Exploring Arizona (Tucson, Sedona + the Grand Canyon)
Updated: Mar 29
I had a visitor—the second from South Africa—come to my sweet home in Arizona in the United States. My mom came to stay for several weeks to see me and for all of you who asked (and wondered), here’s what we got up to.
Touchdown Tucson, Arizona
Fresh off the plane, my mom stepped out into +90 F (yes, that’s in the thirties in celcius) temperatures (in the evening). We snapped a picture with a saguaro, an iconic Southwestern cactus unique to this region, and headed home. Home is Tucson, Arizona.
While many people have pressed me for trip details, remember that when family visits, we put them to work. ;) There was a lot of gardening, cleaning, settling in, perusing the stores to familiarize them with local brands, and desperate attempts/escapes to survive the sweltering temps.
Oh, and plenty of cups of tea. Yes, it's the British in us, we can't resist. So, true to form, we popped into Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas for a free tea tasting the first Friday afternoon of the trip. Each week, Seven Cups provides an educational experience showcasing a different type of tea to taste. White tea was on the agenda that week and we loved experimenting with different leaves, steeping, and ultimately choosing the one that tasted the best to us — sound advice from the owners themselves.
But that was the first of many beverages sampled this trip.
First experience with a mimosa
Yes, we have mimosas in South Africa. Only, we call it champagne and orange. But, since Americans mass-produce variations of t-shirts and tea towels with the world MIMOSA splashed across them, I thought we better ‘pop the bubbly’ sooner rather than later… it’s a cultural experience, after all, right?
In Tucson’s northwest corner sits Tohono Chul Garden & Bistro. Brunch at the bistro consisted of Avocado Toast, Dos Rancheros, and prickly pear mimosas — there you go! The prickly pear cactus bears vibrant fruit in rich shades of pink for two months of the year. My mom landed slap-bang in prickly pear season and, boy, did we take advantage of it.
And the mimosa? A delicious celebratory experience that was revisited, I assure you. Our sweet desert oasis experience in the gardens—shortened only by the heat— was promptly followed by a visit to nearby outdoor mall La Encantada.
A lot of housework, settling in, and a brief kitchen accident, on my part, and a couple of stitches later led us to a peaceful afternoon at newly opened artisanal soup and sandwich concept August Rhodes Market. The succulent brisket and soft Japanese milk bread used for the New Jersey Joe sandwich is worth the trip alone.
Welcome to America, we have tacos
Another lunch visit landed us at a new pink food bus that caused ripples across social media upon opening. The food bus is a converted school bus — you know the bright yellow kind you see in movies? Well, one was purchased, painted bubblegum pink, driven to the corner of Swan and 22nd in Tucson, and is serving up juicy carnitas in the friendliest food truck this side of the border. My mom had a moment with a taco. Her first. It was fabulous.
A kitchen project
Amid the travels and experiences, I decided to renovate (paint) my kitchen. Utter chaos, as you can imagine. All travels were halted. It took weeks to find the perfect color for the cabinets… no, not white, this is the desert after all.
Our break from kitchen duty, and side-stepping cupboard doors that had spread out over the floor, involved the annual Hunger Walk to support and raise money for the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. We also volunteered packing services inside their massive factory and distribution building en route.
Post-walk, I took my mom to a hidden gem for breakfast (not so hidden I realized after arriving). Barista del Barrio, a neighborhood coffee shop, served up her new favorite drink — Horchessa. That’s a horchata coffee, for those that aren’t local. And horchata is a Mexican rice-based cinnamon drink, for those that aren’t American. Cue a shared breakfast burrito, with a side of salsa, and she’d almost finished with her US initiation. ;)
More than food
Tucson is not only for foodies. It provides entertainment in the form of museums, art galleries, gardens, National Parks, and various shows. We explored but a few.
Local production company The Gaslight Theatre, offering live musical performances and a dine-in experience, was our first destination for a night out. The production showing at the theater at the time was 009 – Licence to Thrill. The supper theater was a hilarious take on James Bond and had us roaring with laughter between sips from bucket-sized margaritas.
In-between... aka daily life
My mom slotted into my church commitments, gym routines, and workdays with ease. She even helped me take on the grasshoppers on my citrus trees, feasting away guilt-free.
Aside: My mom is a full-time carer in the UK and continues studying and improving her knowledge of the elderly and all the medical concerns that result. She kept herself busy when I was working and I’m so proud of how brave she is and grateful to have snatched her up for her annual holiday.
For my mom’s birthday, we celebrated with lunch at Cup Café at Hotel Congress in downtown Tucson — cue the free slice of birthday carrot cake. The hotel is one hundred years old (this year) with a European feel in the heart of the city. We all drool over the rotating cake display at Cup Café, but it’s the quiche of the day that you want, trust me.
Skip a few hours, a fresh face of make-up, and spritz of perfume later, to Tito & Pep. The restaurant, which has been open less than a year, has gorgeous mid-century decor and exquisite plates cooked largely on a mesquite-fire. The birthday dinner was the cherry on top of our quiet celebration. My mom has, admittedly, been dreaming about their summer (green) bean salad ever since.
Hit the road, Jack (?!)
Many nights in, painting, organizing, and experimenting with local ingredients like spaghetti- and acorn squash, left us ready for a road trip.
Off to Phoenix we went, a mere two-and-a-half hours from Tucson, for a concert. We toured the city, sweating through our threads, and sipped on iced beverages in the downtown area.
It was soon time to head to the Grand Canyon University Arena.
When the traffic to get into a concert holds you up for an hour, you’re grateful to have arrived early (and expectations become sky-high). The concert, officially called The Only Jesus Tour by Casting Crowns, was a beautiful evening of worship; a spectacular show put on by the group we listened to on CDs in the car growing up. I’ll never forget it.
The following morning, before heading back to Tucson, we walked to local Open Air Farmers Market for produce (thank you Yeti cooler for allowing us to buy vegetables for the road).
In addition to produce, the Saturday morning market offered freshly baked loaves, pastries, jams, and food trucks brewing up some seductive coffee — my nose can attest to it.
Before embarking on our return journey, we drove across the city to Evelyn Hallman Park for a breath of nature. It was beautiful and the lake pleasant BUT the weather was brutal – oh, how the sun did burn. Mom, you are a great sport.
En route to Tucson, we stopped for lunch at Queen Creek Olive Mill, in time for an olive oil tasting and lunch in the gardens. We walked away brimming with knowledge of oil — be on the lookout for Extra Virgin Olive Oil on the label and don’t keep it past a year — and four bottles.
The trips, though
I’ll take your long weekend and raise you one phenomenal adventure in California. Done.
San Francisco is my favorite US city for many reasons. I love that you can get around using public transport; I love the ocean; there are beautiful things to see and experience, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and nearby beaches, Alcatraz, the harbor, morning markets, food truck events, nearby Napa Valley and Lake Tahoe. It’s all glorious… and cooler. ;)
San Francisco trip highlights
- Ghiradelli Square
- Golden Gate Bridge
- Pier 39
- Fort Mason Center: Off the Grid Friday night Food truck round-up
- Alcatraz Day Tour
- The Ferry Building Saturday farmers market
Don't let anyone give you a hard time for being a tourist. Fly your tourist flag high! ;)
Do rent a car and drive to Lake Tahoe via the Golden Gate Bridge. The drive was peaceful and scenic.
We stayed in the south. It’s stunning, all of it. There are quirky coffee shops, fresh fish, lake views for days, all the hiking you could dream of, and fresh mountain air. Go now!
Stay tuned for a blog post on Lake Tahoe.
Back in Tucson, we had a week to unwind, grind, and unpack (which usually takes me more than a week, if we’re being honest, which we are).
The next Saturday, Davis Monthan Air Force Base held it’s annual Boneyard Run. The Boneyard is the world’s largest airplane storage ground /boneyard after World War II. The walk/run is either 5 or 10 kms and is open to the public, allowing a glimpse of the expanse that is The Boneyard. I missed the event last year but didn’t make that mistake again. It was a delightful morning with friends and close encounters with planes I don’t usually get to see up close.
Thereafter, we hustled to both Time and Rincon Market in town. Time Market is my absolute favorite place to visit for lunch. I’m a Caprese sandwich fan and their fresh loaves and ingredients sell me on this choice time and again, no pun intended.
Sundays are lazier days. After church, I took my mom to the town of Willcox, Arizona.
An hour and a half gets you to fruit orchards and a local U-Pick patch. It was the Apple Annie’s fall festival and the country store on the property was overflowing with squash, peppers, okra, loud orange pumpkins, corn, and scarecrows. We picked as many Grannysmith apples as we could carry and stuffed our faces with freshly popped kettle corn. After skipping through a sunflower field, I reconsidered my love for cities.
The kitchen and other more inspiring choices
One longer afternoon, mid-kitchen project, after realizing I wore more paint on my skin than the cupboards did, I decided that we needed to catch the sunset from somewhere other than my neighborhood roadside. We drove across the city to the Mercado district (pretty much on the hunt for a second coffee horchata, which we then had at Seis Kitchen) and up Sentinel Peak (locally deemed “A” mountain) for a sunset.
Sipping on horchata in the Mercado courtyard was bliss. We didn’t quite wait until sunset but the city view from the hill/mountain nearby is worth scoping out.
An Arizona road trip
With another trip up my sleeve, we loaded up the truck and headed north in search of red rocks, cooler temperatures, and a glimpse of autumn. First stop, Sedona.
Sedona is a surreal desert town that has gained popularity from its breathtaking landscape and arts community. It’s a spiritual place abounding with hikes, picnic spots, cafes with views, and gemstones.
There are also a few places to go wine tasting. I returned to Page Springs Vineyards so that my mom could sip the magical nectar. We meandered through the vines and under the trees. This is living.
Onwards to Flagstaff, home to autumn leaves and a vibey bar crawl. We sauntered through the downtown streets in search of sweet treats and dinner, entertained by the buzz. We stumbled upon Sweet Shoppe Candy Store (for pumpkin brittle and honeycomb) and further out was satisfying Indian cuisine at Delhi Palace.
The following day, we hunted for colorful leaves at Buffalo Park and ended up getting all our steps in there. The weather was country perfection.
Oh, and we found the autumn leaves.
The Grand Canyon: South Rim
Small-town Flagstaff is two hours from the Grand Canyon’s south rim. No brainer, right?
Off we went, ready to be dazzled. Canyons have always baffled me. I’m used to mountains. The thought of a river carving down into the rock and creating such a masterpiece is difficult to grasp.
This was a view-marveling trip over a hiking trip. We planned on a sunset and a sunrise. When I say we, I mean me. My mom had no idea that the Grand Canyon visit was on our list of things to do. There are very (very) few times in my life that I have seen someone rendered speechless. This was one of those times.
When we arrived, we didn’t plan on finding viewing spots all along the rim’s southern side to pull over at and clamber towards, no rails or anything. But there were. We left our phones in the car for the first bit, just to look.
I can’t explain what it feels like to see something so beautiful. So many layers, colors, so much depth. You can only look and allow yourself to be moved by nature.
It didn’t take much to figure out that the sunsets are best viewed in the west and the sunrises in the east. So, we parked in lot A, soon after the visitor’s center. We then caught a park shuttle (free) to Pima Point (a western shuttle stop) to wait on the sinking sun.
As sunset drew closer, more people flooded our tiny spot. Next time, and there will be a next time, we will head to Monument Creek Vista or Mohave Point to view it.
I took my DSLR camera to capture the experience because there’s something so satisfying about peeling back layers and shining light into dark corners post-production. Do you know what the best part was? There was a full moon that night and we watched it rise, pushing its way through purples and blues to light the sky.
Sunrise was completely different.
I imagined the world lighting up inch by inch before my eyes. It was nothing like that. It was dark and it was still. All I ever want is peace and this was the most peaceful experience of the trip. I could hear my thoughts, almost out loud.
No one was asking me to take a photo, no one was talking loudly on a cellphone, traffic wasn’t there, just silence… I was sitting, wrapped up, at the edge of something magnificent. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was coming. I knew that if I held on longer, my life would change. I would experience something that I would never be totally prepared for. It was coming and I was there, ready.
We were prepared for the cold — hats, gloves, blankets, hot drinks and all. My mom paced up and down looking at the view from many angles. She wanted to see how the light caught every rock, swaying branch, and how the river below flowed, glinting gold.
I sat there, clinging to my flask of tea, too scared to breathe... in case, you know, my breath altered the moment in some way.
It was a slow reveal. The sky lit up in reds and oranges beneath a turquoise ceiling. A man arrived and disappeared into the bushes ahead. Instantly, I knew there was something there. I leaped from my sleeping-bag cocoon and followed. I scrambled up a rocky trail to the highest point I could find.
Rays of light burst from behind rocky outcrop. The sky was filled with hope and possibility. This was a new day, a new beginning, and there we were, standing in awe, engulfed by the light.
Onwards, light chasers
At some point, we decided to get back into the car and continue east. There were other viewpoints to discover, a champagne bottle to burst open (uhm, the cork escaped me), and a morning to chase.
It was quite an unexpected adventure.
When the time came to head home, we chose a different route that took us through Williams, Arizona. The historic town is known as the “gateway to Grand Canyon National Park” due to the railway that transports tourists to and from it in style. It’s on Route 66, equipped with themed stores, restaurants, and quirky highway mementos. We stopped by for a photo, lunch, and to browse the knickknacks.
One more night in Sedona, with glowing scenery and coffee stops was in order. What a relaxing end to a road trip.
Back to reality
By now, I bet you’re wondering about the kitchen cupboards. Well, they’re a third of the way done… but don’t rush me, I’m taking my time. Not to prefect them or anything, haha, they’re best seen from a distance. ;) And the grasshoppers? Well, my mom cleared at least ten off the trees and I just saw one today — nasty buggers eating my plants. Oh, and over the weekend my cucumber plant, which has been holding on for dear life, was plagued by aphids. Sigh.
After weekend brunch at popular Tucson restaurant Prep & Pastry, I took my mom “up the mountain.” Tucsonans know this to mean up Mount Lemmon. High elevation means cooler temperatures and this beauty sits 9,159 feet ( 2,792 m) above sea level.
Mount Lemmon has always been my escape. There are many trails to choose from, the air is crisp, and the views unbeatable. Located north of Tucson, an hour to the top by car, it’s situated in the Coronado National Forest. Game on.
My mom claims that her visit up the mountain was the biggest surprise of the trip. She’d marveled at the mountain views in Tucson, a watercolor backdrop in the desert city, but if you wind up Catalina Highway, passing thousands of saguaro cacti, and hit the aspens and alpines, you’re there… and it looks different. It’s bursting with life. If you’re in search of hot drinks, a square of fudge, or plate-sized mountain cookie after a hike, veer left to Summerhaven. If you are looking for trails emblazoned with yellow, Ski Valley is to your right. We did both.
Journey along the road through Summerhaven, bypassing the Cookie Cabin, and you’ll get to the Marshall Gulch Trail. I’ve hiked the loop several times in various seasons but viewing the orange-red maples and leaf glitter along the stream was a first.
If you’re after aspens, Ski Valley shines gold this time of year. We visited the mountain twice that weekend. Now you know why.
The most important thing to remember when someone comes to visit, is that they’re there for you. You can plan your days from morning ‘til night, stuffing them with activity, but rest and quality time are more valuable.
Yes, we were busy. So busy. Too busy? Maybe, but there’s no going back. What I’ll never forget about this trip is that my mom came for me. She showed up. And that was the loveliest gesture of all.
My best memories might not have an edited photo attached. They’re the small moments, laughing over the beers and dessert at a work dinner, her helping me care for my garden, drinking South African gin and tonic on her last night in the city, walks to view the sunset from my door, listening to audiobooks in the car, eating apple cake from fruit we’d picked ourselves that she had baked, drinking tea from vintage teacups she brought all the way from the UK, teaching her how to eat string cheese, going for a dip in the community pool, and introducing her to Target (haha). There are so (so) many priceless moments that I’ll cherish. The photos are just some of the reminders.
Thanks, Mom, for helping me, listening, trying so hard, being flexible, embracing the overwhelming, not giving up, being patient, and for allowing me to be me.
It was another trip for the books!
Where we ate
Sedona and Flagstaff
Sedona - Oak Creek Garden Deli; Page Springs Vineyards; Pump Station Urban Eatery
Flagstaff - Satchmo’s; Delhi Palace
Tucson + day trips
Breakfast/Brunch – Le Buzz Caffe; Cup Café; Prep & Pastry; Barista del Barrio; Tohono Chul Garden Bistro; Rillito Park Farmers Market
Lunch – The Quesadillas; Carnitas Los Gordos (pink food bus); Seis Kitchen & Catering; Beyond Bread (sandwiches); Time Market; August Rhodes Market (sandwiches)
Dinner — Saguaro Corners (vibe); Tito & Pep
We also went tea tasting at Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas and to Crossroads Coffee Company for coffee.
Thanks for joining us for the ride. It was an unforgettable one, for me.