They say “all sunshine makes a desert.” But in Arizona (299 sunny days per year; average temp 24 degrees celsius) I don’t hear anyone complaining. In fact, this state is booming, with capital Phoenix now one of the fastest growing metro areas in the US. Scottsdale, a wealthy destination town in the northeast of the city, is the kind of place where too much of a good thing is definitely never enough.
Also known as the “Miami of the West”, this town is renowned for its lush million-dollar communities, 5-star country clubs and swanky spas, all set against the backdrop of the majestic Sonoran Desert.
At first glance it seems that most people come to Scottsdale to party, to die, or to play golf. To begin with I’ve chosen the latter, and there are few better places to putt than Boulders Resort and Spa. The five-star resort offers two championship courses over 1,300 acres of pristine desert, as well as excellent clubhouse facilities. This is a great place to improve your game – or simply get lost in the incredible landscape. Ancient rock formations soar over the resort like giant guardians, balancing at impossible angles as if frozen in time. I’m told that this land has long been considered sacred, and watching a magnificent sunset from the calm of one of many peaks, I’m not surprised. The “healing energies” at Boulders are extolled by the therapists at the spa, a place that draws heavily on Native American tradition to inform its imaginative treatments.
Like a fair few of its guests, Boulders has recently undergone a facelift. I was impressed with the suites, a collection of Flintstones-style cabanas designed to blend into the landscape that opened to reveal minimal interiors, accented with Native American prints.
Less successful was the food. With six on-site restaurants, including a dreary Mexican ‘cantina’ and a ‘fine-dining’ option (the worst of the lot), it was a shame that I had to head into Scottsdale to find something worth eating.
The Mission is a fantastic restaurant specialising in ‘Latin fusion’ cuisine with romantic gothic interiors, charming staff, and potent cocktails to complete the picture. Nearby F+B is also worth a shout, for its superb take on farm-to-fork dining and dedication to using local seasonal produce – including an interesting selection of Arizonan wine (who knew?!).
Another welcome surprise in Scottsdale is the architecture. Given the current vogue for all things mid-century, no trip would be complete without reference to architect Frank Lloyd-Wright. In the 30s, Lloyd-Wright chose a – then insignificant – piece of desert to create Taliesin West, his winter home and new architecture school. An homage to organic architecture, Taliesin West is an extraordinary building – built by an extraordinary man – and even if you’re as allergic to group activities as I am, this house is well worth a visit for the excellent guided tour. Lloyd Wright’s influence attracted many talented students that went on to build in the area throughout its 50s heyday, and as a result Scottsdale is full of mid-century modern gems. Craftsman Court, the Triangle Building, City Hall and the Hotel Valley Ho are all worth a look for a slice of retro Americana.
Cowboys more your thing? Scottsdale is home to the Buffalo Chip Saloon, a genuine rodeo where guys and gals wear the hats, the boots, neckerchiefs and even spurs for real – without looking like they’re in the Village People. An evening corralled at this outdoor ring is an electrifying experience, and the perfect place to head whether you’ve got dancing shoes – or a death wish. In truly terrifying fashion, anyone is invited to ride the bulls, no previous experience necessary. Just sign a form, don some protective gear, kiss goodbye to your loved ones and you’re good to go. Cheaper than euthanasia and a damn sight more exciting, I recommend it. With an average ride lasting around five seconds, there’s a high turnover of nutters to pray for as they get jerked around by the bulls (as well as some seasoned pros), line dancing for the scaredy-cats like me, and masses of beer for everyone.
One of the best decisions of the night was lining my stomach with dinner at Bryan’s Black Mountain BBQ. An unassuming spot down the road from the Buffalo Chip, it’s decorated in neon signage that promises to deliver premium meat-sweats. It does not disappoint. In the kitchen is chef/patron Bryan himself, who, after years of working in fancy hotels, turned his skill to grassroots cooking and creating the ultimate BBQ. A gloriously sticky, unctuous affair, this meal was a highlight: expect seasonal specials such as frogs’ legs and bison ribs, as well as the classics, executed with finesse. Fortunately the local hiking is hardcore, and Scottsdale offers masses of scenic riding trails to explore, so get stuck into the wicked Southwestern portion sizes and pay for it later. Or take the laidback approach to activity and hop on a hot air balloon tour.
Flash, gutsy, and spiritual all in one, there’s a curious charm to this town that makes more sense when seen from the sky. Up here, the verdant, manicured lawns of Scottsdale sit aside their rough and ready desert neighbor in stubborn compromise. Rocky outcrops span for miles around, ablaze with colour thanks to the last of the spring flowers, lit up by the dawn sun.
Proud saguaro cacti, the State’s national symbol, punctuate the landscape like wooden extras in a Western, while jackrabbits scoot around in the dust and tumbleweed soldiers on.