By Katrice L. Mines, Editor
Forget what you’ve heard about the desert.
It’s hardly the muted sea of dust and tumbleweed you’d half expect if your imagination was reliant upon television Westerns. The desert is beautiful. Lifelong locals will let you in on a secret: the mélange of pools surrounding Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, specifically, have resulted in new vegetation in the Sonoran Desert around it. Unexpected colorful blooms join indigenous ocotillos from out of thin air … well, moisture in the air; a wonderful distraction mingled with sky-high cacti and the occasional critter sighting. It’s not the Arizona you’d expect.
Where / “I’d move here,” I told the manicurist at Steven Paul Salon. I’d popped in for a spur-of-the-moment polish refresh and landed in the chair of longtime Scottsdale dweller Jennifer Vieyra. I was in at an optimal time as Vieyra is usually booked. A transplant from Michigan, she and I had the Midwest as well as a fast affinity for the air about Scottsdale in common. The city had been her choice – fresh out of high school when her mother determined the southwest destination where she’d relocate. The palm trees, I said, had me at hello. My stay was divided between two sides of the city, with accommodations at both Royal Palms Resort and Spa, and The Saguaro; Quite literally an option of something for any taste between the two. Royal Palms, originally a couple’s desert getaway at the base of Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, opened to the public in the late ‘40s offering the intimate atmosphere of a luxurious, private residence from its winding driveway lined with regal palms and a 250-year-old fountain in the circular porte cochere to the entrance of Al Vadora Spa, thoughtfully nestled amidst its guest quarters. Distinguished among Phoenix and Scottsdale luxury resorts, Royal Palms is a sprawl of 119 artfully appointed casitas, estate rooms and villas with courtyards, lush vegetation and views best described as the stuff of painters’ dreams. Visuals aside, experience is key here. T. Cook’s New American Kitchen, on property, is an utterly delightful piece of that puzzle; an ethos demonstrated with both exceptional dine-in service and to my casita. Executive Chef Paul McCabe’s approach: fresh, seasonal, local and ingredient-driven cooking. Imagine this … Aged Ribeye Cap, manchego, smoked tomato, mushrooms and very fine foie. Yes. It happens here.
Feeling like a sexy escape? The Saguaro Hotel will be your speed. Inspired by the contemporary architecture of Mexico and the Arizona desert, the trendy, vibrant hotel situates you aptly amidst Old Town, the Arts district and Civic Center Mall — a bold paletted sea of pinks, greens, yellows, oranges and flat-out coolness. Inside each of its eclectic rooms, décor of vintage cameras and sightseeing magazines, and contemporary and natural furnishings in wood and leather, including hand-crafted pieces imported from Mexico. Choose accommodations with a view of the palm tree-shrouded heated pools lined with cabanas, daybeds and chic lounge seating. The Saguaro offers poolside dining, fresh fruit margaritas, crafted cocktails, and DJ sets and live music. For dinner, however, Distrito — just off the lobby — is a must. Run by The Food Network’s own Iron Chef Jose Garces, you’ll find the vibe of The Saguaro fluid. Did I mention that it’s sexy? Featuring shareable plates and contemporary interpretations of regional Mexican favorites, the restaurant throws caution to the classics to offer the full range of exciting and flavorful cuisine served in the Distrito Federal, as it is known by residents. I kept it light with a Pescado taco: plantain crusted mahi mahi, chipotle remoulade, avocado and red cabbage. At the bar, more than 100 varieties of tequila.
You’ll be tempted by the allure of the surroundings to restaurants like Virtù, a downtown favorite; and rightfully so. Virtù, tucked inside Old Town Scottsdale’s newly opened Bespoke Inn, is the home of Chef Gio Osso whose menu features contemporary cuisine inspired by his Mediterranean roots and global influences. At Virtù, expect a menu that changes almost weekly, featuring house-made pastas, superb seafood and new Mediterranean creations. Of note, the pan seared scallops, butternut squash, bacon and caramelized onion and white chocolate beurre blanc. And for dessert, go out on a limb and request a suggestion. You won’t be disappointed.
Why / Taliesin West. Singh Farms. SMOCA. Queen Creek Olive Mill. Desert Splash adventuring. In any order.
Taliesin West, the world-renowned home of American architect, interior designer, writer and educator Frank Lloyd Wright, is located on the Sonoran Desert in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in northeast Scottsdale. Even an architectural novice will be intrigued after experiencing Wright’s brilliant ability to integrate indoor and outdoor spaces through the desert oasis that he began building in 1937 as his personal winter home, studio and architectural campus. Wright designed more than 1,000 structures before his death.
Foodies, stick a pin: Singh Farms and Queen Creek Olive Mill. Difficult to envision but very much a reality, a robust 20 acres of fully bloomed farmland — kale, artichokes, mushrooms, rosemary and more, is actually happening on the Sonoran Desert. Singh Farms is the agricultural masterpiece of Ken Singh and is sourcing favorite for local chefs who shop for fresh produce, bread, olive oil and honey. And more. Queen Creek Olive Mill, one of state’s top five foodie destinations, is a haven of goodness from its noted eatery where olive oil is a key ingredient in many entrees and desserts to its gourmet marketplace of oils, vinegars, olives, tapenades, fine wines and its own line of natural body products made from extra virgin olive oil. Arizona’s only working olive mill and farm, Queen Creek offers Olive Oil classes, annual festivals, daily product tastings and weekly wine tastings. The double chocolate extra virgin olive oil cupcakes alone, however, caused me to vow a return.
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art is Arizona’s only permanent museum dedicated solely to modern works of art, design and architecture. Located in walking distance from The Saguaro in the center of downtown Scottsdale, nine to 12 exhibitions per year rotate continually allowing patrons to experience the most current works of art that represent the thinking of the best and the brightest. Take in “Olafur Eliasson: Beauty” which you will come upon suddenly after having meandered slowly down a pitch black hallway into a faintly lit room with an enigmatic installation of mist and fractured light. See it before it ends August 17, 2014.
Easily a unique getaway by land, a visit to the desert simply isn’t complete until you’ve breathed it in from above. Flightseeing tours along the Apache Air Trail for an overhead view of some of Arizona’s most stunning landscapes should be requisite; and not just for adventure types. A splash down water landing on Roosevelt Lake courtesy of Desert Splash Adventures or one of Island Air Express’s varied Cessna Caravan Amphibious Seaplane tours are an explorer’s dream. Choices range from flyovers of Saguaro Lake, Salt River Canyon, Roosevelt Dam and Tonto Indian Ruins to extraordinary activity-based excursions like canyoneering, standup paddleboarding in hidden enclaves, brunch on Roosevelt Lake, ancient ruins exploration and cowboy adventures.
When / It’s tough not be charmed by the weather alone in the spring. The winter wind-down excursion, my first experience in Arizona, fell on the last week of February when the welcoming temperature leveled at a dry 78 degrees — seemingly the magic time.
But as realities go, it would not be difficult to imagine any trip to Scottsdale — the right time.