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Whether you motor east or motor west on Interstate 8, you will find the friendly town of Yuma a delightful surprise and a hubbub of activities for all ages. Bordered by California, the Colorado River, and the country of Mexico, this southern Arizona jewel welcomes everyone: road-tripping travelers, retirees, and those who are looking for fun, family-oriented vacations.
Yuma also claims the Guinness World Records Title of “The Sunniest Place on Earth,” attracting not only snowbirds from throughout the United States, but also from our neighbor to the north, Canada. This dry, sunny climate supports a thriving agri-business, which is celebrated by the annual two-day festival, “Yuma Lettuce Days.” I was fortunate to join my fellow members of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) the last weekend in February for a Yuma Lettuce Days Media Visit, hosted by the Yuma Visitors Bureau, VisitYuma.
Situated halfway between San Diego and Phoenix, Yuma is an easy three-hour drive from either city. We began our Yuma weekend adventure by checking into the Historic Coronado Motor Hotel, formerly one of the oldest Best Western motels in the country. Independently owned and operated by John and Yvonne Peach, the hotel was built in 1938 by John’s parents, Czechoslovak immigrants. Its original claim to fame is that the hotel is built on the site where the first airplane, piloted by Robert G. Fowler, landed in Arizona, on October 25, 1911. The Spanish architecture, glistening pools, and the convenience of being able to park our car right in front of the door to our room, recalled fond memories of pleasant childhood family vacations. Along with a coffee machine, there was a microwave, mini-fridge, and for a touch of whimsy, the towels were shaped into two swans. In keeping with the owners’ “green” philosophy, large dispensers of soap, shampoo, and conditioner were in the bathroom rather than the usual, and often wasteful, individual plastic bottles. www.CoronadoMotorHotel.com.
The Yuma Landing Bar and Grill is part of the property, and included in the price of the room is a full cooked-to-order breakfast: bacon, eggs, hash browns, and coffee. Lunch and dinner are also served at the restaurant. The Hanger Sports Bar at Yuma Landing is the gathering place of sports fans, and mixologist Heather Witherington is a master at her craft. In keeping with the aviation theme, Ms. Witherington created The Hanger Martini, which contains Hangar 1 Vodka, dry Vermouth, and a splash of olive juice. www.YumaLanding.com.
The hotel’s museum, Casa de Coronado, is housed in the original lobby and early residence of the Peach family. Visitors are transported back in time with memorabilia exhibiting the history of Yuma and the Best Western Motel, along with the era’s furniture, clothing and millinery. There is a complete bathroom with authentic furnishings, and a kitchen with antique kitchen accessories and cookbooks written in the Czech language. The Best Western room, formerly John Peach’s childhood bedroom, contains antique adding machines and the original motel training tapes. Most impressive is the care and time that Yvonne Peach has invested in preserving this historical legacy.
Yuma’s historic downtown area has charming shops and choice dining. For international flavor, there is the River City Grill. The menu showcases Caribbean, Indian, Mediterranean, and Pacific Rim dishes, along with gluten-free and vegetarian options. This includes regional selections such as Jamaican jerk chicken, coconut curried chicken, clams linguine, and wasabi ahi. I ordered the Indian curried shrimp, which was delectable. The restaurant’s patio is refreshingly breezy in the evening. www.Rivercitygrillyuma.com
For lovers of all things German – fabulous food, strong beer, and lively oompah-pah music – there is Das Bratwurst Haus. This is comfort food with a capital “C.” Besides the classic dishes of bratwurst, sauerbraten, spätzle, and sauerkraut, they serve an array of schnitzel: traditional Weiner; Jäger, with a mushroom, butter, and cream sauce; Zigeuner, with peppers, bacon, and red wine; and Cordon Bleu with ham and Swiss cheese. Owner Barbara Bowles makes the desserts fresh each day. My to-die-for dessert picks? The Black Forest cake and the apple strudel. This restaurant is also popular with the Blue Angels when they are stationed nearby. On the evening we dined here, we were fortunate to have a chance encounter with the first female Blue Angel, Marine Capt. Katie Higgins. A third generation aviator, she is the flight commander of a C-130 Hercules, fondly referred to as “Fat Albert.” www.dasbratwursthaus.com
Wine enthusiasts can enjoy wine tasting with paninis, pizza, wraps, and cheese plates at Yuma’s only winery, Yuma’s Main Squeeze Winery. Flavorful red wines are produced from the grapes imported from California, Washington, New Zealand, Italy, and Argentina. Using grapes imported from Washington, Australian, New Zealand, and Germany, the winery produces fresh white wines. Fruit wines are a specialty. The Pomegranate Wildberry Zin is a fruity yin-yang of flavor - sweet and tart. www.yumasmainsqueeze.com
The Quechan tribe, Spanish explorers, early settlers, and California gold rush miners were drawn to Yuma Crossing because large granite outcroppings narrowed the river, making the untamed Colorado River easier to cross. The Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, a National Landmark, features riverfront parks, waterside trails, museums, and a former prison straight out of the Old Wild West. The Yuma Territorial Prison, now a state historic park, was built in 1876 by the labor of the prisoners themselves. Over 3,000 prisoners were incarcerated at the prison during its three-decade operation, including 20 women. The most notorious female inmate was Pearl Hart, who had the distinction of committing one of the last stagecoach robberies. From 1910 until 1914, the prison served as the temporary location for Yuma High School, after a fire destroyed their original school building. And, of course the school’s mascot became The Criminals. www.yumaprison.org
The conservation and preservation of Yuma Crossing is the result of collaboration with government and members of the community, including the Quechen tribe. The area is managed by a local non-profit entity, www.yumaheritage.com. This splendid reclaimed area along the river has been restored with indigenous grasses and trees, and visitors will discover it has become a playground for photographers, cyclists, boaters, hikers, birders, and anyone who takes pleasure in a beautiful environmental setting.
Yuma Lettuce Days is an annual celebration of Yuma’s winter harvest, held at the University of Arizona Agricultural Center, a working research farm. As the “winter vegetable capital of the world,” Yuma enjoys an agricultural trifecta: an abundance of sunshine with frost-free winters, millennia of fertile soil enrichment courtesy of the Colorado River, and an efficient irrigation system courtesy of river management. I was surprised to learn that Yuma supplies over 90 percent of all the leafy greens consumed in the United States from November to March. The festival has an area set aside for a U-harvest garden, where one can pick lettuce and other vegetables. Supporting the harvest field are master gardeners, trained volunteer educators from UA Cooperative Extension who assist with plant care by teaching classes, diagnosing horticultural problems, and promoting an understanding of the land and its bounty. Volunteers at the floral station demonstrate not only how to arrange flowers, but also give tips on how to make the flowers last.
There are arts and crafts activities, mazes, a petting farm, and a rock-climbing wall for the children, and cooking demonstrations, beer tasting, and comestible shopping for the adults. Western Foods sponsors the Recipe Box, which features tastings from local restaurants. Michael Cairns, chef at the Omni Scottsdale Resort and Spa in Phoenix was this year’s celebrity chef, showcasing Yuma’s fresh produce in his cooking presentations. The chef’s take-away advice: Most fruits continue to ripen and develop more flavor after they’ve been picked. But vegetables, on the other hand, deteriorate quickly, so they should be eaten or cooked soon after harvesting. Integral to the produce harvest in the Yuma Valley are the field workers, and Pasquinelli Produce sponsors a Salud to the Field Workers to recognize these agricultural workers with a church service, art exhibit, poetry readings, storytelling, and essay contests.
Another pleasant surprise is that the Yuma Valley is one of the world’s largest producers of Medjool dates, so a visit to Lettuce Days would not be complete without a date shake. Along with Urias Farm Dates www.uriasfarm.com, additional vendors are: Desert Olive Farms www.desertolivefarms.com, The Peanut Patch www.peanutpatch.com, and Bare Naked Yuma: Sunny Yuma in a Soap www.barenakedsoapco.com.
During the months of January and February, Yuma offers Field to Feast morning tours by local growers, which culminate in a lunch prepared by Arizona Western College culinary students. The next foodie festival is Tunes & Tacos held the weekend of April 8th–9th, which will have two People’s Choice competitions - Salsa Queen and Taco King. Check out the Yuma Visitors calendar for more fun and exciting events. http://www.visityuma.com/events.html You will find that wherever your interests lie, hospitality reigns in this friendly Arizona oasis on the Colorado River.
Special thanks to: John & Yvonne Peach, Coronado Motor Hotel; Leslie McClendon and Ann Walker, Yuma Visitors Bureau; Charles Flynn, Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area; and Lisa Diane Smith and Nancy Reid, Big Blend Magazine.
Photography by Linda Milks