Don’t miss Costa Rica’s La Paz Waterfall Gardens

No trip to Costa Rica is complete without a visit to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Even if your only stop in Costa Rica were to be this wonderful combination resort and sight-seeing attraction, you would have seen much of what this Central American country is famous for: beautiful butterflies, amazing hummingbirds, colorful snakes and frogs, lush tropical gardens surrounded by spectacular rivers and waterfalls. All of this flora and fauna is set in a magnificent hillside cluster with fishing lake and boutique spa resort. But the Costa Rica ‘to-do’ list wouldn’t be finished without volcano and coffee plantation tours, forest canopy zip-lining and river rafting. Guests at the adjacent Peace Lodge can arrange nearby day tours to these areas as well. La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace Lodge are centrally located between Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose and other iconic Costa Rican tourism highlights: Arenal Volcano and hot springs resorts near Fortuna. It’s an ideal location for those considering a vacation in Costa Rica.

Butterfly feeding time at La Paz Waterfall Gardens

Hummingbird taking a rare rest break

Aviary birds are perfect close-up 'models'

Colorful ox cart ready for passengers

Favorite photo opportunity along 'Trail of Falls'

Restaurants, lodge rooms -- even restrooms have the feel of the tropics

These photos don’t really do justice for this wonderful Costa Rica park, wildlife refuge and hotel. Find more descriptions and a photo gallery on the website.

US Airways flies from Phoenix to San Jose International Airport daily. Best times to visit are November through April. This is the high season, so expect rates to be higher.

Seven reasons to visit Guaymas/San Carlos, Sonora

San Carlos is one of our favorite Mexican getaways. The resort area is about a seven-hours’ drive south from Phoenix and half an hour from Guaymas, Sonora. It’s an easy drive though Tucson, Nogales and Hermosillo. Spring is a perfect time to visit. We love San Carlos for the same reasons most tourists enjoy Mexico: beaches, fishing, boating, diving, snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, shopping, dining, nightlife, sight-seeing… the list seems endless. Here are just a few things we love best about the destination:

1. Crystal clean pools at our resort, the Sea of Cortez Beach Club

2. San Pedro Island’s sea lions

3. Walks along the beach: Playa Los Algodones

4. Sensational sunsets over San Luis, Doble and Venado Islands

5. Tours to Guaymas to see the city hall, municipal plaza and this church: Iglesia San Fernando

6. Snorkeling at San Pedro Island

7. Tetakawi Mountain and Lalo Cove

San Carlos has a wide variety of dining and lodging accommodations. Here are a few websites we recommend for additional travel information:

What’s Up San Carlos

San Carlos, Mexico

Go2SanCarlos

Desert Divers

 

 

Windmill Winery is versatile venue

Windmill Winery isn’t just a winery and tasting room. It’s also a farm, market, plant nursery, wedding venue, restaurant, corporate meeting place, entertainment location and farm implement museum. It’s also a nice destination for an afternoon day trip.

Windmill Winery

The winery features a different set of wine selections monthly, making it possible for wine lovers in the San Tan Valley area to enjoy a variety of varietals from different wine regions. Plus Windmill Winery has its own private label including a sweet white wine and a robust red.

Located at the western edge of Florence, Windmill Winery is just a short half hour drive from the southeast suburbs – probably just over an hour from Phoenix. It may have started out as a nursery, but it has grown into a popular wedding and reception venue, as couples opt for a setting of country charm. When we arrived, owner Harold Christ immediately made us feel welcome and invited us to sample some of the white Hummingbird Nectar and the red Dutchman’s Bold. Although these wines are from grapes grown and processed outside Arizona, plans are in the works for grape vines to be planted onsite. In about seven years, if all goes well, Windmill Winery may be boasting not only its own label, but its own wine.

Windmill Winery burro

With wine in hand, we strolled outside to the tour the grounds. A quaint outdoor patio welcomed us at the door. The patio encompasses several tables and gas heaters for the cooler evenings. The lush setting made us forget we were in the desert – the entire property reminded us of an eastern or mid-western farmyard. And after learning the history of the big red barn, we knew why. The 45-foot high structure was dismantled in Green Bay, Wisconsin then shipped to Arizona and reconstructed on the 60-acre property.

Windmill Winery, as an entertainment venue, has all bases covered. Events such as Brews, Brats and Blind Man’s Bluff, Mardi Gras Madness, and Murder Mystery Nights are upcoming dates the winery’s calendar. Diners need to book these events in advance as they sell out early. The Valentine’s Prime Rib dinner was already sold out. These special events are for advanced purchase only. Also in February, Windmill Winery starts Friday happy hours from 4 to 7 p.m. with half price specials on house wine and light appetizers. There’s also a solid collection of craft brews and local beers available.

Poultry on parade at Windmill Winery

Catered dinners on one night a week provide visitors with a menu that would make any master chef drool.

You might choose from a gourmet burger, created with homemade garlic-mayo aioli, with horseradish cheddar served on a bed of Arugula leaves, topped with a fresh-baked Kaiser roll, including a special condiment of bacon jam or a platter of Hawaiian-style pork with sea salt herbs and spices, slow cooked in banana leaves with a coconut rice grilled pineapple and slice of Pina Colada bread. Hungry yet? Many of the ingredients were grown on Christ’s same property, known agriculturally as Florence Farms. Much of the Florence Farms harvest also finds its way to the kitchens of about a dozen local resorts and restaurants.

One of Windmill Winery's unique landscape features

Although it’s not actually a museum, there’s a collection of farm implements on display such as John Deere tractors and other implements. Harold and his wife Katie recently were featured in an installment of Massey Ferguson’s’ online magazine: MyFarmLife.com. Windmill Winery, located at 1140 West Butte Road in Florence, is open Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. and Friday noon to 10 p.m.

What are your favorite day trips around Arizona? I would welcome any ideas, suggestions or recommendations from readers. Just let me know by emailing me at azgetawaytravel@gmail.com.

Keep fitness resolutions on track with Fat Man’s Pass hike

South Mountain's Hidden Valley is a garden of boulders and rocky ledges

 

Thinking about trimming down for the New Year? Start by hiking one of many Phoenix urban trails. We began our annual fitness to-do list with a hike at City of Phoenix’s South Mountain Park.

It was New Year’s Day Monday – a perfect Arizona day, with lots of sunshine, cool morning and midday warmth. We drove to the Pima Canyon Trailhead near 48th Street and Pima Canyon Road. The parking lot and access road were already packed with cars. As we approached the parking lot loop, we lucked out to find a recently vacated parallel parking spot, no doubt left for us by an “early bird” hiker.

Walking up along the National Trail, we noticed how December rains transformed the desert floor into a green carpet

The dirt road, which runs parallel to Pima Canyon and the Pima Wash Trail, is a gradual climb to the intersection of the National Trail. We continued up National Trail another 1.4 miles to the turn off to Hidden Valley. Hidden Valley is a nice garden of boulders and rock ledges planted upon a soft floor of sand and gravel. Friends and co-workers have told me of this area before, recommending it as a site plentiful with wildlife in the early morning. I could imagine this area at sunrise, with coyotes and javelina running through the brush. Also, watch for Hohokam petroglyphs in Hidden Valley.

Slippery rocks make Fat Man's Pass more like Slide Rock

We scrambled  through a natural tunnel, then walked a short distance over to the two boulders that together form what’s known as Fat Man’s Pass. We actually decided to climb up around the narrow opening, and continued our hike back to the National Trail and returned to the intersection of the Mormon Trail and stopped upon a good lookout point for a snack, and hiked down to the parking lot via Mormon Trail, Mormon Loop Trail and Pima Wash Trail. We figured the mileage by sections, and it summed up to about seven miles – for a good morning hike — just over three hours.

Fat Man's Pass: an obvious misnomer since only the skinny can squeeze through

For a shorter, steeper hike, next time we’ll try the Mormon Trail from the 24th Street parking area to the National Trail and Hidden Valley to Fat Man’s Pass covers approximately 1.7 miles and about 900 feet. There are several loop sections on South Mountain, creating greater possibilities for your own ‘custom’ day hike. As usual, please practice good hiking sense: wear sturdy shoes, stay on trails, carry plenty of water and always use sun protection. For more information: South Mountain Park website; HikeArizona.com.

Readers: What are your favorite urban hikes? What kind of desert hiker are you? Do you run trails for fitness and calorie burn? Or do you prefer to take your time, enjoy the views and stop and smell the creosote bush?

 

Be a tourist in your town: Arizona Railway Museum

I’ve driven back and forth along Arizona Avenue and McQueen Road in Chandler for the last few years and never paid much attention to the small blue sign, pointing to the Arizona Railway Museum. Last Saturday afternoon, my husband and I decided to stop.

The Arizona Railway Museum, located at 330 East Ryan Road, comprises a collection of railroad cars and a museum building displaying a miscellany of memorabilia: tools, signs, photos, lanterns, timelines, an antique control center plus various parts and pieces of trains and rail systems — even samples from railroad company china cabinets. What caught my eye were the old photos of some of Arizona’s train stations, now long gone. A gift shop provides visitors with a wide selection of hats, shirts, mugs and toys. We spent a few minutes strolling around the museum, gaining a renewed appreciation for the era when rail transportation was both prevalent and popular.

But when we made our way outside to the tour the railway cars, I felt my heart beat faster. Simply walking between the cars prompted a childhood memory of a trip from Cleveland to Milwaukee on a pre-Amtrak passenger train. Memories of all those train sounds, sights and smells suddenly rushed to mind. When I was about 6 years old, I was more than a little apprehensive to climb up those steps to our seats. Last Saturday, I was eager to jump aboard.

At the Arizona Railway Museum, visitors can board several parked rail cars and walk between others onsite, some of which are in various stages of restoration. There are big mining company engines, shiny silver passenger cars, cabooses, locomotives, dining cars, sleepers and track maintenance vehicles. Train buffs and non-train enthusiasts alike, young or old, can spend an enjoyable afternoon at the museum, open Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m., September through May.

Volunteers work to restore cars and act as docents to help visitors by giving tours and assisting at the museum and gift shop. The museum has several fundraising events each year. According to Tour Director Holly Antosz, the museum’s most recent event, “Dinner in the Diner,” held each December, was so popular, it had to be expanded to a third evening. She said an additional “Dinner in the Diner” event on St. Patrick’s Day is in the works. On our visit we were informed another major event at the museum is National Train Day on May 12, when all cars will be open for viewing. National Train Day commemorates the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Arizona Railway Museum always welcomes new volunteers as well as visitors; contact information is on the website. A visit would be a great way to celebrate the upcoming city or state centennial.

Antique traffic control center

Schedule board from Chandler Station

Southwestern decor in one of the passenger cars

Dome allows for the ultimate in scenery viewing

Walk alongside the cars at Arizona Railway Museum

Museum highlight is the steam locomotive Southern Pacific 2562

At the end -- Santa Fe caboose

 

 

 

 

 

Wings Over Willcox nature festival bolsters tourism

Willcox, Arizona is earning a well-deserved place among Arizona’s tourism communities. When Arizona visitors think about Willcox, they will not only imagine singing cowboy-actors, apple orchards and agriculture, but also quaint shops, museums, fine wines and nature festivals.

Willcox can boast about being hometown to one of Arizona’s favorite celebrities: singing movie cowboy Rex Allen. His son, Rex Allen Jr. also brought his own fame to the small, but growing southeastern Arizona city. The region around Willcox also became known for its famous apple orchards and pistachios. More recently, a new crop of wine grapes has flourished and wineries have sprung up around Willcox. The town is now a popular spot for wine tasting.

What many don’t know: Willcox is famous for birds, birding and bird watching. Wings Over Willcox (WOW) is an annual birding and nature festival with the main focus on the winter migration of sandhill cranes. Seminars, trade show and bird tours bring visitors to Willcox for the four-day festival. This year’s event is January 12-15.

While in town for the event, visitors and festival attendees will have much to do and see. The chamber website has listings for attractions as well as dining and lodging.  The city’s website also contains visitor information. Here are just a few of the places we recently visited:

Downtown Willcox, along Railroad Avenue holds several of Willcox' main attractions. Willcox Commercial Store is said to be the oldest, continuously operating retail establishment in Arizona.

 

Also on Railroad Avenue, Rex Allen Museum is a tribute to the singing cowboy-actor and his son

 

Vintage Photography, Gambing Hall and Parlor is full of antiques and vintage clothing

 

Coronado Vineyards, a few miles northeast of Willcox, is one of several area wineries. Its retail shop has a large selection of quaint gifts, and wine, of course.

 

A Taste of Coronado offers Willcox visitors an option of upscale dining

Wine-tasting at Carlson Creek Winery

 

 

Window shopping along Railroad Avenue

Wine tasting room at Keeling Schaefer doubles as art gallery

Readers: what are your favorite things to do in Willcox? Any favorite restaurants? Attractions?

2012 vacation goals: Ring in the new and old — destinations

2012 arrives at AZGetawayTravel with annual resolutions, new household budget, new business prospects and new travel plans. Each January, my husband and I reassess our vacation plans. This year, we’d like to set our sights on Europe, Central America or the Caribbean. And as we have learned, there are always a few leftover items from the ‘to-do’ list of past travels. So we’d also like to return to a few of our favorite places and complete the itinerary. Here’s a sampling:

1. San Carlos, Sonora

We once dreamed of having the means to explore the small coves and inlets, around Guaymas and San Carlos in our own 42′ foot sailboat. Now, it’s more realistic for us to buy a couple of seats on a tour boat, or brush up on our kayaking skills. We still imagine ourselves in those isolated coves, only the method of access is changed. Maybe this year, we return to San Carlos — for gunkholing the Sea of Cortez.

View of Playa Piedras Pintas from Zorro Cove trail

Southern tip of Playa Algodones near Marina Real

Tetakawi Mountain and Zorro Cove near San Carlos

2. Kauai

We love the Hawaiian island of Kauai, and its numerous small, tucked-away beaches. These may be hidden, but they’re certainly not secret. Yet some of the access trails are a bit challenging, so they help to prevent overcrowding by most tourists. We’ve visited several of these seemingly obscure beaches, but there’s a few we missed and someday, we hope to return.

Queen's Bath on Kauai's north coast, is a pool carved into the island's lava shelf

A catamaran takes visitors to Nualolo Kai on Kauai's Napali Coast

Our doorless helicopter ride was a thrill. Maybe this year we'll get a closer look at Kauai's beaches.

3. Cancun and Riviera Maya

We spent one week in Cancun in 2006. One week was not nearly enough. Our stay was filled with sight-seeing, beach time, snorkeling, boating, but several side trips had to be postponed. Maybe this year we can return to explore the Rivieria Maya, or visit nearby islands of Isla Mujeres and Cozumel.

Chichen Itza is one of several Mayan ruin sites on the Yucatan

Cancun beaches are fantastic -- remember to save time for side trips

Folk dancer entertains tourists near Chichen Itza, Yucatan