‘Quirky’ is normal at Sonoita winery

Vino the cat welcomes wine tasters to Arizona Hops and Vines

Vino the cat welcomes wine tasters to Arizona Hops and Vines

According to most dictionaries, “quirky” is an adjective meaning ‘full of quirks,’ which basically means: odd, peculiar or offbeat. I wanted to look it up again before I started writing, because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t using the word incorrectly. You see, many of my fellow bloggers seem to use this word quite frequently. They describe themselves as ‘quirky travelers’ or ‘quirky foodies.’ They visit quirky destinations, eat at quirky restaurants and stay overnight at quirky inns, bed-and-breakfasts or Airstream trailer parks. Recently Chuck and I stopped by a wonderful place to spend an afternoon tasting wine – at an southeastern Arizona winery that fits the definition of quirky – Arizona Hops and Vines in Sonoita.

But this winery is not only a location for wine lovers to sample and buy their reds and whites. It’s a family-run business, a popular local tourism destination and, if SB1301 makes it way through the Arizona legislative process, Arizona Hops and Vines, could also be called a brewery. Current state law prohibits brewing beer at a winery property. (Read more here.)

Here are a few other examples of this winery’s fun twists. It may be a bit offbeat, off the wall, off the cuff and even a little off the beaten track, but Arizona Hops and Vines is well worth the drive to Sonoita.

Fun-filled events: Back in February to announce a new beer-wine blend of a libation called Drag Queen, Arizona Hops and Vines hosted, “The Drag Races.” In this fundraiser to support a expectant mothers’ shelter, any contestant could dress up in drag and race in high heels for a free glass and a tasting. Coming up on May 11 is the Annual Bachannal Festival, a celebration of wine, micro-brews, arts and crafts, food and music. This should be a perfect time to enjoy those expansive views from the hilltop winery’s patio. Take a look at its Facebook page for more information about upcoming functions and photos of past events.

Lola looks up beyond the barrel staves to wine-tasting visitors

Lola looks up beyond the barrel staves to wine-tasting visitors

Fascinating pets: Arizona Hops and Vines owners-sisters Megan and Shannon must love their animals almost as much as they love family, friends and their farm life. Animals are everywhere: goats, chickens, turtles. Chuck and I were properly introduced to pets Vino and Lola inside the tasting room. Both cat and dog also are respectively quirky. (Admittedly, cats are just quirky by nature.)

Cheetos pair well with any wine

Cheetos pair well with any wine

Novel palate cleansing methods: Cheetos are served from a large red tub on the tasting counter. I’m no expert so I can’t tell whether or not these cheesy puffs actually cleanse the palate, but they do taste pretty good in between sips of First Crush or The Fluffer.

Arizona Hops and Vines' full-bodied red: Imbibe.2

Arizona Hops and Vines’ full-bodied red: Imbibe.2

Imaginative wine names and labels: Take a look at some of the wine names, not to mention the unique blends of fruits, flavors. I’m not saying that Arizona Hops and Vines set the standard for quirky appellations, but it’s definitely following suit.

The Wishing Barrel and The Green Door are part of the winery's unique identity

The Wishing Barrel and The Green Door are part of the winery’s unique identity

Interesting traditions: Read more about Arizona Hops and Vines interesting yet quirky traditions on its website, including The Wishing Barrel, and Buffalo game. You can even join a brewers group called The Buffalo Club. There’s something for everyone in the family at Arizona Hops and Vines: a soda making room called, The Sober Shack,” a petting zoo for the younger set and outdoor games such as Tetherball, horseshoes and bocce ball for adults and teens.

Find more information about things to do at Arizona Hops and Vines on its website. Better yet, why not plan Arizona road trip to Sonoita on some Saturday or Sunday and find out for yourself? You may even find a wine that pleases!

 

Tasting area has all the comforts of a farmhouse sitting room

Tasting area has all the comforts of a farmhouse sitting room

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Salsa Trail ends at Safford’s Salsa Fest

Delicious lunch at Salsa Trail's La Casita in Thatcher, Ariz.

It’s that time again in Arizona – fall festival time! And if you love Mexican food, especially all kinds of salsa, then chances are you’ll want to head to Safford for the Arizona Salsa Festival Sept 28-29.

Salsa is famous throughout the Southwest, and in Safford (located 165 southeast of Phoenix), there’s a literal melting pot of salsas of all types and flavors. As there are many different types of chile peppers; so is there a wide variety of salsas. And these varieties are likely to end up in the judging sample bowls for the Salsa Fest.

Safford is one of the primary Arizona cities along what’s known as Arizona Salsa Trail. The ‘trail’ stretches between Thatcher and Clifton including smaller communities such as Duncan, York, Solomon and Pima.  Several independent, family-owned Mexican restaurants, cafes, markets, plus a chile company and a tortilla factory participate in this culinary tourism route, dating back to 2005.

AzGetawayTravel picked up part of the Salsa Trail this past weekend, as we ventured to southeast Arizona. We stopped for a Saturday lunch at La Casita in Thatcher. Naturally — and very typically — we guzzled up the hot sauce with the chips before our entrees arrived. I ordered the taco-enchilada-burrito combo and Chuck requested the taco salad with beef. His looked wonderful: crisp, freshly cut vegetables, ample amounts of roast beef chunks in a bed of warm tortilla chips. I was glad I had no rice or beans to accompany my combo, since it was obvious I would already need a “to-go” box. My meal was so tempting I almost forgot to take a photo before I dug in. Oops — that’s why the above photo shows the burrito already dissected. I couldn’t wait to take a taste of that green chile beef filling. After eating my cheese enchilada, I decided to ‘take out’ the taco.

Salsa Fest in Safford is Sept. 28-29Tip: If you intend to try one of more of these Salsa Trail restaurants on a weekend getaway, you’ll need to plan ahead and check their business hours. Many of these are closed Sundays.

Festivities for the Salsa Fest kick off on Friday evening Sept. 28 with colorful hot air balloons on Main Street in historic downtown Safford. Saturday’s events include Chihuahua dog races and costume contest, live music, custom car show, kid’s activities, jalapeno pepper eating contest and of course, the salsa making contest, salsa recipe judging and salsa sampling.

Readers, I just have to ask: What’s your favorite kind of hot sauce or salsa? Do you like the smooth, blended red — or salsa verde? Or maybe a chunky style? Or are you a fan of pico de gallo? What’s your hot index?

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Randall House Restaurant and Gift Shop in Pine, Ariz.

Randall House sign

If this Memorial Day weekend is typical of almost any other three-day weekend, Arizonans will take to the freeways, streets and back roads en route to high country campgrounds and resorts, in search of cooler temperatures. Motorists planning a drive through Pine, Arizona will want to stop for breakfast or lunch at the historic Randall House Restaurant and Gift Shop.

Randall House certainly isn’t new. The restaurant has been in operation since 1998. But not all visitors realize that this pioneer home was once a popular community gathering place. Some may not know how pioneer homeowner Mary Ellen Randall would invite nearby residents for pastries and coffee on their way to and from the post office. During the early 1900s, Mrs. Randall was not only famous for her homemade breads, muffins, cookies and pies, but she was also known for her generous hospitality. She had a knack for making everyone feel at home. On their way home from school, children would stop by the Randall’s home for freshly baked cookies. Current restaurateurs Barbara and Patrick O’Connor are continuing Mary Ellen Randall’s tradition of warmth and hospitality — and homemade cooking.

The restaurant, located at the original Randall home site and serves breakfast and lunch Wednesdays through Sundays, is a historic point of interest. Visitors can peer through glass openings in the walls to see a log and adobe section of the original cabin. The first dwelling was constructed by Alfred Jason Randall in 1881. Alfred’s grandson George Randall with his wife Mary Ellen lived at this home for much of the 20th century. George passed away in 1987. In 1998, following Mary Ellen’s death, the building was restored and remodeled by the O’Connors, who then transformed it into a restaurant. Mrs. Randall would be pleased.

 

 

kitchen

Randall House dining room resembles a farmhouse kitchen

On a recent visit, our server invited us to have a tour the restaurant and grounds. While waiting for our meal, I strolled around the back of the home to see the backyard and outbuildings, as well as the tiny library, picnic tables, walking paths and gardens that compose the adjoining Randall Park. While walking through each of the interior dining rooms at Randall House, I realized that this more than just a casual breakfast and lunch spot. It’s also a gift shop. Wooden corner cupboards support unique toys, crafts and goodies ‘to go.’ After your meal, I recommend browsing for kitchen gifts such as colorful aprons, trivet holders, counter canisters, cutting boards or specialty toys like hobbyhorses, crafts kits and wooden puzzles.

About the food and service: I had no complaints, but after all, it was just our first visit. However, our service wasn’t nearly as slow as the consensus from the reviews sites describes. After I spent a few minutes walking through the restaurant and around the grounds, snapping a few photos and I came back to my table, lunch was served. Since it was Cinco de Mayo, I had ordered the featured lunch special of fish tacos  — a set of nicely grilled tilapia with a side of tasty slaw. My husband had a taco salad, which he said was very tasty and filling.

 

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Lunch special: Tilapia fish tacos with cole slaw

As I walked through the dining rooms, I saw a large group of women who had just finished their meals and were preparing to leave. As I waited for them to walk out so I take a photo, I noticed their plates, still on the table. They were empty! All of these gals had completely cleaned their plates! Whatever they ordered must have been well worth every crumb!

Randall House is known for its quaint, country style dining, homemade, made-to-order breakfasts of quiche, pancakes, French toast, omelets, muffins and scones. The same is true for its lunches: hearty sandwiches, wraps, soups and salads. But don’t think this place is just for ladies’ luncheons. The portions appear ample enough to fill up the hungriest of ‘he-men.’ This I know first hand — it’s one advantage to sitting on the front patio: you can witness the satisfied expressions on well-fed, departing patrons.

patio

Randall House: historic home, pleasant patio, gift shop and restaurant

Readers: What are your favorite eateries in Mogollon Rim Country?

 

 

Relaxing Palm Springs not just for golfers

westin mission hills

Relaxing Westin Mission Hills Resort Villas

Within four hours, it’s possible to drive from Phoenix to a popular vacation destination with world-class resorts, spas, golf, shops, attractions and outdoor recreation. And no, I wasn’t referring to a rush-hour marathon, moving at a snail’s pace to Scottsdale. Rather, I was remembering a recent road trip-vacation to Palm Springs, California.

 

fountains

Not all water features are golf course traps at Westin Mission Hills

Sometimes it’s necessary to actually leave Arizona to feel like you’re really “away from it all.” Sure, it’s nice to splurge at a Scottsdale or Phoenix resort for the occasional “staycation,” but traveling to Palm Springs and its environs gives you that “clean getaway” feel. It’s just far enough away so you feel like a tourist, but close enough so you feel like a weekender. One major downside: the drive is a bit tedious. Except for a couple of mildly interesting mountain passes and the Colorado River crossing; it’s mostly mile after mile of monotony. Bring plenty of music or audio books.

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Allow time to see the views from the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram

Before I had discovered Palm Springs as a weekend getaway destination, I’d thought there was no reason to stop between Phoenix and the Pacific coastline, except maybe a quick pullover at some place like Palm Springs or Blythe, Calif. for a gas fill-up or a Thirstbuster. As an Arizona newcomer in my 20s, Palm Springs to me was just a bunch of shopping centers, golf courses and retirement homes. Oh, wait….

So I have to confess: when we booked our week at nearby Rancho Mirage, Calif. at the Westin Mission Hills Resort and Spa, I was skeptical. But now I admit: we were impressed at check-in. Front desk and concierge staff were friendly, helpful and efficient. Our one-bedroom villa was clean and spacious. Our balcony easily accommodated a full dining patio set so we could enjoy dawn and dusk overlooking a lush garden area with meandering stream. The main resort facility boasts several open-air dining options for guests’ easygoing breakfasts and casual lunches. The Fireside Lounge bar and outdoor fireplace lures patrons to linger longer. And what better says, “Palm Springs” than to be relaxing in a warm swimming pool or waiting for your next putt while gazing at snow-capped peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains?

palm canyon

Make time for side trips such as hiking in Palm Canyon

If you vacation in Palm Springs — whatever resort you choose — you may get so relaxed and comfortable, you’ll be tempted to abandon those other  activities. Be strong! You can do it all! Just allow an extra day or two for hiking into Palm Canyon, riding up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, visiting the Living Desert Zoo and touring Joshua Tree National Park. (Better make that three or four extra days.) Or you could meld into the stereotype: golf, eat, drink, shop. There’s nothing wrong with that either!

Consider spending one day for a cruise past examples of desert modernism architecture, because Palm Springs is the prime location of these post-World War II sleek, angular structural designs.  And if you’re a fan of TV’s “Mad Men,” you’re quite possibly in the best place to channel your “inner Don Draper” with a tour of 1950s and 60s-era homes, hotels and office buildings. Or course, that would mean leaving your Old Fashioned drink and your comfy spot in the cocktail lounge.

Readers: What are your favorite southern California getaways? I would love to get your comments… you can also follow me on Twitter (@azgetawaytravel) or ‘like’ me on Facebook. Read other Southwest Travel blogs at AZCVoices/Travel.

Escape from high gas prices, admission fees with a day trip to Chandler’s Veterans Oasis Park

Okay, so gasoline prices are sky-high. You’d like to take an out-of-town day trip, but don’t want to shell out the bucks for a couple of tank fill-ups. Admission charges for zoos and animal parks also run a little too steep for your budget. Here’s a suggestion: try spending the day at one of the Phoenix-area municipal parks or riparian preserves. Many of the local parks offer a variety of enjoyable ways for a family to spend the entire day.

eec1

Inside the Environmental Education Center at Chandler's Veterans Oasis Park

 

We recently spent a few hours at our one of our local parks, Chandler’s Veterans Oasis, located at the northeast corner of Chandler Heights and Lindsay Roads. It’s one of our area’s newest parks, and it really does have a little bit of everything. The Environmental Education Center (EEC) is a standout – it houses classrooms for nature camps and classes, landscaping workshops, healthy cooking, scouting programs, fishing lessons, birding, art, even yoga. Spring Nature Camp during the two-week Chandler school spring break provides both full and half-day programs.

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Urban fishing lake at Veterans Oasis

 

But we didn’t come to the park to look at nature programs; we came to look at nature. The park sits on 113 acres with a five-acre urban fishing lake, over four miles of trails and walks, many picnic ramadas with grills, playground areas, equestrian trails, butterfly and hummingbird habitats, plus an outdoor amphitheater for outdoor concerts like the Sonoran Sunset Series. Upcoming appearances include a folk/country trio from Gilbert called “Firefly,” on March 8 and a locally known jazz singer, John Vold on April 12.

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Spring wildflowers bloom along one of the walking trails at Veterans Oasis Park

 

Municipal parks such as Veterans Oasis are the perfect getaway for a Saturday or Sunday – or any day of the week, because they provide such a different environment than you’re accustomed to. For example, the day we were there, we couldn’t believe we were still in Chandler. As we strolled around the lake, we heard some bird songs and nature sounds we certainly wouldn’t hear at our subdivision’s playground, park or retention area, or even some of the city’s other parks. And as we came around the far side of the lake, I spotted a jackrabbit about the size of my border collie, just lumbering around a few feet from us between the bushes. I couldn’t get my camera or phone out fast enough.

Veterans Oasis Park has recently been named, “Certified Wildlife Habitat” by the National Wildlife Federation. From the beginning, naturalists and park administrators have combined their efforts to plan the park so that it will attract small animals, birds, fish, butterflies and other forms of wildlife to the park and maintain the environment to protect them. Since the park’s opening in 2008, more than 135 species of wildlife have been documented.  Last year the park became the first municipally owned park to be a part of the Bird Habitat Recognition Program from the local Desert Rivers Chapter of the National Audubon Society.

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Part of a recent community art exhibit at the Environmental Education Center

 

Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler is the perfect location for the family to observe Earth Day 2012. The City of Chandler is combining Earth Day, Arbor Day and the four-year anniversary of the EEC into one event on April 20 from 4 to 7 p.m. with hands-on activities, live animal exhibits, food booths, artisans and prize giveaways.

The best thing of all about Veterans Oasis? It requires little gasoline to get there, (at least for those of us in the Southeast Valley) and it’s FREE!

Regular park hours are 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily. The wildlife preserve is open 6 a.m. to sunset daily and the Environmental Education Center is open Monday and Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Readers: Where are the riparian preserves or wildlife areas near you? Have any suggestions for day trips that are close to home and free? I’d like to hear about them…