Williams, Ariz., also known as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon, was the last city on Route 66 to be bypassed by the Interstate Highway System. On Oct. 13, 1984, Interstate 40 opened and Route 66 through Williams was forgotten — almost. Over the years, Williams refused to turn its back on the Mother Road and has instead embraced Route 66. Dozens of businesses have been remodeled, and the historic downtown has been revamped, with new gift shops, restaurants and classic roadside motels all paying homage to America's Main Street. The tab: a king suite at the Lodge on Route 66 is $165, and dinner for two at Cruiser's comes to about $46. And items at Cruiser's Gift Shop, well, how can you go wrong with a Route 66 coffee mug for $9.95?
The Lodge on Route 66 (200 E. Route 66, Williams; (877) 563-4366, http://www.thelodgeonroute66.com) bills itself as the only upscale luxury Route 66 motel in Williams. It's the dream child of Rob Samsky, who bought the vintage building in 2002 after it was slated for demolition. Samsky and his family gutted and rebuilt every room, sometimes combining rooms into suites. After two years, the dream was realized, and the lodge became part of Williams' downtown renaissance. The splurge on a luxurious king suite is well worth a few extra dollars.
You'll find several interesting options downtown, but we went Route 66 all the way. After checking out some possibilities, we decided to get our kicks at Cruiser's Cafe 66 (233 W. Route 66, Williams; (928) 635-2445, http://www.cruisers66.com). Bathed in pink and blue neon, we dined on juicy baby back ribs and beef brisket accompanied by sweet and smoky barbecue sauce. Cole slaw, baked beans and corn on the cob rounded out the entrée. Washed down with an excellent Black Iron IPA from the Grand Canyon Brewing Co. next door, it made for a tasty, if not exactly sophisticated, meal.
The restaurant at Cruiser's is only part of the story. Cruiser's gigantic gift shop is chockablock with Ford, Chevrolet and, of course, Route 66 memorabilia. T-shirts, tote bags, coffee mugs, license plates, road signs, mouse pads, shot glasses, key chains, bottle openers and jewelry can all be found inside. If you're looking for a Route 66 memento and can't find it here, chances are you won't find it anywhere.
The lesson learned
By day, Williams is empty because visitors head off in all directions: Lake Powell, Sedona, the Navajo Nation and, of course, the Grand Canyon by way of the Grand Canyon Railway. By night, it comes alive as people return from their day trips and congregate in the historic downtown. In the last decade, it has become the quintessential spot for soda fountains, classic cars, neon lights and all things Route 66. It represents a time when — as one of the characters in Disney-Pixar's "Cars" pointed out — cars didn't drive to make great time, they drove to have a great time. Nighttime in downtown Williams is all about a great time. In fact, historic Williams at night is as close as you'll come to a real-life Radiator Springs.