Adventures in the South West

 

To the Navajo people, ‘the mittens’ in Monument Valley represent mother earth’s hands rising up out of the land. And when day breaks behind these great rocky monoliths, it is a key spiritual moment; ‘When the white light breaks through the sky that is when the holy spirits visit our world and it is a time for prayer,’ my 19 year old Navajo guide, told me on my first day in the area.

Not an early riser, I hopped out of bed at 5am two days in a row to catch the 90 minute light show as the sun rises behind the mittens and the valley is flooded with purple, vermillion, orange, indigo, green and ochre hues. It is one of the most majestic and awe-inspiring sights I’ve ever experienced. Sunset is equally breathtaking.

The Monument Valley Tribal park is owned by the Navajo, America’s biggest Native American tribe. Their reservation spans three states and is nearly the size of Scotland. Monument Valley with its ancient1,000 foot high skyscrapers is one of the best places to learn about Native American culture. You can self drive through the park on its boulder strewn road (rumored to have been built in 1939 for the John Ford movie Stage Coach), but if you do, you’ll miss most of the highlights. The petroglyphs, pictographs and ancient ruins left behind by the Anasazi Indians (the Navajo’s old enemy) 1-2,000 years ago are off limits if you don’t have a native guide.

I signed up for an individual tour with 19-year-old Miesha Holiday of Navajo Spirit Tours, www.themonumentvalley.net. As we bounced along in her jeep and hiked up into off limits areas, I  learnt how the Navajo prefer to call themselves the Dine (‘Navajo’ is a term invented by the 17th century Spanish settlers). I got to peak inside 97-year-old weaver Suzie Yazzie’s Hogan, a tiny circular house built to resemble a womb. It is made from mud and 9 cedar posts that represent the 9 months of labor. Along the route, Miesha pointed out the shapes that the Navajo see in the rocks, sang me Navajo lullabies, told me how her pet wolf saved her 2 year old sister from a prowling cougar and explained what it means that the tribe is matriarchal. ‘In the old days, if you wanted to divorce your husband, you simply put his shoes and clothes outside your hogan and he knew not to come back.’

When the View Hotel where I was staying opened in Monument Valley two years ago, it was the start of a new trend in environmentally sensitive accommodation at the heart of what the Americans call ‘The Grand Circle’; an area of northern Arizona and southern Utah that encompasses many of America’s great natural treasures – the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, Canyon de Chelly and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. All these incredible sights are less than a day’s travel from each other.

The Amangiri Resort, 13 miles north of Lake Powell is the area’s first luxury hotel. It was 10 years in the making. It took 3 years to build on an 80 acre plot that used to be part of the Glenn Canyon National Park. ‘Aman owner Adrian Zecha did a land swap with the US government. He had another parcel of land nearby that they wanted. It took three years to negotiate and an act of congress,’ says the Amangiri manager proudly over drinks by the shimmery blue pool that wraps a giant rocky outcrop that seems to shelter the hotel.

The hotel – a string of low slung concrete pavilions that blend so perfectly into the surrounds that they are almost invisible from a distance –   was designed by three of the most experimental South West American architects; Rick Joy, Wendell Burnette and Marwan Al-Sayed. One of the most magical spaces is the 25,000 square foot spa with its walnut-lined candle-lit treatment rooms, some have giant barn style doors that allow you to be cocooned inside and revel in the outdoors at the same time.

Each of the 34 open plan suites has floor to ceiling windows that open into the desert. Six have rooftop beds. On my first night I slept out under the stars in what was certainly the plushest camp bed I’ve ever tried with big fluffy goose down pillows, silky linens and lots of candle lanterns around me. I lay out and watched the shooting stars for hours. It was like being in my own little sky-space installation by artist James Turrell (another Arizona genius).

One of the biggest treats staying at the Amangiri is that you can hike out the front door into the surrounding 600 acres of private untrammeled wilderness and not bump into another tourist. I signed up on the first day with the Amangiri’s knowledgable guides for a 5 hour climb up the steep mesa behind the hotel to see the magnificent view from the plateau of Lake Powell, a 186 mile long vivid blue manmade lake surrounded by purply-blue and pink rocks . From above, it look like a landscape on Mars. Coming down we passed through candy colored striated rock that my guide explained were petrified migrating sand dunes and edged through tiny slot canyons. Like the hotel, the scenery is breathtaking. I’m already planning when to go back.

WAYS + MEANS

Lucie Young travelled as a guest of the Arizona Office of Tourism. She flew US Airways from New York to Phoenix and hired a car from Enterprise Rent-a-Car.

Where to Stay

In Phoenix/Scottsdale, where most tourists will spend at least a night, make it the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale (www.fourseasons.com/scottsdale) consistently voted one of the best hotels in the US with its adobe-style cottages and beautiful views of the High Sonoran Desert (famous for the Saguaro cactus). Allow time for a trip to Taliesen West, the home of top American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (www.franklloydwright.org). Wright’s sole US hotel, the Arizona Biltmore, is in nearby Phoenix (www.arizonabiltmore.com).

In Monument Valley, the best option is the View Hotel, (www.monumentvalleyview.com) run by 26-year-old Navajo woman Armanda Ortega-Gordon. Each of the 96 rooms has a balcony with a spectacular view of sunrise and sunset over ‘the mittens’. Native American chef MacNeal Crank prepares traditional fare like buffalo steak, fry-bread tacos and blue corn mush. The best new hotel in the Grand Circle is the Amangiri Resort (www.amanresorts.com). This 34-suite hotel and spa look like a futuristic space station in a wild lunar landscape. The hotel will arrange anything from hot air ballooning to a four hour Via Ferrata rock climb with expert guides.

© 2011

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