SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — They call him the "Mayor of the Square" and he can often be found catering to the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Just as often Peter Harden will be ensuring the rest of us are getting the red-carpet treatment.
About 20 years ago, Harden left behind a career in the music business and took a job in the security department at the Scottsdale Fashion Square. Two days into his new gig, he was fired for being "too friendly." Mall executives, however, had second thoughts a few days later and brought Harden back in a new position created just for him.
On one of our recent trips to Scottsdale, we had the opportunity to spend a little time with Peter, and he explained his role as the mall's "roving concierge," a position he's helped template for guest-services specialists all across America.
Some days he'll be helping Charles Barkley shop for new threads. Or perhaps Britney's in the house looking for the latest trends. He made such an impression on Robin Williams, the comedian flew him to New York for one of his shows. Harden says plenty of oil sheiks make a shopping pit-stop in Scottsdale en route to Vegas.
On this particular day, he's showing around a couple of Canadians. As we stroll the sparkling, spotless pathways of the mall, Peter spends a considerable amount of time hugging or blowing kisses to his flock -- the staff and customers. He's also on the lookout for those who might be stumped by the mall's maze.
"I want people to leave here with a smile on their face," he says. "If they have a problem, I want to know what I can do to make it better."
Harden epitomizes what awaits visitors to the Scottsdale area: He wants to help, he loves his neighbourhood and he wants you to feel loved when you're in it.
We've had the good fortune of visiting Scottsdale three times over the last two years and have spent that time mostly doing three things: shopping, spas, and swinging the sticks. Here's what we can report:
SHOP, SHOP, TILL YOU DROP
With more than 5,500 stores in Scottsdale, make sure you bring, or buy, a good pair of shoes. If you're into retail therapy, this is one of America's hot spots. But buyer beware. The first time we went to Scottsdale the customs officer in Winnipeg asked if we had room open to buy on our Visa card. 'Ya, it's got a zero balance,' we replied. 'Not when you come back,' he smirked.
Welcome to the No. 1 tourist destination in town. In October, Scottsdale Fashion Square celebrated an expansion with the opening of Barney's New York, joining other anchors Nordstrom's, Macy's, Dillard's (the largest store in the chain) and Nieman Marcus.
The mall now boasts over 200 shops and restaurants, including Coach, Burberry, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Tiffany & Co., Banana Republic... well, you'll have to check the store directory for a complete list. This is no ordinary day at the mall, which attracts more than 12 million visitors annually. Not to be missed.
Kierland Commons: An open-air plaza that features vine-covered trellises, restorative fountains and plenty of local flora. Lots of great boutiques. It also boasts a terrific cigar shop and a gigantic Barnes & Noble. Dining options include Morton's Steakhouse, The Cheesecake Factory, and one of the original Tommy Bahamas cafes. An oasis from the typical mall experience.
Old Town/the Waterfront: That's right, waterfront shopping in the desert. Built along the banks of the Arizona Canal (a water-distribution system), Scottsdale's waterfront project has revitalized the downtown area, and made Old Town the hip place to be. The Fifth Avenue shops have been the heart and soul of Scottsdale shopping for over 50 years, offering stores of many descriptions, most notably the numerous art galleries featuring the area's famous southwestern art. A footbridge over the canal links the area to Scottsdale Fashion Square.
Arizona Mills: A trip to the U.S. is incomplete without a fix at the outlet mall. Located in Tempe, about a half-hour drive from Scottsdale, Arizona Mills is the best of its type in the Phoenix area.
The Scottsdale Promenade: Another outlet mall. Not quite the selection of Arizona Mills, but more quaint and like Kierland Commons, an outdoor shopping experience for those wanting to avoid the indoors. Our itinerary usually includes a quick stop at Nordstrom Rack and a bite to eat at a terrific little Greek cafe, Daphne's, which offers great food, and even better value.
Steve says: So, here's the deal. Time to come clean. Toula is not dragging me to these stores. I'm told Arizona has lots of natural beauty, and yes, we've been to the Grand Canyon. It was magnificent. But the rows of Prada shoes, the racks of Gucci belts, and the shelves upon shelves of cashmere sweaters and designer jeans... man-made beauty found only in places like Scottsdale Fashion Square.
Toula says: The girls at Niakwa know me as the "girl with the hats," and this is where it all started. Coach and Burberry galore. Just don't tell my mom how much they cost. My favourite U.S. store is Chicos. It's a great place for affordable fashion and there are a number of them in the area.
TIME FOR SOME R & R
Heath-seekers and work-weary vacationers have been coming to the desert for years to relax and rejuvenate and Scottsdale has more spas per capita than any other city in the U.S.
Treatments are often inspired by native plants such as aloe vera and jojoba or ancient North American rituals for purification and healing, and there's almost always a special treatment for weary golfers -- and shoppers.
Our experience has been limited to resort spas, but the area has plenty of top-notch day spas, as well. Also, most resort spas are open to non-guests.
Here are a few that we can highly recommend: Spa Avania at the Hyatt Regency at Gainey Ranch; The Four Seasons at Troon; The Centre for Well Being at The Phoenician: Agave at the Westin Kierland and The Spa at Marriott's Camelback Inn.
Steve says: Listen up guys, do not let the wife be the only one who gets pampered on this trip. A steam, massage, shower and shave is a great two or three hours extremely well spent after four or five hours on the links. Follow with a big steak dinner, and you will sleep like a baby.
Toula says: I can't believe I never went to the spa before Scottsdale. What was I thinking? Give yourself a treat -- we deserve it. The spa at Gainey Ranch was the best ever -- felt like a million bucks. Don't worry, it didn't cost near that much.
SWINGING THE STICKS
Scottsdale receives more than 325 days of sun a year. Coupled with approximately 200 courses in the area, offering layouts that range from rolling green fairways of traditional courses to desert target-golf designs, it's no wonder visitors come from around the world. Many PGA and LPGA players make their home here.
The most famous golf event of the season is the FBR Open. Last year, over 500,000 people attended the FBR, with many enclosing the TPC of Scottsdale course's 16th hole, which became the PGA Tour's first-ever fully enclosed "stadium" golf hole in 2009.
Most of the great courses in the area are open to the general public, including TPC of Scottsdale.
We played the course just two weeks after the 2008 FBR and the tunnel from the 15th to the 16th was still in place, as were the grandstands surrounding the hole. Nobody was there to boo us if we missed the green, although pressure in our foursome was palpable. No worries for Toula... she made par. Steve? Not so good.
We prefer to stay where we play and over our three visits, we've stayed at a number of fine golf resorts. Here's a selection for your perusal, in no particular order of preference. It's tough to go wrong in Scottsdale. It is second only to New York City as having more AAA five-diamond hotels than any other city in the United States.
The Four Seasons at Troon: The priciest place on our list, but for sure the most memorable. Located in north Scottsdale, high in the Sonoran Desert, the resort is stylish, peaceful and the service truly epitomizes the vision of Canadian Isadore Sharp, who founded the Four Seasons chain in Toronto in 1961. Adjacent to Troon North Golf Club, ranked one of America's top resorts.
The Phoenician: Located at the base of Camelback Mountain, the views from a number of tee boxes on the spectacular golf courses are breathtaking. Nine picturesque pools and an abundance of palm trees dominate the grounds.
Hyatt Regency at Gainey Ranch: The only way to play Charles Barkley's home course is to stay at the Hyatt. Short, tight and beautiful 18 holes of golf. Nice terrain, well kept and very lush.
Westin Kierland: Best service and great greens. Three distinct nine-hole courses. If you go in the summer, there's air conditioning in the golf carts. Resort offers terrific stay-and-play packages.
Mariott's Camelback Inn: An original gem of the area, folks have been coming to the Camelback Inn since 1931. The resort recently completed a $50-million renovation that includes at new restaurant, BLT Steak... absolutely fantastic. Even if you don't stay here, come for dinner. Two 18-hole courses that are more traditional in nature.
Arizona Grand Resort: Located in Tempe, the Arizona Grand is located next to Arizona Mills, has great deals for Canadians, and the view of the valley from the 18th tee is beyond belief.
Steve says: I have become a huge fan of desert golf. The strategy involved has improved my ability to play to spots, rather than just whacking and chasing. Also, a trip to Arizona is just way easier than most golf holidays from Winnipeg... direct flights via WestJet alleviate a ton of stress when lugging multiple suitcases and two sets of clubs.
Toula says: I just love palm trees and the courses at Gainey Ranch and The Phoenician have so many. Just beautiful. Reminds me of all my trips to Greece as a young girl. Also, I had my best round ever (93) at Mr. Barkley's course. What's up Chuck? Hope Hank has that swing of yours in shape. We'll be watching for you next time.