Legend has it that The Palace Restaurant and Saloon on historic Whiskey Row in Prescott, Arizona, was frequented by Old West legends Wyatt and Virgil Earp as well as Doc Holliday, and when it was destroyed by fire in 1900, the ornately carved Brunswick Bar that is still in use today was carried to the nearby plaza by devoted patrons who kept on drinking.
The venue, which has since been restored, also hosted filming of Steve McQueen classic Junior Bonner in 1971, and it’s against the backdrop of a vast poster of the film in The Palace’s restaurant that I sip on a root beer over lunch, midway through a fascinating and action-packed tour of Arizona.
While it’s known as the Grand Canyon state, our focus is on its other attractions. I discover that as well as its prominent Old West heritage and transfixing cactus-covered scenery, there is plenty more to enjoy.
After touching down in Phoenix, the trip starts in Scottsdale, founded in the 1890s as a farming community but now a hub for spa resorts, and we check in at the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa. Overlooked by Camelback Mountain, the hotel is so vast – 125 acres – that staff travel around on golf buggies. They even give me a welcome lift uphill to the spa one afternoon as I head for a hot stone massage.
The treatment is especially welcome after a trail ride that morning. My trusty steed Beau proves a relaxing way to see the scenery and wildlife at close quarters, while his short attention span and constant desire to eat anything in sight doesn’t exactly disprove the theory that horses take on the personality of their riders.
Our real-life cowboy guide takes us into the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, down into the Verde River valley and back to the Sonoran Desert, while our authentic taste of the Old West continues the following day with a tour of the spellbinding Robson’s Ranch & Mining Camp, 20 miles outside Wickenburg.
One of the oldest original mining claims in Arizona, it’s been painstakingly restored using original artefacts, plus atmospheric if mildly sinister mannequins. It’s been impeccably preserved to give a feeling of going back in time, with everything from The Mercantile grocery store piled high with original canned goods, to an old newspaper office complete with hand press. It’s also overlooked by a vast army of saguaro cacti, a key feature of the Sonoran Desert. They add a timelessness to the scenery given that they can live to 200, and only sprout their distinctive “arms” after growing for at least 50 years.
There’s also a Western town at the Blazin’ M Ranch in Cottonwood, and while it might be less authentic, it makes for a very entertaining evening. Founded at a former dairy and cattle ranch after most of the cultivated land was washed away by flooding in the early 1990s, many of the building materials were recycled from Hollywood movie sets, evident in features like the fake jail where you can peer through the bars. After trying out this and other attractions like lassoing, we’re served a “chuckwagon-style” dinner served on a tin plate, followed by a cowboy show that delivers on its promise of “music, tall tales, tomfoolery and surprises” with a yodelling husband-and-wife duo Jim and Jeanne Martin. Yee-ha!
At the more cultural end of the spectrum, the state is home to museums such as the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, which looks at “the Old West, the New West and the Next West”, and the vast Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, which rightly has a section devoted to Arizona native Alice Cooper.
The musical legend has his own restaurant/sports bar in downtown Phoenix – Cooper’stown – where the menu includes a 22-inch hot dog known as The Big Unit, which comes in an even more terrifying-sounding version with whatever “nightmare chili” is.
But while many eateries favour the kind of meat-and-carb-heavy, pile-’em-high dishes to be expected – and that’s an essential part of the visit – there are options taking a different tack, such as FnB in Scottsdale.
Chef Charleen Badman is known for giving vegetables a starring role in her dishes and we try many, including a salad of beets with watermelon, vadouvan (a blend of spices), pumpernickel croutons and goat’s cheese. The restaurant also champions local winemakers such as Chateau Tumbleweed, a collaboration of four friends who set up one of Clarkdale’s first commercial wineries and tasting rooms and is taking a more contemporary spin on the industry.
I sample another local drink – a prickly pear margarita – on the four-hour Verde Canyon Railroad, known as Arizona’s longest-running nature show. The venture into the state’s “other Grand Canyon” starts in Clarkdale, and gives a unique vantage point as it heads through the wilderness to the Perkinsville ghost ranch and back.
You can sit in the comfort of the indoor carriages, but the outdoor cars provide the best views, and the train journey taps into one of the most fascinating parts of the whole trip – admiring the scenery.
Overall, the majority of this was by road, but we also see the landscape from a whole new angle in an early-morning hot air balloon ride as we silently glide across the Sonoran desert.
There are also man-made attractions to admire and we have dinner one evening at the Arizona Biltmore, a 39-acre resort in Phoenix known for its striking Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architectural style. Having opened in 1929, it oozes old-school elegance at every turn, and legend has it that Marilyn Monroe sunbathed poolside.
I make a far less sophisticated appearance at the four-acre waterpark at our last accommodation of the trip, the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort in Phoenix. We dine at its Hole-in-the-Wall restaurant in an original 1940s ranch house, sampling everything from fried green tomato BLTs, to brisket and tangy fried dill pickles coated in a beer batter, followed by toast-your-own smores (a marshmallow, chocolate and cracker treat).
As the trip draws to a close I realise we’ve packed in plenty but also barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer. Other options included kayaking, golf, and much more pottering, both in Phoenix and the surrounding towns, while I would have been happy to spend the whole trip staying at one of the resorts and use it as a base. It’s a destination that would be great for families, couples and solo travellers, and for both outdoors-focused adventurers and those preferring a more leisurely approach. I leave endorsing one satisfied customer’s review of Cooper’stown: “Come here for a great time. You will definitely want to come back.”
Netflights.com offers return flights from London Heathrow to Phoenix with British Airways from £723 per person, based on travel in January 2018 (0207 001 4377, www.netflights.com).
Rooms at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort, Phoenix, start from $199pp (£152pp). For more information, or to book, visit www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/arizona/pointe-hilton-squaw-peak-resort-PHXSPPR/index.html.
For more information about Arizona, visit www.tourism.az.gov
Rooms at The JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa start from $379 (approximately £296). For more information, or to book, visit www.marriott.co.uk/hotels/travel/phxcb-jw-marriott-scottsdale-camelback-inn-resort-and-spa/
For further information on Scottsdale, visit www.experiencescottsdale.com
InsureandGo offers single trip travel insurance from £15.