Mystery Vacation Debrief

Grand Canyon view from the front of the El Tovar hotel
Grand Canyon view from the front of the El Tovar hotel

We’re home again! We arrived on our beautiful island safe and sound but exhausted yesterday afternoon, and closed the books on a wonderful family vacation. It will take a couple of days to finish unpacking and such, but it’s good to be home.

Hopi House, designed my architect Mary Coulter.
Hopi House, designed by architect Mary Coulter.

Only two things happened to mar an otherwise perfect time. WenYu got sick the day after we arrived at the Grand Canyon, and after initially thinking her malaise was due to the altitude (the South Rim of the canyon is 7000 ft. above sea level) and dehydration, it turned out to be a mild case of food poisoning. We have no idea where it came from since she and I shared dishes Thursday evening and Friday morning and I didn’t get sick, so our best guess is that it was caused by one of the pieces of fruit she ate at breakfast Friday morning. Whatever it came from, she was very sick on Friday evening and was not feeling herself again for a few days.

WenYu (feeling better) and YaYu on a Rim Trail hike
WenYu (feeling better) and YaYu on a Rim Trail hike at the Canyon

One other small thing was more of an annoyance: We heard from one of our waiters at the El Tovar that if we had time we should check out the meteor crater just east of Flagstaff on our way to Sedona. We checked in with the concierge to get any information he could share and get directions. I had visited the crater when I was young (and it is impressive), and since we had some time we decided to drive out to see it only to find out that the site is privately owned, and the admission to enter would be $59 for our family. No way were we going to pay that to look at a big hole in the ground! We were annoyed that the concierge did not think to inform us of the charge to see it before sending us all the way out there, when that’s part of his job!

Sunset approaches

Otherwise the trip went perfectly:

  • Flights: I never saw a lower price for flights in and out of Phoenix than what I paid, so was very happy I bought them when I did. All our flights left and arrived on time, and Hawaiian Airlines is the only U.S. based airline that still provides complementary food service!
  • Rental car: We got a terrific rate through Costco and had a brand new Mitsubishi Outlander for the week for just $362. It was very roomy and comfortable, got great mileage and Brett said it was fun to drive.

    Looking back at the El Tovar from Bright Angel.
    Looking back at the El Tovar from Bright Angel.
  • Hotels: We stayed at the Comfort Suites Phoenix Airport the night of our arrival on the mainland and the night before our departure. Nothing fancy, but the hotel was clean, comfortable and convenient, and they had a nice free breakfast. The El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon was worth every penny we spent for the service, comfort and location, location, location. In Sedona we stayed at the Best Western Plus hotel on the west side of town. We got a terrific rate through Travelocity (better than the Phoenix hotel!), and our room was lovely. The views from the hotel patios were nothing short of breathtaking. This hotel also offered a great free breakfast, and we were in walking distance of restaurants and a Whole Foods market. I would stay at all three hotels again (Note: If you want to stay at the Grand Canyon be prepared to book a full year in advance to get a room at any of the in-park lodgings). One surprise for me was seeing that the little rustic cabins at Bright Angel Lodge are still being used – my family stayed in one 52 years ago when we visited the Grand Canyon, and they were “rustic” then!

    A happy YaYu and her happy mule, Willow, at the end of our ride
    YaYu and her mule, Willow, both had a great ride
  • Activities: Two activities were ones I pre-booked for the trip: a 2-hour mule ride along the Grand Canyon rim, and the Pink Jeep Broken Arrow tour in Sedona. Both activities were a BIG hit with all of us – they were fun, but educational and gave us views of the area we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The guides for both really knew their stuff too. The mule ride is another thing that has to be booked early (like almost a year in advance) as spaces fill up fast. It was sad seeing so many people lined up at the desk each day asking if there were any cancellations (which rarely happen). I also booked our Pink Jeep tour several months in advance. They had five jeeps go out for just the 5:00 tour the day we went (tours go out every half hour), and the woman we spoke to when we checked in said they had been turning people away all day. We also enjoyed a Native American dance, music and storytelling performance held outside the Hopi House last Sunday afternoon – the music and dances were beautiful, and the hoop dance was nothing short of incredible. The dances are done by local Native American college students as a way to help pay for their education (there is no charge to watch, but most everyone leaves a small monetary gift), and we were there for their first performances of the year.

    Native American dancer
    Native American dancer
  • Meals: We discovered our first evening at the Grand Canyon that portion sizes for meals were HUGE. We’d eat a big breakfast every morning, and then not need to eat again until dinner, except for maybe a small snack in the afternoon. Even when we split a meal we left the restaurants feeling very full. The food was good and well-prepared, so how WenYu got sick remains a mystery. Our favorite breakfast spot was the El Tovar dining room – very classy – and although we tried both the Bright Angel Lodge and the Arizona Room for dinner, the Maswik Lodge food court and pizza pub turned out to be our favorite – they had a big selection of good food at lower prices than the restaurants, and we had a nice hike over and back from the El Tovar. In Sedona we had delicious Chinese food the first night – we walked to the restaurant, Szechuan, from our hotel – and the second day we ate twice at the Wildflower Cafe in town. They had very reasonably priced sandwiches and soup for lunch, and we had pasta dishes for dinner. Before heading out of town on Wednesday, we had breakfast at the famous Coffee Pot Restaurant (“101 Omelettes”) – delicious! I think the most we ever spent in one day for food was $110 for the four of us. By the way, it was somewhat difficult to stick to vegan eating on the trip, although I tried. It seemed someone was always garnishing my dishes with sour cream or some other dairy product even though it was not listed on the menu. I did eat eggs for breakfast a couple of times, and also had some smoked salmon, but otherwise was able to find vegan dishes.

    The Watchtower at Desert View, also designed by Mary Coulter
    The Watchtower at Desert View, also designed by Mary Coulter
  • Souvenirs/Miscellaneous Expenses: I budgeted $200/day for food, souvenirs, and other expenses and we came in under budget every day. Brett bought himself a couple of t-shirts and a ball cap; I bought some silver & turquoise earrings and a book, Over the Edge, about all the known deaths that have occurred in the Grand Canyon (or, as one woman told me, all the stupid things people have done over the years). We heard rave reviews about the book everywhere we went, so I finally broke down and bought it. Brett and I also bought a Native American-made ornament for our Christmas tree, and we bought Meiling a necklace and pair of earrings. Miscellaneous expenses included gas for the car, a gift for the dancers, and admission to Slide Rock State Park outside of Sedona. The girls had their own money to spend, and bought lovely (and useful) items.
Colorado River view from the Watchtower
Colorado River view from the Watchtower

It truly was a wonderful vacation. I loved being able to get together with my childhood friend in Williams, before we headed to the Grand Canyon, and having dinner with friends Lori and Todd in Phoenix the evening before we departed. I loved the time I got to spend with Brett and the girls. We even got to stop at a Trader Joe’s in Phoenix for a few things! We also received a couple of pieces of good news while we were away, which I will be sharing with you shortly.

Rock crawling in Sedona
Rock crawling in Sedona
Slide Rock State Park - the water was cold, but a few brave souls were giving the slide a go.
Slide Rock State Park just outside Sedona – the water was cold, but a few brave souls were still giving the slide a try.

The family said they are up for another mystery vacation as long as I don’t wait quite so long to reveal the destination. I’m thinking Christmas 2017, but I’ve got to unpack from this one first!

Sunrise on our last morning at the canyon
Sunrise on our last morning at the canyon

Mystery Revealed!

We leave early tomorrow on our long-awaited and much-anticipated Mystery Vacation™!

Without further ado, we are headed to . . .


. . . the Grand Canyon and beautiful Sedona, Arizona!

Brett has talked about going for as long as I’ve known him, and the girls are also very, very excited about visiting this awe-inspiring natural wonder. I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon in almost 50 years, but every visit I’ve made in the past was nothing short of amazing, so I’m very excited as well about returning and experiencing it all again.

Guide leading mule riders up a steep portion of the Bright Angel Trail known as Heartbreak Hill. The Battleship formation is in the background, and Cheops Pyramid beyond that. (on the other side of the Colorado River) NPS photo by Michael Quinn. Mule trips into the canyon - as well as rides through the park's woodlands to scenic canyon overlooks - are offered on both the the North and South Rims of the park. Learn more here:

We’ll be flying in to Phoenix, arriving fairly late in the evening so will stay overnight near the airport after we pick up our rental car. Next morning, after our free breakfast at the hotel, we’ll hit the road and drive up to Williams, where we’ll meet for lunch and a reunion with a high school friend of mine and her husband. Both worked at the Grand Canyon for many years following their early retirement from the business world. They are bringing maps, etc. and will help us figure out what to see and do while we’re there.


While we’re at the Grand Canyon we’ll be staying at the historic and elegant El Tovar Hotel. The El Tovar, which opened in 1905, sits right on the rim, and is centrally located to most everything in the Grand Canyon Village. Reservations for the El Tovar sell out in just a few hours; I had to get up very early here to make ours a year ago! The only scheduled activity we have so far is a mule ride along the rim (which was also reserved early because it sells out quickly), but we are thinking about renting bikes one day for some touring. Or, we may drive up to Page and tour the slot canyons in Antelope Valley. We’ll just wait and see what we feel like doing. The wild card will of course be weather. It’s forecast to be mostly sunny but cold while we’re there (below freezing at night). There were rumors of snow one day, but that doesn’t seem to be happening any more, thank goodness.


After our time at the Grand Canyon we’ll drive over to beautiful Sedona to take in and explore the incredible vistas and red rock formations. We have reservations at sunset one day for a Pink Jeep Broken Arrow tour, where we’ll get up close and personal to the rocks and do some rock crawling. It’s supposed to be very, very fun (and thrilling) – can’t wait!


Then we’ll head back to Phoenix to spend the night – our flight home to Hawai’i leaves early in the morning.

Ever since they learned our destination last week, the girls and Brett have been eagerly researching all they can about the Grand Canyon and what we can see and do there. We’re all excited about the restaurants and food choices there and in Sedona – Navajo tacos, anyone? I’m just happy that it all came together, that everyone is happy with our destination, and that after more than a year of planning we’ll finally be on our way!

I’ll try to check in while we’re gone, but the WiFi at the Canyon is not supposed to be very good, so there might not be anything until we get to Sedona. But, I’ll be back with a full report next week! Arizona, here we come!