the phoenix melting pot
By Lynn Parramore
Start with a rich stock of Native American and Spanish flavors. Sprinkle with Old West seasoning. Add a dash of Hollywood, a splash of south Florida and a pinch of Texas. Now you're beginning to get the flavorful stew that is Phoenix. Before WWII, few but hardscrabble farmers and ranchers felt the call of this stretch of the Sonoran Desert. But when air-con breezed in, folks started flocking to Phoenix to soak up the striking scenery and good vibrations. A Chicago refugee explained to me the lure of perpetual sunshine and slower pace, "You're just in a better mood here." It's hard not to agree when you gaze dreamily over sandstone cliffs reflecting the pink of the setting sun. A fragrant desert wind blows soothingly over a metropolis growing so fast that it's in the throes of an identity crisis. Greater Phoenix — which encompasses Scottsdale, Tempe, and Mesa — boasts three million residents and counting. But what exactly makes this place tick? Is it the world's resort capital? A high-tech boomtown? A golfer's paradise? The Wild West? All of these?
Bristling with contradictions, Phoenix is a city where urban frenzy gives way to desert solitude. Mallscapes merge into mountain vistas. Bottle-blonde desert divas rub elbows with artsy Gen Y hipsters. There's the "Old School Phoenix" of mid-century resorts and manicured golf greens. Then there's the "New School Phoenix" of eco-consciousness and edgy downtown galleries.There's also something provocatively in-between. All of Phoenix's personalities have their peculiar charms. Let's start with what brought Hollywood to the Valley of the Sun.
Warm winter days, heart-stopping sunsets and hushed seclusion made Phoenix the perfect escape for early movie stars. Opening in 1929, The Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa was the first to cater to these glamour-guests, and stands as the epitome of Old School Phoenix. Its nickname, "Jewel of the Desert," captured both the glittering grandeur of its architecture and the shiny baubles dripping from its wealthy vacationers.
Frank Lloyd Wright was The Biltmore's consulting architect, and his distinctive style can be seen throughout this deco palace. Pre-cast blocks of sand, their pleated design inspired by palm trunks, create the signature motif. At night, the lobby's grand hall glows from electrified glass blocks lining the walls, their light reflected on the dazzling gold-leaf ceiling. The Biltmore embraces its roots, from the black-and-white photos of romping presidents to the oft-told stories of famous guests (Clark Gable lost his wedding ring on the golf course; Irving Berlin wrote White Christmas here). High "tini" is served every afternoon at the Wright Bar, reprising the glamour of the cocktail hour. Munching "ants-on-a-log" (an endearing retro-treat made of raisins, peanut butter and celery) on the patio, I can almost see Marilyn Monroe strolling by, headed to her favorite pool, the mosaic-tiled Catalina.
Biltmore guests are invariably seen in deep stages of relaxation — playing lawn chess, zipping around the golf course, or lounging beside fire pits with stogies and bourbon. They've always embodied Arizona's good life. In 1988, however, another temple of leisure rose up on the side of Camelback Mountain to redefine Old School luxury. Crystal chandeliers, Steinway pianos, Italian marble and a museum-worthy art collection give the interior of The Phoenician a posh atmosphere that rivals Europe's grandest hotels. But the location is pure southwest. At the twilight hour before dinner, prosperous-looking couples-of-a-certain-age and conference-hoppers gather on the terrace to watch birds sweep across the horizon as the notes of a trombone float through the air. As I take in this mesmerizing moment, a fortyish woman decked out in pink leather with a matching cowboy hat passes me, showing off her gym-sculpted arms. The Phoenician is the southwest at its most exuberantly over-the-top, just like the caviar cowgirl. It's hard to resist, but if you want something more low-key, try Canyon Suites, a more intimate, stand-alone boutique property that's part of the resort.
Golf rules at The Phoenician, and happy putters choose from three magnificent 9-hole par 70 combinations. They're also free to frolic among nine swimming pools, a 12-court tennis garden and a superluxe spa. Brunch reaches its culinary pinnacle at The Terrace, where guests indulge in Arizona's most lavish Sunday meal. After champagne is served, I scurry eagerly between the sushi bar, the oyster bar, the omelet station and the ice cream counter, afraid that such bounty could only be a mirage. travelgirl tip: Plan brunch for the end of your trip, or nix the bikini.
Hark! Phoenix's once-desolate downtown is reborn, blossoming into a stylish, eclectic milieu for gallery gazing, boutique shopping and café lounging. Hipsters are snapping up the Arts & Crafts bungalows of the Roosevelt Historic District, and everyone's talking about the first phase of the Metro Light Rail Plan that will soon connect parts of Mesa and Tempe with downtown Phoenix. Every first Friday evening of the month, you can take a free self-guided tour of downtown's galleries, studios and art spaces. Phoenix's pastel palette and dramatic landscape has always inspired lovers of beauty, but today the city's artistic spirit is fully materializing.
In 2006, the Phoenix Art Museum finished a four-story expansion and opened an outdoor sculpture garden as a downtown oasis. The collection of modern and contemporary art is fabulous, filled with the eye-popping works of Kahlo, Picasso, and O'Keeffe. My favorite downtown art spot is the Heard Museum, which houses an outstanding array of Native American creations. The large collection of brightly-painted kachina dolls (representations of supernatural beings made by the Hopis) is a must-see. Take home a doll from the museum store as a conversation piece.
Scottsdale is giving off its share of New School vibes, too. Deseo, the upscale restaurant at the Westin Kierland Resort, is at the vanguard of Phoenix dining. You pass down to Deseo by a candle-lined staircase into a sexy, secluded space. The menu, designed by Chef Douglas Rodriguez, features Nuevo Latino dishes that mix southwestern flavors with Mexican, Caribbean and South American elements, served with a contempo-spin. A salad tossed in watermelon vinaigrette followed by tangy lobster ceviche offers refreshment without caloric overload. Allow time before dinner to enjoy the "Unwind Hour" (5:30 - 7:30PM) at the sleek adjacent bar, where lip-smacking mojitos made with muddled fruit set the mood. Try the blackberry/pineapple combo.
New School Phoenicians don't fend off the desert; they embrace it with open arms. The Desert Botanical Garden, set in the middle of the red rock buttes of Papago Park, offers a smorgasbord of exotic cacti with names like "creeping devil," "hedgehog" and "bristle brush." Outdoor-loving Phoenicians hike on trails among four desert mountain parks, each within eight miles of downtown. The most popular trail, which leads to the top of Piestawa Peak in the 7,000-acre Phoenix Mountain Preserve, provides a great excuse to combine exercise with shameless gawking at the opposite sex. The mile-long trail climbs through teddy bear cholla, creosote bush, and barrel, prickly pear and saguaro cacti to a 2,608-foot summit overlooking downtown Phoenix. Call the delightful team at Arizona Outback Adventures (fondly known as "Phoenix hotties") to guide you on a half-day or full-day hiking adventure, and you'll learn tidbits of history and trivia as you go.
For a secluded picnic, head to the South Mountain Park/Preserve, a 16,000-acre paradise with 58 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. The park shows off the rugged, austere beauty of the desert, and has an environmental education center where you can learn about the Sonoran ecosystem. As you explore the park, keep an eye out for petroglyphs pecked into the rock by ancient Hohokam peoples. The 15-minute twisting drive to Dobbins Lookout on the summit of South Mountain is well worth the time, rewarding you with an eagle's view of the city.
New School/Old School
Phoenix has started to channel its rich heritage with an updated sensibility, often giving the Wild West pedigree a tongue-in-cheek spin and highlighting the unique Native American legacy with a focus on authenticity and sensitivity. The "New School/Old School" movement emphasizes independence, restoration, cultural pride and a celebration of eclecticism that flies in the face of homogenized mall-culture. It's a trend that seems to have taken hold of this city, adding to its "melting pot" identity.
The Hermosa Inn is a hacienda-turned-hotel hidden in the affluent enclave of Paradise Valley. The aesthetic is an idiosyncratic treasure house: rustic beamed ceilings, adobe walls, and floors salvaged from Spanish and Mexican missions. Cowboy artist Lon Megargee, who busted broncos to the beat of his own drum, started this ranch in the 1930s. He became a legend, marrying seven times, gambling, and foiling Prohibition-era party poopers. Today, his colorful image graces the inside of every high-end Stetson hat — no mean honor in these parts. When night falls, the Hermosa turns into a fantasy of flickering candles and crackling wood fires. Take a seat on the patio of LON's Restaurant and enjoy southwestern dishes made from organic and humanely raised food, accompanied by a stunning view of Camelback Mountain.
The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, located on the Gila River Indian Reservation, is named for two mountain ranges with a pass between them where 49ers once stopped on the way to California. Local Pima and Maricopa farmers offered hospitality to weary travelers, a legacy that is expressed in the resort's dedication to Native American culture. Resort builders submitted ideas to a council of tribal elders and sought approval and advice on all aspects of planning. A horseback ride through the tribal lands that surround the resort offers a reviving dose of peace and solitude. On the day I absorbed the scenery, my horse, Diamond, picked out a path strewn with sage brush and velvet mesquite like an old pro, while guide Jeffrey Burgett pointed out a lone roadrunner and the shaggy wild mustangs that still run free.
Scottsdale's SouthBridge development, plotted along the south bank of an ancient irrigation canal, launched in February. Along with independent boutiques and shops, SouthBridge brings a whimsical interpretation of the Wild West to the glitzy suburb. The Pink Taco, beloved by college-age partiers and their hangers-on, is a popular Mexican cantina where scantily clad women deliver solid south-of-the-border fare. A few doors down, the jalapeñno-honky-tonk continues at the new outlet of the Saddle Ranch Chop House. Towering beer glasses, tight T-shirts, whisky shots, cowboy paraphernalia… you get the drift. The focal point is a mechanical bull, whose unfortunate decapitation the night I visited did not stop tipsy twenty-somethings from straddling the headless steed. The operator gives the guys a frenzied whiplash of a ride, but slows things down for the ladies enough to produce a grind-and-jiggle much appreciated by the crowds. Is it gauche? Yes, it is. But channeling Debra Winger in Urban Cowboy can sound like a fine idea after a few tequilas. Just try not to toss your tacos.
The Triple Bath-a-lon
Travelgirls, I've left the best for last. Some hike, others tee up, but my all-time fave Phoenix sporting event is something I'm dubbing the "triple bath-a-lon." This test of endurance involves soaking, steaming and splashing around in mineral water. Proficiency is not enough. You must show zeal and commitment. All your skills will be summoned at Spa Avania, a blissful Shangri-La located at Scottsdale's Hyatt Regency at Gainey Ranch. Avania incorporates therapeutic elements based on your body's responses to the daily clock. Relax in the garden Jacuzzi, float in the heated outdoor mineral pool, then pull a chair up to the crackling fire with a cup of first-blush estate tea. When it's time for my mineral massage, I get to choose my own music and then sink into a comfy table for an experience that combines gentle Thai stretches with healing strokes that bring me to the verge of nirvana. My male therapist is a paragon of friendly professionalism, unfazed when a certain touch to my knee produces a burst of uncontrollable laughter. Every moment at Spa Avania, I feel like a cherished guest rather than a piece of flesh to be processed.
The Spa Avania wins the prize for best triple bath-a-lon venue, but honorable mention must go to Agave, the spa at the Westin Kierland. In this serene oasis, the skills of massage therapist Meri Baralic turn my post-flight Agave Aromatic Water Journey (a detox treatment involving a scrub, hydrotherapy and dousing of shea butter soufflé) into a sublime experience. She gives me extra sauce to take home, and leaves me feeling deliciously restored.
Whatever you choose to do in Phoenix, just remember to surrender completely to the experience. Your senses and your psyche will thank you.
Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa
Phoenix Art Museum
Westin Kierland Resort
Desert Botanical Garden
Arizona Outback Adventures
South Mountain Park/Preserve
New School/Old School
Sheraton Wild Horse Pass
The Pink Taco
Saddle Ranch Chop House
The Triple Bath-a-lon
Hyatt Regency Scottsdale
Resort at Gainey Ranch
Westin Kierland Resort