I made my first visit to Phoenix, a city I’ve since come to know very well, at the end of October, 2016. I’d not long since returned from my first around-the-world trip, travelling west-to-east via Hong Kong, Shanghai and Chicago. As a result, this trip, my last of the year, was rather hastily arranged. A rather concise affair, the whole trip lasted just eight days, in marked contrast to my return to Phoenix a few months later.
I flew in on the Monday, landing late in the evening, then spent the next four days in a meeting. However, I was determined to see something of the area and, knowing nothing about Phoenix itself, I decided that I would skip exploring the city and instead head north to the Grand Canyon, somewhere I’d always wanted to visit. I drove up on the Friday night, spent the weekend there, and then drove back to Phoenix on Monday afternoon to catch the evening flight home.
As usual, I’ve spread this trip over several posts, starting with this one, covering my flight out, my first impressions of Phoenix and the drive to the Grand Canyon, which included an overnight stop in the town of Williams.
This trip was, for me, relatively short and uncomplicated, flying there and back with British Airways, the only airline at the time to fly direct from the UK to Phoenix (since then, American Airlines has started a daily flight between Phoenix/Heathrow), which made the choice rather easy (although, having said that, the next time I did the trip, I flew with Delta…).
Although the majority of British Airways flights use Terminal 5 at Heathrow, Phoenix is one of a handful of routes that leave from Terminal 3, where I found myself less than two weeks after returning to the country from Chicago (where I’d also arrived at Terminal 3, that time as a result of flying with Virgin Atlantic). Since I was flying in economy (I’d not yet managed to get a travel budget from work), I waited at the gate (where there was plenty of space, but very little power) until almost everyone else had boarded before walking on and taking my seat.
I had booked my customary exit row seat and settled in for the long (10 hour) flight. Back in 2016, British Airways used its 747 fleet for the route and, while this plane felt more modern than the 747 I had flown back from Boston in at the start of the year, it had the same cabin layout and, more importantly, it didn’t have that essential (for me) of at-seat power (to the best of my knowledge, none of British Airways’ 747 fleet had at-seat power in economy). Fortunately, my new Dell laptop, for all its faults (and it has many, including a ludicrously unreliable keyboard) is blessed with an exceptionally long battery life, so I was able to make almost the entire journey working on the laptop before the battery eventually gave out.
The food (lunch and dinner) was good and I have discovered a new wheeze for improving airline coffee. After my troubles in Beijing the month before, when I was forced to ditch my coffee at the airport, I’ve gone back to asking the cabin crew for a jug of hot water and making it in-flight. However, I’ve changed my technique a little, having discovered that the toilets make a much better option than doing it at your seat. The fold-down baby-changing table is far more stable that the seat-table and no-one tells you off for grinding your beans too loudly.
However, the thought of making an Aeropress and then carrying a jug of coffee back to my seat did not appeal, so instead I put my new-found friend, the Travel Press, into action. This allows me to make my coffee and it then keeps it warm. You can drink your coffee straight out of the Travel Press, but I prefer to pour it in smaller quantities into one my many travel mugs (in this case, my Therma Cup) and hey presto, excellent airline coffee.
It’s interesting the different perspectives people have on aircraft. As long as I can get an exit-row seat, I don’t mind the old 747s (I prefer them to older 767s and A340s for example) but I really miss at-seat power, which is pretty much a given on modern long-haul aircraft. While fetching water for my coffee, I got talking to one of the cabin crew and was waxing lyrical about the A380 and I could tell she wasn’t impressed. She confessed she was going on a conversion course for the A380 the following week and wasn’t looking forward to it. She liked the old 747s, she said, and didn’t want to have to learn yet another aircraft. After she reeled off the long list of aircraft she’d flown on (and had been trained on) I can see why some airline like to keep their fleets down to one or two aircraft types!
The flight itself was just want you want: smooth, uneventful and on time. Well, I say uneventful. When we landed at Phoenix, we were asked to stay in our seats while the police came onto the plane and arrested someone sitting on the other side of the aircraft from me. Since there had been no disturbance during the flight I can only assume he was on a watch list somewhere. Even the arrest was relatively uneventful, carried out with the minimum of fuss.
As I often do on business trips, I went to my destination (Phoenix in this case) with no great expectations. It was never on my list of go-to destinations and, while I’d often thought about visiting the south-west of the USA, I’d never had the opportunity before, nor had I had a particularly burning ambition to do so. All I really knew about Phoenix was that it was in the desert and that it was hot.
The first surprise came when we were coming into land at Phoenix airport. There were mountains visible out of the window. Now, I’d expected that. I knew that there were mountains around Phoenix. What I hadn’t expected was that there would be mountains in Phoenix. As we came closer to the airport, flying over some fairly densely-populated areas, suddenly a large mountain would loom up (for context, probably one or two thousand feet above their surroundings).
What was more surprising to me was the overall terrain. Coming from a small island that doesn’t really do flat (other than East Anglia), I grew up around hills and, in the parts of the UK where there are mountains, they are surrounded by smaller hills. In Phoenix, it’s flat. Really flat, almost pancake-like flat. And then there’s a mountain. Just like that. With almost no warning. To me, that’s a very alien landscape, although if you grew up in Phoenix, you’re probably reading this and thinking “And?”.
That’s why in the UK, we don’t really have cities next to mountains, certainly not big ones. There’s just nowhere flat to build them. The impression that I have with Phoenix is that it started off small and, as it spread out, it built around the mountains, a bit like a rising lake, lapping at their skirts. Whatever the reasons, I found it a magical landscape.
The next surprise was the temperature. I knew that Phoenix was going to be hot (it’s that whole “built in the desert” thing) but this was late October, so, surely, it wasn’t going to be that hot? When I stepped off the plane, it was 27⁰C. At eight o’clock in the evening! This, in the UK, is considered a very hot summer’s day. The sort of hot that has people complaining how hot it is. And this was in the evening. It was 22⁰C not long after dawn the following day and that pretty much set the pattern for the week, with the highest temperature (recorded by my phone, at least) reaching 37⁰C late one afternoon. On the plus side, everywhere was air conditioned, so, other than brief strolls outside, it wasn’t even noticeable. And it was a dry heat, unlike the humidity that I’d experienced a month before in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
This was, though, first and foremost, a business trip. I flew in on Monday evening, picked up my hire car from the airport (as much as it pained me not to use public transport, you absolutely need a car to get around) and drove out to Scottsdale where I was staying. From Tuesday until Friday I was in meetings, nine to five, then socialising in the evenings, although I did get a chance to wander around the area near my motel, where I discovered the awesome Press Coffee. Beyond that, and a trip to a basketball game, I had little chance to explore.
That said, I enjoyed what time I spent there. It felt a relaxed place to live, although I suspect that I wouldn’t enjoy the extreme temperatures of the summer. While I wouldn’t ever say Phoenix is a must-visit destination, I’m looking forward to getting back and spending a day or two exploring the city itself (which I did on my next trip three months later).
However, come Friday, and the end of my meeting, it was time to explore. I took my trusty hire car and set off for the Grand Canyon.
From the office in north Phoenix to the Grand Canyon is a drive of around 220 miles, roughly 3¼ hours behind the wheel. However, that’s not accounting for Friday night traffic, on top of which I’d just been in a four-day meeting and would be leaving immediately after the end of the fourth day. That potentially meant setting off at five o’clock, right at the peak of rush hour, then driving while tired and mostly at night.
Faced with all that, I decided that I’d break my journey with an overnight stop along the way. Flagstaff was one option, but I settled on the town of Williams, just to the west of Flagstaff. This had the advantage of being slightly closer to the Grand Canyon, plus, if someone’s going to name a town after you, it would be rude not to stay there. I therefore booked a night at the Motel 6 in the heart of Williams and got ready to leave at the end of my meeting.
As it was, we finished early and I was on my way by four o’clock. My route was remarkably simple: west on 101 (part of the ring road around Phoenix), north on I-17 to Flagstaff (which is as far as the freeway goes) and then west on I-40 to Williams. Even though I left early, I still ran into traffic on 101, slowly inching my way towards the junction with I-17. However, once I made it onto I-17, things improved considerably and I was soon heading north through an increasingly beautiful landscape.
I’m not a great fan of freeway driving: my experience of the freeway network in America (at least when free of traffic) is that it’s an efficient but usually boring way of getting from A to B. I will, however, make an exception for I-17 as it climbs north from Phoenix (and, indeed, as it drops south from Flagstaff when you drive the other way). I’ve driven the route several times in both directions and it’s always been an enjoyable experience.
It’s 125 miles from the 101 junction to Flagstaff, with the road climbing over 5,000 ft along the way (that’s roughly 200 km and 1,500 m for those working in metric). Indeed, one of the things that I enjoy is passing the altitude markers along the way. 2,000 ft comes quickly enough, while you’re still in the broad valley north of Phoenix, then it’s a steady climb out of the valley and over a pass through the first significant range of mountains to the northeast, before dropping down to almost 3,000 feet again as the freeway passes Camp Verde, roughly the halfway point between Phoenix and Flagstaff.
From there, it’s up again, I-17 climbing steadily into the highlands south of Flagstaff. There are some stunning views, although there aren’t many pull-offs (and very few towns), so you mostly have to enjoy the views through your car windows (which is why I don’t have any photos).
I made pretty good time and the sun was just setting as I reached Flagstaff, from where I turned west on I-40 for the last leg of my journey into Williams, which I did in the dark (I’ve since driven it in daylight and I didn’t miss much, at least not compared to the drive along I-17). Arriving at around half past six, I found my motel, which, like all American motels, was much bigger than it needed to be for just me, and got a relatively early night (for me, that is) in readiness for my big day.
I did consider using Williams as a base for my weekend exploration of the Grand Canyon, but it is (in my opinion) just a little too far south, being about an hour’s drive from the canyon’s south rim. This would have meant getting up an hour earlier (or, more realistically for me, getting to the Grand Canyon an hour later), plus I didn’t fancy the idea of an hour’s drive back at night with tired legs after a day’s hiking.
Williams is effectively an east-west strip along the old Route 66, one of America’s famous historic highways which connected Santa Monica (in Los Angeles) to the west, with Chicago to the east. Route 66 has long since been superseded by the US Interstate system, although Williams has the distinction of being the last city on Route 66 to be bypassed when, in 1984, the section of I-40 that runs north of the town was opened to traffic. Williams is also on the route of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief which runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, as well as being the southern terminus of the Grand Canyon Railway, which is an alternative (if expensive) way of getting to the south rim if you don’t want to drive.
Williams is at an altitude of just over 2,000 m, about 1,500 m higher than Phoenix and it shows in the climate. It had been 33⁰C when I left Phoenix, but was just 14⁰C when I arrived in Williams the previous evening. Rising to clear blue skies the following morning, it was a refreshingly sharp 0⁰C! Fortunately, I had known what to expect and so had brought plenty of layers with me.
There wasn’t a lot to hold me in Williams, particularly as I was keen to get to the Grand Canyon itself. I stopped long enough for breakfast at Goldies Route 66 Diner, which is a classic American diner dating from the 1960s. Then I was on my way, driving north along SR 64 which leads straight and flat to the Grand Canyon, although my first stop was in Tusayan, a small town just outside the southern edge the Grand Canyon National Park, where I’d booked a hotel for the weekend.
Effectively a collection of hotels and restaurants, Tusayan serves the south rim of the Grand Canyon. It is possible to stay within the National Park, on the south rim itself, but accommodation there books up months in advance, so Tusayan was the next best thing. I checked into my hotel, dropped my bags and then drove up to the Grand Canyon itself, which you can read about in the next instalment of this Travel Spot.
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