One morning I awakened just before sunrise and pulled on my hiking boots. Half a mile from the resort where I was staying, Pinnacle Peak rose up toward the heavens, and I couldn’t wait to climb to the top. As the sky grew lighter in the east, I scurried across the desert to the trailhead and began my climb, passing huge boulders and an occasional suguaro cactus, shadowy forms along the trail. Just as I needed to pause and catch my breath, the sun crested the horizon, and everything glowed in a warm pink light.
The view was spectacular: Phoenix to the west, Scottsdale to the south, and all around me suguaro cacti and palo verde trees lent a soft green hue to the harsh landscape—harsh, that is if you don’t count the million-dollar homes and lush golf courses that are slowly but surely invading the desert.
I visited Phoenix and her sister city, Scottsdale, last November to learn what all the fuss was about. As one of the fastest-growing regions, the Phoenix metro area has a population of about 3.5 million. Census experts predict millions more will head to this haven in the desert in the next two decades. So what’s the deal?
After a few days of pleasurable research, the answer was clear. Phoenix has it all. Whether you’re looking for an awesome place to while away a few days or a new location to enjoy your retirement, you’ll find amazing amenities in the region, all adding up to a quality of life that’s pure pleasure.
• Weather – You gotta love the weather—at least for eight or nine months of the year. Except for summertime, when the sun glares down and temps regularly peak in the 100s, the climate the rest of the year is heavenly. Cobalt blue skies, warm sun, and low humidity provide the perfect setting for your favorite pursuits.
• Outdoor Recreation – There are tons of things to do outdoors, and, judging from the healthy folks I saw on Pinnacle Peak, all this outdoor activity is a good way to stay fit and trim. Besides hiking on various trails in the region, horseback riding is a popular pastime. One lovely morning I saddled up a palomino named Yellow Jacket at Koli Equestrian Center near Wild Horse Pass and joined Jeffrey, my trail guide, and Sue, a more experienced rider from Britain. After we ambled a while, Sue wanted to canter, and Jeffrey asked me if I was up for it. “Sure,” I said. Next thing I knew Yellow Jacket bolted after Sue’s horse, Lobo. I grabbed the saddle horn and held on tight. A few bone-wrenching bounces later, I decided I wasn’t cut out to be a cowgirl. “Whoa!” I shouted. The palomino slowed to a stroll as Jeffery trotted up and said, “Mebbe we’ll just walk for a while.” I smiled gratefully. Riding on the range in slow motion was just my speed.
• Spa – The Phoenix area must have invented destinations spas—or at least perfected them. Some of the world’s most divine spas are sprinkled among the red rock mountains and offer more than just relaxing spa treatments. They offer an escape from reality. Willow Stream at Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, for example, invites you to “find your energy” at its 44,000 square foot facility, which features a private rooftop oasis pool. After my “East Meets West” stone massage, I couldn’t wait to sit under the waterfall that flows down from the pool. Time stopped while the warm currents cascaded over my shoulders, washing away my worries. When I left Willow Stream, I felt relaxed and energized at the same time.
• Shopping – What better state to begin a shopping expedition? And Phoenix has shopping venues for all tastes and budgets. If you’re seeking authentic Southwestern art and unique boutiques, head to Downtown Scottsdale, a cozy neighborhood with over 400 galleries and shops. Other options include Biltmore Fashion Park and Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix. Or for those who love to bargain, visit one of the area’s flea markets, known in the Southwest as Swap Meets. Along with a few good deals, you’ll find colorful characters ready to share a story or two.
• Golf – While I’ve never golfed—unless you count putt-putt, that is—I was tempted to pick up a club and swing in Phoenix. The metro area features 200+ courses, earning it the title “Golf Capital of the World,” according to the National Golf Federation. While greens fees can be steep, those in the know golf in summer in the early morning hours and enjoy fabulous golf for a reasonable price.
• Cuisine – It should come as no surprise that an area as alluring as Phoenix is also home to world-class dining establishments. For example, Wright’s at the Biltmore offers “handcrafted” American lodge cuisine in a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired atmosphere. During my visit I ordered the tasting menu, an sublime five-course meal that began with lobster and truffle corn soup that dazzled my taste buds. Next I relished flavorful smoked beef carpacio, followed by a delicate salad of mizuna and tomato marmalade. The main course was a prime New York loin encrusted in pepper, served rare and juicy. A chocolate macadamia tort, smooth and silky, provided the perfect finish. After dinner, I strolled through the grounds of the legendary Arizona Biltmore, a majestic masterpiece designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Another evening I dined at Kai, a five-diamond restaurant at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass. An elegant room with soft light, taupe tones, and minimalist decor set the stage for an amazing meal I’ll never forget. The tasting menu offered creative combinations of familiar foods and traditional Native American ingredients. Peeky-toe crab with grilled papaya relish began the meal and a fire-roasted corn brulée took the final bow. Everything in between was a culinary work of art—both in the presentation and flavor. Besides the inspiring food and the elegant surroundings, the service at Kai was unequalled—from the Pima greeting the waiter welcomed me with to the story he told based on the original watercolor painting that graced the menu. Such an over-the-top dining experience is worth indulging in at least once in your life.
• Arts – Phoenix has more than its fair share of arts offerings. From acclaimed art museums to theater and performing arts, you’ll find plenty to keep you entertained. I recommend a visit to Taliesin West to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter “camp,” which also serves as a campus of his architectural school. Pam, our tour guide, said that Mr. Wright designed the buildings to take advantage of nature’s beauty. “He thought it was important to live with beauty,” she explained. As I wandered around Taliesin West, I gained a new respect for this much-maligned genius, whose work remains groundbreaking.
• Culture – Phoenix’s world-famous Heard Museum showcases Native American art and history. The katsina dolls, a mesmerizing collection of brightly painted wooden figures portraying spiritual messengers are a must-see. Another cultural attraction is Rawhide at Wild Horse Pass, an authentic Western frontier town that invites visitors to see the Wild West come to life—perfect for families.
• Destination Resorts – Ever since The Arizona Biltmore opened in 1929, this region has been known for its over-the-top resorts. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find such a concentration of luxurious resorts anywhere. My favorites are Arizona Biltmore; Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale, in a secluded spot beside Pinnacle Peak; Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, perfect for families and golfers; Hotel Valley Ho, popular with visiting Hollywood types; and finally Sheraton Wild Horse Pass, located on the Gila River reservation and steeped in Indian culture. The resort even has a cultural concierge, Ginger Sunbird Martin, who highlights the history of the Pima and Maricopa tribes during property tours for guests.
In autumn, the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass offers Native American storytelling. One evening Tim Terry, a member of the Gila River community, shared songs and stories around a crackling fire as the sun dipped behind the distant mountain range. My favorite was a tale about Baby Cloud, who tended to wander off from Mama and Papa Cloud. One day a mean mountain captured Baby Cloud and wouldn’t let him go until he promised not to wander off again.
I can’t imagine why Baby Cloud left in the first place.
For more information:www.arizonabiltmore.com