Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 21/1/2017 (1171 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Two guys. No golf. Millions of square miles of desert. What to do?
An astounding amount, actually, in a state that is a lot more — in every way — than the sand and cacti on the postcards your uncle used to mail you every winter.
Here’s the premise: two lifelong friends (more or less, most of the time) travel to Arizona for 10 days of everything the state has to offer, with the lone exception of what has long been its most popular offering — golf.
The bags of golf clubs can outnumber the actual passengers on many Phoenix-bound flights out of Winnipeg in the wintertime, with snow-bound Winnipeggers attracted by the state’s embarrassment of riches when it comes to championship golf courses.
But what if you don’t golf or, alternatively, have finally decided you’ve had enough frustration in your life without paying a green fee for even more, then what would you do in Arizona?
World-class hiking, top-notch biking, five-star eating and some of the world’s great spas, hotels and resorts — that’s what.
Where to begin?
Arizona is nothing less than a paradise of outdoor recreation, from the otherworldly red rock formations in swanky Sedona to the 2,700 kilometres of trails outside quirky Prescott to the otherworldly boulder formations around Cave Creek.
The state, in conjunction with local governments, has invested big money and resources in putting together a massive trail network they think will eventually put Arizona right alongside Colorado and Utah as the place to go in the United States for tourists looking for outdoor recreation opportunities.
The trails outside Sedona are already world-renowned, thanks to the iron oxide content that make them red and the utterly unique erosion patterns that have combined to create some of the most unique geological formations you’ll see anywhere.
The most famous of all is Bell Rock, a dome-shaped formation walking distance from town, which offers a myriad of trails up it, through it and around it that will appeal to any skill level. The hike up Bell Rock is worth the view and for those not faint of heart, there are crevices to be found in an otherwise smooth belt that runs across the formation.
That belt serves as the stopping point for most climbers, but find one of those crevices to give you some purchase and it will spring you past the impasse and from there it’s smooth sailing for hundreds more vertical feet, all the way to the base of the spires that sit atop the Bell Rock’s dome.
You’ll know you’ve climbed higher than most when you look down and groups of people are pointing up at you.
Think of those crevices as Sedona’s Hillary’s Step. Just be careful, all right?
If the crowds, prices and occasionally annoying New-Agey-ness of Sedona isn’t your speed — Good Lord, how many crystals does one person need — then barely an hour away is the once wild west town of Prescott, which has trails and rock formations every bit as appealing as Sedona.
Yeah, you’ll give up the red rocks that are Sedona’s trademark. But what Prescott lacks in iron content, it makes up for with an amazing network of trails, moderate prices and a quirky history that has seen a city once infamous for its red light district and notorious Whiskey Row reinvent itself these days as a tourism hub and, wait for it, headquarters for an overabundance of addiction rehab centres and sober living houses.
The recovering addicts come to Prescott for the same thing as the hikers and bikers — big sky, crisp air, unparalleled beauty and a network of trails so elaborate and lengthy that even the city’s longtime trails director told us he still had hundreds of kilometres to go before he had hiked it all.
The network would be impossible to build, much less maintain, for a city of just 40,000, but the locals took advantage of arguably Arizona’s greatest single resource — its retirees — to establish the network.
A group called "The Over The Hill Gang" — which includes guys well into their 80s — heads out on the trails at least twice a week, maintaining existing trails and building new ones. The retirees get exercise, Prescott gets a big tourism draw and the rest of us get a network of great trails.
Scottsdale’s spectacular 35-km Greenbelt bike path winds its way through the centre of the city, through a maze of golf courses, parks and public lands that offer — for our money — one of the most scenic urban bike routes you will find anywhere.
And bring your fishing pole. Many of the parks have man-made lakes stocked with fish and everywhere you go the shorelines are dotted with fisherman, a sight that would not look out of place in Gimli but seems completely incongruous in the downtown of a major American urban centre which is located, it bears repeating, in a desert.
The best rainbow trout fishing in Manitoba for our money is at Chocolate Lake outside The Pas; we saw a guy pull out a 20-incher in downtown Scottsdale. Go figure.
But it’s not just the fishing that is spectacular.
The paved Greenbelt that weaves its way through Scottsdale comes complete with overpasses and underpasses to allow for seamless passage under and over the city’s major streets. It is smooth, beautifully designed and nothing less than a gorgeous piece of civic engineering.
If Winnipeg had a road even half as nice as Scottsdale’s bike path, you would drive up and down it for hours just to marvel at the wondrous possibilities of first-world infrastructure.
The Resorts, Spas and Hotels
Frank Sinatra once said he’d have lived his entire life in a hotel if he could have. He was thinking of The Boulders in Carefree, Ariz., when he said that.
Set amidst a breathtakingly weird geological formation of boulders as big as houses stacked upon one another, the resort that draws its name from its surroundings is quite simply second to none for comfort, service and just over-the-top opulence.
Championship golf courses? They got two. Five-star food? Everything is spectacular, from a unique oatmeal souffle served up for breakfast to the perfectly seared Ahi tuna wraps for lunch to the elaborate dinner entrées, including a Steelhead trout number that might be the best version of that dish this side of a lakeside northern campfire.
Finely appointed accomodations? The 550-square-foot casitas that dot the border of the golf course have been freshly renovated, with massive bathrooms and walk-in closets that will, in all likelihood, be both bigger and nicer than anything you have at home. Plus, you’ll have a front-row view from your private patio of the golf (revelation — golfers cheat a lot when they don’t realize someone is watching them).
But if you really want to get a flavour for what it’s like to live like the one-percenters, check out the 2,000-square-foot privately owned villas the resort also rents out.
For prices ranging from US$800 a night on the low end to US$3,000 a night on the high end, you get a massive home with nothing but the best of everything including two master suites, a kitchen to die for and an outdoor living area that seems to be just begging for a Bud Light commercial to burst forth.
You’ll probably never be a millionaire, but rent one of these babies and you can pretend to be — at least for a night.
And yes, in case you were wondering, there is a Carefree Highway in Carefree. And yes, the folks there will tell you theirs is the highway Gordon Lightfoot was singing about in that song.
Back in Scottsdale, meanwhile, the Valley Ho and it’s uniquely Mad Men aesthetic offers an utterly unique lodging experience in an age when hotels — particularly in large urban centres — seem to all come from the same cookie-cutter.
Not so at the Valley Ho, where a US$80-million renovation turned what was once a tired old Ramada into what might be the hippest hotel in the southwest. What was once dated is now the coolest kind of retro and walking through the place, you cannot help but wonder if this is the future of tired old Best Westerns and Holiday Inns everywhere.
Valley Ho’s historic Zuzu’s restaurant and lounge, with its huge oval bar and neon lighting, is all Don Draper, while the aqua banquettes at the back of the room are the place in Scottsdale to do business, much of it of the monkey variety judging by the all the canoodling we saw going on back there.
The food in Zuzu’s is as spectacular as the setting. We could go on forever — it’s all fantastic. But in homage to the period it seeks to capture, the crowning achievement coming out of that kitchen is also its simplest creation — a shrimp cocktail so big and so delicious and such an utterly perfect take on the kitschiest of appetizers that it will spoil you for all others forever.
And then there are the spas. It will come as no surprise that, like everything else, the spa at The Boulders is first rate, with offerings that include a variation on the unique Hawaiian Lomi-lomi massage, a low-to-moderate pressure massage that features long sweeping toe to shoulder motions that are said to mimic the South Pacific’s waves. Whatever — it just feels great.
But maybe some of the best pampering in the entire region goes on at Scottsdale’s Omni Resort at Montelucia, which unlike most of the major Scottsdale hotels doesn’t offer its own golf course, choosing instead to make its superb Joya Spa the major drawing card.
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There’s something to be said for doing one thing and doing it well and the Omni gets the spa experience exactly right, right down to the most minute of details in a facility designed by leading spa designer Sylvia Sepielli, the brains behind a number of world reknowned spas, including another in Arizona — the MiiAmo in Sedona.
Paul Wiecek Reporter (retired)
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.
The Saguaro — 4000 N. Drinkwater Blvd. This place is all about the location. Located adjacent to Old Town, the Arts District and Civic Center Mall, you’re within walking distance of a good chunk of the best Scottsdale has to offer.
Hotel Valley Ho — 6850 E. Main St. If it’s good enough for Bing Crosby — and it was — it’s good enough for us. An utterly unique hotel experience, the owners have painstakingly restored this place back to its glory days in the 1950s and ’60s when it was a desert oasis and the place to be seen in Scottsdale for a long list of Hollywood celebrities. You’ll stay in other hotels, but you’ll never stay in another one quite like this.
WHERE TO EAT
Zuzu — Hotel Valley Ho Yes, tell your server you want to sit in the cool aqua banquettes at the back of the room, maybe the best place in all of Scottsdale for people watching. And yes, you absolutely want to order the signature shrimp cocktail. It's a truly massive version of an old-school appetizer served in an old-school setting. You’re welcome.
Craft 64 — 6922 E. Main St. Come for the craft beer and truly spectacular mozzarella, made in-house daily. Stay for the rest of the menu in a restaurant that prides itself on what they don’t have — a freezer or a microwave oven, anywhere on the premises. If it ain’t fresh, they don’t serve it.
The Mission — 3815 N. Brown Ave. This might be the hottest restaurant in Scottsdale right now. They’re lined up out the door for chef Matt Carter’s French cooking with a Latin twist. Looking for a quiet romantic meal? This ain’t the place — they’ve got diners crammed in every corner and the main room approached rock concert decibel levels the night we were there. But want to see and be seen among Scottsdale’s elite? This is the spot.
WHAT TO DO
Camelback Mountain Set in the middle of Scottsdale, this hike isn’t for triflers. Helicopter rescues are routine up here for people who didn’t realize what they were getting themselves into. But if you’re up to getting scuffed, dirty and very, very sweaty, the views of Scottsdale from up here are well worth the walk.
WHERE TO STAY
Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock Some of the best views in Sedona — and that’s saying something truly special — are from the private balcony of one of the 221 newly renovated rooms and suites here. Bonus points for the in-room gas fireplaces and top-notch concierge service that will help you find the hike, trail or excursion that will unlock this magical setting for you.
WHERE TO EAT
Serenitie Bistro and Burger Bar A short walk from the Hilton, this place offers fine, but casual, bistro dining in the dining room or an even more relaxed setting — and menu — in the adjacent bar.
WHAT TO DO
Hike Everywhere. The trail system is as world-class as the views. There’s something for everyone here and not a bad view anywhere in sight. You could spend a month here doing nothing but hiking and not even scratch the surface.
By Air Sedona Air Tours gets you up at eye level with the area’s utterly unique rock formations in a 15-minute helicopter tour. The views are breathtaking and if you take only one helicopter ride in your entire life, this might as well be the place.
WHERE TO STAY
Springhill Suites Prescott — 200 E. Sheldon St. Newly renovated, all suites, free breakfast and walking/stumbling distance to the city’s infamous Whiskey Row.
WHERE TO EAT
Prescott Station — 200 E. Gurley St. An uncommonly large menu, you’ll find something for even the fussiest palate in this place.
WHAT TO DO
There’s a ton of history in this place — and it’s Arizona’s Christmas capital. But the very best part of Prescott is its massive — and growing — network of trails. Hiking, biking, you name it — there’s a scenic trail with your name (and not another soul) on it.
WHERE TO STAY
Boulders Resort and Spa — 34631 N. Tom Darlington Dr. This place is world-renowned — and for good reason. The accommodations, the golf, the restaurants, the hikes and, most of all, the utterly unique setting make this one of those bucket-list places.
WHERE TO EAT
Palo Verde Restaurant — Boulders A gorgeous room, they’re cooking a Southwest menu out of their own organic garden right on site. Looking for something lighter? Try the Spa Cafe, also on site at the Boulders. The lettuce wraps come highly recommended.
WHAT TO DO
Walk The Rock — Boulders Guide Rico Riley takes you on a tour back through time and explains how those otherworldly boulder formations that gave the resort its name actually started two billion years ago with a Precambrian crack that allowed crustal rock formations to bubble up to the surface.