Until this year, the only part of Arizona I had ever seen was my grandparents’ retirement abode near Camelback Mountain. I remembered that people would emerge in the cool of the night with headlamps to climb, get their exercise. The rest of the time, the area looked as red, dry and unpopulated as Mars.
I didn’t realize until I went to other parts of the state that Arizona had agricultural bounty and heritage!
Where to stay
A luxe place for your base camp that has plenty of local flair is the Casino Del Sol Resort in Tucson. It’s an enterprise of the Pascua Yaqui tribe based in Sonora, Mexico. Their cultural influence is seen in the resort’s spa treatments, their décor and white tablecloth cuisine.
With gambling, entertainment and other amenities, you might just want to stay there on an extra-hot day!
What to do
I learned that farming is not all Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm – it’s hard and really dirty! The University of Arizona has a Field to Feast tour where you go to their experimental farm in Yuma, pick things, and then students from culinary students from Arizona Western College use your pickin’s to create a healthy lunch. (Well, I didn’t see the crazy lettuce I picked in the lunch, but that’s the theory, anyway.)
You must wear closed-toe shoes. I would suggest high waders that you feel good about throwing away, because they get incredibly muddy and there isn’t a good way to clean your shoes afterwards. I thought I ruined my waterproof Uggs, but the dolls at Casino Del Resort were able to get mine fixed.
For a little more refreshing activity while in Yuma, I highly recommend kayaking or canoeing on the Colorado River! Even if you’re not the “adventure travel” type – and I’m (gulp) not – it’s easy and a great way to see the scenery. I never imagined that Southern Arizona had such a great source of water. With the area’s topography, the river is mostly well-hidden from view.
Another fun thing to do in Yuma dates from before Arizona was a state: Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park. You can go into the actual cells where Wild West bad asses did their time, all within view of the State of California. For an outdoor look at the native flora and fauna of Arizona, check out Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Since Arizona’s border changed after 1854, it’s safe to say that the area’s nature and culture is Mexican. They’re re-establishing some of the colonial missionary orchards that were planted in the 1500s, including quinces, pomegranates, grapes, cilantro, onion and garlic. This museum is not just about the kiddies: they have docents who can explain things on the grounds and even arrange some field trips! One of the most fascinating nature and food anthropologists I’ve ever listened to is Jesus Garcia, a native of Mexico.
We’ve known that man has been eating dates in the desert since Biblical times. Tour Martha’s Gardens Date Farm and buy gourmet dates in their gift shop – don’t miss out on their date milkshakes.
Arizona has great oranges! See and smell the fragrant oranges on the trees, as well as get fresh orange products at The Orange Patch. I learned that the “Arizona Sweets” variety is low-acid and delectably sweet, producing juice without the pucker. If you’re near home, load up the car! Where I grew up, Sunday morning orange juice was frugally poured out in a half of a tiny glass increment. At The Orange Patch, the prices are great! I would also suggest to you mixologists to bring home a bottle of orange syrup for cocktail making splendor.
What to eat
Is this Arizona? A rural farmhouse/winery in Florence – The Windmill Winery – has a mountain setting and barn venue that seems like it would be in Middle America. They offer special wine dinners from a local gourmet caterer.
Queen Creek Olive Mill has a bistro right among their fresh olive groves and you’re encouraged to take your food – Mediterranean, using fresh olives, of course! – out to the trees. Fresh olive oil is nearly unobtainable in the U.S., except for here.
The Farm at Agritopia is a quirky, post-modern combo of hippie agricultural commune meets suburbia, located outside Phoenix. They have restaurants open to the public on site, including Joe’s Farm Grill, featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. As might be expected with his endorsement, his chosen menu items have a lot of flavors going on at the same time.