Winter doldrums got you down? A trip west to the Phoenix/Scottsdale area just might, um, raise your spirits
Photography by Brandon Sullivan
“AREN’T YOU COLD?” a voice asks from below. We’ve just hiked up 2.5 miles of Sonoran-Desert trail crisscrossed by dusty, boulder-strewn washes, and two septuagenarians—one of whom is quite concerned about my bare arms—are catching their breath at the top of the mountain’s saddle, sitting crossed-legged with sunglasses perched atop their silver-haired heads.
“This weather,” one says to the other, shaking her head. “I feel bad for the folks who are visiting right now. Look at these clouds!”
I check the weather app on my phone. It’s currently 57 degrees. And, OK, sure—it’s cloudy. But in the four hours since I watched the sunrise paint the horizon a thousand shades of pastel, the sky has changed from opalescent to Tiffany blue to charcoal gray and back again, with clouds rolling over the kind of western panorama that makes you feel like John Wayne will come rounding the corner if only you’d sit still long enough.
We pause, too, to catch our breath, taking in the 360-degree views around us. We’re minutes from suburban Scottsdale, as evidenced by the string of Lululemon-clad joggers who passed us on the trail, but it feels very backcountry: Scrubby sagebrush and prickly succulents peek out amid the shadowy peaks of the McDowell Range as far as the eye can see. It’s rained a bit, I suddenly remember the guy next to me on the plane saying, so there should be some green out in the hills. If by “green” he meant hundreds—thousands, even—of 20-foot-tall saguaro cacti rising like sentinels from the desert floor, then yes, I’d say he was right.
We head back down the trail, meandering through a well-trod stretch of the 30,000-acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve. We’re nearing the trailhead when my travel buddy—aka my dad—stops dead in his tracks. And, of course, I’m thinking, rattlesnake.
Instead of jumping back to avoid what I just know is a coiling, venomous serpent poised to strike, he looks up into the sky, then bends down, hands on his knees, to examine the ground. “Is that … a raindrop?” he says, pointing at a splotch on a rock. And I know what he’s thinking, because it’s just not supposed to rain in Arizona. Like, ever. The stats are in the visitor’s favor, after all: 299 days of sun a year, 7 inches of rain. Statistics like those—beautiful statistics, wonderful ones—are why the first things I saw tumble down the baggage claim’s chute upon our arrival were three sets of golf clubs, and why the Phoenicians cruising past us on the trail—walking dogs, walking toddlers, walking off last night’s Pizzeria Bianco (more on that later)—are a tanned, sturdy, fit-looking bunch. It’s why restaurants’ patios are just as big as their dining rooms. And it’s most definitely why I left my umbrella on the front porch at home, drying out after a year’s worth of Arizona rain was dumped on The Natural State in a matter of hours on the sad, soggy day before I (wisely) flew westward.
It’s not the first time today I’ve considered Arizona rain or the lack thereof. Just hours before, not long after sunrise, we’d been on a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West—his former “winter home” and a longtime training ground for like-minded architects—and learned that, for decades after it was constructed, the property’s rambling structures had been pretty well open to the elements, sheathed only in a translucent canvas that the fellows studying at Taliesin rolled up and stowed away at the end of the spring season. (“If we build in the desert,” Wright once said, “let the house know the desert.”) It’s no wonder that he’d trade the cold of Wisconsin for this, I thought—these lemon groves, these reflecting pools, this place where the inside can be out, and the outside in. I’d thought the same thing the night before—that I, too, could trade our bipolar Arkansas winters in favor of the desert sunshine—when we showed up for our 8:30 p.m. reservation at Virtù and were promptly seated at a two-top near a pair of French doors flung open to the patio beyond, where diners sat beneath an ancient acacia tree dripping with fairy lights.
Maybe it’s all been a ruse, I think as I stare at that raindrop while others fall around it. Maybe the rest of this trip will be spent inside, hiding from the weather. Maybe we’ll have to forego the other outdoorsy items on the itinerary—the Desert Botanical Garden, the trip up Camelback Mountain, the golf. And, sure enough, as we pull out of the trailhead’s parking lot, the windshield wipers come on. But as we head out on Cactus Road, winding down from the McDowell Mountains back into the Valley of the Sun, the clouds roll on through, leaving behind them a painted desert sky.
HOOKED ON PHOENIX
A Guide to Phun in the Sun
This 34-room Paradise Valley hacienda—all Spanish tile and Navajo rugs and roaring kiva fireplaces and Camelback Mountain views—totally lines up with what you’d expect from a resort in Phoenix (having been opened in 1936 by a cowboy artist and all). But that recent $2 million renovation, which not only spiffed up guest casitas but also added a walled “secret garden”? It makes the West shine. (5532 N. Palo Cristi Road, Paradise Valley; hermosainn.com)
Hotel Valley Ho
Elsewhere, it could all feel a bit much. (Exhibits A to C: the technicolor-hued furniture, the Jetsons-esque light fixtures, the Sinatra and Dean Martin on repeat.) That is, of course, until you learn that this Scottsdale resort—which opened its doors in 1956—played host to the likes of Sinatra and Dean Martin, and is, therefore, very much the real deal. (6850 E. Main St., Scottsdale; hotelvalleyho.com)
It sounds pretty straightforward—“Bespoke Inn, Cafe & Bicycles.” But this inn, located a two-block stroll from the Scottsdale Arts District, isn’t just any inn, as evidenced by the private patios, claw-foot bathtubs, rooftop garden and infinity lap pool. And that’s not just any cafe, either—it’s the James Beard-nominated, Esquire “Best New Restaurant” Virtù Honest Craft. And those rattan-basketed British Pashley city bicycles, which are offered complimentary to hotel guests? Certainly not your average bikes. In other words: win, win, win. (3701 N. Marshall Way, Scottsdale; bespokeinn.com)
Virtù Honest Craft
This restaurant? It’s the kind of place that just might inspire you to pen your first Yelp review. (True story.) And that’s because it’s not only the kind of place where you’ll have, like, the best pork rib chop of your life, but also the kind of place that tucks sprigs of fresh rosemary into burlap napkins. And offers you a wool blanket if you’re feeling chilly on the patio. And—no joke—hand-writes a copy of the recipe to that craft cocktail you’re oooh-ing over. You know, that kind of place. (3701 N. Marshall Way, Scottsdale;virtuscottsdale.com)
When pubs like Gourmet, Bon Appetit—heck, even Vogue—declare a pizza as among the best in the world, here’s what you do: You eat it. And then here’s what happens: It ruins your ever-loving life. Because even while you’re sitting there at Chris Bianco’s eponymous pizzeria, relishing, say, the Rosa—a Neapolitan pie topped with red onion, Parmesan, rosemary and Arizona pistachios—you’re thinking, Pizza will never be the same for me, ever again. (P.S.: You’ll probably want to test out all three locations, just to make sure you remember the experience properly before heading home to, you know, regular pizza.) (multiple locations; pizzeriabianco.com)
Ever had a Spanish bobal? An Italian gaglioppo? A French picpoul? Yeah, we hadn’t, either, until we popped into Postino—which is, we surmise, a wine bar for winos. But not to fear: Even those who are still sorting their malbecs from their merlots will feel more than welcome at this trio of wine bars (we particularly love the patio at the Arcadia location). And if you’re teetotaling, there’s always the bruschetta—like, a whole menu of it. (multiple locations; postinowinecafe.com)
The dishes crowding the tables at this veggie-forward restaurant are pretty much Arizona on a plate—bright flavors, ingredients prepared simply in that whole casual, carefree, you’d-be-this-happy-if-you-lived-here kind of way. Case in point: chef Charleen Badman’s braised-lamb dumplings tossed in cilantro, mint and yogurt. Or the coconut-curry Brussels sprouts. Or the sunchokes with bacon, pecorino and dill. Bonus: You get to knock back all that deliciousness with what’s arguably the state’s best selection of Arizona wines. (So, basically, this is Arizona on your plate and in your glass.) (7125 E. Fifth Ave., Scottsdale; fnbrestaurant.com)
OK, so if you visit Phoenix this spring, the temperature’s going to hover around 80 degrees. (Ah, bliss.) But should you find yourself in the Valley of the Sun come summer, here’s a tip: Seek out Crudo. A quarter of this self-proclaimed “modern Italian” eatery’s menu is devoted to, well, crudo—bright, light raw-fish dishes that we imagine are particularly appetizing when the mercury starts to climb. (And should you turn up at Crudo in the cooler months, know this: There’s nothing like sipping one of its clever house cocktails fireside on the patio.) (3603 E. Indian School Road; crudoaz.com)
We don’t know of many other metropolitan areas in the U.S. where, on your way to the airport, you can take a hike up a sandstone butte (as in, a park with such a trail is literally 5 miles from the Delta terminal). But we wouldn’t recommend saving a visit to this 1,200-acre municipal park for the end of your trip. (Guilty). With amenities like the Desert Botanical Garden, the Phoenix Zoo and a trek up to the other-worldly Hole-in-the-Rock (which is, um, a very large hole in a very large rock), Papago is not exactly something you can see on the quick. (625 N. Galvin Parkway;phoenix.gov/parks/trails/locations/papago-park)
McDowell Sonoran Preserve
Sure, you’ve got Camelback Mountain right smack-dab in the middle of Phoenix—and yes, yes, it’s very nice. But hear us out: The McDowell Sonoran Reserve is just a 25-minute drive away, and once there, you’ll feel like you’ve been plunked down in the middle of nowhere—in the best way possible. Although you can’t go wrong with any of its nine trails, the 4.5-mile Gateway Loop offers a little bit of climb, a little bit of mountaintop panorama and a whole lot of OMG-look-at-this-ginormous-cactus moments. (18333 N. Thompson Peak Parkway, Scottsdale;mcdowellsonoran.org)
For Frank Lloyd Wright fans, a visit to Taliesin West, which served as the architect’s winter home and a school (still in operation!) of organic architecture, is like a pilgrimage. He slept here! He ate there! Zounds! Is that his drafting table?! But even those unfamiliar with his work will find something of interest in the surroundings—whether that means the building’s architecture itself or the desert landscape, which long served as Wright’s muse. (12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd., Scottsdale;franklloydwright.org)
Troon North Golf Club
You’ve got to be a pretty good golfer to take to the greens at Scottsdale’s Troon North. And not because it’s difficult—which it is, because, duh, it’s golf—but because the scenery is so jaw-droppingly gorgeous that it’s going to be hard to focus on your short game. Or your long game. Or—oooh, did you see that flowering cactus? (10320 E. Dynamite Blvd., Scottsdale;troonnorthgolf.com)
Biltmore Fashion Park
Though there are plenty of big-name boutiques to browse at Biltmore Park (we were particularly excited to see Calypso St. Barth, Jonathan Adler and Jo Malone on the roster), it’s the clever mall-within-a-mall concept—a bazaar of 18 locally owned boutiques and eateries known as Union: Shops & Restaurants—that makes this shopping center unique. (2502 E. Camelback Road;shopbiltmore.com)
DeSoto Central Market
Need to pack a picnic before that McDowell hike? Has your well-stocked AirBnB kitchen tempted you into cooking in? This market-slash-food-hall is a one-stop shop for all things gustatorial—and is a gorgeous example of urban renewal to boot. Also, there’s this: free yoga on Saturdays, with $3 mimosas on offer afterward. (915 N. Central Ave.; desotocentralmarket.com)
It’s pretty much impossible not to have midcentury design on the brain as you tool around the Phoenix area—even the car washes and elementary schools ooze minimalist 1950s cool. If you need to scratch the itch—Scandinavian pottery! Danish lounge chairs!—pop into this 6,000-square-foot vintage emporium to poke around. It might be hard to fit that Hans Wenger Wishbone chair in your suitcase, but it can’t hurt to try. (716 Hazelwood St.; modernmanorstore.com)
See this piece in the wild here.