Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Birthday Mini-Trip Out West

This year, my 49th birthday fell on a Thursday. My son would still be in Boston at school, and I usually go out to dinner with my family for my birthday, but we save it for the weekend. So I knew I would be alone on the actual day, and decided to take a mini-trip to celebrate. I love to go to "new" places - places I haven't been before - so for this trip I chose Utah.
Sun streaming over the Utah mountains.

Over the years, I had been researching destination health spas that were reasonably priced. Red Mountain Resort in Utah repeatedly made the lists, and it got mostly good reviews on TripAdvisor, so I started planning around that destination. The location was also very near Zion National Canyon, and Las Vegas. Las Vegas is relatively cheap to fly into from Chicago, so I got a flight there, and rented a car to drive the 2 hours to Ivins, Utah, where the Red Mountain Resort is located. Even though I didn't particularly think the all-inclusive resort format was right for me (see this post), I chose the all-inclusive option at Red Mountain, because it definitely looked like the best deal, financially. The all-inclusive rate included three meals, all the fitness classes (or so I thought) and one spa treatment. I chose the King bed villa as my room, since reviews on TripAdvisor said the accommodations were so much nicer than the regular rooms, and you had access to the fancier pool.
Las Vegas airport: the din of slot machines everywhere you turn.

After arriving at the Las Vegas airport (which is always wacky - there are literally slot machines at every turn!), I picked up my rental car and got on the road. The drive to Ivins, Utah was stunningly beautiful. You actually have to drive through the tip of Arizona and pass through the Virgin River Gorge, which I wasn't expecting. Several times, I pulled the car over to just stare at the gorgeous, striated rock formations. The beauty brought me to tears! How is this much amazingness even real! Seriously, the Midwest has some attractive areas, but it really pales in comparison to the natural beauty of the Southwest United States.
Probably should not have been driving and taking pictures at the same time...

Virgin River Gorge, Arizona

Just before getting to the resort, I stopped in Saint George, Utah and visited a housing development called Kayenta. It features high-end, single-family homes, spread out in a natural setting among the red rocks, with walking trails, a sculpture garden, a labyrinth, and a shopping area with art studios and a restaurant.
Sculpture garden at Kayenta.

Peaceful and secluded labyrinth.

One foot in front of the other....

It's really pretty and serene. I wasn't really interested in the art studios, but I walked the labyrinth, which was secluded and very peaceful, then got a snack at the restaurant. The strong, bright sun felt so good on my skin and in my eyes. The winter had been really brutal with so many dark days, and I felt starved for sunlight.
The view from my balcony of the zero edge pool at night.

Pretty landscaping at Red Mountain Resort.

Hiking trail at Red Mountain Resort.

A couple miles away was the Red Mountain Resort. My first impression was very positive. The grounds and buildings were so pretty in the red adobe style. The person at the check-in desk was kind of jerk though: brusk and unfriendly. Plus, she got a lot of my check-in info wrong. I drove to the individual building that held my room, then had to call at the desk for a porter because my suitcase was too heavy for me to lug up to the second floor. (Don't you think the receptionist should have asked if I needed help with my luggage? Poor customer service!). Anyway, the room was lovely and comfortable. I especially loved the bathroom decor and layout, which felt spa-like and spacious. My balcony looked out west onto the zero-edge pool, and I got a beautiful sunset delivered right to me.

Cozy and peaceful room at the Red Mountain Resort.
My balcony - great for drying off my swimsuit in the hot, dry sun.

That first day, I did some shopping in the town of Saint George - (I highly recommend the vintage shop, Urban Renewal, for fun clothes, jewelry and very well priced furniture and decor items), and had dinner there. The next day was spent exploring the beautifully landscaped grounds, taking fitness classes (yoga in the canyon - awesome!), swimming, hiking, and eating the delicious food. The food was all very health-conscious, but delicious. I did not lose weight, however. It was buffet style except for dinner, so I guess I overdid it on portions. That's okay; I really enjoyed it. I had a really nice massage in the spa, where I was so relaxed, I dozed off, then woke myself up with my own snoring. Embarrassing!
Gorgeous landscaping.


Utah blossoms.

As an introvert though, I would say that if I were to go there again, I would skip the all-inclusive option. The fitness classes I chose turned out not to be included in the rate (though many classes were included). And I didn't enjoy the van ride to the canyon for yoga. Too many chattering women - I felt claustrophobic and like I had to put up an emotional wall to avoid conversation. It's not my thing. My favorite parts of staying at this resort were the quiet alone times just walking around and taking in the gorgeous scenery and weather.

Crevice at Zion.

Stunning rocks and colors.

I checked out of the resort on Thursday (my actual birthday) and drove to Zion Canyon for a long, 4-hour hike. It was pretty fabulous, and I got all the quiet I needed, though there were plenty of people there. It would have been even better if it was more secluded, but apparently April is the most popular time to visit because it is not yet too hot, but the winter weather is past. This area gets really cold snowy winters (because of the high elevation) and really hot summers. There were a lot of families on spring break, as well.

After my hike, I drove to the Zion Ponderosa Ranch in Orderville, Utah, which I had saved for my birthday night. Boy, was that a mistake! In hindsight, I wish I had stayed in Springdale. That town is closer to the canyon, and really cute, with lots of lovely hotels all along the road.
Looks cute during the day. Was scary-dark at night!

Interior of my covered wagon. The sleeping bags scared me. Anything could be lurking inside!

The Zion Ponderosa is way out of the way - so secluded in fact, that as dusk came on, I got a little nervous because it was so far from anything else. It looked like a big former farm or ranch that had been turned into a "resort" but it didn't have a resort feel to it. Very basic! I had booked a covered wagon for the night, but didn't realize there was no heat or electricity in the wagon. It was pitch-black on the ranch, and I wandered around in my car for about 20 minutes before I stumbled upon my wagon. They had given me a little map at check-in, but I am useless at reading maps and couldn't get my bearings. Finally finding my wagon, I was dismayed that there were no lights at all. There was also a tiny lock on the door, and with lots of random people camping around the property, it didn't feel safe. Using my phone for illumination, I found a battery-operated lantern, but it seemed to be broken. I hated not being able to see inside the wagon or around the grounds. What if there were bugs or wild animals?!!! As a city girl, the complete darkness was very unsettling to me. I decided to drive back to the reception area to check out.
This is what I imagined by covered wagon would look like inside! No such luck!

I was teary-eyed and emotional about how dark everything was, but the receptionist was sympathetic and comforting. I talked about checking out, but she said the nearest hotel was an hour away. I didn't want to drive around in a strange area at night, so decided to stay. She gave me two of her flashlights to use in the cabin, and I drove back over to it. Then I realized I had to use the bathroom, so I got back in my car and drove the approximately three blocks to the common bath area. I was really bummed. This wasn't the romantic, bohemian experience I had expected. Although there was a tiny photo of the covered wagon on the website, somehow I expected it to be more tricked out and luxurious. The nylon sleeping bag in the wagon creeped me out. What if there was a scorpion or snake inside?! I didn't use it. Instead, I slept in my clothes and huddled, miserable and cold, on top the mattress, with both flashlights turned on all night long. If I liked camping, and had been prepared with flashlights and other camping necessities, it would have been fine. But it was more rustic than I'd expected, and I felt uncomfortable and unsafe. I cried myself to sleep - happy effing birthday!

As the sun came up Friday morning, I decide to change the rest of my trip. I had originally planned to drive to Bryce Canyon and stay at a Best Western in the area before driving back to Vegas for my flight out on Saturday. But I had underestimated how much more I would have to drive to get to Bryce, and didn't want to worry and rush getting back into Vegas. So I skipped Bryce, which I do regret a little bit, and booked a room for the night at the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Vegas. I had a bland breakfast at the restaurant on the ranch, which was a tired and dated looking spot, then got back in the car. I loved the drive back to Vegas. It was sunny and warm, and my spirits buoyed again.

I chose the Golden Nugget because it was available, cheap, and I'd heard of it. It is famous for "The Fremont Street Experience" which is a light and music show all along Fremont Street, closed off to car traffic, and lined with touristy souvenir shops. Since the Golden Nugget is off the strip, it is not as fashionable as the newer, fancier hotels, but it was definitely a step up from the ranch and the covered wagon. It had a nice lobby area, a really cool pool (although too crowded to get a space to sit), and some attractive bars, but the rooms definitely felt a little worn and "down-market."

Outside the hotel, on Fremont Street, a canopy covers several blocks of the street and images are projected overhead.

A giant aquarium in the center of the hotel's fish restaurant, Chart House.

A machine at the hotel that turns your cash into bars of gold!

The opulent reception area of the hotel spa. Got a manicure.

Looking down from the hotel dance club, into Fremont Street. 10pm on a Friday night.
It was okay. It felt good to take a hot shower in my private bathroom. I also took a little time to drive to the famous In-N-Out burger that I'd read celebrities in California adored. (It was really delicious). I thought about going to see The Chippendales show, or dancing at the nightclub*, but my energy was flagging and my feet were tired, so I just had the dinner buffet (good but not great), did a little shopping in the gift shops, and settled in for the night.

*(I might have to come to terms with the reality that my club dancing days are over. I have twice this year had the opportunity to go late night dancing: once in Playa del Carmen, and once in Vegas. But both times, my feet were too sore after walking all day, and I couldn't keep my energy up to be out at midnight, which is when dance parties just get started. Still, the idea of going to a dance party or club meant for people my age, which usually start earlier in the evening and feature "oldies" from the 80s and 90s, is just galling to me. It seems so lame and boring and "old people." Oh well, I still enjoy dropping it like it's hot in the privacy of my own home!).

All in all, it was a successful adventure. If I were to give advice to someone wanting to try a similar trip, I would definitely recommend the Red Mountain Resort, but stay ala carte, instead of all-inclusive. Then for hikes at Zion and Bryce National Canyon parks, stay in the town of Springdale. Bring a flashlight for the exceedingly dark, Utah wilderness nights, and spend some time exploring the restaurants and shops of Saint George and Springdale. And of course, wear very cushion-y shoes.