You love your family. All 700 members scattered around the world. Trying to get everyone together is another story. People have their lives and kids have their sports and many of the older members have their ways. Sometimes, a date set way in advance for a special occasion, like a milestone birthday, a graduation or a wedding, can motivate family members to put all their stuff aside for a weekend.
The event that made it happen for us was the graduation of my son from Flagstaff’s Northern Arizona University.
It’s hard to find a hotel that suits everyone’s needs, especially during a busy weekend. Walking may be tough for some members of the family, climbing not even a consideration. And on a typical trip, every family is alone until they make a plan to leave the hotel to be together in a public space. Plus, eating every meal out can add up for those who may not want to participate in that type of math. So, we decided to rent a huge one-story house from HomeAway. HomeAway has a large inventory of various sized and priced, privately owned homes to bring groups of people together for the finite amount of time they can be there. It was a great move. Every family had a private bedroom and the kids could sleep together if they wanted. In the mornings, we would congregate in the kitchen and mill around the island preparing whatever it was we were used to having back home. In the evenings, I’ve found in the past, the homeowners that participate in these home rental services provide games, movies and activities for guests to enjoy while inside. When you travel with kids of various ages, this can be a lifesaver. In our case, this was again true. Some played ping-pong, some watched TV, others hung around the couches or kitchen island sipping on adult beverages. Our first night, we ordered pizza from Fratellis, definitely a pleasure for our miniature crowd. At our desire, we snacked on the food laid out around the kitchen, reached into the fridge for whatever we wanted, not having to hurry or share space with strangers.
Flagstaff is built along historic Route 66, the famed highway that crosses through many towns worth exploring, connecting Chicago to Los Angeles. There are unique things to discover along this celebrated road and many options for those not on a graduation event-type schedule. The area is surrounded by nature and the pinnacle of outdoor exploration can be found around the million caverns and giddying drops of Grand Canyon National Park, 80 miles northeast of Flagstaff or about an hour and a half away. Pink Jeep Tours offers a variety of experiences if you want to tour by car. Two-hour excursions depart hourly and give a great perspective of the expansive gorge. If you have a bit more time, you can view the Grand Canyon from the river, train or air.
About a half hour away from Flagstaff is Bearizona Wildlife Park where families can drive their car through three miles of Ponderosa Pine Forest on a road that winds between trees brimming with animals native to North America. Keep your windows rolled up as you drive inches from bears rubbing their hides against the bark of convenient trees or pass by buffalo roaming for prey. If you’re feeling even more adventurous, after you pay your admission, you could hop on the free, windowless Wild Ride Bus Tour to appreciate the scent of animals mixed with pine trees as you cruise the same terrain.
We decided to visit Sedona, about an hour away from Flagstaff through one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever taken. Highway 89A dropped us into Oak Creek Canyon where trees draped the skyline, leaves dancing between a cool breeze. Lines of river ran alongside the car, straddled by riparian wildlife. Walls of red-hued rock hugged the roadway, stretching high into the sky, at times blocking it. Cathedrals of sandstone formations offered a reason to pause in appreciation. If we hadn’t been such a large group with varying degrees of physical ability, we’d have stopped, as in previous years, to hike and then glide down Slide Rock, a shallow creek divided by a long rock, carved by rushing water, into a chute. Adventure seekers could ride on their bottoms for 80 feet. Afterwards, they could splash around in the adjacent pools. Don’t miss this incredible experience if you’re in the area. The entrance fee for cars is $20 in the summer but varies seasonally. There are plenty of bed and breakfasts and cabin-style hotels in the area to immerse yourself in this magical land. Once in Sedona, we walked around the two main streets locals call Uptown. We popped into historical shops and those with one-of-a-kind crafts and clothing. The kids had homemade ice cream. Just a five-minute drive was a short hike some of us decided to take to further appreciate the red-rock views and desert foliage.
That evening, we strolled around the square blocks of mostly single-story buildings that make up Downtown Flagstaff. We popped into artisan shops selling crystals, candles and Southwest-style accessories. There are the quick-and-easy pizza joints, but also many restaurants that offer organic, sustainable cuisine options. We chose to have our celebratory dinner at one such restaurant, Criollo Latin Kitchen. Criollo Latin Kitchen uses seasonal, organic, locally sourced ingredients and every dish we ordered was spectacular. Perfectly spiced prawns, almost crispy carne asada tacos, all cooked in a way that made the food sing. After dinner, the kids needed dessert and old-fashioned Sweet Shoppe Candy Store provided more homemade ice cream and a variety of hand crafted fudge options.
Flagstaff has a rich yoga scene and there were many options, but the class that fit perfectly into our timeframe was held in a studio surrounded by forests of juniper and pine, The Yoga Experience. Single classes at The Yoga Experience are offered for $15 but first classes are only $10 and a moderate Vinyasa Flow helped to realign my balance and gratitude as I stared out the windows into the lush landscape. I moved, stretched and breathed away body tension created by the earlier car-ride from Los Angeles with two energetic boys clamoring in the backseat.
When it was finally time to leave Flagstaff, the group found tables at Tourist Home for a farewell brunch. Tourist Home doesn’t take reservations and it’s first-come-first-served for seating so we were lucky to find two tables together. Or maybe we hovered until the eaters finished up. Either way, we ordered breakfast at the counter and Shelby brought it out and regaled us with her kind service. After I commented on how friendly everyone was in Flagstaff, she told us, for her, it was a TED talk that inspired her to do everything with love. The food certainly tasted like the kitchen crew had heard the same talk. From our vegan breakfast bowl to the whipped cream-laden waffles, everything was fresh and delicious.
Celebrations aside, weekends where everyone can all have their vacation needs met are the memories you want in those photo albums you keep.
Friendly Like Me, available for Apple and Android devices, is a first-of-its-kind app designed with the more than 33 percent of Americans who may need special accessibility accommodations while on family travel in mind.
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