Exploring Greater Phoenix

From cowboys to cacti and cocktails, experience the perfect Arizona vacation

I love the mesquite-scented, dry heat of Arizona.

I love the desert vistas, with their burning sunsets. I love the acres of sparkling blue pools, the outdoor boutique shopping malls and the decadence of Scottsdale’s luxury resorts, with their fluffy robes and fresh-squeezed juices. I love the friendly, upscale cowboy culture, the food scene and, oh, the prickly pear margaritas.

Together, all these things give the Greater Phoenix area the perfect vacation vibe. I’ve tested it a few different ways. A girls’ getaway, revelling in spa treatments, shopping and cocktails by the pool. A couple’s retreat, golfing the sun-soaked, world-class courses, dining on lovely patios and gazing up at the starry desert nights. And, most daring of all, the family vacation—touring a ghost town, saddling up for a trail ride and searching out the resort with the longest waterslide. Somehow, here, it’s all good.

Cowboy Culture

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Come to Arizona and embrace your inner cowboy. The state’s Old West history is evident here—with dude ranches, old-time saloons and ghost towns dotting the landscape.

If you want to really get your spurs on in Greater Phoenix, saddle up for a two-hour trail ride along the Verde River with The Stables at Fort McDowell Adventures, located on Yavapai Reservation land, about 30 minutes northeast of Scottsdale. You’ll meander the Sonoran Desert at an easy pace—watch for saguaro cacti, eagles, coyotes and even wild mustangs. The highlight? Splashing through the Verde on horseback. The river valley is lush with desert flora and cool after being in the heat of the desert above, and it makes for a very serene afternoon.

For a taste of frontier-town life, make a stop in Old Town Scottsdale, where you can stroll among original buildings from the early 1900s and browse the Old West storefront shops selling dried chili bunches, leather chaps and turquoise. Kids love the chance to spend their change on corn-husk dolls and scorpion lollipops; adults might want to pick up authentic cowboy boots or enjoy a cold one at The Rusty Spur, the oldest saloon in Scottsdale.

If you have time for a day trip, head toward the Superstition Mountains and Goldfield Ghost Town, where you can soak in the Western atmosphere of what was once a 1890s mining town (now rebuilt on the site). Try your luck at panning for gold, take a ride on a narrow gauge train, tour the original mine tunnels and sip a sarsaparilla. If you time it right, you might see a “gunfight” on Main Street.

The Cuisine Scene

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Morning Glory Café

It doesn’t matter if you’re in a high-end restaurant like Talavera at the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale or picking up something to go from the Phoenix Public Market (make sure you go on a Food Truck Friday), it seems the food is always good here, and chefs are committed to

delivering fresh, locally inspired cuisine.

But where to eat?

Visit The Farm at South Mountain in South Phoenix for a farm-to-table brunch under the pecan trees at Morning Glory Café. Try The Farm Omelette—spinach, goat cheese and roasted tomato salsa, served with home fries and a buttermilk biscuit. Don’t worry, you can walk it off with a stroll around the beautiful grounds, the on-site shop and—if you’re there on a Sunday—Maya’s Farmers’ Market.

Another day, try a side trip to the town of Queen Creek, about 40 minutes southeast of Phoenix, where you can stop in at Queen Creek Olive Mill for an olive oil tasting, a tour of the mill and then lunch. Dining in the leafy olive grove is lovely; the family-run kitchen turns out an antipasto plate that is second only to its hearty sandwiches, always served with a side of olives.

Save yourself for dessert; you’re going to want to check out the cupcakes at The Coffee Shop, 15 minutes down the road in the town of Gilbert’s urban farm community, Agritopia. You don’t have to get the “Coffee and Cigarettes” flavour featured on Food Network’s Cupcake Wars. Just choose something sweet and enjoy the ambiance of this funky garage-turned-coffee shop in the desert.

If you’re hungry at happy hour, sample the sublime appetizers at Culinary Dropout at The Yard—a playground area for grown-ups—in Phoenix, which include treats like house-cranked brats and soft pretzels and provolone fondue, served up with artisanal cocktails and an open-air, backyard ambiance. Stick around for some ping-pong in the sprawling public games area.

When it comes to dinner, go for the Arizona take on southwest cuisine. Try The Spotted Donkey Cantina at The Boulders Resort & Spa (about 30 minutes north of Scottsdale), where the guacamole is divine and the atmosphere is family-friendly.

More upscale and every bit as “modern Mexican” is La Hacienda by Richard Sandoval at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. Here you can dine on such platos mexicanos as Pollo a la Brasas (char-broiled half-chicken, smoked chile glaze and peach salsa), and sip from the extensive

tequila bar. Flaming coffees are a specialty of the house.

The Great Outdoors

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Hot Air Expeditions

Everyone knows about golf in the Greater Phoenix area; it’s the driving purpose of many a visitor, and for good reason. World-class golf courses like Troon North and Kierland Golf Club are nirvanas of perfect grass, challenging play and stunning vistas. The downside of all this green bounty is that you may not make time to see what else is out there—and the Sonoran Desert is well worth a look.

Start at least one day with a hike up Pinnacle Peak. Located in northeast Scottsdale, this popular and moderate 5.6-kilometre route rewards with stunning views of the Valley of the Sun and plant name plaques along the way.

If you’re not up for hiking, check out the Desert Botanical Garden, with 55 acres of desert plant life exhibits, in Pagago Park, Phoenix.

For a bit more adrenaline, head to Green Zebra Adventures on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Reservation and strap yourself into a Tomcar for two hours of guided desert off-roading. The modified military vehicles—like dune buggies on steroids—can go just about anywhere.

Try the bird’s-eye view by soaring above the desert in a hot-air balloon. Head up at sunrise; there’s nothing quite like watching the elongated shadow of a coyote trotting across the sand, or rising with the breeze to crest a rocky hill. If you go with Hot Air Expeditions, you’ll also get champagne and breakfast at the landing site.

Pampering

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The Boulders

Luxuries are many in the Greater Phoenix area, and you’ll want to decide ahead of time where to splurge. No matter what, some time at the spa should be near the top of that list.

For local ingredients and ancient traditions, visit the Aji Spa at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler, where massages, facials and other experiences are carried out with soothing, natural products used by the Pima and Maricopa people (think indigenous white clay, azulene mud and cedar-and-sage oils).

The Spa at the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale also offers an array of treatments that use seasonal indigenous products like the Jojoba and Prickly Pear Polish and the Sedona Earth Clay Body Masque. And, at the Spa at the Boulders Resort, you can treat yourself to the Turquoise Wrap with desert salt exfoliation, or the Welcome Traveler treatment—it includes an aromatherapy “reading” with your full-body massage. At this spa, you also have full use of the shamanic tipi, meditation labyrinth and reflecting pond.

I’m not sure if it’s the treatments, the desert-sourced ingredients or the zen-like settings. All I know is, once I get there, I never want to leave.

And that goes for Arizona, too.

Getting There: WestJet flies to Phoenix 18 times a week from Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto