Phoenix, Arizona: Classic Cars, Desert Gardens, and Hot Air Balloons

For the past few years, my mother and I have taken an annual girls’ trip in search of beautiful flowers. We’ve visited Biltmore Estate with its springtime gardens and timeless greenhouse, and this year we took our second trip to Disney World for the annual Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. In all my life, however, I’ve never taken a father-daughter trip with my dad.

I set out to rectify that this year and left the destination up to him. He chose Phoenix, Arizona, and I booked the tickets without delay.

Jun Kaneko sculpture on display at the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

My dad is a planner, so there was a spreadsheet filled with activities for every day of our stay well before we left. Dad’s priority was tracking down classic cars, mine was to see desert blooms, and we both wanted great food.

Our first stop was the Martin Auto Museum, a privately-owned, nonprofit entity founded by Phoenix real estate developer Mel Martin to showcase his personal collection of vintage vehicles.


While he’s owned a variety of incredible cars in his life, my father is a longtime Corvette enthusiast who met my mother thanks to Chattanooga‘s Scenic City Corvette Club. As the story goes, he visited my grandparents’ home back in the day to pick up paperwork from my aunt Shirley, the secretary of the club, who owned a 1969 Corvette convertible of her own. (Let the record show that she was the first woman in the State of Tennessee to purchase a Corvette for herself, and it was cherry red with both tops, if you please.) My mother answered the door when my father rang, and the rest was history.

Therefore, if there is an automobile museum with a decent Corvette collection within a reasonable driving distance, DPCS Daniel D. Smith, Sr. (Ret.), will be there, thank you very much. As will his daughter.


Mel Martin founded his Phoenix museum a decade ago in a nondescript commercial building on a frontage road along the state highway. It’s now five showrooms featuring more than 60 vehicles, ranging from an 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen to a 1930 convertible Duesenberg “J” Boattail Speedster that formerly transported Al Capone to a 1992 Lister Corvette to a 2000 Pontiac Bonneville that set a 204 mph world record for a front-wheel drive sedan.

A 1965 Shelby Cobra, once owned by Carroll Shelby and bearing his autograph on the dashboard, on display at Phoenix’s Martin Auto Museum
My father’s choice from the Martin Auto Museum in Phoenix, if he could add it to his personal auto collection

I have to confess that I wasn’t looking forward to visiting the auto museum. It’s one of those things you do for your parents, right?

Actually, I have to admit that it was considerably more enjoyable than I expected. The quantity and variety of cars on display, not to mention the garage signage, movie memorabilia, and other items of interest were truly engaging, and the volunteer staff were quite charming and incredibly knowledgable. If you like cars at all, or love someone who does, it’s worth spending a couple of hours there.

Plus, a general thank you goes out to the Chevrolet Division of General Motors Company and the enduring sex appeal of the Chevy Corvette for my conception. Much appreciated.

After that much muscle car and parental romantic reminiscence, only the thorny cacti of Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden would do.


As any native Phoenix garden should, the city’s botanic garden is filled with beautiful plants that can thrive happily in a desert environment. Flowering cacti abound — as do bougainvillea, succulents, firebush, palmetto, palms, and sunflowers — and so do hummingbirds, frogs, owls, roadrunners, and lizards. And so very, very many beautiful butterflies.

Another of the delightful Jun Kaneko sculptures on display at the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

DSC_0088When he first began filling out his Phoenix trip spreadsheet, my father asked me how I felt about a sunrise hot air balloon ride. If you’ve read our post about the hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, then you knew my answer.


However, if one is on one’s first father-daughter trip of a lifetime, and one’s father says he wants to take a sunrise hot air balloon ride, one takes the balloon ride.


It was literally night and day from the Egyptian experience.

Our wonderful Hot Air Expeditions driver, Gary, himself a licensed hot air balloon pilot, taught us so much about the requirements for balloon pilots in the States. We also learned a lot about the balloons themselves, which each hold 20 passengers (as opposed to Egypt’s 36-plus passenger baskets) and weigh 1800 lbs. when they’re empty of riders and have a full load of propane fuel.

There are 30 launch sites in the Phoenix area, all of which are weather dependent, and we took off from a site named Thunder Alley with Captain Tommy.


An idyllic ride over Phoenix followed by a champagne brunch was just thing to cap off a wonderful first father-daughter adventure. And that doesn’t even begin to describe the delight that was the Scottsdale food tour and the other wonderful meals we shared on this trip! It’s definitely an annual occurrence from now on.

First father-daughter sunrise hot air balloon ride taking off (and successfully landing) in Phoenix