Lynne Coates visits Scottsdale in Arizona and experiences some thrilling activities.
It’s not the take-off you have to worry about, it’s the landing”, explained our hotair balloon pilot. “If the winds are over 10mph the basket might just get dragged by the balloon, and you along with it”. That did little to steady my nerves as we took off over the Sonoran Desert.
As a guest of Experience Scottsdale, my packed itinerary certainly included some exciting experiences. Accompanied on the trip by my other half, we picked up our rental car at Phoenix Sky Harbour airport, turned the air-conditioning on full (it was 36 degrees outside), set the GPS and soon arrived at The Valley Ho. This hotel is a true icon in Scottsdale. The first to be built in what was then a desert town, it became a Hollywood hideaway for film stars, as the isolated location gave them the privacy they craved during their private holidays.
The style of the building was considered ground-breaking mid-century modern architecture. Today the city of Scottsdale has been built up around it. However, the present owners have renovated the hotel, carefully maintaining its original character, incorporating retro style furniture and décor. As soon as I entered the lobby/bar, I fell in love with Valley Ho. Maybe it was the rock and roll 50s & 60s music that plays continuously, or just maybe, the Hollywood magic lingers on in this unique hotel. After an excellent dinner in the ZuZu restaurant, and with our body clocks telling us it was the early hours of the next morning, we fell into bed.
Due to the extremely high temperatures in Arizona, activities need to take place early in the day, before the heat builds up.
So at 4am, after just a few hours’ sleep, and rather jet-lagged, we met our driver from Hot Air Expeditions who was to drive us to the take-off area for a hot-air balloon flight. I’m not good with heights so, for me, this presented a challenge, but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity which I was sure would be amazing.
We met up with the other passengers, so there would be a group of eleven in the basket. Captain John, a great character and a very experienced hot-air balloon pilot, gave us a safety briefing whilst the balloon was being inflated. By now my legs were turning to jelly, my earlier bravado deserting me.
The balloon was much bigger than I had thought (around 150 feet high) and the basket, hanging beneath it, much smaller! Too late to back out, we clambered into the basket and were quickly up and away. Climbing to between 5,000 and 7,000 feet, with the Sonoran Desert stretching out beneath us, was simply breathtaking.
It is an indescribably tranquil experience, floating serenely over a spectacularly beautiful landscape, the only noise coming from the intermittent firing of the burners that keep the balloon airborne. With unobstructed long-distance views it is by far the best way to see the mountains and desert scenery.
The landing was a bit bumpy. but it had been an unforgettable experience. The ground crew laid out a traditional post-flight, champagne breakfast for us, as our captain told us the fascinating story of the origins of hot-air ballooning.
Returning to the hotel, still only early morning, we refreshed and set off to explore Old Town Scottsdale. Teaming with great restaurants, individual boutiques and shops full of Native American arts and crafts, the Old Town is diverse and fascinating. We stopped for lunch at Diego Pops, for Mexican food served with a tropical and cosmopolitan twist – the nachos were the best ever!
Afterwards, we headed for Fashion Square. A sophisticated elegant shopping mall, housing top American stores such as, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Macy’s, this is a retail powerhouse attracting international visitors as well as stylish locals. Some air-conditioned shopping is the perfect activity when the afternoon temperatures soar.
In the south eastern part of Arizona, there are flourishing vineyards and new wine producers. Located 5,000 feet above sea level, the warm Arizona sun combines with cool evenings, to provide the perfect balance for the grapes. We began our evening by visiting Carlson Creek tasting rooms in Downton Scottsdale, to sample some of their finest wines. This family-owned vineyard is the third largest in the state and produces a wide-ranging selection of wines.
After a generous sampling we headed for dinner at FnB restaurant, a short walk away. With an award-winning chef, known for her elevated vegetable creations, it is not surprising that this trendy restaurant is one of the most popular in Scottsdale. Imaginative, innovative food is cleverly paired with a selection of Arizona wines.
The next morning I headed to the Valley Ho Spa for a hot stone massage, aptly titled ‘Rock & Roll’. Heated Guasha stones, together with warmed birch sticks, were skilfully applied, leaving me soothed and relaxed and ready to continue our sight-seeing itinerary.
We drove out of town to lunch at The Vig, Mc Dowell Mountain, a popular bar/restaurant, that serves great food. I loved the ice mist that kept us cool as we ate on the alfresco terrace. After lunch we visited nearby Taliesin West, the home of Frank Lloyd Wright, an innovative architect who utilised desert rocks and sand to create buildings in keeping with the surrounding environment.
He designed many iconic buildings including his own home, which housed his studio and an architectural laboratory, now a tourist attraction. Next up was the Desert Botanical Garden, another very popular tourist destination just outside Scottsdale, which has the world’s finest collection of arid-land plants from deserts around the world in a unique outdoor setting.
There are differently themed trails, which illustrate conservation, desert living, plants and people of the Sonoran Desert. Who knew there were so many different varieties of cactus! My favourite tourist attraction was in downtown Scottsdale – The Western Spirit, Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, affiliated to the Smithsonian.
The museum houses some wonderful Old West artefacts, from saddles to sheriff’s badges. It also exhibits many great artworks and sculptures relating to the American Indian culture, and a gallery of old movie posters depicting some of the most famous cowboy films. An excellent museum.
Checking out of Valley Ho Hotel, we moved out of town to the Andaz Scottsdale Resort and Spa, named as one of the ‘World’s Best Hotels’ on Conde Nast Traveler’s, 2017 Hot List. With stunning views of Camelback Mountain, this luxury oasis, inspired by modern artists
and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, cleverly incorporates the desert landscape into its design.
Individual bungalow-style guestrooms are linked by winding pathways and gardens. They are spacious and ultra-contemporary, with great wardrobe space, walk-in double showers, 65” Wi-Fi enabled TV, and private terraces.
The resort’s main swimming pool, with its white tented cabanas, sun loungers and Turquoise pool bar, provides the ultimate chill-out zone. There are two more pools in the Palo Verde Spa, a gorgeous new addition to the resort, where I had one of the best bespoke massages ever! We ate dinner in the hotel’s Weft & Warp restaurant, where the chef, working in a ‘glass box’ kitchen, produces an eclectic menu using local ingredients – dinner, served outside on the terrace, was delicious!
Another day, another activity – kayaking. Our guide from Arizona Outback Adventures picked us up from our hotel for an early start, and drove us to the lower Salt River, which flows from the North Arizona Mountains.
Once we got the hang of how to handle the paddle and travel in a straight line, following the currents, we loved it. Gliding gently down the river, beneath the shadows of the stunning mountain ranges, we came across a group of beautiful wild horses drinking from the river – it was the highlight of the day – a truly magical moment!
That night we dined at the Fat Ox, an authentic Italian restaurant near to our hotel. Their freshly prepared pasta was melt in the mouth, and their signature made-to-order Caesar salad, creatively prepared at the table, was incredible. Unlike many American destinations, where restaurants tend to be generic chains, there is such a great choice of individual restaurants in Scottsdale, and certainly the ones we ate in were all superb.
On our last day we drove out to Fort McDowell stables, about a half hour drive from Scottsdale, to go horse riding across the Verde River Valley. Riding cowboy style and accompanied by one of the wranglers, we rode through the Sonoran Desert and across the Verde River.
The horses knew the route well and picked their way over the sharp desert stones and into the river, it was a surreal and thrilling experience to be on horseback, immersed in such a spectacular landscape. A fantastic climax to what had been an extraordinary journey, with adventures, interesting sites and plenty of good food and wine – an absolutely brilliant trip. Scottsdale has so much to offer as a tourist destination – a great choice of excellent hotels and restaurants, exciting activities, interesting tourist attractions, and stunning scenery. If you haven’t already visited, put Scottsdale Arizona on your ‘to do’ list – it’s fabulous!
We were guests of Experience Scottsdale (www.experiencescootsdale.com).
British Airways flies direct from Heathrow to Phoenix. www.ba.com
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