I’ve been on an early 2000’s country music kick. There are so many songs that fit a road trip. Some simply have a word or phrase that I can latch onto. Ever since crossing into Arizona I’ve had one specific song on mental replay. I’m sure most people wouldn’t even remember it. Song of a girl who’s boy lies about moving her to Arizona once he’s set up there, but it turns out there is no Arizona. It has nothing to do with my trip but she wails about all the places that I’ve visited. I present, Jennifer O’Neal, There is no Arizona (circa 2000).

I had googled distance between Sedona & Phoenix but hadn’t taken into account that my cousin Lorie lives in the suburb of Chandler. We spoke on my way out of Sedona and she mentioned that I still had about an hour once I reached the Phoenix line. Somehow I had forgotten how big the Phoenix metro area truly is. It’s the 5th largest city by population but also the 5th biggest city by area. That explains how I could drive an hour to arrive at my destination.

The towns around Phoenix proper are very orderly. The streets in Chandler seem to be arranged on a 1-mile grid with everything you need strategically placed within the mega blocks.

I had previously given Lorie my rough outline itinerary and gave her free reign for planning our weekend together. Our first trip was to Tucson, just over an hour south of PHX. Tucson is a beautiful city that has history, culture, and scenery for days. We spent the afternoon eating great food. Our first stop was the Mercado San Agustin. This historic courtyard building is a miniature food court with some fun shopping in the mix. We chose to eat at Seis Kitchen. It’s a walk-up order place that serves authentic street food from 6 different culinary regions of Mexico. I chose a mixed taco plate wit ha little Seis style sauce on the side. It’s a spicy crema dip that did not disappoint!

The Mercado is the hub of the revitalizing Mercado District. The planned mixed-use urban neighborhood began in 2003 but was only partially developed before the financial troubles in 2007. Luckily, the developer/owners were able to hold onto the property and restart the project over the past few years. The homes are clustered along narrow winding streets that are all original to the area. The 4-mile Sun Link streetcar system links the Mercado District with University of Arizona via a downtown route. This kind of thing would work amazingly well in downtown Winston-Salem (hint).

Lorie & Roger wanted me to see the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It is a part botanical garden, zoo, & natural science center. I cannot believe how many different cacti there are! The shapes are endless. Some look vicious and others look deceptively cuddly. The coyote howled, the javelina snorted, the ram stared us down, the beaver flapped its paddle, & the otter did all the otter things. All the activity surprised Roger because they hadn’t seen much of the animals in previous visits. I personally take credit for all the animal sitings since I had connected with mother nature in Sedona 😉

I did my chocolate research and found a new-ish chocolatier that Lorie & Roger hadn’t heard of. We made it to Monsoon Chocolate right before they closed. Their shop is located inside a former tortilla factory. They offer food & coffee along with artisanal chocolates. They make their chocolate bean-to-bar make their chocolates in view of the cafe. It was fun to be able to explain the process of conching, tempering, & decorating to Lorie & Roger. Their chocolate truffles were delicious. They use an airbrushed technique to decorate their truffles in what I call the galaxy style (think about into dark sky and seeing nebulae). The shells were delicately and perfectly thin with clear flavors in their ganache centers. The staff takes 2 weeks off after Christmas and had just returned to work a few days prior to our visit. They had a full truffle case but hadn’t yet been able to restock their chocolate bars. I might have to order a bar or two from their site. But I think it’s safe to say that L&R will return someday soon.

For day two, L&R had planned something more active. We headed into the Superstition Mountains just east of Phoenix. We hiked the Peralta Trail to the Fremont Saddle. The elevation gain is 1500 feet and is supposed to be moderate. I’m glad that L&R were there to set the pace because it was much steeper than my hike in Sedona. The 68-degree weather couldn’t have been more perfect. There were big fluffy clouds, which have always been my favorite. The strenuous hike was rewarded with an amazing view of Weaver’s Needle in the distance.

On the return trip down the hill we debated what the appropriate meal would be for dinner. The choices were narrowed down between Mediterranean, Vietnamese, or Indian. We decided that Indian would be the most hearty and satisfying. With full bellies, we barely made it until 10pm before heading to bed.

On Monday morning, we headed into downtown Phoenix to check out some coffee, street art, & the State Capitol. Songbird Coffee is housed in a home built in 1904. It is located along Roosevelt Row, an artsy area of downtown. There are apartment buildings going up and murals everywhere you turn in this part of downtown. We walked through a half-block sized food hall that was made from shipping containers. The Churchill features a 9000 square foot courtyard surrounded by 10 businesses. The Film Bar is an arthouse movie theater that L&R highly recommended. They happened to be showing a film that I caught at RiverRun Film Festival last spring. I was able to tell them about the film, so I felt like I was in the know. LOL.

Our lunch plans were centered around Lebanese food. Lorie assured me that Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli had GF tabouli made with quinoa instead of bulgur wheat. In actuality, they had more GF items than I could have imagined! They make their own GF pita bread with rice & chickpea flour, which was indistinguishable from the regular pita. They had frozen take-away items that included GF chicken pies, pita, & fingerstyle baklava. This place could be a carb overload heaven for me!

Before heading home, I coerced another trip to a chocolate shop. XO Confections is tucked away inside a business park but worth the trip once you find it. Their production facility is in back with a little counter up front. They recently moved to this location so the front is a work in progress. We were fortunate to have gotten a personal tour of their facility….and got to eat a few samples.

How would I sum up Phoenix? Great food, phenomenal hiking, and family. I think I’ll be back!

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