Stretched across the American states of Arizona and California and the bordering country of Mexico, the Sonoran Desert is a cactus-filled refuge of luxury hotels, inspired cuisine and cultural icons. Landing at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, a short drive will deposit you in Scottsdale, an upscale city primed for a perfect escape under (nearly) year-round sunshine. This is the desert. It’s hot and it’s dry. Stay hydrated, seek shade often, and enjoy the incredible topography and the unique outposts that are unlike anywhere else in the world.
Stop 1 – Hotel Valley Ho
Opened in 1956 and designed by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Hotel Valley Ho was both a beacon and a stopover for film stars traveling to and from California – Frankie Avalon, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Cary Grant were among the pack that called the literal hot spot their home away from home. Today, the Hotel Valley Ho’s exterior largely remains while the interior has had an authentic refit reflecting the heritage of the property; and it still attracts the stars, and the awards – the long list inlcudes: World’s Sexiest Hotels, Most Stylish New Destinations and Best Boutique Hotel.
Stay in The Tower – a hotel within a hotel where mid-century aesthetics have been given a modern makeover and tiny details from the fifties linger in the suites like a miniature 1957 Dodge and linear furnishings. It’s all about subtlety and staying true to style. Nothing is overdone. In the hotel’s restaurant ZuZu, low volume golden oldies transport you as you dine on seasonal, contemporary cooking made from farm-fresh ingredients. Tip: The kitchen makes only a small batch of cinnamon buns every morning, get one while you can and pair it with a mimosa. For lunch, the salads have a California-esque feel and the burgers are perfect. Be sure to get a side of shoestring onion rings, you will not regret it. Have your own pool party and try the Ho-J – the restaurant’s signature orange milkshake.
Location really is a coup for the Hotel Valley Ho; it’s the high-rise anchor to low-rise Old Town Scottsdale’s prolific arts district. Walk out the front door and you’re on the ArtWalk where dozens of galleries await. Stop by Bonner David and Gebert for contemporary, and just about everywhere else for southwestern collections. At the far end of the walk you’ll find the well-curated Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art – a compact, minimalist museum in a re-architected cinema.
Another commanding piece of architecture sits just off the main drag and pretty much draws you to it – Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West. Designed by Studio MA and affiliated with the Smithsonian – prepare yourself to take in serious information on Americans Indians, cowboys and mountain men. Pristine collections of vintage film posters, chaps, guns (this is America after all) and saddles will leave you dreaming of a wilder West. The Sculpture Courtyard is the spot for a break and to take in modern Arizona.
Stop 2 – The Canyon Suites
Sidled up against Camelback Mountain – a towering red sandstone and granite monolith resembling, you guessed it, a camel – is The Canyon Suites. The mountain was a sacred site of the Hohokam in prehistoric times and is now a base for one of Scottsdale’s most luxurious escapes, and where the multi-million-dollar homes of the Arizona elite are built.
The Canyon Suites (the only Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond luxury accommodation in Phoenix), tucked slightly uphill from the Phoenician – a resort that has been delighting holidaymakers for nearly thirty years – make up the more exclusive mini enclave for the ultimate luxury getaway. Built in 1996 and having just undergone a three-month refurbishment, space is the premium here with expansive suites that feature a full-sized dining area for entertaining, a tastefully-appointing living room, a guest powder room, large en suites and a private terrace overlooking a secluded pool with mountainside views accented with tumbling boulders and arid flora. Little details make you feel truly special. Shortly after checking in, all staff knows your name, and when you return to a tidied room, there are clever little details that reinforce that you’re being well looked after.
A gourmet breakfast in the morning is your first port of call, sat in the environs of the mountain with the only sounds being absolute silence and falling water from the property’s desert waterfall. Do not miss The Canyon Suites’ own desert garden walk and get a wake-up call early one morning to summit Camelback Mountain. The Suites, always with your comfort in mind, will kindly supply you with a mini backpack ready-packed with water, sun care, plasters and a snack. After a sun-filled climb, you’ll definitely need some extravagant downtime. Treat yourself to a hydrating infusion facial and a massage at The Center for Well-Being.
And because you can never get enough of the desert plant life, test your newly acquired cactus identification skills at the Desert Botanical Garden. Aside from seeing prickly pears, saguaros, agave and devil-claws, do not skip a dining experience at Gertrude’s. Named after the garden’s founder, the restaurant is exceptional and you can sample things like Black Tepary Bean Soup (a pre-Columbian bean grown in Arizona) and Sonoran Style Fried Rice.
Stop 3 – Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North
Stunning rock formations are scattered throughout Scottsdale and if you head north to the high Sonoran Desert, you’ll find Pinnacle Peak, and at the foot of the peak, you’ll find a charming adobe village; this is Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North. A mecca for desert golf enthusiasts, the resort offers above all, seclusion. You could wile away a day on your private balcony, scanning the surrounding rock outcroppings and desert terrain for desert wildlife, or visit the spa or the pool, play tennis, go hot air ballooning or stargazing. Rooms feature tranquil, Territorial interiors – a blend of southwestern pueblo with Victorian elements, complete with fireplaces (the desert is scorching during sunlight hours, but temperatures can dip significantly in the evenings).
Desert-influenced restaurants make it easy to stay on-site. Proof is western meets informal with waitstaff donning cowboy-chic ensembles ready to serve you American comfort classics like BBQ rib bites, truffled duck fries, shrimp and oyster po’boys, chicken and waffles and fried green tomatoes. Start with a Laaaaaaid Back Mule (bluecoat gin, watermelon, basic, lime and ginger beer) and save room for dessert; Americans know how to do it. The salted caramel, pretzel chocolate cake is everything you could imagine and more. Talavera is fine dining, desert-style. Prime-cut steak is the specialty – try the eight-once, bacon-wrapped buffalo tenderloin with mole Oaxaqueño, foie gras and cherries or to fully experience the offering, go for the six-course tasting menu with wine pairing.
It’s hard to pry yourself from the relaxed surrounds of Troon North, but you cannot miss the Musical Instrument Museum. When you first arrive it looks like a museum complex with multiple cultural outcroppings, but in fact, this Herculean structure is one museum – the MIM. Over six thousand and two hundred instruments whisk you to nearly two hundred countries through sound, striking curation, and in one instance, touch.
You could spend a full work day here, but if you’re pressed for time, choose a continent or two and wander through their musical customs on the second floor, and then visit the ground floor’s Artist Gallery to step into the worlds of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Taylor Swift, Celia Cruz and ukulele virtuoso, Jake Shimabukuro. The best thing about the MIM might just be the Experience Gallery, where you can actually play the instruments. If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at the theremin or just bang a gong really loud, this is your stage.
On until the 4th of September 2017, the museum is hosting Dragons and Vines: Inlaid Guitar Masterpieces. Instruments become art where painstakingly intricate craftsmanship and precision design collide on some of the world’s most exquisitely made guitars and banjos.
Words by Courtney Blackman