Tuesday, September 14, 2010

SWS Day 1 - Red Rock Welcome

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 - Today was D-for-Disney Day. Our 8:50am flight from Detroit would land in Phoenix by mid-morning local time (2 time-zones away and an extra hour thrown by Arizona's disdain for Daylight Savings Time). It was early to rise and an easy-peasy stroll from the Westin directly into new-ish the McNamara Terminal. Along the way we discovered that the Westin billing department applied some new math and left us with a full Club rate for our overnight stay (approximately double the rate we should have paid). The front-desk staff (again) apologized for the screw-up and left us with the name of an Accounting Drone who would fix everything during office hours. We were still obliged to pay the bill since the front-office folks seem to be powerless to do much of anything. Nice, Detroit Airport Westin. Very nice.

We were undaunted because it was holiday time! The flight was uninteresting, and 4 hours later we were landing in the 90F Arizona morning heat. And then.... the pixie-dust began to fall from the heavens in the form of 2 semi-retirees named Dick and Joan. They were waiting for us as we left baggage pickup, holding an ABD placard and greeting us all by name. That's right, we were welcomed with warm smiles by name! Amongst casual conversation with our new friends, Dick took our luggage somewhere secret while Joan escorted us to a shuttle that would take us to Terminal 2 where we'd meet our ABD Guides. With clear instructions, we bid our goodbyes (all the while wondering where our luggage might be!).

We had some time to kill before the 12:30pm meetup with our Guides, so we took Joan's advice to grab an early lunch at Paradise Bakery Cafe. It was good advice - excellent food. Incidently, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport bills itself as America's Friendliest Airport - and they truly, truly are. If you're a cynic like me, genuine friendliness from strangers demands immediate suspicion and nervous glances towards the dark corners. But I will testify that everyone we met in Terminal 2 seemed genuinely nice and helpful.

After our lunch and a little email-checking courtesy of the free wifi, we headed to the appointed place (near Starbuck's) where we'd meet our fellow travellers and Guides. There was Joan (again!) waiting for us. And within minutes our Guides Chris and Mike were there. It was obvious that they were great friends with Joan, with lots of laughing and hugging. Joan's next piece of advice was prescient when she let us know that Chris and Mike were two of the best ABD Guides around.

Chris and Mike made their introductions and we chatted quite a bit about our previous ABD trips (they had both led a Costa Rica trip, so we got to compare notes). Then came the semi-bombshell: there were only 15 Guests on the trip - 4 families in total! Our previous trips had included something closer to the 35-40 maximum, so we knew there was going to be a very different ABD dynamic this time around!

Sure enough, the other families - all first-timers with ABD - filtered in and we all made our introductions. One of the families had come in a day early and were already in Sedona waiting for us, so those intros would come later. Into the coach we went, and we all pondered the proper etiquette for 13 people to claim seats on a full-size coach. It was a great problem to have!

Dan, our driver, pointed the coach out of Phoenix and soon the concrete vistas gave way to brown, scrubby desert. We made a brief stop off the road to look at our first Saguro cactus - an iconic giant of the old West. For a family from the farming bosom of the Great Lakes, this was really something to see!

 The Prickly Giant

After 90 minutes of this unfamiliar (but spectacular) landscape, we made a stop at Montezumas Castle, a National Park whose centerpiece in the collection of ancient cliff-dwellings carved long ago by those who had gone before. We were met there by Doug, a local Guide who took us on a walking tour beneath the dwellings. Doug's knowledge was as impressive as his dry, cowboy humour. It was fascinating stuff, but I will admit that coping with +100F tempratures was a new experience. We knew after that stop that our hats and water bottles would be good friends for the duration of the tour. And we also learned that our coach would have a magically endless supply of cold bottles of water for us all.

We were back on the coach by 3:30pm and drove 30 minutes until we reached the Amara Resort and Spa in Sedona. This would be our home for the next 2 nights. Driving through the sleepy red rocks of Sedona's main drag, we spied an odd blend of New Age influences (crystals anyone?), expensive-looking vacation homes, and upscale-looking tourists shops. If nothing else, Sedona is lovely to look at - and their local bylaws keep it that way.

 Montezumas Castle is a lot higher than it looks!

Check-in at the Amara was a breeze. A table had been setup in the lobby where a nice lady was waiting to hand out our room keys. We were quickly in our room where our luggage was waiting for us. The hotel is compact and simply beautiful to look at. The rooms were not the biggest we'd ever seen, but they were well-appointed and the beds - oh, the beds! - were like sleeping on a cloud. With a couple of hours to kill, we all freshened up and explored the gorgeous grounds. The kids elected to soak in the pool just a little while in order to beat back the unfamiliar Arizona heat.

The Amara's front entrance.

A Welcome Dinner was scheduled for 6:30pm out on the Amara grounds. Tables had been setup with white linens and china. Appetizers were waiting on a side-table along with local beers, wines, and lemonade - all supported by Amara staff standing by. A local husband-and-wife duo, Ken and Lyn Mikell, quietly serenaded us all with some old-time cowboy songs. Mike and Chris, our Guides, presented us with our lanyards and ABD 'pin of the day' as we mingled with the other ABD Guests.

After some opening remarks from the Guides - and a special hello for my family of ABD veterans - we all dug into a Southewest-style buffet - good and spicy! For the Junior Adventurers, the Amara staff had made up plates of less exotic fare - chicken fingers and the like. All in all, it was a great meal and a perfect cowboy setting to begin our trip!

With dinner out of the way, Ken and Lyn put on a short show of cowboy songs and spoken-word poetry. It was absolutely fantastic, and I made a point to ask them afterwards if I could buy a CD of their music. And wouldn't you know it, they had some CDs with them!

After some more chit-chat with the other ABD families, the time crossed the 8pm threshold, and everyone drifted off to their rooms to get rested for the next day. And it would be a busy one - exploring Sedona's Red Rock Country!

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