Story, photos by Cassie Hepler (unless otherwise noted)
Let’s talk about good karma, shall we?
Once upon a time before threats of hurricanes, this travel writer was on a press trip to Visit San Antonio, Texas and met a fellow foodie, travel and fashion influencer from Ontario, Canada named MoVernie on the MOVE. Our mutual love for connecting others lead him to helping me meet the wonderful team at Visit Phoenix which then led to this press trip… where a friend had moved six weeks earlier and my favorite uncle had recently relocated from Colorado. Always one to kill two birds with one stone, it was a week-long plus one extra surprise day (thanks American Airlines for that Northeast storm scare) adventure full of friends old and new, food and family.
The Nature Made Tour was inspired by the recently acquired hashtag #FreshFoodieTrail but not just limited to food. Visit Mesa added on the second part of the tour with Mesa City Limitless. The bountiful harvest is one that they proudly share with visitors. Fresh experiences and a treasured heritage of family farms and long-standing festivals make for lasting memories. Serving as a culinary gateway to Greater Phoenix, the neighboring farms in and around Mesa are providing a continuous bounty of seasonal goods for visitors to enjoy – along with tailored experiences.
The adventure began with a seemingly endless flight to Phoenix International Airport after a smooth Lyft ride to the Philadelphia International Airport after I played in Mac makeup to waste time with my newest MUA friend. Before my flight even left the ground, Tai from Boss Transportation was calling to make sure my flight was on time and telling me where to go for the car service to the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass Hotel.
While driving there in a shiny, leather interior black SUV with multiple charging stations, Tai filled me in on the proper pronunciation of Tempe (think Tee Pee) and we saw a roadrunner cross the road, much smaller and lifelike than in the Looney Tunes cartoons. I was happy to check in and refresh upon arrival which was flawless and fast with complimentary water everywhere you turn, part of the norm I soon learned in the desert.
We had a get to know each other press reception and dinner at Ko’Sin, a casual eatery on the ground floor of the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass. Ko’Sin (meaning kitchen in the Pima language) features a fusion of Native American and Arizona comfort food. Right outside the windows, there are stunning views of the Sierra Estrella Mountain Range especially at sunset (pretty much all the sunsets in Arizona are gorgeous I soon learned).
Refreshed with a good night’s sleep, I was ready and raring to go in the morning and explore all Arizona had to offer – with my trusty Aveeno SPF70 (I couldn’t find my usual go-to 100) and a baseball cap. But first I had to explore the hotel some more. The luxury Native American Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass is designed to be an authentic representation of the Gila River Indian Community’s heritage and culture in a land of legends where wild horses still roam free. Culturally-themed guest rooms reflect the traditions of the Pima and Maricopa people. The resort also boasts 36 holes of Troon golf, Forbes Four-Star Aji Spa offering Native treatments, dining at the AAA Five-Diamond & Forbes Five-Star Award-winning upscale restaurant Kai, onsite horseback adventures at Koli Equestrian Center and a boat cruise to Rawhide Western Theme Town.
Since my body was already confused that it was later in the day, it was easy to get going for our adventure with Detours of the West. This Arizona (and also Las Vegas) tour company offers professionally guided day and multi-day experiences of the American West. From tours of the Grand Canyon and Sedona to Tombstone and Apache Trail, our driver was always upbeat with a cooler of water in the back ready to drink. We would just suggest adding some cup holders and outlets to charge those always drained cell phone batteries. But before they set us free in the desert, we had to get sugared up first!
Once we were buzzing from sugar and coffee, we were set free on a self-guided tour of the popular Desert Botanical Garden where we experienced the bold, monumental sculptures of Japanese American artist Jun Kaneko set against the desert flora. Kaneko is an internationally renowned artist who specializes in large-scale, hand-built, ceramic sculptures. His work is featured in more than 40 major museum collections and can be seen in high-profile exhibitions and public art installations around the world. Desert Botanical Garden is the largest botanical garden in the Southwest featuring 55,000 plants from across the world and is a dream wedding destination location. For 78 years, the Garden’s commitment to the community is to advance excellence in education, research, exhibition and conservation of desert plants of the world with emphasis on the Southwestern United States. Easily one of my favorite places we visited, you can see why.
By the time we left, everyone was ready for some real food and The Phoenix Public Market Café was the perfect cool, casual urban neighborhood hangout to fulfill our foodie wishes. This neighborhood gem is the creation of one of the Valley’s most well-known award-winning restaurateurs/chefs Aaron Chamberlin. Creating popular local concepts, the cafe offers fresh market cuisine crafted with seasonal ingredients, many sourced directly from the adjacent farmer’s market.
We had a slew of fun hipster activities planned but because the heat was so hot out, we opted not to do the walking tour. In the west when the sun is burning, it’s much like the east in the winter where everyone stays inside minus the snow shoveling. We did swing by one of the locations on the tour bus along Roosevelt Row arts district, a funky and eclectic arts district in downtown showcasing local artwork and murals for a hot minute. Soon we were whisked back to the Sheraton for our spa treatments, always a welcome reprieve when traveling.
Aji Spa, meaning “Sanctuary,” is Arizona’s only Native American-owned spa and features indigenous treatments based on ancient legends of the Pima and Maricopa Indians. The 17,500-square-foot spa, featuring 17 treatment rooms, salon, fitness center, and relaxing watsu pool offers one-of-a-kind treatments developed from ancient rituals, including ingredients such as white clay and river rocks from the Gila River and a traditional Native American roundhouse (dwelling) used for meditation.
With complimentary use of the spa facilities that includes fitness, locker rooms, private pool, sauna, steam, jacuzzis, and relaxation lounges, I went early due to construction noise by the main pool and boiled myself in the women’s only hot tub, steam room with cold waterfall shower in the middle, and private waterfall shower (don’t use the complimentary razors but do enjoy all the delicious smelling amenities). Healthy snacks, tea and coffee are available and Aji cafe near the boutique store is open daily for lunch. Aji provided a well-loved robe and black plastic sandals for the day. Bring a bathing suit and fitness attire if you’re looking to work out first and don’t bring jewelry or valuables to the spa even though there are programmable lockers for each guest.
After we had worked up an appetite being pampered, it was time for a late dinner at Joe’s Farm Grill at Agritopia. Agritopia is a community on the edge of the rural/urban interface which was designed to flourish in an urban setting with patchworks of numerous specialty crops. The same-day harvest is sold at The Farm Stand, as well as the being served at the adjacent Joe’s Farm Grill and The Coffee Shop. The Johnston family homestead has been converted into a 1960’s era mid-century modern diner featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and is surrounded by century-old trees offering year-round shade. I love a good diner and was excited to try out a medley of delicious items on the menu!
Barnone has been brought back to life as an innovative artisan collective on the urban agriculture campus. Barnone features 12 resident crafts men and women across a wide array of disciplines including Arizona winemakers Todd and Kelly Bostock and their micro-winery Garage East. I know what you’re thinking: there’s no vineyards in Arizona, only beer! But wait ’til you taste these surprising vino flavors.
After imbibing in some full pours of our favorite wines, we had to get to back to the Sheraton and in bed asap for our wake up call at 4 a.m. for adventures in hot air ballooning! Once that alarm went off, it was hard to drag myself out of bed but my inspiration was about the experience and those views. The Detours West AZ van ride was pretty quiet that morning as our group attempted a bit more shut eye. When we arrived on site at the Sonoran Desert, Hot Air Expeditions was ready to rock and roll and obviously used to the early bird start time.
The Sonoran Desert is a unique and beautiful place when soaring from a bird’s eye view of the Phoenix landscape level, but the view from above is astounding in its expansiveness and grandeur. Hot air ballooning is a wonderfully tranquil experience and sounds are almost non-existent except for distant dogs barking. And it’s great for visitors of all ages. Sunrise and sunset flights provide magnificent vistas of desert terrain and towering mountain ranges. The view from the balloon’s handcrafted wicker basket is virtually unobstructed and really is a photographer’s dream as you will see. I might have gone photo crazy!
Up next was an intuitive cooking experience at The Farm at South Mountain where we learned how to cook with different farmer-fresh organic ingredients utilizing simple vegan culinary techniques led by intuitive chef and yogi Melanie Albert, author of A New View of Healthy Eating.
Because there was no meat based products for our lunch, I was still a bit hungry for protein even after all those delicious fruits and veggies. And as a true carnivore would do, we went to the mothership for a BBQ tasting at Jalapeno Bucks. The search for buckin’ good BBQ and burritos ends as you walk-up to this expanded farm stand style restaurant situated between citrus groves. Get in line with local Mesa natives for a hearty meal of Arizona-style BuzzSaw Brand BBQ and New Wave Mexican Soul Food to enjoy on their covered patio with misting water for those hot, sizzling days.
Because we hadn’t eaten enough that day, we moved on to get a sugar high and dessert at Toasted Mallow. Props to these ladies for having huge marshmallows and making a store out of the fluffy stuff.
At this point everyone was pretty pooped from our super early morning and in a food coma so we were all anxious to get to our next hotel destination and take a power nap. We arrived at The Hilton Phoenix/Mesa that was currently under construction to upgrade the indoor space and pool/hot tub area. The atrium-style hotel with a resort flair surrounded by desert terrain, each room features double French doors delivering fresh air and mountain views. Features include walking distance dining and shopping and only 15 minutes from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The multi-million dollar renovation recently reimagined and reinvented the hotel merging the lobby and atrium into an interactive great room for working, staying, and playing. The modern design provides contemporary comfort to all guests and was home to a boy’s sporting event while we were there as well as a military conference. After a good power nap and shower, we had mini burger snacks and cactus infused cocktails in the middle of the hotel lobby. Then we headed out for even more food and drinks through our trusty Detours AZ tour guides!
The downtown Gilbert, AZ area sparkled with lights as we strolled the pedestrian-friendly area filled with local restaurants, unique shops, scenic parks and cultural attractions. The new “beat” of this historic district is thriving and the parking is plentiful.
With low lighting and romantic vibes, we popped by Postino East Wine Café for appetizer and ambiance. At Postino, guests can expect nearly 40 hand-selected unique, approachable wines; simple, delicious food prepared with local ingredients such as bruschetta, Panini’s, salads and soups; and a warm, friendly culture that brings people together. An urban space in a suburban area, the 2,500 square foot building incorporates elements from their original location along with a versatile layout that includes an indoor-outdoor bar, wrap-around patio, and a green space for events.
Just when we thought we were done eating, it was time to go right next door and try out the agua frescas and Mexican bites at Joyride Taco House. Some of the best flavor combinations come from south of the border so it’s only fitting that just south of Mesa’s border is Joyride Taco House, the newest restaurant to pack a regional Mexican punch. With a menu inspired by daily life and cuisine in Mexico, tacos take center stage and feature slow-roasted meats tucked into house-made tortillas. Signature garage doors adorn both the front and back of the building, creating a breezeway and two distinct patios that keep the laid back vibe in-tact. And they have a sweet happy hour too!
Some thing we didn’t try but were told to taste is the grilled street corn basted with a lime aioli and crusted cotija cheese as well as their fresh and colorful agua frescas. Soon it was back to sleep in those fantastic beds in our suites.
I was the only soul to rise and shine for a hike up Wind Cave Trail at Usery Mountain Regional Park the next morning with the intern. My body was craving some much needed exercise to burn off all that delicious food and hiking is high on my nature loving list. Located on the Valley’s east side, this park takes in 3,648 acres set at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains, adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. The park contains a large variety of plants and animals that call the lower Sonoran Desert home. Along the most popular feature of the park, the Wind Cave Trail, water seeps from the roof of the alcove to support hanging gardens of Rock Daisy. The Wind Cave is formed at the boundary between the volcanic tuff and granite on Pass Mountain.
After a quick hour long hike, we were back to eating with the gang and had actually worked up an appetite from hiking this time. So it only made sense to indulge … with bacon! T.C. Eggington’s has been serving up an “eggstra” special breakfast, lunch and brunch in Mesa, Arizona since 1985, featuring award-winning traditional family recipes all made from scratch using only the freshest ingredients. Every week over 8,000 eggs are scrambled, fried, poached or gently folded into a time tested collection of mouth-watering omelettes.
In Mesa, the bountiful harvest is one that is proudly shared with our visitors all year long. Here, fresh experiences and a treasured heritage of family farms and long-standing festivals make for lasting memories. Serving as a culinary gateway to Phoenix and Scottsdale, the neighboring farms and agritourism attractions in and around Mesa are providing a continuous bounty of seasonal goods for visitors to enjoy. The popular foodie-driven experiences like the Fresh Foodie Trail through Mesa and into the towns of Gilbert and Queen Creek featuring more than a dozen stops. Peach orchards, dairy farms, citrus groves, and an olive mill are just some of the culinary attractions on the tour.
One of the many amazing highlights of this trip was visiting True Garden who I believe will be changing the way we eat and farm soon with their vertical gardens. This 5,000-square-foot vertical urban farm is a center of education sharing knowledge on how to produce healthy and nutritious food using no soil. Visitors can enjoy their weekly farmer’s market featuring living produce and stop in for seminars and food-education programming about organic growing practices, nutrition and overall health and wellness. Numerous Valley chefs have turned to the organic produce for its authentic, true-to-form flavor. The solar-powered True Garden is a showcase for living food, grown with the absence of soil allowing foragers to keep the root intact for multiple harvests. Owner and compound pharmacist Troy Albright, PhD can grow up to an acre of fresh vegetables using 1/10 of the land and a fraction of the water.
Our group was buzzing after learning how to have fresh, organic veggies at all times after our visit to True Garden. So it only made sense that Queen Creek Olive Mill was up next with their solar paneled olive oil in our eco friendly tour! Just east of Mesa is the Queen Creek Olive Mill, Arizona’s only family-owned and operated working olive mill and farm, where olives are grown and pressed for the production of high quality extra virgin olive oil. Grown at the base of the San Tan Mountains, an area known for its fertile soil, this flood plain region is famous for its high quality fruits and vegetables. The combination of long sunny days and cool desert nights provide the ideal growing conditions for the olive trees.
Soon we were brought back to the Hilton to get ready for our last night as a media group for the epic dinner at Agritopia, the farm setting for Outstanding in the Field. Agritopia is a community on the edge of the rural/urban interface. It is an “urban farm” designed to flourish in the urban setting. Instead of a huge field of one crop, you find a patchwork of numerous specialty crops. The same-day harvest is sold at The Farm Stand, as well as the being served at Joe’s Farm Grill and The Coffee Shop. All of the produce grown on the farm is grown under the USDA organic protocol. Their family homestead – a ranch-style, slump block home – has been converted into a 60’s era mid-century modern diner, Joe’s Farm Grill. The 100-year old trees have remained and features like a butterfly roof and open breezeway that make for an airy patio with shade.
By the end of the night, friends turned into family and everyone was having a great time. Agritopia really is something of a utopia for agriculture. Certainly our table location in the peach grove lent itself to such a description. Three generations of Johnstons have farmed here, and when the development pressures of a growing city came along, the family sought to create a place that mixes the best of the city and the farm. We didn’t want to the night to end and walked over to the wine bar at Garage East for some night caps and game time. Hint: Don’t try to make dominos spell out “Mesa” when you’re at a table with a bunch of people drinking wine!
We were up and at ’em the next morning for an epic brunch before they sent us off on our way at Liberty Market. Liberty Market is an urban bistro that has quickly become a popular eating and meeting place in the East Valley. The building itself has been in existence since the early 1930′s serving Gilbert as a grocery store. Today Liberty Market is an award winning, Zagat rated restaurant serving a diverse and refined menu featuring wood fired pizza, sandwiches, salads, burgers, pasta, gourmet style entrees, house-made desserts and features a premium espresso bar and diverse beer and wine list.
After breakfast a few of us wondered around The Gilbert Farmers Market area featuring local, chemical free, organic produce from many local farmers, farm fresh eggs, meat, cheese, bread, sweets, coffee, tea, sauces, seasonings and many other locally made artisan products. We also stumbled upon a craft show where we bought some local handmade souvenirs before heading back to the Hilton for everyone to check out – except me.
Props to the Hilton for hosting me one more night with a hearty buffet breakfast as I wanted to go explore Sedona, which is said to be a spiritual energy vortex of the world. After a day of visiting friends and enjoying one last dinner with the Visit Phoenix crew, I was terribly tired but too curious to miss this natural phenomenon. So I hopped in my hybrid Ford and made my way for some breathtaking views.
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