Welcome to second instalment of the fifth in the occasional Brian’s Travel Spot series. In the first part of this, the first Travel Spot of 2017, I explained how I was returning to Phoenix and took the opportunity to regale you with my adventures the first time around. We ended Part I with my arriving in Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport having flown in via Salt Lake City, which, it turn out, was an excellent idea. Apart from the vile cold that I caught on the short hop from Salt Lake City to Phoenix and which I’ve just about got over now, a week later.
However, that’s enough moaning. I really enjoyed my return to Phoenix, confirming my original impressions that it’s a fabulous place both to live and to visit. What I hadn’t fully realised (although I knew it conceptually) is that Phoenix the city is quite small and what I think of Phoenix is in fact the greater Phoenix area (I may have made that term up!) which includes the surrounding cities such as Scottsdale (where I was last time) and the likes of Tempe, which is where we’ll start the tale of my return, after a quick word about my motel…
The last time I went to Phoenix, I flew in on a Monday for a meeting starting the following day (Tuesday) which proved to be something of a mistake. This time, I learned my lesson and (once again for a meeting starting on Tuesday) flew in on Saturday instead. This was both to give myself time to acclimatise and to have a couple of days to look around Phoenix.
I wanted somewhere cheap and relatively close to the airport, ending up in a branch of Motel 6, a chain I’d used when I was in Portland. The area around the airport (or at least the bit I was staying in, which was to the northwest, between the airport and the city centre) does not show Phoenix at its finest. I felt relatively safe there, but it’s not necessarily where I’d choose to stay again.
However, when it came to transport, it turned out to be a fairly inspired choice since it was just two blocks from a stop on Phoenix’s Light Rail line. Having said in first part of this Travel Spot that you really need a car to get around, the Light Rail rather proved me wrong for my first two days. Running from Mesa in the east to Dunlap in the north, the Light Rail connects both with the airport and the city centre, so if you want to go anywhere along that route, it’s superb. If you want to go elsewhere, it’s less useful… The Light Rail has a flat fare of $2 one-way, while a day-pass is a very enlightened $4. It’s fast, efficient and there’s a decent schedule: even on a Sunday there were trains every twenty minutes.
I rose relatively early on Sunday morning (relatively early for me, that is) and decided to head east to Tempe, the next city over from Phoenix. Travelling there on the Light Rail (six stops in all), it became clear that this wasn’t London or New York, where the different boroughs/areas effectively merge into one another. Phoenix itself had long since receded from view when we crossed the Salt River and rolled into downtown Tempe, a concise few blocks stretching south from the river. I had two specific ports of call, a branch of Press Coffee Roasters in an apartment building down by the river and the Cartel Coffee Lab roastery. In between visiting these two fine establishments, I wandered around the city itself, discovering that if you go just a few blocks west, you’re into single-plot housing of the sort I don’t normally associate with being a 10-minute walk from a city centre! I was beginning to like Phoenix more and more.
What I really hadn’t expected was a hill in the centre of the city, the rather lovely Hayden Butte. It’s also known, less prosaically, as “A Mountain” on account of the large A on the side. Sadly I can’t find any evidence that they put letters on all the mountains, continuing with B, C, etc (more’s the pity!). Instead I just had to make do with “A”. There’s a well-maintained trail from the foot of Hayden Butte to the top (although you can’t get right to the top since there’s a transmission tower up there). Standing at 426m above sea level, it’s a 75m climb from the trailhead, a decent workout on a Sunday afternoon, which was rewarded by some fantastic views. I also saw a hummingbird at the summit, which was amazing, but the little blighter was far too quick for me to catch on camera!
Talking of workouts, it was the day of the Phoenix Marathon (and Half Marathon, 10k and 5k runs) which finished in Tempe. While I have no interest in running even 5k (I’ll run for a bus/train, but that’s about it) there is something about seeing crowds of happy, exhausted people in their running kit, proudly clutching their medals as they limp away from the finish, that really lifts my spirits. It all added up to a rather excellent first day back in Phoenix.
One thing that I’ve learnt is that if you want good hotel coffee, bring your own, so I was travelling well equipped, including my scales, Aeropress, Travel Press, Knock feldfarb hand grinder and my new Ecoffee Cup, which I’m in the process of road-testing. I also had a generous supply of beans from Weanie Beans. However, what I had forgotten about the Motel 6 chain is that you don’t get anything in your room like a coffee maker or microwave, so I had no way to heat water. Therefore my last action in Tempe, before heading back to the motel, was to pop into a CVS and buy a cheap kettle.
My first day in Phoenix had been a rather gloomy, overcast affair, and the Monday, Martin Luther King Day, started out the same way. My first task was to pack, then I had to collect my hire car, since that evening I would be transferring up to a swanky Hilton resort north of Phoenix for the rest of my stay.
I’d booked the car with Hertz which was down in the airport car rental centre, which wasn’t actually at the airport, but instead just to the west and a 30-minute walk from my motel. This was a relatively uninspiring walk, along two or three lane dual-carriageways, but at least there was a pavement the whole way (not something you can rely on in America) with views of the mountains to the south.
The staff at Hertz, by the way, were excellent. I’d forgotten to bring the credit card I’d booked the car with, but they were totally fine and sorted my booking out with the minimum of fuss, for which I’m very grateful. When I went down to get my car, a Ford Fiesta with a rather striking blue paint job (very useful for locating in car parks!) I was impressed to see my name above the parking spot. Now that’s good service.
This is in contrast to the last time I hired a car at Phoenix Airport (using a different firm). That time, back in October, the hiring process had been cumbersome and when I went to collect the car assigned to me, it wasn’t even there, so I had to go back to the booth and have another one assigned instead. You can rest assured I’ll be using Hertz again if I can!
After that it was time to drive back to the motel, load up the car and head into downtown Phoenix for the day. I decided to leave the car at the motel and take the Light Rail because I wasn’t sure of parking downtown. As it was, since it was Martin Luther King Day (a federal holiday in the US), downtown was pretty dead, so I probably could have found parking easily enough.
My day wandering around downtown only increased my liking of Phoenix. It’s a compact city centre: heading north, I’d left the high-rise section behind within 10 blocks and was into low-rise, urban housing. I don’t know of many cities where that sort of housing is within a 20-minute walk of the centre. I stopped along the way for coffee at Cartel Coffee Lab’s downtown branch, which had recently moved into a new location (next door to the old one).
By the afternoon, the morning’s clouds had gone, the sun had come out and it was pretty warm, so warm in fact that I felt obliged to stop for ice cream, while I also managed to sit outside for lunch, unheard of in the UK in January!
My only reservation with Phoenix was the amount of grass I found. I’ve written before that I like the cacti that I found all over the place, but the grass I found a little disturbing, particularly the large, open space of the Margaret T Hance park which sits on top of an underground section of I-10, the main east-west Interstate. I hate to think how much water is required to keep the grass green in the summer. Or maybe it’s all left to die and is replanted at the end of each year…
That worry aside, I had a lovely day. I caught the Light Rail back to the motel and drove up to my hotel, then caught a cab back to the city centre where I met up with some of my work colleagues to watch an NBA game, the home-town Phoenix Suns hosting the Utah Jazz. This was a rather appropriate choice of opponent since I’d reached Phoenix via Salt Lake City, home of the Jazz.
Unlike the game we attended in October, when the Suns folded in the second quarter, this one was competitive to the very end, with the Suns leading most of the way, only to be pipped at the post by the Jazz. While I was sad for the hometown fans (the Suns aren’t doing well this season, but the crowd was excellent and really got behind the team) I’m something of a Jazz fan and so was secretly cheering inside. After that, it was back to the hotel to get ready for a week of work…
For work, I was staying at the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort, a 25-minute drive north of the city centre, in some hills overlooking the desert to the north (although the views driving back towards the city are just as good). The clue is in the name “resort”: it was less a hotel and more an estate, with multiple apartments. Mine had a sumptuous living room and a gigantic bedroom, but best of all, a balcony with the view north down the valley.
When I checked in, I was asked what room I wanted. Having no idea about the layout of the resort, I just said “give me one with a good view”. I have to say that Autumn, who was the lady on check-in, did me proud with her selection: when I stepped out onto the balcony for the first time it was a real jaw-dropping moment.
Sadly I didn’t actually get to spend much time at the hotel. I was there for four nights, but spent each day at the office (a 20-minute drive away to the north east) and then every evening we were out socialising. It’s a shame, because I would have liked to explore the resort itself and maybe go hiking in the hills in the surrounding area. Next time, perhaps.
I drove to the office each day. Having said before that you really do need a car to get around, I should acknowledge that Phoenix does have a fairly decent bus service. However, for the run I was trying to do, from the hotel to the office, it would take over an hour, with me needing to catch two buses which ran every half an hour. Jumping in the car was so much easier…
The drive itself was also a joy. I avoided the freeway (which is where all the traffic was) and stuck to the local roads. Navigation is so easy: generally everything runs on a north-south/east-west grid, so I had no need of sat nav during my stay. It was as simple as north on 7, east on Thunderbird, north on 51, east on Bell and north on 56. The views were also stupendous, with mountains all around, literally in every direction. Normally I’m not a huge fan of driving, but that if was my drive to work each day, I think I could cope.
Just as on my previous trip, I didn’t get out much. We socialised each evening, although I did have chance to escape one day to pay a return visit to Press Coffee in Scottsdale Quarter, where I was able to present the staff with their certificate for the Coffee Spot’s Best Filter Coffee Award (Press Coffee was a runner-up).
The week (particularly since it was a four-day week) went really quickly and before long I was having my last coffee on the balcony and preparing to set off on the Grand Adventure. However, for that, you’ll have to check out the next instalment of Brian’s Travel Spot, which details the start of the Grand Adventure itself…
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