El Portal, A Sedona Sanctuary
It’s the pulse of hospitality that quickens the memories of our time at El Portal Sedona. The luxury inn is an absolute haven of western charm right in the heart of Arizona’s Red Rock Country. Our hosts, Steve and Connie Segner welcomed us more as friends than guests. And others staying at the inn became neighbors as we sat around the courtyard “fire pot” at night sharing our lives and setting the world right.
During our four-day stay, we felt the magical, step-back-in-time experience the couple had envisioned when they built El Portal in 1996. Nostalgia flickered in the flames as we savored the rhythms of simpler times. Vintage metal chairs enlivened memories of our grandfathers sitting by the garden as their pipe smoke blended with the earthy scent of tomato vines. A classic glider transported me to the old neighborhood where fireflies twinkled as I rocked away the summer night with childhood friends. The memories were unexpected gifts, just a few of many, waiting for us at El Portal.
We arrived at the inn mid afternoon and were surprised to find a quiet respite in the center of Sedona, an artists' haven and the state's most popular tourist town. Vines climb and cling to adobe walls like they’ve been here forever. We were amazed to see such lush greenery and so many trees. An old Ford pickup, loaded with firewood, brimmed with potted petunias near the wrought iron gate that leads to the “portal.” These long covered porches protect southwestern homes from direct sunlight.
Ann, one of the concierges, met us in the main room, the “big room” as Steve calls it, and showed us around. Here, man and Mother Nature meet in the massive stone fireplace, exposed wood ceiling beams, and other natural wonders. We knew that cozying into the comfy sofa with a glass of wine was in our future.
We followed Ann to our second floor quarters, the Rim Room with spectacular views of red rocks peeking over the inn's massive chimney. The spacious room features hand-sculpted walls, a beamed ceiling, a snug alcove with a king-size bed and artsy headboard crafted from twisted juniper limbs and other rough-hewn furnishings. The bathroom, accented with copper, offers plenty of room with its huge shower and whirlpool tub. Original paintings of crimson formations and old trucks grace the walls. The natural flow of it all made us feel at home.
The Inn’s History
The next morning we met Steve in the big room for coffee. Sitting around the fireplace, he shared the history of the inn which was built true to the Arts and Crafts philosophy. He and Connie are quite passionate about this holistic movement (1860 to 1910) which emphasizes creativity and quality craftsmanship while harmonizing with the surrounding landscape. They went to great lengths to make the inn authentic. Everything here, including the original blueprints, comes with a story. They drew inspiration from the movie “Somewhere in Time,” a romantic time-travel fantasy, and turned back the clock at El Portal to create a genuine experience. The inn was patterned after the ranch house on the old TV show "Bonanza." Steve said, “We wanted the mid-1800s Ponderosa feel.”
Prior to building the inn, Steve and Connie lived in California and were in the pet care industry for several years. They worked long hours and were never home on weekends. Steve said, “It was time for a change. During a business trip, we fell in love with Sedona and decided to build a second home here.” They wanted to share their enchantment with others, and within a few years decided to sell their businesses and build a luxury inn. “We thought about the expectations of tourists who visualize Arizona’s cowboy towns. When traveling, we've noticed that hotels often have barriers and little atmosphere. Our idea was to provide an environment where guests could feel comfortable talking to each other like the old days, something more than hallways and plastic (key) cards.” he said. They wanted the inn to encompass the "spirit of the Southwest," and they also wanted it to be dog friendly. “Most clientele are over-50, empty nesters who travel with their dogs. Their pets are like family, so we wanted to accommodate all of them.”
A Perfect Setting
The couple purchased one of Sedona’s oldest properties, located near the banks of Oak Creek and adjacent to Tlaquepaque, a traditional Mexican village featuring world class arts and crafts. When building the inn, Steve approached the project like a set director. “I wrote a story about an imaginary family and gave it to the architects. The initial construction started small, with just one room. I wanted it to have the feel of time moving on, the family growing. Staying within the context of my vision, construction changed along the way,” he explained. To keep the land’s character and soul intact, they designed the courtyard around native plants which gives the impression that El Portal is rising right out of the land.
Everything here is connected to the natural world. The inn’s homegrown architecture features authentic 18-inch adobe walls throughout, local rock, and wood harvested from abandoned mines and a turn-of-the-century bridge. Steve wanted to be involved in the building process, so he learned woodworking skills from a master craftsman and hand-carved all the doors from 200-year-old wood. The doors have antique knobs and are accented with Art Nouveu stained glass, each one graced with motifs found in nature. The inn opened in 2002 -- a true labor of love.
Furnishings and accessories also reflect the Arts and Crafts ideals. Steve said these standards challenged shoddy products which were mass produced in the 19th century Victorian Era. “People opened their arms to the Industrial Revolution, to mass production, but before long they were replaced by machines. Creative trades, like woodworking, were dehumanized and it chewed up a lot of people. Craftsmen no longer had the opportunity to express themselves. It was a time when money was number one to the upper middle class who built elaborate homes with gingerbread trim and other fancy scrollwork. They had parlors, but not a lot of people were invited into their lives. Everything was very formal,” he said.
The Arts and Crafts leaders rebelled against all the fanciness. They stressed honest construction that was simple, comfortable, functional, and handcrafted to last. Hospitality was the cornerstone of daily living. "It was all about relationships. There was more interest in raising a family than showing off wealth or matching furniture. People were number one," Steve said.
El Portal reflects that sentiment. Guests are definitely number one here, and the eclectic furnishings are often mismatched. "I call it anal imperfection," Steve said. The fireplace is warm and inviting, and everything around has a human touch, sometimes so tender that it feels like a hug from the past. When asked about the furnishings, accents, or artwork, Steve is quick to offer a compelling history lesson. Ask about the Navaho rugs and he’ll take you through all phases of Navaho weaving and may even detour through buffalo migration. Ceiling beams are graced with stunning lights crafted from elk antlers. Delicate Tiffany art glass was melted and tied to the antlers with sinew. “It gives the vision of an elk dipping its antlers into a stream and coming up with a bunch of seaweed,” Steve expressed.
Dawn at El Portal
Ah, mornings in the courtyard, our rosy zone of contentment. The aroma of fresh coffee wafted through the inn shortly after daybreak and we’d sip a cup or two as hummingbirds ushered in the day. They seemed to have a pecking order while lapping at the feeders; their wee chirps turned into feisty trills when other hummers stopped by for a sweet sip. The faint scent of juniper from an evening fire lingered in the air. Steve had sprinklers going, making everything even more lush and green. It was comical to watch the finches flutter through the droplets on their way to feast on thistle seeds.
Before long, other guests joined us in the courtyard’s secluded haven. Most were accompanied by their docile dogs. Sara, who traveled from Southern California with her husband Mike, read the newspaper as “Monty” laid in the lawn’s dappled shade watching dessert lizards scamper across the stone. “When traveling with our dog, it’s often hard to find a nice place like this. Everyone here is so gracious, and many restaurants in Sedona are also dog friendly. Even the shop owners tell us to bring Monty in, but he has a pretty happy tail,” she said.
Oscar and Teresa from Paradise Valley, AZ enjoyed mornings in the courtyard as they showered “Misha,” their beloved friend and companion, with affection. The Sedona trip was a “special treat” for Misha,” according to Oscar. “She is over 15 years old now and El Portal was one of very few properties that accepted dogs and even permitted them in the dining area. We enjoy the relaxing atmosphere here, the peaceful and homely courtyard with hummingbird feeders, and perhaps most of all our friendly hosts, their staff and other guests," he said.
Our hostess, Connie, also brought “Boomer,” the family’s Golden Retriever, to the dining room each morning. Boomer seems to be El Portal’s canine ambassador; his gentle presence was a warm greeting to guests as they arrived for breakfast in the big room.
El Portal is well known for its gourmet breakfasts, a feast that’s also offered to locals and tourists who aren’t guest at the inn. Table settings reflect the room’s rustic décor with hand-forged silverware, Southwestern placemats and potted cactus centerpieces. The staff prepares each dish with fresh ingredients, offering entrees from Lemon Butternut Pancakes to Huevos Rancheros. Dan’s favorite was the El Portal Omelet, stuffed with double French Brie, applewood bacon, tomatoes and herbs. It came with a sweet-and-kicking raspberry chipotle sauce. I preferred the Sedona Scramble with Cheddar Jack, roasted peppers, tomatoes and smothered in homemade salsa and sour cream. Our entrees included taste-of-the-Southwest cowboy potatoes and warm tortillas. What a delicious way to start the day!
Out and About
The greatest challenge during our stay was trying to stick to a jam-packed agenda. It’s easy to see why visitors fall in love with this nature-crafted Red Rock Country. As we wound our way through Oak Creek Canyon, we were in absolute awe of the colorful formations that tower above the forest. The ethereal beauty goes beyond the amazing crimson rocks and blazing blue sky; there’s something so inspiring about this country that soothes the soul like a psalm.
We’d never been to the Sedona area, so we wanted to see the Grand Canyon, a two-hour drive, and Meteor Crater, an hour away in the other direction. No matter where we traveled, a heat haze danced above the pavement, hawks cloved the air, and the landscape kept changing along with the temperature. One minute we felt the eerie desolation and abandonment of a desert’s vast expanse, almost otherworldly, and the next we were driving through a thriving ponderosa pine forest.
Dan and I also spent one morning strolling around nearby Jerome, an old mining camp perched high on a hill, also known as the “City in the Sky.” That afternoon, we boarded a restored vintage train at Clarkdale for a scenic ride through Verde Canyon where bald eagles soared above the dramatic geological formations and ghostly ruins.
Sedona's Energy Centers
When planning our trip, we read about the “spirit of the Southwest” and several of Sedona’s energy centers, called “vortexes,” where swirls of energy come from the Earth’s magnetic core. One morning, we drove to a popular energy site, Airport Mesa, a few miles west of town. It only took a few minutes to reach the mesa’s top; the climb was well worth the panoramic view of Sedona and the splendid vistas of the red rock landmarks we’d read about – Coffee Pot Rock, Courthouse Butte, and others. Although we didn’t feel the earth's mystic power, there was something quite spiritual about the pageantry of earth meeting the sky just before sunrise and something nourishing about sitting beneath the dramatic twisted juniper limbs. And the climb was an invigorating way to start our busy day!
Relaxing in the Courtyard
It's not unusual for guests to over plan their time in Sedona, according to Steve. “People visualize a perfect vacation, yet they come with a hectic agenda. They want to see and do everything, but it’s important to build in more time to relax,” he said. That’s great advice, especially when staying at El Portal. It was hard to leave the peaceful setting, even for an adventure-filled day.
By late afternoon we were ready for a respite from our hectic agenda and looked forward to returning to the inn and the scent of fresh baked cookies. A lovely array of nibbles – cheeses, olives and fresh fruit – were also waiting for guests along with iced tea and lemonade. A nice variety of wines is available to purchase. We chose “Simple Life,” a Pinot Noir which seemed quite appropriate for relaxing a bit in the courtyard. As we headed out for dinner, Steve was often getting the evening fire started, using alligator juniper logs, the king of junipers from Arizona’s high country. (Check out Dan's feature on our dining experiences)
Evenings around the Fire
Our most memorable times were the evenings we sat around the fire pot’s golden glow simply chatting with other guests. The lively fire popped and crackled as conversations moved in and out of each other’s lives; the aromatic smoke was intoxicating – an earthy blend of pine and cedar mixed with a heavy dose of heaven.
In today’s fast-paced world, it was pretty amazing to find ourselves in an old-time environment, connecting to the past while savoring the moment over a glass of wine with other guests. We shared our appreciation for the inn’s rich, multi-cultural architectural history, its meticulous attention to detail, and our hosts' passion to share their masterpiece with us. One couple, Ryan and Jamie, were on their way to a California Marine base where their child would soon be born. Their little dog, “Tucker,” sat nearby as Ryan talked about the complimentary basket and cozy blanked our hosts had provided for their companion. Some guests were excited about the red rock tours they’d taken at sunset with Steve or his staff. This back country adventure will certainly top our list of “things to do” during our next Sedona visit.
As Steve said during one of our chats, “People who come here want to connect with others.” Yes, but just as important, the inn's oasis of calm gives guests a chance to connect to themselves. We found Sedona to be a memorable destination, but it was our time at El Portal that put the ‘good life” into the trip.
For more information about El Portal Sedona and its 12 luxury suites, visit http://www.elportalsedona.com/ or call (800) 313-0017. To watch in-depth video's of the inn's architectural history, check out the Alchemy of Architecture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SJw0mRmzvo; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=459UXF5jmes&feature=relmfu; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iiKw5e120Hg&feature=relmfu; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSixtZK8irk&feature=relmfu
Read more about sunset jeep tours with Sun Country Adventures at http://scadventures.net/ or call (800) 313-0017.