Sedona is a place seemingly at odds with itself. This young, tiny city nestled among the red rocks sustains a population of 10,000 and an annual tourism draw of 4 million.
It’s the off-balance energy of that dynamic — more than any mystical vibes purported by New Age types to be in abundance here — that blankets the area.
Typical Arizona tourist traps (with Southwestern tchotchkes, ersatz-native arts, Hopi silver) compete for attention with shops hawking New Age spirituality. The gorgeous mountain views, which make for Sedona’s most majestic offerings, seem almost an afterthought.
Against this, locals continue to gripe that their city — which incorporated in 1988 and only got its first traffic lights in the 1990s — is fast becoming an overstuffed, Disneyfied simulacrum of its formerly quaint self.
The challenge for day-trippers: Finding beauty off the tourist-beaten path.
NEW AGER, HEAL THYSELF
Authors and psychics Dick Sutphen and Page Bryant put Sedona on the New Age map in the late ’70s and early ’80s, citing the area’s mystical powers in the form of "vortices," places of electromagnetic and spiritual channeling. There are nine such purported vortices scattered throughout the city.
The vortices make Sedona a place of meditation and self-healing, according to Debra DeSanto, who moved to Sedona from Los Angeles this year to battle
"There’s a lot of energy here," she said. "I came not knowing a soul. I’m going to write a book on how I healed myself in coming to Sedona."
DeSanto’s book would likely find home in one of uptown’s spiritual souvenir shops — cozy storefronts sporting an awkward confluence of overpriced New Age lapidary, American Indian folklore, fortune-telling, Eastern religio-potluck and, for odd measure, copies of "The Da Vinci Code."
Our pick: Vortex Creekside Center, 25 Schnebly Hill Road, (928) 203-9222, a terribly overpriced crystals shop nevertheless staffed by an adorable ex-Cyndi Lauper punker type, Kristie Harned, who also gives tarot readings.
RED ROCK RESTAURANTS
The best bet for fine dining is in Tlaquepaque, uptown Sedona’s shopping and art gallery Mecca nestled at the corner of highways 179 and 89A (though its faux-rustic Guadalajaran architecture, along with new construction, leaves something to be desired). We found a charming little bistro/ coffeehouse, The Secret Garden Café, (928) 203-9564, with a cute misted garden patio that was perfect for a quick lunchtime nosh. It is pricey, though: Expect small $8 hummus pizzas and $10 sandwiches.
We found great authentic Oaxacan dinners at the Oaxaca Restaurante & Cantina, 321 N. Highway 89A, (928) 282-4179; it’s off the menu, but Oaxaca (pronounced wah-HAH-ka) whips up a hearty chicken mole. And the margaritas are as rejuvenating as hanging out in a vortex.
FOLLOW THE LOCALS
We asked our young server at The Secret Garden what Sedonans do for kicks.
"The only thing to do around here," she said, "is to go down to the creek and drink."
Skip the six-pack, but by all means see Oak Creek — specifically at Canyon Moon Park, south on scenic Red Rock Loop Road, past the high school, just off Chavez Ranch Road; parking is $7 per car.
Sure, there’s a major vortex, Cathedral Rock, to be found next to the wooded creek, but locals come to this spot in the summer to beat the heat at swimming holes. Near the front, there’s a small rock slide for young ones, but following a trail deeper along the creek reveals a large pool with diving boulders and a rope swing.
We could have spent the entire day at the creek — which proves a point:
Tourist towns are at their most fun when you ask around and do as the locals do.
Of course, no place in Sedona is safe from folks making a quick buck. At one scenic turnoff along Red Rock Loop Road, the serenity of the breathtaking vista view was punctured by a woman silently setting up a jewelry display on a blanket before us. Bard on the rocks
When the sun goes down in Sedona, this beautiful mountain city turns its attention from scenic views, Southwestern style and New Age mysticism to offer something completely different: Classical theater.
Now in its eighth season, Shakespeare Sedona offers repertory productions of the Bard and other estimable playwrights in an intimate outdoor theater on the streets of Sedona’s outdoor mall, Tlaquepaque.
The summer stock company is the brainchild of Jared Sakren, artistic director of Mesa’s Southwest Shakespeare Company.
The two organizations — which Sakren hopes to join together in the future — routinely share productions; this summer, Shakespeare Sedona restages Southwest Shakespeare’s comic "Twelfth Night" and offers George Bernard Shaw’s comedy "Arms and the Man," which Southwest Shakespeare will stage
next season at the Mesa Arts Center.
"Arms and the Man" finds a Swiss mercenary (played by Valley actor Cale Epps) fleeing the Bulgarian/Russian army by escaping into the home of Bulgaria’s richest family — hilarious parvenues whose attempts at social climbing form the crux of the comedy.
Shakespeare Sedona’s audience — some 2,000 to 3,000 people over the course of a summer — is a mix of Sedonans, vacationers and Valley theatergoers like Terry Wood, a regular attendee at the prestigious Oregon Shakespeare Festival and productions at Southwest Shakespeare.
Wood, who attended his first Shakespeare Sedona show recently with friend Bonnie Snook, said he enjoys the cozy atmosphere in Sedona.
"The weather is nice, it’s an intimate stage," he said. "We’re just really enjoying ourselves."
"Twelfth Night" runs 8 p.m. today and July 23; "Arms and the Man" runs 8 p.m. Saturday, Thursday and July 22, at Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village, 336 Highway 179. Tickets, $25, available by calling (800) 768-9286.