Hikes, massages and a red-hued beauty recharge visitors to Arizona's most dynamic getaway.
The line to the entrance of Elote Cafe was already snaking toward the street by the time we joined it just after 5 p.m. With an hour wait ahead of us, I struck up a conversation with an academic from Boston who spends six weeks in Sedona, Ariz., every winter.
"I came to recharge my battery," he told me.
It's the sort of thing you expect to hear from travelers voyaging to this seductive and spiritual Southwestern town, brimming with tranquilizing spas and surrounded by red rocks allegedly rife with energy vortexes. I nodded my approval.
"This is such a good place to do that," said I, a self-proclaimed expert, having been in the area for 24 hours.
He paused before clarifying. "No, I mean I'm really here to recharge my battery." The academic, it turns out, has an electric car that he leaves in Sedona. It needs periodic recharging.
I'm still laughing at my mistake. But, hey, people travel here year-round to recharge in innumerable ways, metaphysical and eco-friendly. My boyfriend, Patrick, and I planned to test our stamina on hikes, revive ourselves at spas and decide if there was anything to the many energy-infused vortexes said to dot the landscape.
Our first awe-inspiring jolt came when Patrick and I realized that the least necessary road sign on Earth is the one announcing "Sedona City Limits." I can't remember any more dramatic welcome to a city center than this one, brought to us by Nature. Preposterously massive and magnificent red rocks encircle Sedona, jutting into an azure sky.
We settled into Orchards Inn, a comfortable, mid-priced hotel on the main street, then joined throngs of visitors checking out the city's abundant shops and galleries. The Sedona shopping experience is largely of the kitschy crystal/candles/candy variety, but we found a few gems. The Clay Pigeon's selection of pottery, art and gifts was high-end throughout. Of the art galleries (most focusing on Indian-influenced paintings, pottery and sculpture), Exposures Gallery is the biggest, featuring the work of more than a dozen international artists.
Some of the best art, though, was found in the many bronze sculptures lining the streets. We accidentally found our way to one of the most striking statues after taking a wrong turn and ending up at the Sedona Public Library. In front stands Sedona Arabelle Miller Schnebly, wife of the city's first postmaster, for whom the town was named.
Seeing a close-up of the moon
As lovely as the city is in sunlight, it's pretty great at sunset, too.
Just before 5 p.m., we headed up to Chapel of the Holy Cross, which seems to jut from the surrounding red rocks. Rising more than 200 feet from the ground, the hilltop church offers an inspiring and simple setting for prayer, adorned with modest tapestries, candles in red glass, and stained glass windows catching the light.
When the lights went out -- and temperatures dipped into the low 50s -- we joined David Sanders of Evening Sky Tours. The company offers nightly stargazing, with guides who know their way around Jupiter.
Sanders led nine of us across a darkened soccer field to chairs with two blankets each to wrap ourselves in. Wearing a full-length parka that I wanted to steal, Sanders taught us about different constellations and gave each of us an opportunity to view our great big world from a high-powered telescope. We saw the two main gaseous rings around Saturn, galaxies, the Milky Way cluster and a close-up of the moon. With three packs of coyotes howling in the distance, and a smashing shooting star, it was a dazzling experience.
We were eager to get going the next morning on our brand of re-energizing: hikes, as many as we could fit in. Autumn colors had just peaked when we arrived in late November, which made for perfect hiking, although you can certainly hike year-round.
Located 4,400 feet above sea level, Sedona is about 20 degrees cooler than Phoenix (110 miles to the south), and about 15 degrees warmer than Flagstaff (30 miles north). This is important to know as you plan your hikes (some requiring winter hats and shorts, depending on how long you'll be out there).
Hikes to expansive views
We began with a 7-mile hike of the popular West Fork Trail, within the Coconino National Forest. Trekking through the bottom of the canyon, surrounded by juniper pines and red and white rock easily measuring 200 feet high, we took our time, marveling at dramatic temperature fluctuations, as much as 20 degrees in just a few steps. At noon, we saw frost in some areas before a blast of sun hit us and off came the sweaters.
This three-hour hike was a refreshing and easy way to get re-oriented to being outdoors. By Day 2, though, we were ready for more of a challenge.
We got it at Cathedral Rock, just off of Back O' Beyond Road. We parked our rental car and realized immediately that there was going to be no frost, or ease, on this hike. The hot sun bore down on us as we began the steep 1.5-mile up-and-back climb. (Note to travelers: hats, sunscreen, water).
Steps carved into the rock make the climb easier, but not easy. Abundant "saddle points," or curved depressions in the rock, allow for breaks and tantalizing views to keep you going. Three-year-old hikers help, too.
"I can see the whole world from up here!" shouted one little boy, standing on a rock as his parents snapped photographs before he bolted upward again.
Cathedral Rock is considered one of Sedona's strongest vortexes, those swirling centers of energy emanating from the Earth. One buff and smiling woman laid her hands on rocks to draw out its power, and encouraged her companion to do the same. My energy boost came at the top, after another hiker told us we weren't finished yet. Keep weaving carefully around to the left, he suggested.
Wow. As Patrick jumped down into a lower pocket to take photos, I planted myself on a flat rock and gazed out at hundreds of miles of awe-inspiring mesas and buttes. It's what Patrick calls a "heart-in-throat" moment.
Then we had to come down. I created my own heart-in-throat moment, calling it Slide on Butt to Get to the Bottom. "That works," said a laughing woman heading up.
Our third hike took us up to Devil's Bridge, Sedona's largest natural sandstone bridge. It was an easy climb. Much harder was persuading myself to walk out onto the bridge. Fantastic views, or so I heard. I didn't dare look down.
Wide range of spa treatments
Not surprisingly, given the tuned-in and health-minded folks drawn here, spas are abundant. How else are you going to work out all of those hiking kinks? You can do it in many ways, too. Stones? Shells? Sea salt? Reflexology, Japanese facial? Aromatherapy, hot castor oil? Sedona has it.
The range of massage venues is vast, too, from the exquisite, high-end destination Enchantment Resort to more homespun, drop-in locales.
We found our way (thanks, Trip-Advisor!) to gentle Joy Musacchio and Cynthia Brownley, both former teachers in New York, who headed West more than eight years ago to open Stillpoint: Living in Balance.
We drove right past their place at first, not realizing that they work out of a private studio nestled behind homes. Musacchio and Brownley, who end every e-mail correspondence with "wishing you all good things," offered lots of good things over the next 100 minutes of their signature couples' massage, incorporating aromatherapy and chakra stones. (Cost: $150 each, plus tip.)
While spa offerings can be found in other places, Musacchio said that people come to Sedona for a deeper, more visceral reason: to shed patterns than no longer work for them. To begin again.
While I remain skeptical about vortexes, I'm now convinced there are few places on Earth better suited to help us do that work.
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350