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.

 

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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?

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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.

Random notes from Arizona wine tasting rooms

I’ve watched people at wine tasting events and wineries and remember how connoisseurs will jot down wine notes or dictate messages into their cell phones. They want to remember their wine tasting experiences, save information about the wines. They make notes about the wine’s appearance, aroma, taste and finish.

On a recent day trip to Jerome and Cottonwood, I jotted down some notes of my own — of the tasting rooms themselves. Here are some excerpts taken from my day trip travel journal about three tasting rooms I visited:

Arizona Stronghold

Appearance: Rich colors; dark sandstone red. Oak and iron. Exciting, bustling, comfortable atmosphere. Warm, friendly and inviting.

Second impressions: Oil paintings of sunsets. Bold, edgy. Surreal. Apache photos and symbols. Uninhibited.

Tasting experience: Friendly and relaxed. Smooth. Five for $9

Location: 1023 North Main Street, Cottonwood. Hours: Sunday-Thursday 12-7 p.m. Saturday-Sunday 12-9 p.m.

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Arizona Stronghold tasting room in Cottonwood

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Arizona Stronghold tasting room celebrated its 'birthday' in March with balloons and entertainment

Bitter Creek Winery

Appearance: Bright, airy. Vivid burgundy-colored walls. Welcoming, friendly.

Second impressions: Gallery of watercolors and ink. Panoramic views of Verde Valley from picture window. Artistic labels and unique names for blends. Gifts. High ceilings.

Tasting experience: Informative. Innovative. Mystical. Sultry Cellars reds: Four for $10. Bitter Creek reds and whites: Four for $8.

Location: 240 Hull Ave., Jerome. Hours: Sunday – Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open one hour later, beginning in May.

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Bitter Creek Winery

Bitter Creek Winery tasting room features sitting area to enjoy panoramic views of Verde Valley

Bitter Creek Winery

A gallery of watercolor, ink and charcoal towers over the long wine bar at Bitter Creek Winery

Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room

Appearance: Red brick. Walnut and maple wood. Steel gray wine bar with brushed chrome hardware.

Second impressions: Imaginative. Bold. Rustic-looking with modern edginess. Shop is definitely worth a browse. Apparel and wine accessories.

Tasting experience: A bit pricey. $14 per flight of four wines.

Location: 158 Main Street, Jerome. Hours: Monday-Thursday, Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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A cozy, intimate atmosphere at the Jerome tasting room of Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards

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Unique wine accessories and apparel in the shop at Caduceus Cellars & Merkin Vineyards tasting room

Jerome eatery a must: 15.quince grill & cantina

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15.quince grill & cantina: highly recommended for dining in Jerome, Arizona

 

Up until a few years ago, when we’d visit an Arizona town, we’d always wonder how to find the best lunch spot. We would check all the rating-review websites and chamber of commerce listings. We soon realized, to find a really great lunch spot, you need to become a ‘stalker.’ When the local residents leave work for lunch hour, just follow them. Or, better yet, I guess you can always ask around. We asked our pourer at one of Jerome’s wine tasting rooms for his recommendation. He didn’t even need to think about it. “Quince,” he said.

Quince (or actually 15.quince grill & cantina) was without a doubt right on the mark. We had to wait for a few minutes, as 15.quince is a cozy little storefront and seating comes at a premium on one of Jerome’s sunny March Saturdays. While we waited we were captivated by a taste of the Jerome Art Walk, which occurs each first Saturday of the month. Although the art walk actually is later in the evening, a few artisans and a musician had already set up in the vacant lot next door.

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Artisans and musicans set up on a Saturday afternoon

 

 

In just a few minutes we were seated and I couldn’t help but notice the large number of painted cow skulls and carved wooden crosses on the wall. What a nice collection! Colorful examples of Mexican folk art are everywhere. The clientele is part local and part tourist, however, if you know Jerome, sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart. Think: cowboy hats, Hawaiian shirts and Harley-Davidson leathers. The atmosphere is very animated; we liked that. People smiling and laughing in a restaurant is always a positive sign. Our server was excellent: attentive, personable and efficient.

 

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Colorful cow skulls and cross adorn the walls at 15.quince grill

 

We immediately were brought our icy cold Negra Modelo beers. And it wasn’t long before our entrée was served: a very hefty looking burro with shredded beef, black beans, green rice. We ordered it “half-and-half:” one side red sauce and the other side green. Both colors were swimming along side the chipotle cream and melted cheeses. Excellent!

 

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Lunch is served: "Orale Vato Loco" Smothered Burro

 

The entire menu looks very appealing; enough to even make the most finicky diner drool. We also heard the margaritas are over-the-top, but those will have to wait for our next Jerome getaway. We did, however, opt for a slice of decadent cherry cheesecake. After a lunch like that, we felt a siesta was in order but we decided to instead walk off the experience by window-shopping through the streets of Jerome. If you have relatives and friends visiting this month, you will want to bring them here.

Costa Rica vacation home: Casa de Mariposas

 

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Casa de Mariposas' spacious front porch welcomes visitors

In one sense, Costa Rica seems so distant, so remote. Yet at times it seems comfortably close to home – especially if you stay at Casa de Mariposas.

Casa de Mariposas, located just on the outskirts of Jaco, is a vacation home at the point where the rainforest meets the beach, and where ‘town meets country.’ Even when you pull up to the house, you’ll have this feeling that you could be in the middle of a jungle. The sound of exotic bird calls greets you, as does the warm friendly charm of the front porch. It’s like you were meant to be here. When you step inside, you get that feeling you’ve come home, almost as though you never left the city, but then you smell those wonderful flowers and plants that could only come from the Costa Rica rainforest.

 

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Jaco's beach is only a two-minute walk from Casa de Mariposas

 

You could call it luxury with a fringe of the wild side. I mean, all the resort amenities are there in the home: spacious living room with flat screen TVs, luxurious beds and huge walk-in showers of tile and glass, but the views from the second floor through the green canopy to Pacific Ocean beyond the beach, make you feel like you might be in a tree house or on a deserted island. Then you hear the faint sounds of Latin music and laughter coming from the boutique resort, Club del Mar, located across the street, where you, as a Casa de Mariposas guest, have complimentary use of most facilities.

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Club del Mar is just across the street from Casa de Mariposas

 

Imagine both ends of the spectrum: that of a remote, private little world in the rainforest or on an unspoiled beach, then the images of a comfortable, familiar, welcoming vacation home. After spending nearly two weeks here, I concluded it really does have the best of both worlds, one of uncivilized: adventure, excitement and intense natural beauty, coupled together with another world of civilization with its full rewards — lounging around the pool, feasting on fresh seafood, enjoying a massage at a spa or golfing at the nearby Los Suenos Marriott.

 

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Manuel Antonio's sandy white beaches are less than an hour's drive

A visit to the owner’s website is the best way to get more clear idea of region’s beauty plus you can be impressed by all the fine details of the home and also obtain additional information about the huge amount of local attractions and activities. On the website, you may conjure up an itinerary of deep sea fishing, surfing, Scuba diving and snorkeling, zip-lining and rafting, beach sports, beautiful wildlife parks and nature preserves filled with the most amazing flowers, plants, and some of the most fascinating creatures you never knew existed. After you consider the “uncivilized,” think about the “civilized” – Jaco and neighboring towns have it all: casinos, great restaurants, nightclubs, big box stores, a yacht marina, fine golf courses. And right in the heart of it all is Casa de Mariposas.  It really does have the best of both worlds.

 

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Jaco Beach at dusk

Eight reasons for spring break at Cancun’s Royal Resorts

Ready for a spring break getaway? Soon many Arizonans will be heading to Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point), San Diego, Las Vegas or Colorado while others may be setting their sights on farther destinations, such as Cancun.

So right now, you’re thinking: Cancun craziness of college spring breaks, wild drinking and partying. Well, it’s not necessarily true of all Cancun resorts. In fact some, such as the Royal Resorts properties, discourage the wild spring break scene by requiring guest-registering adults be 25 years old or older. Plus, strict behavior and noise policies inhibit unruliness. A family-friendly atmosphere is just one reason why we like Royal Resorts. Here are seven more:

2. Floor plan of the ‘Flexivillas’

With the main living area in the middle of each two-bedroom suite, the unit is a perfect floor plan for families. One side is the studio lock-off side, a self-contained room with full bath and kitchenette. The one-bedroom side has the main entrance to the suite, with separate one-bedroom with dining area, fully equipped kitchen with full-size appliances. Each living room area not only is spacious but it also features fold-down Murphy beds. The two-bedroom is an ideal setup for two couples who like some privacy, or a family with four children.

Spacious living room in Royal Resorts suite -- perfect floor plan for family vacation

3. Site design

It’s not really fair to say this ‘horseshoe’ layout is only typical at Royal Resorts, in fact many properties in the hotel zone are designed the same way, with the buildings fanned out with a clean view of the Caribbean, but from what we’ve experienced, the building layout of the Royal Mayan, Sands, Islander and Caribbean seems superior, both vertical and horizontal spaces are maximized. From almost every suite balcony in the resort, guests can set their eyes on the aquamarine color of the Caribbean. Most walkways are open breezeways. Restaurants, lobbies, gift shops, offices, convenience markets all are on the ground floors, so even the lowest floor of suites is higher than the restaurant building, usually set behind or next to the well-manicured gardens and pool areas. Best suites are up in the front row with spectacular ocean views. Steps or elevators take guests down to the palapas on the white sand beach.

Waterfalls cascade over well-groomed landscaping at the Royal Islander

4. Your fridge is filled upon arrival

After you’ve confirmed your reservations, you can place a grocery order to the Royal Resort market to have various items placed in your refrigerator before you get there. So if your flight is delayed, or you missed your transportation from the airport, and arrive at the resort late, you don’t have to worry, your fridge is filled with beverages and groceries for that evening, the next morning or for your entire week, if you want – all at no charge. In fact, many reservations for tours, spa visits, dining, or special events can be arranged online before you get there.

5. Royal shuttle

Unless you plan on driving around the Yucatan, you probably don’t need a rental car. Or, you could rent one for a day or two of sightseeing. Taxis can be an excellent alternative. But the best deals are these Royal shuttle buses – they’re free. Some readers right now are probably cringing because these boulevard buses can be the noisy reminders of civilization we wanted to escape from. But we appreciated the Royal shuttles to carry us between all of the Cancun-area Royal Resorts. So we could visit the beaches in front of the Royal Caribbean, or eat lunch at the Royal Mayan. We could travel from the Royal Islander to the Royal Sands for a spa day, or take a five-minutes walk down the boulevard to the upscale shops at Kukulkan Plaza.

6. Save your cash

Put your cash away in your room safe when you check in. Except for the occasional tip, you probably won’t need much cash – at least while you’re at one of the Royal Resort properties. The room key card is your payment method for all bar bills, dining room meals, grocery and gift shop purchases, tour bookings and spa services. You simply pay for the entire week when you check out. It makes it easy not to have to carry cash with you or worry about misplacing it. Of course, this convenience could be a drawback, especially when you get to the gift shop and are tempted by a fine leather briefcase, a giant stuffed dolphin or a huipil — a colorful, embroidered Mayan blouse.

Even during the busy season, it's possible to find some midday solace on the Royal Islander activity deck

7. Many amenities

Some hotels or resorts will charge as much as $20 per day for parking and Internet access. Both are free at Royal Resorts. Daily maid service was an important one to us too. The well-stocked convenience stores carry many popular American and Mexican brands of just about everything: cereal, snacks, candy, liquor, beer, plus fine local favorites: coffee, chocolate and vanilla. You can have an order (over $30USD) of groceries delivered to your condo for free. Activities are plentiful, frequent and everywhere. Or you could choose to do absolutely nothing but sit on the white sand and soak it all in. Even on the resort grounds, it’s easy to find a quiet corner to finish that novel you started on your flight.

8. Information everywhere…

The website impressed us – it’s very easy to navigate around each of the resort pages to make reservations and check amenities. Online, you cruise around the resorts via a virtual tour while standing in the Caribbean at the Royal Cancun or watch the parasails land on the beach in front of the Royal Mayan. From the comprehensive company newsletter link, “Royal Resorts News,” learn about safety in Mexico, latest news updates from Cancun, tips and travel tools. Here you can link to the Royal Channel, the resorts’ video and photo collection to see recent guests enjoying their Royal Resorts vacation.

Beautiful ocean views from almost any vantage point

US Airways still offers daily nonstop round-trip flights from Phoenix to Cancun ranging from about $600 to $700.

What are your favorite spring break vacations? Have any getaway recommendations you’d like to share?

 

 

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.

Five things we love about San Diego’s Dolphin Motel

Great location, guest services and low room rates make Dolphin Motel an excellent value

Does anyone still use the term, “Zonie?” That’s the not-so-affectionate name given to Arizonans who, thinking they need a beach weekend or a break from the 100-degree heat, escape to California, especially the San Diego area. View other definitions at your own risk on UrbanDictionary.com. Californians no doubt, still complain about the high numbers of Zonies causing traffic jams and taking up parking spaces. Conversely Zonies may still gripe about the high prices just to experience a few beaches and ocean breezes. That’s why many Arizonans visiting California are always on the lookout for good deals.  Look no further for the best lodging value in San Diego: it’s the Dolphin Motel.

The sign says it all: "Why Pay More?"

1. Value

Value is our number one reason we love this harborview property. The combination of the motel’s basic amenities, location and inexpensive room rates make it the best lodging value for short stays in San Diego. The Dolphin Motel has free Wi-Fi, cable TV, continental breakfast, refrigerators in some rooms, early check-in and late check-out (upon request) for the low room rate of approximately $55 to $60 per night in San Diego. It’s difficult to find anything less than $100 that’s actually clean, comfortable and close-in.

Nearby parks and piers provide fishing opportunities

2. Proximity

Visitors to San Diego during the winter months will most likely opt for non-beach activities anyway, so they will prefer to stay close to all the events and attractions. Several big attractions in San Diego are just a short 10-15 minute drive from the Dolphin Motel: Sea World, San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park, USS Midway, Petco Park, Gaslamp Quarter, Historic Old Town, Westfield Horton Plaza and San Diego Convention Center. If you’ll be flying into San Diego, you’ll be glad to know that the Dolphin Motel is just two miles from the airport. On our visit to a boat show at the convention center, we appreciated the short distances to marinas, Shelter Island and Harbor Island parks, seafood markets plus some of the best shopping, restaurants and nightlife in the city.

Nearby to Dolphin Motel is the Friendship Bell at Shelter Island

3. Cleanliness

White walls, white sheets, white blankets and white towels: everything is white – even the patio chairs. It’s not really the way I would decorate but it definitely sends a message of clean. And it’s not a dingy, yellowy, spotted kind of white, either. It’s bright white. The rooms have wall art which provide an occasional splash of color. At least you feel confident these rooms are clean! The outside area is spotless too! This well-maintained, well-cleaned motel creates a peace-of-mind you deserve for a good night’s rest for your short stay. The rooms aren’t spacious, but ample enough for all your gear and your new plush Shamu whale from Sea World.

Marinas are just a short walk away from the Dolphin Motel

4. Continental Breakfast

I know, I know: so many places offer breakfast, but here I felt like I was getting something special, even though it’s just coffee, fresh fruit and muffins. While seated on the patio just outside your room, or up on the small corner balcony upstairs, you can eat breakfast, enjoy the harbor views and watch as the sport fishermen prepare to depart. We were fortunate to also see jets taking off and landing at the North Island Naval Complex across the bay.

5. Guest Service

This is the reason Dolphin Motel earns five stars on reviewer-type websites such as Tripadvisor.com.  At least in this case, you can trust the reviews. The Dolphin Motel has been in the same family for over 36 years. Following our recent stay, all of us in our party shared the feeling that the owners and staff are sincere hosts who truly value their guests’ stay. The management provides excellent guest service plus great concierge service, giving you all the information you need about San Diego. These folks offer such a genuine welcome and friendliness, you feel as though you were staying the weekend with long-time friends, or relatives. (Okay, maybe scratch out relatives).

Pelicans are plentiful around the waterfront areas near the Dolphin Motel

Kohl’s Ranch: Five reasons keep us returning

Autumn is one of our favorite times to visit Kohl’s Ranch. It’s a great time to see changing leaves and feel cooler temperatures of the Ponderosa pine forest at the foot of the Mogollon Rim. Kohl’s Ranch, nestled next to Tonto Creek along State Route 260, is a rustic guest ranch and Arizona historical landmark. We keep coming back to Kohl’s Ranch for these reasons:

1. Tonto Creek

Tonto Creek runs immediately in front of the Kohl’s Ranch’s lodge rooms, cabins and suites so each morning of our stay, we awake to hear the rustling water over the rocks as it makes its way into the Tonto Basin and on to Roosevelt Lake. On the National Forest land north of State Route 260, there’s plenty of space on the banks for fishing, picnicking or just listening to the wind in the pines. Farther up Forest Service Road 289 is Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery, a nice place to spend an afternoon with the kids to learn how trout are grown for stocking Arizona waterways.

Tonto Creek's occasional still waters in front of Kohl's Ranch

 

 

Feeding time at the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery

  1. Pet-Friendly

Kohl’s Ranch has recently changed their pet policy and now allows pets in selected units. There are restrictions and since only a few such units exist, it’s recommended to call well in advance to reserve a pet-friendly unit. The resort provides a pet welcome kit with treats and blanket.

 

Chuck and Molly walking the fence near pet-friendly Kohl's Ranch

  1. The Lodge

As soon as we enter the building, we’re greeted with the scent of top grain leather sofas and wood, be it from cracking logs in the fireplace or the knotty pine walls. It’s like going back in time 70 years – to when the lodge was popular lodge among hunters and anglers. During the 1950’s and 60’s, the lodge a favorite stopover for vacationing families, with its dining room, ice cream parlor, post office and grocery store.  A gallery of old photographs tells the history. The main lodge building now comprises the front desk, lobby, dining room, saloon, fitness center, kid’s club, studio suites and resort offices.

 

  1. Zane Grey Dining Room

Despite some less than glorifying comments on those always-disputable hospitality review sites, we have always found the dining room at Kohl’s Ranch to exceed our expectations. For one recent meal, we ordered the daily dinner special: Cornish game hens with orange glaze — baked to perfection, with wild rice and steamed fresh vegetables. Our lunch the following day was equally as good. My husband said his onion rings was the best he has ever had — those huge rings of onion dipped in homemade batter. At each of our meals, our servers promptly arrived to our table with menus, drinks, meals and check.

Hiking Trail access

This is probably the most important reason we keep coming back to Kohl’s Ranch – the location. It’s nice to stay in a cabin right near your trailhead. We especially like Horton Creek Trail and other trails nearby. In fact, the Horton Trail is one of our favorites, for a rather easy-to-moderate day hike. This trail has everything: lush forest, lots of wildlife, waterfalls, plus an easy, gradual climb – nothing too steep. Plan to see a lot of hikers on weekends. Check out hikearizona.com or Arizonahikingtrails.com for more information and additional hiking opportunities in the area.

 

Waterfalls along the Horton Creek hiking trail

For anyone who wants to visit some of Arizona’s historical landmarks to commemorate the Arizona Centennial, we recommend putting Kohl’s Ranch on the list. It’s one of the few guest “ranches” still operating in our state – continuing to treat visitors to some western, rustic charm and authentic Arizona hospitality.