Travel review: Mesa, Arizona
by Helena Lang
From the staggering views on Canyon Lake to the deserted movie set of Apacheland, Mesa in Arizona is perfect for those that appreciate the great outdoors, says Helena Lang
High on the rockface overlooking Canyon Lake, we spot them. A pair of bald eagles, the national emblem of the United States, and a feather-in-our-cap nature-lover's moment on our six-mile cruise around the lake, a resevoir on the Salt River north-east of Mesa, Arizona. With their Persil-white heads and large, egg-yolk yellow talons, they stand out against the red rock. And they aren’t alone; minutes later a desert bighorn sheep steps out onto a precipice several hundred feet above the water, his horns and stance making a Greek-myth-like impression before his breathtaking agility sees him race up an almost vertical slope to the plateau beyond.
The cruise on the Dolly Steamboat is great fun, with captain and crew providing a running narrative on the natural flora and fauna as well as providing a few laughs along the way. But it’s not the only way to enjoy the simply staggering scenery the region has to offer. The best way is to pull on your hiking boots, fill your water bottle and hit the walking trails that riddle the region like blood vessels – offering incredible views and the absolute silence many of us have forgotten in our busy always-on lives.
The Usery Mountain Regional Park sits at the edge of the city. After parking the car, we set off up a narrow trail, passing the occasional hiker on their way down, or being passed by the occasional runner on their way up. We huff and puff all the way to Wind Cave, a well-known vantage point, and where we meet our first chipmunk, surviving on visitors’ trail mix. This is a hiker’s paradise. The views stretch for miles and the variety of cacti, sculptural and elegant, creates an otherworldly environment complemented by the cleanest, freshest air imaginable.
We are staying at the Saguaro Lake Ranch, originally built to accommodate the construction workers working on the nearby reservoir. It’s a total antithesis to smart city hotels, rich with authentic detail and staffed by a friendly bunch who make you feel right at home. The rooms are simple, but when you step out onto your porch in the morning the absolute silence, the clear blue sky and the view straight out of a travel brochure are the ultimate luxury.
Adrienne, who serves our breakfast, is jolly, chatty and fascinated by our English accents. The pile of over-easy eggs, crisp streaky bacon, pancakes, toast, maple syrup and the best homemade hash browns ever is fuelled by mug after mug of coffee. An early morning stroll down to Salt River sees a heron waiting patiently for fish to flow by, families of ducks, bouncing bunnies, butterflies, eagles soaring up above, and all surrounded by Saguaro cacti.
Marcel, one of the team of wranglers, all checked shirt, Stetson, bootleg jeans and tooled cowboy boots, takes us on a gentle horseback trail around this natural paradise. My grey gelding, Ned, and my husband’s chestnut gelding, Cowboy, clearly know the routine and don’t need much nudging, allowing us to absorb every precious moment.
Local history revolves around the region’s starring role in many a western movie, and Apacheland, part of the Superstition Mountain Museum, is a former movie set that often featured. Most of the original site was unfortunately lost in a fire, with the only buildings to survive being a little white chapel – known as ‘Elvis Chapel’, as it featured in the only film in which he did not sing, Charro! – alongside a big ramshackle barn stuffed with movie memorabilia. There’s also a collection of western-inspired buildings, all lovingly tended by an army of volunteers.
More family fun is to be had a mile away at Goldville, a ‘ghost town’ lined with creaking buildings, including a bordello, gallows, jail and saloon. A former gold-mining town with gun-fights, panning for gold and mine tours galore, it’s heaving with photo opportunities.
There is also a more sophisticated side to Mesa. Gilbert Road is where the young city types hang out, and it heaves with bars and restaurants. Postino East wine café, a casual contemporary Italian joint, delivers up delicious bruschetta loaded with first-rate deli ingredients, including a sublime combination of goat’s cheese and fig jam.
And who knew you could grow olives in the desert? In fact, the hot, dry conditions are in some ways better than the traditional Med, in that the lack of rain and humidity means the trees are not susceptible to olive fly and the root-rotting disease that pervades the industry closer to home. At Queen Creek Olive Mill, Perry Rea and his wife Brenda have 12,000 olive trees producing their own extra-virgin olive oil. Trained in Spain, both are qualified olive sommeliers, and there is an excellent café, restaurant and gourmet food shop on site.
Agritopia is another entrepreneur success story driven by passion, this time by the Johnston family. It’s what Americans call a planned community – a modern, eco-friendly housing estate built around an urban farm. Centred around a food market, they sell not only the homegrown produce but also locally produced delicacies, and there are wine bars, restaurants and cafés.
It’s an idyllic way to live, and I could have signed up there and then. At the True Garden urban farm, there is another farmers’ market and a business success story. Owner and compound pharmacist Troy Albright and his wife, Lisa, grow veg, fruit and herbs at this fascinating 5,000-square-foot vertical urban farm, using just one-tenth of the land and a fraction of the water of regular agriculture.
Our accommodation in the city is with Home2 Suites, part of the Hilton group, who offer modern and airy suites with basic kitchen facilities and views over to the mountains beyond. Breakfast is self-service with a choice of hot sandwiches, cereals, pastries and hot coffee. There’s an outside grill area where you can barbecue your supper and a stylish lounging area with a fire pit for those cool desert evenings.
A must-see is the Commemorative Air Museum with its collection of some of the rarest military combat planes in the world and staffed by a characterful team of volunteers, most of whom have seen active service. What makes it more interesting is the connection to the RAF – 2,500 British second world war pilots trained in the area on Stearman biplanes, which are on display, and the 23 who tragically died in training are buried at Mesa Cemetery. Their flights over the desert landscape must have been as mesmerising as the ones our pair of bald eagles enjoy, and there is some comfort in knowing their final resting place is here, in Mesa, surely one of the most tranquil parts of Arizona, if not the world.
How to book
America As You Like It has a seven-day holiday to Mesa, priced from £1,495 per person, based on two travelling. The price includes return flights from Heathrow to Phoenix with British Airways, seven days’ fully inclusive car hire; two nights at Saguaro Lake Ranch (with breakfast); two nights at Home2 Suites (with breakfast); and two nights at Sheraton Mesa Hotel (room only). For more information and to book, visit americaasyoulikeit.com or phone 020 8742 8299