If you’re looking for a new adventure when you’re in Arizona, I have just the thing for you. Three quirky little towns: Prescott, Cottonwood, and Jerome.
If you’re looking for a new adventure when you’re in Phoenix/Scottsdale, I have just the thing for you. Head north and you’ll discover three quirky little towns, each with its own distinct character, that make for a perfect jaunt from the Valley of the Sun. I’m talking about Prescott, Cottonwood, and Jerome, about two thirds of the way from Phoenix to Flagstaff, and just a half hour from Sedona. They are destinations in their own right for those who love the offbeat, the unique, or the just plain different. So let’s take a drive up north and see what these towns have to offer.
PRESCOTT: THE OLD WEST LIVES ON
After a drive of just under two hours, across miles of mountain chaparral, I arrive in Prescott. There’s a lot to see and do in and around this unusual little town that wears its Western identity like a badge. “Prescott: everyone’s hometown” proclaim the signs, and there is a down to earth quality here that makes it easy to come in and immediately feel at home. Well, if your home is a street known informally as “Whiskey Row” and boasts a huge number of saloons with a unique and colorful history. Not to mention there’s some great food, fascinating museums, a ton of galleries, and shopping galore. What more could you ask?
I check into The Motor Lodge, which, like the town itself, is quirky, downhome, and fun. It’s actually a vintage 1937 “motor court,” with the rooms in a U-shape around the drive-in area and a private, covered carport for most rooms. My room features furniture from the late, great Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, including an elaborate headboard topped by a pair of gilt crowns. Best of all, it’s just a few blocks from Whiskey Row and the heart of town, so I have all the convenience with none of the craziness.
After check-in, if you’re like me you will head to Whiskey Row (aka Montezuma Street) and check out the variety of eating, drinking, and shopping options. Built after a fire in 1900 destroyed the block, it once boasted forty saloons where cowboys, gold miners, and all sorts of, shall we say, less savory types congregated (oddly, right across the street from the courthouse). You’ll still see a goodly number of saloons lined up among the shopping options.
Since it’s still early, I start by exploring some of the galleries and shops, some offering Western kitsch and some displaying really beautiful original artworks. Van Gogh’s Ear offers a nice selection of jewelry, paintings, ceramics, and glass. I admire the creations and somehow manage to restrain myself from buying everything in the shop. The same applies at Arts Prescott, my favorite gallery in town and a co-op of local artists, where I marvel at lovely pottery, amazingly creative basketry, fiber arts, wood turning, and monoprints. Mountain Spirit has a range of paintings and sculptures on Western and Native American themes. Artful Eye and Kikapoo Express offer nice jewelry, and a block off Whiskey Row, on Cortez Street, Ogg’s Hogan presents an immense array of antique Native basketry, jewelry, pottery, and other art and artifacts.
We’ll come back later to explore the saloons, but first let’s get a feel for some of the beauty of the area with a drive to the Phippen Museum, located among some stunning countryside about five miles out of town. It’s as good a place as any to get a sense of Prescott’s Western heritage, and presents wonderful paintings and sculptures by the big names in cowboy art: Solon Borglum, Ray Swanson, and George Phippen (who was, in fact, the first president of Cowboy Artists of America), You’ll also see contemporary artists whose work fills a large gallery. It’s beautiful creations, and the views from outside the museum are in themselves worth the trip. I probably spend as long standing outside the museum looking at the vast landscape as I do inside admiring the art.
More natural beauty awaits at Highlands Center for Natural History, about a ten-minute drive from town. I head out on the Stretch Pebble Trail and I’m soon in the middle of a wonderland of nature, low-lying shrubs, tall oaks and ponderosa pines. A lizard skitters across the trail. The distant hills stand out against intensely blue skies, a few large puffy clouds looking like they were put there by some master painter. A tree with scaly bark like a reptile. Butterflies meandering through the air. This too, is Prescott, and it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.
Back in town, you’ll also want to visit the Museum of Indigenous People, a small but lovely museum with a series of wonderful displays. I love the collection of Hopi and Zuni pottery, a large collection of katsinam, Apache Gaan (Mountain Spirit Dancers), elaborate Navajo baskets, and a nice exhibit of contemporary art. This little museum is chock-full of treasures, and it’s well worth visiting. Also check out Sharlot Hall, where you’ll find the history of the area displayed in a series of fascinating exhibits, from pre-history to aerial views of the town over the years to Yavapai basketry.
All this exploration makes me want one thing: coffee. Luckily, Prescott has not just one but two nice spots. At Wild Iris Coffeehouse, there’s the immediate feeling: this is what a coffeehouse should be! Lots of wood, couches, marble-topped tables, and a patio for breezy Prescott mornings. They offer a nice selection of baked goods and (as the sign says) “food food” from quiche to panini. The Porch is also a comfy and welcoming coffeehouse. The commodious space recreates an outdoor porch inside, with tin roofs, brick walls, and long wood tables where seemingly half of Prescott comes to hang out and relax on the “porch.”
For “food food,” there are some great choices. Let’s start with the best. I’m astounded that this Western-y little town holds a restaurant as great as Farm Provisions, where the food is amazing, the service gracious, friendly, and helpful, the setting refined and low-key. It’s as good a meal as I’ve had in I don’t know when, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Familiar dishes are given a twist, like deviled eggs, which are coated in panko and topped with a bacon/caramelized onion jam, all sitting atop swirls of sriracha crème fraiche. The seabass is a particular specialty, as is the pork tenderloin, but pretty much every dish here is not only gorgeous to look at but gorgeous to eat. Am I raving here? Farm Provisions deserves the rave. I won’t let you go to Prescott without checking it out. End of story.
Well, not quite the end, because there’s also El Gato Azul, a wonderful tapas spot just off Whiskey Row. It’s a lovely place, with a small and bustling front room and a large patio, and their specialty is a global tapas selection. The BBQ scallops frita are coated in breadcrumbs and served alluringly in a martini glass with their homemade strawberry barbecue sauce. Chile Wontons span cultures gracefully, the wontons stuffed with cream cheese and green chiles. Choose beet and blue cheese tacos, fried avocado with red pepper aioli, or many other delectable dishes.
For breakfast or early lunch The Local is a cheery place on the edge of town: bright, with azure and lime green walls, local art, and large letters on the wall proclaiming “EAT”—so I do! I also love The Raven, a super-nice spot with great food, coffee, and alcoholic potables. There’s a revolving display of local art on the walls and live music in the evenings. Their espresso is organic, their wine list is impressive, their service is friendly, and their food is great. Is it a coffeehouse? A tavern? A restaurant? Let’s call it “all of the above.” The County Seat is another winner, a clean-lined, modern spot above the Spice Traveler shop, where I get the sweet chili bowl I’ve been craving all day. It’s casual and appealing, with a nice counterculture feel here that’s just the low-key kind of place where I love to spend time.
Heading downstairs, what can I do but stop in Spice Traveler, a huge store with an astounding array of spices and more. Of course, there are spices galore, spanning the globe from Garam Masala to Hawaiian sea salt to jerk seasoning. There are also shelves lined with jars of local honey, a variety of jams, sauces, and more. Need some tamarind paste? Craving pickled quail eggs? In the mood for prickly pear salsa? You’ve come to the right place.
Then it’s on to explore the real draw of Whiskey Row: the saloons. As I walk down the street, there seems to be live music drifting (well, more like blaring) from just about every drinkery, creating a cacophony of sound and a plethora of choices. Matt’s Longhorn Saloon is a friendly and welcoming place in a 1901-vintage building, with live music, a huge oak dance floor, and memories galore captured in photos (it’s been around since the 1960s). At the back of the Whiskey Row buildings, entered through an alleyway, is the aptly-named Back Alley Wine Bar, with its L-shaped corrugated metal bar, large seating area, live music, and a great selection of wines, including an “Arizona wine flight” (my suggestion). My favorite is Jersey Lilly Saloon, named after Lillie Langtree and with the only balcony overlooking Courthouse Square. I head up the stairs to an old-timey wooden saloon, live music playing and good spirits everywhere. I ask the friendly bartender for a house specialty, and she makes me (I kid you not) a PB&J Martini that’s actually kind of incredible. I take it out to the balcony and look past stone columns to the courthouse. I feel like I could stay forever on this cozy balcony with my sweet/weird/delicious drink in hand and the sounds of the band wafting out. Western hospitality at its best, and that what it’s all about, right?
One final word about Prescott: it’s a pretty conservative place. As Arizona turns more blue politically, Prescott and surroundings remain a bastion of red. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for its LGBTQ residents (or visitors), as is confirmed for me by a conversation with Zach Leonard and Joe Ficcaci, a married couple who have been living for a decade in Prescott. In fact, they were the first same-sex couple to be married in the city’s famous courthouse. They recall the wedding with a chuckle, from their certificate with the words “husband” and “wife” whited out, to the judge asking if he “did everything ok.” While the conservative nature of the town is undeniable, they agree with my speculation that it’s an Arizonan, Barry Goldwaterish, live-and-let-live conservatism. Says Joe, “we’ve never once had a problem or felt unwelcome anywhere.” For them, it’s all about the personal connections: “You meet the individuals,” remarks Zach, “and everyone is so nice. Maybe,” he comments with a smile, “it doesn’t fit my biases.” He continues: “So many people have come to us and said `how are you boys doing?’ The more you’re involved with the community, the more you’re rewarded with meeting people. There’s a real connectedness, wherever you’re from, whoever you are.”
This welcoming attitude is immediately apparent when you arrive. While there’s an undeniable kitsch to some of the saloon-y stuff, there’s also real history behind it. It’s certainly a town where a tourist won’t lack for things to do, whether it’s shopping for high art and tacky souvenirs, stopping in a museum, enjoying the many eating and drinking opportunities, exploring some of the nearby nature, or, preferably, all of the above. It’s undeniably, proudly touristic, as it has been since the first saloons opened in the nineteenth century to cater to a very different kind of visitor. There’s something kind of great about a town like that.
COTTONWOOD AND THE ALLURE OF WINE
The next day, I’m off to Cottonwood across an other-worldly landscape of red buttes and deep forest, with much of the drive through the Prescott National Forest. I think most people don’t expect Arizona to be so wooded, but as I navigate my way around switchbacks snaking through tree-covered hills, I realize that there’s so much here that doesn’t really fit the usual stereotypes of the Southwest, and a little exploration reveals a side of things that isn’t simply the desert most people probably imagine.
This is wine country, with an important part of Arizona’s growing wine industry based in this area. Cottonwood’s Main Street holds a large collection of tasting rooms, and several wineries are within a few minutes’ drive. While Cottonwood still has a small-town feel, it’s right at the center of some important changes, and being just a short drive from Sedona doesn’t hurt either!
I check into Pines Inn and Suites, and don’t be fooled by the motellike exterior, as the rooms are super-comfortable, nicely designed, and offer a good alternative to the crowds of Old Town (it’s about a fiveminute drive away). Dark wood, pale stucco walls, photos of those famous red rocks, and a green consciousness that’s nice to see (the lobby, for instance, has a filtered water dispenser where you can refill a container). They also have the only saltwater pool in town!
Then, after an appealing brunch on the comfy patio of Crema Craft Kitchen and Bar (their take-out window, by the way, becomes my go-to spot for morning espresso and the best glory muffins in history), I start checking out tasting rooms: hey, it’s never too early, right? The Pillsbury Wine Company tasting room has both couch and bar seating (I choose the latter). You can do all-red, all-white, or mixed flights. I particularly love their “Diva,” a Syrah/Petite Syrah blend that’s won awards in Arizona and California competitions. I also like the feel of Carlson Creek, where you sit at a wooden bar or high tables under rows of barrels, and who can beat the idea of wine and chocolate pairings? At AZ Stronghold, I take a seat on the patio under a red umbrella, and my wine flight ranges from crisp Malvasia Bianca and Chardonnay (a grape you actually don’t see much down here) to a beautiful Syrah. Definitely stop by Tantrum, the nicest tasting room I’ve seen, with a mural creating an image of an exterior wall, comfy couches, portraits of various women (including the winemaker), chandeliers, twinkling lights, and a red tin ceiling. It’s like the living room of your well-todo but slightly eccentric aunt, and it’s a treat to sip my smooth and rich Petite Syrah in the comfort of this room, with soft music playing and service that’s as gracious as it gets.