In June this year, I had a fabulous time driving around the American Southwest or Desert Southwest with my Arizonian cousins (I was mostly navigator/Google maps reader because I hate driving on the wrong side of the road). We travelled in Arizona from Phoenix to Winslow, then on to Sante Fe in New Mexico and back through Taylor (Arizona), to our starting point Phoenix.

I have actually seen quite a bit of Arizona already (Grand Canyon, Sedona, Jerome, Williams, Nowhere, Route 66) because my cousin Shereen Thomas has lived there for the last two decades. This time around we wanted to go somewhere we hadn’t been before and decided on making Winslow one of our destinations simply because it is mentioned in one of our favourite band’s songs.

The song? Take It Easy. The band? The Eagles.

It’s a tourist hotspot – the Standin’ On The Corner Park opened in 1999 – that commemorates the Eagles song (written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey). The song includes the verse, “Well, I’m a standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona and such a fine sight to see. It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.”

Okay that may betray my age a little but hey, I think it was the first time we travelled to a place specifically because it was in a song.

Then it came to picking our accommodation and we settled on another first.

Having scoured through Airbnb for unusual places to stay which were also family friendly and affordable (RM312 per night for four of us), we excitedly settled on The Haven – described as an incomparable space in a vintage church.

For sure, I had never stayed in a church before, and the idea intrigued me. Browsing through photos on Airbnb and reading up about the host, Sondra Purcell, “a retired business owner who has found an exciting new life hosting guests in her repurposed church building and bungalow”, we were not quite sure what to expect. But when we got there, the beautiful building took our breath away.

Purcell has put so much of her heart and soul into decorating and furnishing the church to make it not just comfortable and clean, but a joy to live in. She has been careful to treat the building with so much respect and love, you almost feel like you’ve been gifted the chance to stay there.

The Haven is described as “a unique apartment in a cozy, repurposed church in the heart of Winslow. Its soaring wooden arches and adobe walls help deliver that getaway feeling you’ve been needing”. Adjacent to it is a smaller, renovated apartment called The Sanctuary (with a steeple library upstairs!). Available together, the apartments can accommodate up to eight guests.

church

Look out for the beautiful vintage piano and a wonderfully quaint kaleidoscope at The Haven.

The Haven, which we stayed in, was full of antique furniture, an old piano, bookcases, wooden dining table, antique bureau, interesting fabrics from all over the world, luxurious carpets, fascinating wall hangings, a Victorian sofa, vintage magazines, a collector’s kaleidoscope, curious lampshades and just knick-knacks that Purcell has picked up from everywhere (think antique shops, consignment shops, Goodwill, junk stores, yard sales, Craigslist, Etsy).

It was so fascinating a place to be at, we didn’t want to leave. And Purcell was as beguiling as her lodging space.

church

Sondra Purcell with the writer.

The South Dakota-born, Illinois-raised woman is so full of infectious energy you feel it as soon as you meet her. She gave us a grand tour of both the apartments and even welcomed us into her own home which is annexed to The Haven – I believe she called it the hall in which refreshments were served to parishioners back in the day.

Purcell told me that she has always been interested in interior design and architecture. “I believe I acquired these interests from my father who was always doing woodwork or upholstering or repainting the rooms in our small house.”

Purcell was so friendly, before long she was showing us pictures of her family, her beloved dog (for whom she has erected a shrine of sorts) and sharing meditation tips she picked up while travelling in India.

I later learnt that she had grown up in Waukegan, a small factory town north of Chicago which had a diverse population.

church

The Haven is full of lovely little curios which Sondra Purcell has sourced from everywhere.

She told me in an email later: “That diversity truly informed my life – there were 42 students in my 8th grade class and 19 nationalities! How lucky was I? Armenian, Latvian, Polish, Turkish, African American, Mexican, Scot, Polish, German, Finn – truly an American melting pot. I wish each child could have such an education … I learned so much about the world and it’s people. This was during World War II.”

Purcell is such an amazing soul, I think part of the joy of living at The Haven was having met her. She related that she had once wanted to be an actress after dropping out of college and spent a summer with a tent show, travelling to 19 midwest towns in 19 weeks when she was 20.

She also lived in Europe for more than a decade with her late husband and their three children, who grew up there. You’ll quickly learn that she is interested in everything – history, theatre, opera, music, dogs, grandkids, books, art, design, the environment, travel, meditation and food – and both The Haven and The Sanctuary are soaked in all things that delight Purcell.

“I always have had my eye out for uniqueness, regardless of size, content or structure. I bought the best of whatever I saw that was within a reasonable price for my budget. I did not collect a certain decorating style, but bought what appealed to me, what called me. Over the years, the unusual became a style of its own: what Sondra loved.”

Indeed, if anyone is wondering why they should visit Winslow, Arizona, I would say other than the usual tourist attractions – it’s right off Route 66, features the historic district of La Posada and the very Instagram-worthy Standin’ On The Corner park – one of the best things about Winslow for me, was the opportunity to stay at a church for the first time, and befriend its vivacious host who has taken an old building and filled it with a new joy.