Being as it’s in the Sonoran desert and gets more than 300 days of sunshine a year, the area around Phoenix is aptly nicknamed the Valley of the Sun. Known for its casual lifestyle, the city yields everything from the Old West to the ultra modern, making it an ideal vacation pick for soaking up the best of the Southwest.
5…Old West, meet New West
Phoenix defines the Southwest. You’ll quickly notice three distinct cultures: the Old West, Native American culture, and the city’s Hispanic heritage. All of them will give you unique experiences you won’t find anywhere else in the country.
Rawhide (5700 W. North Loop Road, Chandler, 480-502-5600, www.rawhide.com) recreates an Old West town in the Arizona desert. Complete with stagecoach, burro rides and gunfights, it lets you experience life in the Wild West. Right next door, the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa (5594 W. Wild Horse Pass Blvd, Chandler, 602-225-0100, www.wildhorsepassresort.com), located on the Gila River Indian Community, provides a great glimpse of the Native American lifestyle both today and in the past. You don’t need to stay at the resort to wander along the self-guided hiking path that details the native plants and wildlife. Park at the main entrance and ask for directions to the nature trail. For dinner, check out Kai , the AAA five-diamond restaurant on site, which serves Arizona desert- and Native American-inspired cuisine. The Hispanic culture is evident throughout the city, but you’ll definitely want to check out the Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center (147 E. Adams Street, Phoenix, 602-254-9817, www.alacaz.org, free). This consortium of Latino art groups and artists presents the real face of Latino culture in Phoenix.
4…Have your romance directed
Phoenix is known for great golf, great spas, and plenty of sunshine – all offered in abundance by the world-renowned resorts located throughout the Valley of the Sun. You’ll find that most of the resorts offer great mountain views, such as the InterContinental Montelucia (4949 E. Lincoln, Paradise Valley, 480-627-3200, www.icmontelucia.com), which sits at the foot of Camelback Mountain. Most boast world-class spas, including Agave, The Arizona Spa at Westin Kierland (6902 E. Greenway Parkway, Scottsdale, 480-624-1000, www.kierlandresort.com). You’ll find resorts that offer opportunities for romantic interludes, especially Royal Palms Resort & Spa (5200 E. Camelback, Phoenix, 602-840-3610, www.royalpalmshotel.com), which even boasts its own Director of Romance. Other resorts, such as the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (7575 E. Princess Drive, Scottsdale, 480-585-4848, www.scottsdaleprincess.com), are known worldwide for championship golf courses.
One of the more unique and lesser-known sides to Phoenix is its link to Old Hollywood. Once a playground to classic film stars, several resorts, most notably the Arizona Biltmore (2400 E. Missouri Avenue, Phoenix, 602-955-6600, www.arizonabiltmore.com) and Hotel Valley Ho (6850 E. Main Street, Scottsdale, 480-248-2000, www.hotelvalleyho.com), have recaptured that elegance of the mid-twentieth century and offer you an unforgettable stay that stars of yesteryear once flocked here to enjoy.
3…Shop till you drop
From Chandler in the far Southeast Valley to Glendale in the Northwest Valley, and points in between, Phoenix has some incredible shopping. Look beyond the touristy coyote figurines and baby cactus and take home one-of-a-kind art work or handcrafted jewelry from the small galleries and boutiques in the city.
In Scottsdale, the premiere shopping area is Scottsdale Fashion Square (Camelback Road and Scottsdale Road, www.fashionsquare.com). It features high-end shops including Tiffany & Co., Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Macy’s, Barneys New York, Apple, Niemen Marcus, as well as small boutiques and a selection of fine dining options.
In Phoenix, you’ll want to check out Biltmore Fashion Park (Camelback & 24th Streets, Phoenix, www.shopbiltmore.com). This beautiful shopping area features high-end stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, and some of the city’s top restaurants.
Throughout the Valley, you’ll find open-air art fairs almost weekly October through May. Great art, high-end crafts, food and live entertainment are ideal for weekends in the Arizona sun.
Old Town Scottsdale blends the area’s Southwest culture and its modern edge. The area embraces the history that put Phoenix on the map. You can browse art shops, boutiques, and enjoy amazing restaurants. A perfect end to the day is at THE MISSION where you’ll experience modern Latin cuisine in Old Town Scottsdale (3815 N. Brown Avenue, Scottsdale, 480-636-5005, www.themissionaz.com).
2…Broad strokes and bright stars
Phoenix has a growing arts and entertainment scene. If you time it right, head downtown from 6 to 10 p.m. on First Friday each month. This self-guided art walk lets you explore the art and culture of central Phoenix through more than 70 galleries and venues. Go online to www.artlinkphoenix.com to print a map and take off on foot from the Phoenix Art Museum. While you’re downtown, drop in for wine and cheese at Cheuvront (1326 N. Central, Phoenix, 602-307-0022).
For a more conventional art experience, catch a performance by the Arizona Theatre Company at the Herberger Theater in downtown Phoenix (222 E. Monroe, Phoenix, 602-256-6995, www.arizonatheatre.org). If you’re in the area just before showtime, check with the box office to see if there are extra tickets. They frequently offer those at deeply discounted rates.
Check to see what’s playing at the Mesa Arts Center (One E. Main Street, Mesa, 480-644-6500, www.mesaarts.com). This beautiful complex offers a wide range of performances and also houses ongoing art exhibits.
One of the area’s treasures is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Scottsdale (Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd & Cactus Rd, Scottsdale, 480-860-2700, www.franklloydwright.org, $18 and up). Once Wright’s winter home, the desert views are breathtaking from there. You can choose from a variety of tour options, including a 90-minute desert hike or a night tour to view the city lights.
1…Embrace the dry heat
The best part of Phoenix is the weather, especially from October through May. The sun is bright, even in winter, so use sunscreen regardless of the season. Also bear in mind that Phoenix heat is a “dry heat” and with a lack of humidity year round, you’ll want to drink plenty of water, too. The temperature can drop a whopping 20 to 30 degrees at night, so be prepared to dress in layers, too.
Desert Botanical Garden (1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix, 480-941-1225, www.dbg.org, $15), offers a great look at the native landscape and the Phoenix Zoo (455 N. Galvin Parkway, 602-273-1341, www.phoenixzoo.org, $18) just next door is a perfect way to spend an afternoon. There are also great hiking trails within the city. One of the most popular is Camelback Mountain (trailhead at 5700 E. McDonald Drive). You can spend a day hiking the Mountain, or choose a shorter loop for great city views.
If you want to get out and explore the desert, several jeep companies offer desert excursions, including Arizona Desert Mountain Jeep Tours (800-567-3619), with trips from a couple of hours to all day.
Another great way to experience the wide-open vistas of Phoenix is by hot air balloon. Arizona Hot Air Balloons (Deer Valley Airport, Phoenix, 480-282-8686, www.arizonahotairballoons.com) is one company that offers both sunrise and sunset flights with spectacular views of the sun over the mountains.