A few years ago, when a series of health crises sent me into a whirl of alternative-medicine panaceas — meditation, chi gong, hypnosis — a friend laughed and told me, “Sounds like soon you will be living in Sedona.”
The fabled red rocks of Sedona, Ariz., which the local tourism bureau modestly calls the most beautiful place on Earth, has long been a haven for spiritual seekers of all stripes — from the indigenous peoples whose culture still pervades the region to New Age hippies, spa-goers seeking rejuvenation, and an eclectic community of Jews.
It’s easy for New Yorkers to poke gentle fun at all the crystals, the dream catchers and the modern fetish for ancient wisdom. But it’s far harder to resist the very real feeling of awe that comes with the presence of such stunning natural scenery, especially in the crisp desert winter.
Blazing-red rocks in striking, sculptural formations are the backdrop for this town of about 10,000 nestled into the Verde Valley (which locals pronounce to rhyme with birdie). Despite the arid setting, Verde Valley is really as green as its name — at least by desert standards. Oak Creek, which flows through Sedona’s valley and canyons, nourishes a profusion of bushy, bright-green trees; set against the brilliant russet mesas and the blazing, bright-blue sky, those trees lend a vivid singularity to this Technicolor landscape.
In fact, Sedona is increasingly popular as a spot for Jewish destination weddings and bar mitzvahs, according to the Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley. Deliberately non-affiliated to be as inclusive as possible, JCSVV occupies a spectacular setting in the desert just outside town, where its Star of David roof is visible amid towering red-rock spires.
Most visitors arrive by car from Phoenix, about two hours away. But it’s worthwhile to drive around the tiny Sedona airport, because Airport Road — just southwest of town — is among the most popular of local excursions, offering panoramic views over the valley and hills from a small mesa park. (Hikers will find the area larded with trails, but anyone with four wheels can take in the breathtaking scenery as well.)
Winter is high season in Arizona, though with nights that dip below freezing, Sedona is considerably cooler than the state’s major cities. High up in the northern Sonora Desert — roughly 4,000 feet, four times the elevation of Phoenix — Sedona boasts a vast, pitch-black night sky that has attracted legions of stargazers.
But Sedona, which aspires to be an arts community on the level of Santa Fe, has plenty of indoor attractions.
Jewish music is a highlight of Sedona Winter MusicFest, a weeklong festival in early January sponsored by Chamber Music Sedona. “Klezmer!” — at the Jewish Community of Sedona — is the festival’s marquee Jewish event; it combines a variety of klezmer forms with “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Bold,” a work by the Argentine-Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov, and a pre-concert talk by clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein. Soviet-born and Israeli-raised, Fiterstein — a co-director of the festival — is a well-known proponent of fusing Eastern European Jewish idioms with chamber music.
Concerts, films and master classes continue throughout the week at venues around Sedona. Chamber Music Sedona ensures that throughout the year, quality live music — including a Mexican brass quintet playing Leonard Bernstein in February — is as much a part of desert life as chakra healing and peace retreats.
It’s visual art, though, that has long defined Sedona’s cultural scene. The town hosts no fewer than 80 galleries showcasing every permutation of fine art, from hand-blown glass to Native American turquoise and paintings inspired by local landscapes. Many of these galleries cluster in a district along Highway 179, and many more are nearby in Tlaquepaque, a kind of ersatz Mexican village that is as enjoyable as it is touristy.
Wind chimes echo through quiet courtyards and patios of Tlaquepaque, where the architecture — arched doorways, Old World fountains and pretty blue tile — evokes a Spanish-colonial mission. With its red-tile roofs and lush plantings on the waters of Oak Creek, the village oozes upscale romance and is a popular setting for Sedona wedding pictures.
On the first Friday of each month, you can hop a trolley around the various gallery districts for live music and open-house art tours, sponsored by the Sedona Gallery Association. And if you’re wandering the galleries of the Uptown neighborhood — Sedona’s older, northern section — you can stop into the Sedona Heritage Museum for a bit of local context. Located in a rustic, frontier-style historic house, the museum is set in a verdant park in the shadow of those red rocks — the very setting that continues to inspire new generations of artists and seekers, Jewish and otherwise.