Scottsdale, Arizona: Outdoor Playground

by Alona Abbady Martinez

Scottsdale is a happy contradiction. Just 12 miles east of Arizona’s state capital, Phoenix, this city of over 246,000 people boasts some of the finest hotels, restaurants, and spas while also offering an extensive and stunning outdoor playground within the wild, untamed Sonoran Desert at its doorstep.

Here is a sampling of how to live your best life in the city nicknamed “The West’s Most Western Town”:

Outdoor Adventure

Exploring McDowell Sonoran Preserve

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a protected area of land consisting of Scottsdale’s McDowell Mountains and Sonoran Desert, provides a place for visitors to connect with the city’s unique desert attractions like saguaro cacti and roadrunners. There are more than 30,500 contiguous acres and over 200 miles of trails, making this an outdoor paradise. Download a map on your smartphone that will offer a variety of trails to explore, or better yet, go with a pro who will point out flora and fauna you may not have noticed on your own. Private guided tours are available for all hiking levels. 

A Balloon Experience With Hot Air Expeditions

The Sonoran Desert is a unique and beautiful place when observed from ground level, but the view from above is astounding in its expansiveness and grandeur. Hot air ballooning is a wonderfully fun and surprisingly tranquil experience for visitors of all ages. The view from the balloon’s handcrafted wicker basket is virtually unobstructed during your approximately hour-long flight—a photographer’s dream. Upon landing, you are welcomed back to earth in the traditional manner with flutes of champagne and delectable gourmet cuisine, a custom dating back more than 100 years. 

Art & Architecture

Taliesin West

The winter home of visionary architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, this home was built by him and his students (serving both as a home and school) in the 1930s and continued to be expanded and modified by him until his death in 1959. It is a National Historical Landmark and serves as the base for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation as well as the campus of the prestigious School of Architecture at Taliesin. 

Of the dramatic architectural accomplishment, Wright said, “Taliesin West is a look over the rim of the world.” Using rocks gathered from the desert and sand from the washes, Taliesin West appears as a modern rebirth from the ancient desert in which it lives. 

Hues of red, from rocks to the timber serve as a nod to the desert, while the usage of sharp angles, natural light, and, what is known as the “compress and release” style (creating a cramped entrance that then opens to a grand space) are signature elements of the venerable architect’s design. One of the additions is the Cabaret Theater, which boasts impeccable acoustics and continues to host performances today. 

Cosanti

Located in Paradise Valley, a ten-minute drive from Scottsdale, Cosanti is the gallery and studio of Italian-American architect (and former student of Wright) Paolo Soleri. Soleri was a master at bell making, creating large, bronze heavy wind chimes that served as part sculpture, part musical instrument for nature. Paolo Soleri invented the words Cosanti, fusing two Italian words, cosa (meaning “things”, “property”, “matter”, “business”) and anti (“against”). He lived here until his death in 2013 and visitors see his vision and art continuing on through dedicated fellow artists, some of who reside there, creating and selling wind-bells among the terraced landscaping and earth-formed concrete structures. 

Desert Botanical Garden

Electric Desert at Desert Botanical Garden

With more than 50,000 desert plants throughout its five thematic trails, the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix offers an impressive collection of arid-land plants from around the world. There are plenty of lectures and workshops on desert landscaping, horticulture, botanical art and nature art and photography. Running through May 12th, guests can experience the desert as never before, during the one-of-a-kind Electric Desert show—an evening experience where cactus and desert are paired with light and original music, akin to a Pink Floyd laser light show.

Treat Yourself

Spa Treatments at The Phoenician Spa

This newly constructed, impressive three-story facility brings a nurturing and contemporary approach to relaxation, fitness and beauty. Experience a personal transformation through a variety of distinctive facials, massages and bodywork therapies, many of which are inspired from the ancient lands of the desert. Lounge in the rooftop pool, which provides a 360-degree view of the resort, along with eight private cabanas and an outdoor fireplace surrounded by plush seating. 

Where To Stay

The Hermosa Inn

Handcrafted in the 1930s by cowboy artist Lon Megargee as his residence and art studio, The Hermosa Inn’s adobe architecture has kept its “old Arizona” character and charm. The 34 guest casitas are nestled in a garden setting with breathtaking vistas of the lush desert and Camelback Mountain. Accommodations reflect the Southwestern architecture of the original hacienda. Its location in the prestigious neighborhood of Paradise Valley, just minutes from the heart of the city, makes this a true jewel hideaway.

Mountain Shadows Resort

Originally built below Camelback Mountain in 1959, Mountain Shadows underwent an extensive remodel, essentially being completely rebuilt, in 2017 and is now a stunning masterpiece of desert modern style, which relies heavily on a melding of the striking landscape with the design. The results are phenomenal, creating an energy of renewal and beauty that makes this a unique (and extremely Instagrammable) destination. 

Hotel Valley Ho

In the 1950s, Scottsdale served as a luxe escape for Hollywood’s biggest stars and Hotel Valley Ho is where celebrities like Bing Crosby, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis would stay. A mid-century marvel with all the luxuries of a modern-day escape following an $80 million restoration, the downtown Scottsdale hotel features generously sized guest rooms with glass walls opening onto airy patios or balconies. Ace Bailey, owner of Ultimate Art & Cultural Tours, is onsite to give tours highlighting the contemporary, seemingly futuristic aesthetic with a hearty emphasis on function: key markers of the mid-century design the Hotel Valley Ho is famous for. 

Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale

Located in the lush desert foothills at the base of Pinnacle Peak, this luxury icon serves as the ideal playground for hiking and mountain biking and offers two world-class golf courses a quick shuttle ride away. There’s plenty of time for relaxation as well with locally inspired spa treatments, a bi-level pool, and impeccable Southwest cuisine. The resort recently underwent a $13 million renovation, bringing with it contemporary new casitas, suites, and public spaces that make this a favorite rocky desert retreat. 

Where To Dine

Lon’s

Inside the serene Hermosa Inn, this contemporary restaurant is hands-on with its garden-to-table philosophy, using produce and herbs from the onsite garden and locally sourced goods from Arizona farmers. Dishes include sea scallop & crisp confit pork belly and smoked duck breast with duck confit croquette, charred carrot puree, swiss chard, and date butter.

FnB Restaurant

Chef Charleen Badman, a James Beard award semifinalist, pays tribute to Arizona’s surprising bounty by creating a vegetable-centric menu relying heartily on local fare. Menu items change seasonally, based on availability, but on a recent visit diners could experience dishes like pickled beets, hazelnuts, and house made ricotta toast; salad of crunchy radishes, celery, anchovy-caper vin, dates, and pepitas; and spaghetti squash camparis, harissa, and cilantro. The eatery also shines a light on little-known, exceptional Arizona wines, courtesy of co-owner Pavle Milic.

Mowry & Cotton at The Phoenician

This rustic chic newcomer within the glamour that is The Phoenician, serves up modern American fare, much of which comes from the hearth oven. Start with buttermilk buns with citrus sea salt butter and duck fat fig butter; and chicken flatbread with fennel tomato, kale, and a pecan pesto, before moving on to other favorites like blistered shishito peppers with malted caramel, black pepper feta, and crispy rice; whole roasted sea bass with ancho chili, corn, cotija, and lime crema, or the charred hanger steak with wild mushroom, pickled blueberry, and sunflower pesto. Desserts include a warm s’mores pie and a cornbread bread pudding with chipotle lime ice cream. There’s also a generous beer and wine collection as well as cocktails with fun names like First Class, Law & Order, and Rye Not?!?!.

Craft 64

With more than 30 Arizona craft beers on tap, Craft 64 is a unique Scottsdale venue for top-notch local craft beer, great wine and artisan wood-fired pizza. Organic ingredients, mozzarella made in-house daily and a wood oven that heats to more than 900 degrees make this is a can’t miss destination for connoisseurs of pizza, beer and wine. 

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