You may think the new year begins January 1, but for Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community, the new year starts with the summer solstice when the saguaro fruit ripens. The ripe fruit also signals that summer rains loom, providing life-giving water to the desert people. Seems appropriate to begin a new year when the things that sustain us—food and water—become readily available.
My husband and I are just outside Phoenix, taking a tour of Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass with Rosie Rivera, cultural manager and a Pima, one of the ancestral Indian tribes of this region. I’ve stayed at the property before, but Peter’s here for the first time. This luxury resort, owned and managed by the Gila River Indian Community, is surrounded by desert and has become one of my favorite resorts. Peter agrees that the landscape and cultural emphasis give it a unique vibe.
After spending a few days on a ranch in Tucson, we are exploring Arizona’s vibrant capital region. Phoenix is known for its golf courses and luxury spas, but the city also offers world-class museums and a vibrant downtown scene—plus cowboy culture and more. So grab your comfy shoes and let’s go exploring.
Back at the Sheraton Grand, Rosie points out native artifacts in the resort’s art collection. In one display case are ceramic pots made by the Maricopa people, who together with the Pima comprise the Gila River community. Another exhibit contains baskets hand-woven by Pima members. Colorful murals decorate the walls and ceilings of the resort, highlighting the community’s history and cultural traditions.
These traditions continue today. Rosie points out a creosote bush as we walk to the spa and tells the story of a meeting planner who arrived in advance of a convention and became ill with the flu. Rosie made him a creosote tea, and he felt better almost immediately. “It tastes bad,” she said with an apologetic smile. “But it works great for colds and the flu.”
Local herbs and ingredients are incorporated in the treatments offered at Aji Spa, a serene desert escape which epitomizes the spa experience in my book. We say goodbye to Rosie, and Peter heads off to relax by one of the resort’s sparkling pools. Meanwhile I enter into Aji’s tranquil haven for a signature spa treatment: The Four Directions, which features a body scrub with blue corn meal, pomegranate, salt, and honey. The ingredients represent north, south, east, and west we well as elements of nature.
I melt into the moment as my therapist, Natasha, applies the sweet-smelling mixture. The scrub causes a pleasant, tingling sensation on my skin, and after Natasha rinses me with a Vichy shower, we move to a new room, where she applies a moisturizer that has an herbaceous aroma. Afterwards I relax in the sauna and steam room and meet a few ladies who are on a girlfriend getaway. I can’t imagine a better destination to chill with friends and enjoy all the amenities this property has to offer.
Kai, the resort’s four-diamond restaurant, features a menu rich in creativity, history, and Native American culture and highlights locally farmed ingredients from the Gila River Indian Community. We join Natalie Davis, the resort’s marketing coordinator, for a revelatory dining experience that lingers in my memory even now. We choose the chef’s tasting menu, and decadent courses—foie gras, elk, buffalo—float dreamily to our table, coordinated by impeccably trained servers who allow plenty of time to savor each bite. I love taking my time in restaurants. Too often I feel rushed by servers who swoop in and remove plates before I’m even finished chewing. Not so here. Dining at Kai allows us to be in the moment and taste all the love and care that Chef de Cuisine Ryan Swanson and his team have imparted to the food. No wonder Kai has been named one of OpenTable’s Ten Best Restaurants in America.
HARMONIZE WITH NATURE
The desert landscape greatly influenced the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who built his organic home, Taliesin West, in nearby Scottsdale. On a tour of the property, we learn that Wright’s mother put pictures of cathedrals on the walls of his nursery to encourage his interest in architecture. As a boy, Wright worked on a farm, which instilled in him a deep, abiding love of nature.
Wright’s desire to harmonize with nature is a driving force behind his designs. For example, he used natural materials and always built structures to fit the land instead of the other way around. Wright also “designed for democracy,” a new style featuring open floor plans and naturally flowing rooms. Architecture intrigues me, so even though I’ve visited Taliesin West before, I leave feeling inspired.
For more inspiration, Peter and I head over to Phoenix’s state-of-the-art Musical Instrument Museum, which opened in 2010 and houses more than 6500 musical instruments. You can spend days exploring this amazing cathedral of music, but Peter and I only have a couple hours. First we check out a visiting exhibit of intricately inlaid guitars—think mother of pearl, coral, gold, copper, and wood—truly works of art. Next we see as much of the geographic galleries as we can: a world tour of musical instruments. There’s also an Artist Gallery featuring some of our culture’s most famous musicians.
What makes MIM special is the way they use technology to ensure everyone has a personal experience with the music and the exhibits. Wearing headphones, guests approach each exhibit, and the audio component specific to that exhibit comes on. Funny, for a museum devoted to music, it’s strangely quiet. One exception is the Experience Gallery, where visitors are encouraged to play several instruments—gongs, harps, drums, you name it. The gallery is a delightful playground for anyone who loves music, even those of us who aren’t musically inclined.
We’re staying a couple nights at the centrally located Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch, one of the area’s original resorts. The sprawling property has lots of meeting space and hosts numerous conferences and weddings, but it’s also a nice family destination with a dreamy pool and every amenity you could wish for. Our first night we dine at Kitchen West, a lively restaurant that serves western fare. Peter tries their signature smoked brisket burger, which is huge and decadent. I choose the flat iron steak, served with truffled mashed potatoes. The food is tasty, but the atmosphere is boisterous. Fortunately, our room at the resort is super quiet and comfortable, and we love relaxing by the pool.
ART & ARTIFACTS
Recently opened, Western Spirit, Museum of the West, is walking distance from downtown Scottsdale and offers a broad overview of the American West with art and artifacts as well as educational programs. I love the collection of Western gear on display—saddles, stirrups, bridles, reins, spurs, buckles, chaps, cowboy hats, gloves, lassoes, holsters, and guns—as well as an exhibit showcasing the Taos Society of Artists. Western Spirit is ideal for introducing kids to American history, and who doesn’t love the image of the rugged cowboy and his trusty steed?
One night we end up at a wine-and-paint evening at Shemer Art Center, a local venue for the arts where you can take classes, buy local artwork, and enjoy artist talks. Whenever I visit a new place, I like to combine tourist attractions with under-the-radar outings, especially those that let you mix with local people. Peter and I aren’t artists, but we do our best with the evening’s chosen medium—watercolor—and enjoy chatting with the locals, all of whom love living in Phoenix. Top reason? The weather is fabulous—at least for three seasons a year. Our January visit has been full of sunny, blue-sky days and mild temps.
If you love nature, a visit to the Desert Botanical Garden is a must. It’s a paradise of cacti, succulents, wildflowers, and other desert plants. Five themed trails wind through lovely gardens, and exhibits teach visitors about desert life. For example, in the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail, you’ll discover how desert plants have been used for food, fiber, medicine, and other cultural purposes. Dramatic vistas of distant mountains await at various spots in the garden, and if you pay attention, birds, insects, reptiles, and other critters who call the desert home are active as well. A new butterfly pavilion housing hundreds of live butterflies is a big hit with families.
One morning Peter and I head to Phoenix Public Market Café and dive into a decadent breakfast. Peter has Devil’s Mess with eggs, spinach, and chorizo. My choice is a frittata with veggies, cheese, and pesto. Clearly a locals’ favorite, the café is packed, and the food’s terrific. Afterwards we wander through the colorful farmers’ market and then join a Downtown Phoenix trolley tour, which offers a broad overview of the history and culture of Phoenix. Jill, one of the owners, provides commentary as we ride along the city streets. She points out revitalization efforts in nearby neighborhoods and says Downtown Phoenix is fast becoming a hip place to live.
THE SPIRIT WORLD
One of our last stops in Phoenix is the Heard Museum, which has 130,000 square feet of galleries, classrooms, and performance space celebrating the arts and culture of the Native peoples of the Americas. You can easily spend a day here wandering among its many galleries. One of my favorite exhibits is the collection of Katsina dolls, which are hand-carved figures created by the Hopi Indian tribe, each representing a spirit or ancestor. Given as gifts to Hopi infants and girls during an elaborate dance ceremony, Katsina dolls act as a connection between humans and the spirit world. Today Hopi artists continue to carve the dolls, which have become very collectible, many fetching thousands of dollars.
Another must-see exhibit is a poignant look at the Indian Boarding Schools which Native peoples were forced to attend. Separated from their families and cultures at a young age, children were sent to schools thousands of miles away and forced to speak English and to forget their native language, heritage, and cultural traditions in order to assimilate into American culture. It’s a sad reflection of the way Native American people were treated in a land that once was theirs.
For even in Phoenix with its skyscrapers, resorts, and golf courses, the desert is never very far away. Out there where the cacti climb to the sky and the creatures scurry among the creosote bushes is where you find the real soul of the Southwest. Learning about the culture of its Native people and the cowboys that shaped the region gives visitors a sense of what this area once was. Today these traditions continue to be celebrated and, like the Katsina dolls, forever link us to the past.