About Me

An avid traveler I have had the good fortune to have spent my career in the travel and vacation industry. From Bali to Copenhagen and all points between is where I have been or intend to go. This blog however is specific to the Western half of the United States as I explore this part of the world.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Verde Canyon Railroad in Clarkdale, AZ and Jerome, AZ

A couple of months back, my wife treated me to a little weekend getaway starting in Clarkdale, AZ  with the Verde Canyon Railroad excursion.  Now a wilderness/green adventure, it was once the rail line that supported the Jerome copper mine, according to our guide, and was the richest in Arizona during its heyday.  She had scheduled us in a "first class" rail car which essentially provided VIP table like seating, for larger groups couches and coffee table, for couples a nice cocktail table and comfortable seating along the windows with the best views (facing the front of the train, windows on the left provide the best views of the canyon). Ours was called the Flagstaff as each is named after an Arizona town.

We were informed to arrive early as seating was not assigned, only rail car.  There is food available at the rail station as is some shopping to kill time while waiting for the conductor to give the green light to board.  I was pleased to discover that food was also served on our rail car and a good thing too as it helped stave off the affects of the full service bar which we took full advantage of.

The train was set up to have alternating rail cars of different types.  Between each closed car was an open air car that allowed for observation of the canyon while enjoying the breeze and smells of Verde Canyon while mingling with some interesting passengers.  I brought along my telephoto and wide angle lenses and was able to capture a few interesting sights.

One shot I wanted to get heading out was a Bald Eagle that everyone was chattering about... I may have been too involved with exploring the wine menu but by the time I moved out onto the observation car it had passed beyond my ability to see it.  I promised myself that I would keep my eyes open on the way back.  So we ordered a couple of experimental drinks from the bar followed by one of their touted Arizona wines...

If you take this train ride... pass on this particular AZ wine... I would rate it less than okay.  Maybe it was the plastic cups but I don't think so.  The ride was a very relaxing and pleasant 4 hours and I was very glad to experience it.  It isn't often that I ride trains, I think the last (not counting subways and airport shuttle trains) was from Norfolk, VA to Orlando, FL on Amtrak in '90 or '91.  That may have actually resulted in my last ride ever if I had given into the impulse to throw the two Cub Scouts off the train that thought the kick plates that opened the doors between cars was the most fun ever, kicking them over and over again as hard as they could at 12:30 am... not parents, no scout master to be seen, eventually they got board or someone more impulsive actually threw them off the train...

Back to Verde Canyon.  the views from the train were spectacular and I have added a few shots I took, including the Bald Eagle I was able to capture on the way back.

Once we returned to the station we still had some daylight left to go back up to Jerome and do some exploring.  We had come through the town on the way from Las Vegas to the train and it struck us both how interesting this small, historic town was.  First it is perched high on the mountain and it seemed many buildings and houses facing the street had no back yard but rather a sheer cliff providing some excellent views from the shops we visited.

If you do go there from Vegas, once you get onto 40 from Kingman, make sure you take the Rout 89 exit and then 89a route to Jerome if you are a driver and aren't afraid of heights.  What a great climb and decent up and down a very curvy road through the mountains with sheer drop offs to one side most of the way!  No problem for the Infiniti M35x... though the 928 would have been a thrill >;).

Jerome was a great place to explore... it felt like a hidden gem much like the small, quaint and historic towns I used to discover driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and West Virginia.  No chains, unique restaurants, bars and stores and a lot of history.  Worth the trip.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Royal Palms Resort and Spa

I surprised my wife this weekend with a stay at the Royal Palms in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. I booked a Valencia Suite through DVN and was very happy with the accommodations. We were on a second floor overlooking the courtyard and very near to the spa. The scent of eucalyptus met us coming and going from the room. The room was very nice, reminding me somewhat of Pronghorn's private residency club rooms. The tub however was one of my favorites. It was shaped more like a cube than a standard tub measuring about 5x5x3feet deep. Great place to soak after being out in the Phoenix heat.

The overall atmosphere of the resort is great. Service is A+ and the separated walled gardens, pools and hidden nooks and fountains made it an enjoyable place to wander. Our first night we dined at the resort restaurant, T. Cook's.  As our waiter served our lobster bisque we were pleasantly surprised by the presentation.  Chilled lobster in the base of the bowl with the warm bisque poured into the bowl table side.  The last time we had such a presentation was at Manuel's on the 28th, one of our favorite Orlando restaurants which is unfortunately closed now.  Manuel's still holds the record for the very best lobster bisque we have every had.  For years since we have ordered bisque's hopeful that we would one day taste a bisque the equal of Manuel's.  With the presentation we were hopeful but while very good... it fell short of our hopes while meeting our expectations.

However, the high point of the meal was our entrees and the wine I picked to accompany.  Sonny ordered Duck a L'Orange which she hadn't had in some time and I went with the Pork Tenderloin though I was thinking Georges Bank Scallops at one point.  The wine, Owen Roe Sharecropper's Pinot noir '09 was fantastic and paired well with our meals.  I was unfamiliar with Sharecropper's but there was a note from the sommelier on the wine list that it was delightful.  As would be expected at a resort of this caliber dining is not inexpensive.  An excellent option to enjoy a special night out with spouse.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Exploring the West just got a lot less expensive with the Dream Vacation Network

About 2 months ago I became a member of the Dream Vacation Network, a private access technology platform that offers all sorts of travel options for travelers that enjoy a high level of quality in their travels while seeking the very best deals available. There are a lot of tools for timeshare owners as well but as a non-owner I use it like I would Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia or before DVN, Kayak had become my search engine of choice for travel.

That being said, the savings and availability I have experienced with Dream Vacation Network are unbeatable. As a qualifier I have only booked 4 trips so far but the money I saved essentially made one of the trips free. The first booking was to Anaheim at a boutique hotel next to Disney Land for my wife and my birthday weekend. It was pet friendly though we left our Cockers with friends for this trip. When I first looked up the hotels in the area I did a lot of comparisons between DVN pricing and availability and Kayak, Orbitz, etc. I saved about $15/night over the best rates I could find anywhere else on the web. The Hotel Menage was quite nice and we had a view of the pool and of the Disney fireworks that went off at night. Though I must say, other than the trip up to Solvang, one of the highlights of the trip was a restaurant we discovered called La Vie En Rose. What a spectacular atmosphere, food and service. We were greeted upon arrival by the owner Louis Laulhere who was snappily dressed and greeted us at the foyer with a broad smile and warm welcome. The restaurant felt like it should be in a small village in the french countryside. The food selection, presentation and taste were excellent. We will definitely visit again!

The next trip I booked was for a family friends graduation from Marine Boot Camp at MCRD in San Diego. We stayed at a Doubletree Club Hotel that was very nice and conveniently located near the base. Again I saved roughly 20% on the accommodations and since I drove from Las Vegas did not need a rental car. Since I seem to be on a savings and eating theme, I would have to say that the most enjoyable meal we had while in San Diego was actually in Bonita California at a little hole in the wall seafood spot called TJ's Oyster Bar. Thank God we got there early. There was probably only seating for 20-30 people including tables outside and shortly after our arrival there was a line out the front door and down the sidewalk. I ordered a clam ceviche and a diablo shrimp plate while my wife ordered a garlic shrimp plate. Both were excellent with generous portions and just the right amount of spice. We found this restaurant through trip advisor and the recommendations where spot on.

I booked a trip to Orlando to visit family which since it is in the east I wont spend much time on other than to say DVN really seem to be member focused. While I can book hotels, resorts, car rentals, cruises (haven't tried yet) etc. to book flights you are redirected to a public access website Kayak that searches all the others for the best pricing. The concierge at DVN explained to me that there isn't much margin to discount airlines so it isn't offered directly on the site. However, she explained that I could book the flights on Orbitz for instance and e-mail or fax the itinerary back to DVN and receive one credit for every dollar I spent. I already receive one credit for every dollar I spend on the site itself, but to receive credits for money I didn't spend on the site is a good deal... especially now that I have:

Total Reward Credits: 744

Total Reward Credits Including Pending: 6,795

Including my pending credits I have enough for a weekend car rental. Timeshare owners can deposit their timeshare weeks for credits that can be used to book anything on the site. Having been in the industry for over 15 years you would think that I would own a timeshare but one of the benefits of being in the industry is that I can stay in timeshares as a perk of my occupation.
The last trip I booked was for Scottsdale for which I saved several hundred dollars at a resort that provides free cook to order breakfast and free happy hour. I look forward to heading out there this weekend with my wife though I dread what the temperature will be like. After all it is hot in Vegas but Phoenix will probably be much warmer.
I have to say though that the DVN site really makes me want to do some more traveling, even for weekend getaways. It seems like every week they have multiple super specials like groupon for travel that based on the few comparisons I have done save upwards of $400-$600 for 5-10 day stays which is pretty substantial. Priceline has their negotiator but you have to bid first and hope you get what you want. With DVN all the negotiations have been done ahead of time and I just pick and choose what I want.
Since I just got my Asus transformer tablet from Amazon I can download the app for their MUVE application and manage my account from there!