Sand Scapes

Kimberly Belle        Print Edition: Nov 25, 2012

The last time I vacationed in Scottsdale, Arizona I was ten years old. What does a 10-year-old from upstate New York do in the desert over her vacation? My parents might have asked themselves the same thing as we set off. Located in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, Scottsdale may be best known for its weather which has fostered many a retirement community and championship golf course. Yet, neither qualify it as a tween-friendly destination. In 1988, The Phoenician resort had just opened and it promised to be one of the world's best hotels. Unable to resist its allure (or book a babysitter), my parents dragged us along for a week of luxuriant spa treatments, fine-dining excursions and "magical" sunsets. My brother and I would've preferred hot dogs at Disneyland.

Returning home with sunburn, a taste for Southwestern cuisine and a potted cactus, I wasn't especially eager to revisit Scottsdale. But recently, when my father suggested a father-daughter trip to the desert, I acquiesced, if only for old times' sake. In the two decades since, both the city and the ten-yearold had grown up. I would experience Scottsdale from a completely fresh perspective while relishing the serene resort setting. Arizona's sprawling sandscapes had reconfigured into an urban hub.

The Phoenician Resort
A fire pit overlooking Arizona's stunning outdoors at The Phoenician Resort.
Scottsdale acquired the polish of a sophisticated lady about town, while retaining the graceful hospitality of a bygone era of the American West.

By day, perennially sunny skies created an ideal backdrop for outdoor adventures, competitive sports, poolside lounging and upscale shopping. By night, acclaimed restaurants, local galleries and dozens of wine bars, cocktail dens and performing arts venues awaited our discovery.

Lodging in Scottsdale ranges from plush resort accommodations that specialise in pampering, to smaller, boutique hotels and luxury inns that offer unique experiences distinguished by the exceptional customer service for which this city is now renowned. Located on 250 cactus-studded acres, The Phoenician still lives up to its reputation as an oasis of glamour and grace surrounded by the natural beauty of the stunning Arizona desert.

Nestled in the foothills of Camelback Mountain, the resort reserves 60 exclusive Canyon Suites with access to a private lobby, sparkling infinity pool and the resort's full range of amenities, which include ten award winning restaurants and lounges, a winding 27-hole desert golf course, a world-class tennis complex, cactus gardens, bike trails, a 22,000 square-foot fitness spa and beauty salon, high tea service, retail boutiques, a multi-million dollar in-house art collection, a waterslide and no less than nine swimming pools.

A short walk from the hotel, visitors can climb up iconic Camelback Mountain. Named for its camel-like humps and well-known locally for its steep, well-marked trails, this urban hiking destination boasts dramatic metropolitan views from the summit. Pack a picnic lunch for a well-earned treat at the top, as this two-to-three mile trek is a sharp, steady climb with occasional rock scrambling required. For a more immersive desert experience just 30 miles from The Phoenician, a visit to McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers over 50 miles of multi-use trails and panoramic observation points.

W Hotel brand
The minimalist, relaxing suites that have become a trademark of the W hotel brand
Tucked inside the lower Verde River basin, this 21,099-acre park is a rustic treasure in the northeast valley. Elevations rise to 3,000 feet along the western boundary and promise encounters with native deer, javelina, birds and coyotes. The best time of year to hike these mountains might be Spring, when desert cactuses are in full bloom with a rainbow of neoncoloured blossoms that explode against the red desert sand.

After a day of outdoor escapades, exploring Scottsdale's fine-dining scene seems a fitting finish. The first stop is undoubtedly Binkley's Restaurant; one of the more exalted culinary havens in Arizona, Binkley's lies right outside the city centre and serves contemporary American cuisine in a deconstructed, playful style.

Chef Kevin Binkley has earned a reputation for sourcing the world's premium ingredients and transforming them into surprising creations. Sample his crispy seared foie gras with vanilla French toast, blackberry, banana chutney, spiced macadamia nuts and passion fruit maple syrup.

FnB restaurant offers a less lofty, yet equally delicious menu with a bent toward locally grown farm-totable fare. Last year, Chef Charleen Badman's comfort-food caught the attention of Food & Wine magazine, which named her braised leek gratin topped with mozzarella cheese, mustardy breadcrumbs and a fried egg, one of the Ten Best Restaurant Dishes in the United States. At FnB's, even the grapes are local; their wine program features an all-Arizona list of lesser known, award-winning bottles from up-and-coming vineyards like Keeling-Schaefer, some 200 miles south of Scottsdale.

For a true taste of the American Southwest, a meal at Lon's is a must. Replete with sophisticated style and gracious hospitality, Lon's at The Hermosa Inn is Arizona's only remaining authentic hacienda. Its elegant adobe-style dining room opens onto an enchanting courtyard under the stars. On my last visit, I was greeted with wafts of smoked chipotle roasting over pecan wood flames. The restaurant is as well known for its wood-fired steaks, as the attached hotel is for its historic design and private casita hideaways.

Nightlife in the desert takes on several shades of intrigue. Beyond its swanky, jewel-hued guest rooms, sexy Sushi Roku restaurant, and the hipper-than-thou Bliss spa, the trendy W Hotel in Scottsdale stakes its claim as a scene-and-be-seen pleasure palace.

Shade Lounge, an open-air patio perch with all the trappings of a VIP bottle service venue, spins Euro beats and offers perhaps the hottest club experience in the city, if being scrutinised for access by bouncers in black suits is what you're into.

For a mellow nightcap, Kazimierz world wine bar mixes speakeasychic, craft-cocktails with glob--al small plates and over 2,000 bottles of wine. Offering live entertainment and candlelit ambience, this veiled gem of a wine bar hides a clandestine, offstreet entrance making it a shared secret among "in the know" locals who fast become regulars.

The accessible excursions in and around Scottsdale make the city a launch pad for all sorts of adventures. For quiet conversation over a perfectly brewed coffee, visit Cartel Coffee Lab, or enjoy a Japanese teahouse lunch at Nobuo at Teeter House. For a day-long shopping spree shielded from the sun, splurge on designer retail therapy at the Scottsdale Fashion Mall. Follow the scenic forest roads north toward Jerome, to visit America's largest ghost town and explore the artisan communities that line the S-curved roads emptying out onto the red rock cliffs of Sedona.

Turns out, my father was right all along. At sunset, this is a magic kingdom. Disney may have a strong hold on every child's imagination, but Scottsdale is the perfect playground for kids of all ages.
 

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