slightly sautéed chard mixed with chopped cabbage and radishes dressed in lemon olive oil and a bit of salt—plus a minty watermelon salad. Yum!
That night we dine at a relaxing Phoenix restaurant called St. Francis, where the vibe is both modern and rustic at the same time and the food is sublime. Wood-fired flatbreads—choose from cheese, vegetable, or meat—start things off, and then we dive into Moroccan meatballs and baked goat cheese. For my entrée, I opt for hanger steak, and it’s amazing: cooked rare, the way I like it, with a lovely red wine sauce.
The next morning we get another chance to soar with Hot Air Expeditions. The wind is in our favor, and after the balloons are filled, we take off into the silent sky. Occasionally, the pilot warms the air by opening a gas valve that shoots a huge flame into the belly of the balloon. We float higher and higher, marveling at the view of the Sonoran Desert below and mountains all around us. A hot-air balloon ride is something you really have to experience at least once in your life.
I feel the same way about Mesa and environs. There’s a special kind of magic in the desert, a sense that anything’s possible. It’s the perfect place to discover a new path.
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