Sunday, February 17, 2013

My First Winter Escape! - Part 1

For the first time ever, I had a brief escape from winter. The trip was an ever so generous Christmas present from fam to spend a week with them at their winter home in Mesa, Arizona. I flew out of Winnipeg on the edge of an incoming blizzard on Jan 11 and landed in Phoenix that evening to what turned out to be a week of record low temps! So cold, that there were deep frost warnings most nights and I was often asked if I had brought the cold weather with me!!

I'll admit, that I've said a lot of nasty things about how Mother Nature handles the weather in my part of the world but I really hoped this wasn't my karma for the comments!

Saturday dawned clear and cool. After breakfast, we took a walk around the Rec Park that their park model is located in. The lots aren't large but several residents have added a guest room - commonly referred to as an Arizona Room. The well groomed lots and common areas are landscaped with several types of native plants, cactus and fruit trees.

How lucky they are to have fresh lemons and oranges growing right outside their doors! If I could have, I'd have brought fresh lemons home with me but customs doesn't allow that!

If you get bored at this place, it isn't for a lack of things to do! From fitness, to crafts/hobbies, games, other amenities and a countless choice of activities, it is a very social place! 

Since the first few days were so cool, we opted to spend a fair amount of that time shopping! (I'll write more about that and some otherthings from the trip in a future post!)

By Tuesday, the weather was a bit warmer so we headed out for some sightseeing. We drove towards the Superstition Mountain Range then turned into an old mining town called Goldfield. It was still quite cool and a bit of a wind so we didn't take the train tour but we did drive around to take pics. I would love to go back for the train ride and to explore the buildings!

Then, it was further up the road, past Canyon Lake. A spectacular view of desert and mountain scenery at every turn!

Our destination was Tortilla Flat. Originally, a stage coach stop, this little town is full of character, great scenery and good food! Our lunch was delivered to our table within minutes and was delicious! We stopped at the Mercantile to pick up some souvenirs and then the Country Store for some chocolate and peanut butter cup gelato! OH SO GOOD!

I was so busy enjoying the scenery and atmosphere, that I neglected to take pictures of the unique wallpaper that lines the walls, posts and beams of the restaurant and store - it is made up of real $ bills that are signed by visitors from around the world! Guess I'll have to go back someday!

On Wed, we took a drive out to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. It is home to a wide variety of desert plants including cactus, trees and bushes. There are numerous trails to explore - most of which are on fairly accessible levels. When we started walking, we inadvertently took one of the side trails. The side trails are far more challenging than my vision or legs could handle though so we only went a short distance before turning back and getting on to a main walkway. We only made it through about 1/3 of the main walking paths as there is just so much to see! If I make it back, I'd go for the day and pack a picnic lunch!

Thursday was the warmest day of my visit - and the only one I could have worn my carpri's and sandals had I not been boarding a plane back to Winterpeg in a few short hours! (Yup, Mother Nature may well have been sending me a message - you're leaving soon, so time to warm things up around here!)

Since I'd flown in at night, I wasn't able to observe the true landscape that surrounds Phoenix. When we headed out of the park for our various destinations, I was surprised to see just how close the mountains were. I could just make out the outline of the mountains along the horizon without using my monocular - and with my limited vision that is saying a lot! 

I was impressed with how much landscaping is done along the various roads and freeways in the Mesa and Phoenix area. Out on the highways, I was a bit surprised to see so much scrub brush and even small boulders in the open areas. I think I expected to see more actual sand. Naive to the area? Yup, but I also loved the beauty of it! A sight to behold at every turn!

There are countless places to enjoy walking and hiking regardless of your physical agility. The numerous Rec Parks for those of a certain age, provide many amenities and socializing opportunities. However, from what I saw, it would also be difficult for anyone without a vehicle to live independently there. Stores - grocery or otherwise - were not within walking distance of the parks.

Even so, I can certainly understand why so many snowbirds make the trek to Arizona every winter! It is a beautiful area with much to see and do. The winter temps there are generally warm enough for capri's or shorts during the day but it also cools down nicely for sleeping at night.

My time in Mesa was short, but I loved it! Hopefully, I will be invited back for another winter getaway so I can see and experience even more of this picturesque area!


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Flying - The Highs And The Low!

I haven't had a lot of opportunity to travel in my life, but as I told you in a recent post (A New Year, A New Adventure!), I was about to embark on an adventure.

Well, it was a wonderful trip! There is far too much to tell in one blog post though, so today I want to focus on the actual travel part rather than the destination.

I hadn't flown since 1999 and that was only to Calgary, so rules and procedures have changed greatly.

Luckily for me, I was flying with WestJet - an airline with an excellent reputation for customer service!

The only issue I had was in advance of the flight when I called customer service to add my name to the "meet and assist" option for those with a disability. I wasn't impressed that I had to wait on hold for almost 45 minutes before speaking with a very helpful rep who patiently answered all my novice flying and security questions.

As a friend drove me to the airport on the morning of Friday January 11, a blizzard was approaching Winnipeg. The only problem I had though, occurred while walking through the airport parkade. I didn't see the edge of a curb and fell. I scraped the base of the knuckle of my left hand (to the point of bleeding). I also managed to go through the left knee of my pants! Luckily, my injuries were not serious. I went to the washroom, cleaned up my knuckle and changed into a different pair of pants before checking in. (I had colourful bruises on both knees and a nasty looking knuckle for a couple weeks but at least I hadn't broken anything in my fall!)

A WestJet rep, met me and escorted me through all of security, showed me my gate, where the ladies room was and where to get some water. WS 493 de-iced before takeoff but the flight was smooth with a friendly crew. 
When we landed in Calgary, I was assisted by a very helpful WestJet fellow who filled out my customs form for me then showed me where to check in for my connecting flight later that afternoon and he pointed out washrooms and eating/shopping areas for me to check out during my layover.

I spent the next couple of hours walking and exploring some of the shops but also enjoyed the big comfy chairs for waiting passengers! The White Hat volunteers were also very friendly and helpful!

When I checked in with WestJet at 3:50, for my 5:50PM WS 1494, I was met by an incredibly helpful woman! We chatted about my trip as we collected my checked luggage and transferred it. At the security and customs, she helped me with everything! Once through, she showed me where to sit to put my shoes back on - then she got all of my belongings from the bins and put the zipped bags back in. She showed me where my gate would be (it was closed off at that time as other flights were landing). She guided me to a restaurant so I could eat before the flight, spoke with a server to make sure they would assist me with reading the menu and even made sure they refilled my water bottle! Before this angel left she gave me a big hug and told me to have a wonderful trip! WOW! Talk about making a person feel special!

The flight to Phoenix left about 25 minutes behind schedule but the crew were very friendly and extremely helpful! We landed only a few minutes late.

The ground service assistance in Phoenix is apparently contracted out, so I was not met by a WestJet rep. The Red Vested man who assisted me was helpful but merely doing his job. My family met me part way to the luggage carousel. Once arriving at the carousel, the luggage was very slow to come down and it took close to 45 minutes before my luggage came out the chute! This is apparently, not that uncommon at that airport.


On the return trip, Thursday January 17, I checked into WestJet at about 6PM for my 8PM WS 1343 flight home to Winnipeg. I was passed off onto a Red Vest fellow who was also assisting a woman unable to walk the distance to the gate so was using a wheelchair. Our departure gates were close to each other as were our flight times so he was attempting to help both of us. 

For a competent staff person, this would not have been a huge challenge but in my opinion, assisting one would be more than enough for him. He was also soft spoken - normally a good thing - but often hard to hear amongst other airport sounds.

It started well enough. He pushed the wheelchair and I walked behind carrying my winter coat, pulling my carry-on and using my white cane. At security, he placed both our carry-on bags on the conveyor, and placed a couple of bins on the table for our personal items. He then helped the other woman get up and to the screener. I was pretty much left on my own to place my items in the bin and remove my shoes. Our bags were already on the other side and out of sight. I neglected to remove my passport holder from around my neck so was delayed further. When I finally got through the screening, he was busy helping the other woman get resettled with her possessions and only gave me minimal assistance. Luckily, there wasn't a line-up behind us.

We asked him to stop at a washroom near our gates in terminal B. While there, I realized that I didn't have my coat and neither did our assistant! It was still back at security!

I, of course, started to panic!  He assured me it would be fine and that as soon as he took the other woman to her gate, he would come back and escort me to security to claim it. I stressed the necessity of my winter coat for our winter weather but he seemed unfazed by my concern. 

Since I wasn't sure of the way back, I had no choice but to wait - although I do feel that he could have had another staff person assist one of us. It was several minutes before he returned and a long walk back to security. We did use the moving sidewalks but regrettably. he had little training in assisting a visually impaired person as he grabbed my arm as we got on or off rather than having me take his!

Thankfully, the much needed coat was still there and I reclaimed it. On the walk back to the gate, I asked where I could refill my water bottle. He showed me a drinking fountain! It is impossible to fill a water bottle from the average drinking fountain!

Needless to say, his assistance was subpar at best! 

After I sat at the gate for awhile, I walked back to a Starbucks and got friendly assistance from the counter staff to get a snack and a new bottle of water.

At the gate and on my flight home, the WestJet staff were a refreshing welcome after the unnecessary stress of earlier! The flight attendants were very accommodating and friendly - engaging myself and others in conversation en route.

On landing in Winnipeg shortly after midnight, I was met by a WestJet rep who guided me through customs and collecting my luggage. A second rep (wearing a winter overcoat) helped me get a taxi and ensure my luggage was loaded. I was back in my apartment just before 1AM!

I could easily have been soured by my experience with the ground service assistance in Phoenix, but thankfully, the WestJet flight crews and those who assist on the ground in Calgary and here in Winnipeg, soared high above the expectations of many who travel!

Thank You WestJet! I hope I get to fly with you again!