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The mild west; Arizona isn't just deserts and cowboys, philippa ClaRKe find wineries, culture, spas, fine food and even giraffes too.

Byline: PHILIPPA CLARKE

It isn't, as I expected, all cowboys and indians in the desert heart of Arizona.

Far from it - with vibrant cities, the famous Red Rock Mountain Canyon, wild desert, artists' enclaves, golf courses and glitzy hotels, it just pulsates with options. Adrenalin junkies, culture vultures, foodies and sun seekers alike will all find their nirvana here in the now not-so-Wild West.

Just outside Phoenix, in ultra cool Scottsdale, at the start and finish of my 200-mile road trip, is the retro Hotel Valley Ho. In the 1950s this desert motel was the height of chic - Marilyn Monroe was among its guests.

The rooms are huge and all the old songs pump out around the martini-shaped swimming pool - and the motel is perfectly placed for a downtown stroll to take in the pleasures of Scottsdale. Arts and crafts, antiques and jewellery shops mingle with restaurants that offer every variety of cuisine. In pioneering mood, I set off north into Yavapai native American territory to experience life in the desert. And wild it admittedly is here, just cartoon cactus (saguaro), tumbleweed and nothing else for miles. Dry heat envelopes you, but slip into the shade and, due to lack of humidity, you cool down in seconds. Looking out over the undulating wilderness, you wonder just how those intrepid early settlers made their way through this godforsaken territory surrounded by the indian tribes ready to defend their terrain at any cost. Coming face to face with a giraffe here, is something I hadn't bargained for. Or for that matter a murderous looking ostrich. But here they both were, as well as a herd of zebras, a few tigers and some other sundry immigrants.

This is the Out Of Africa theme park, 90 miles north of Phoenix at Camp Verde in the foothills of the Red Rock Mountains, where animals can live in a natural way while being cared for to prevent extinction.

Camp Verde itself is surrounded by the towering Red Rocks, tumbling down to a fertile valley with the Verde river snaking through. It is developing as a wine growing region. The Verde Wine Trail, stretching from Sedona to Cottonwood and Clarkdale, is one not to miss, not just for the delicious wines, but the idyllic setting of these vineyards.

The largest of these vineyards, Alcantara in Cottonwood is good place to start the trail.

It can be approached by river, so I set off by kayak, encouraged by the thought of a glass or two of Arizona's finest.

It was a thrilling trip, not quite as tranquil as I imagined as I found myself floundering on the some mini rapids. But landing safely, and just a short walk up from the river, and I was in an idyllic spot to sample that well earned drink, watching the sun dip behind neat rows of vines. The beautiful frontier town of Sedona sits on the river at Oak Creek Canyon. The townsfolk here have really put the art into the heart of Arizona and it has become a creative enclave, producing many fine craftsmen. New Age and spiritualist healers flock here too, attracted by the celebrated vortexes which give, according to indian folklore, mystical sources of energy. For plain physical energy it is also the start of a myriad of backpacking trails, from short jaunts to a long challenge.

I took what I thought was the lazy option with a Red Jeeps tour. It was exhilarating, but a relief to stop for a picnic in a valley shaded by the towering red rocks and cottonwood trees. For the ultimate in luxury I stopped at the nearby Enchantment resort. The spa doubles as a glamorous health resort with rooms for a complete reviving retreat, cocooned in this mystic canyon. A multitude of wild birds wheel in and out of the craggy landscape. The best way to appreciate these birds and the scenery is a ride on the Verde Canyon railway from Clarkdale.

There's gold in them thar hills, copper and silver too. This discovery saw the native tribes driven off their land and get-richquick prospectors taking over. Wind up through hair-raising hairpin bends towards the once rich mining area of Jerome, and discover "the wickedest town in the West" which bustled with brothels and bars. By 1950 it was a ghost town with only 53 inhabitants. The Grand Hotel towers over the deserted mining shafts. It used to be the hospital and I couldn't resist reading the visitors' book detailing everyone's ghoulish experiences. But in the morning, with the sun rising over the red rocks and view down into the valley below, it was worth any amount of sleep deprivation.

Back to Phoenix, and safely home in cowboy territory. In view of Camelback Mountain is The Hermosa Inn, the former home of cowboy artist Lon Megargee.

This was a fitting end to a dream road trip. It may only have been around 200 miles, but with so many different experiences, it could have been a thousand, and there was still so much more to do.

GET THERE

A SEVEN-DAY fly-drive USA from Heathrow to Phoenix Alcantara Alcantara with British Airways costs from pounds 519pp in november. www.ba.com/phoenix, 0844 493 0758.Jerome Grand Hotel from pounds 76pn www.jeromegrandhotel. net the enchantment Resort from pounds 175pn www. Scottsdale Scottsdale Red Rock Canyon Red Rock Canyon enchantmentresort.com Hermosa inn pounds 223pn www.hermosainn.com Hotel Valley Ho pounds 159pn www.HotelValleyHo.com

Time zone: GMT -7hrs

Best time to go: Less fierce heat spring /autumn

CAPTION(S):

GOING NATIVE ZCactus, tumbleweed and nothing else for miles in Yavapai territory SKYLIGHT n Sun sets over Arizona
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:1U8AZ
Date:Jul 2, 2011
Words:946
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