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Desert Companion

A Lively Mix

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Scottsdale’s waterfront canal
Photo by Dayvid Lemmon for Experience Scottsdale

Scottsdale’s waterfront canal

The many sides of Scottsdale — cowboy, hipster, outdoorsy — come together in a downtown filled with food, cocktails, art, and shopping

The three distinct personalities of Scottsdale, Arizona — the picturesque horse town with a cowboy spirit; the hipster playground of midcentury modern architecture, effervescent nightlife, and Rat Pack-era vibe; the palm-filled athletic wonderland — converge at its historic hub, the lively streets of Old Town. When you visit this distinctive Southwestern vacation spot, 31 miles long and home to 250,000, Old Town is where you want to be.

Easily reached by a quick flight into nearby Sky Harbor International Airport or a five-hour drive down scenic U.S. Route 93 (someday to be Interstate 11), Scottsdale’s downtown is filled with abundant lodging options, ranging from the posh Phoenician resort to the clean lines of the Aloft Scottsdale. In my recent visits, I’ve stayed at the gorgeous Hotel Valley Ho (hotelvalleyho.com), a AAA Four Diamond destination.

Built in 1956, this is a classic example of post-WWII architectural exuberance, complete with Space Age style and Googie flourishes. Restored just over a decade ago to its original glory, its seven-story central tower, porte-cochère, and retro signage are photogenic symbols of Scottsdale and its heritage as a resort mecca. The lobby is airy and filled with natural light, accenting a beautiful stone-lined wall with a dramatic metal-flued fireplace. Throughout the property, exposed brick, abstract stone lintels, and geometric banisters extend the exciting midcentury aura, something that’s also reflected in the property being named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to its prestigious Historic Hotels of America roster.

The Valley Ho hosts an lively social scene, beginning at its signature restaurant and lounge, ZuZu, which is open to the handsome lobby area. It specializes in American cuisine made  with local produce. Standout dishes I’ve enjoyed include Planks + Eggs, a savory breakfast skillet with red chili-beef short-rib stew, potato planks, eggs, cotija cheese, and tortilla crisps. For lunch, the house burger comes with bacon, bleu cheese, and caramelized onion. The star of the dinner menu is the braised duck and mushroom ragout, uniting succulent shreds of poultry with tender pappardelle pasta. A confit leg nestles in the middle as a crowning gesture. And then there’s the glittering OH Pool Bar + Cabanas, complete with a pair of whirlpools and a full bar. It’s a favorite for sunseekers looking to kick back in the Sonoran Desert with a margarita or mojito.

An up-and-coming culinary hotspot, Old Town is made for roving gastronauts. It’s replete with homegrown restaurants, starting with coffee and pastries in the morning. Two particular espresso-focused nooks stand out: gleaming Berdena’s (berdenas.com) and arty Cartel Coffee Lab (cartelcoffeelab.com). For a handcrafted bagel, chocolate chip cookie made with mesquite flour, or tart lemon kombucha gelato, pop into cheerful Super Chunk Sweets & Treats (superchunk.me).

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Some of Scottsdale’s leading sit-down restaurants line the Arizona Canal, which flows languidly through the downtown district and makes for a pretty waterfront in the Valley of the Sun. At either side of the Soleri Bridge and Plaza, diners can find the globally inspired Herb Box (theherbbox.com) and the Mediterranean-focused Olive & Ivy (foxrc.com), both of which offer charming (and very popular) patio seating. Also close by is bustling Barrio Queen (barrioqueen.com) with its Mexican-influenced menu.

As for mixology, Old Town is packed with drinkeries. One of the most exquisite cocktails I’ve savored recently is the Aristocrat, at the opulent but welcoming Cafe Monarch (cafemonarch.com), located just a block from the Valley Ho. Made with hard-to-find WhistlePig 10-year-old rye whiskey, Fernet Mentha, blueberry purée, lemon, and Angostura bitters, it’s a classy sipper to match its swanky surroundings. At shimmering Counter Intuitive (counterintuitiveaz.com) — which not only has glowing chandeliers and a stamped tin ceiling, but an impressive jackalope behind the bar — my go-to potable is I’m Your Huckleberry. It’s a bang-up blend of Eagle Rare Bourbon, tawny port, amaro Montenegro, huckleberry, Angostura bitters, and lemon oil. For additional, more advanced handcrafted adult beverages, ascend a flight of steps to the atmospheric Second Story Liquor Bar (secondstoryaz.com) for a snappy yet floral Violette Reviver with Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Lillet blanc, Cointreau, crème de violette, and lemon. For microbrews, amble into Citizen Public House (citizenpublichouse.com); it has a great happy hour, complete with small plates like heirloom popcorn with a hint of pork belly nuance, Castelveltrano olives, and rosemary-roasted nuts.

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Hotel Valley Ho
Photo courtesy Hotel Valley Ho

Hotel Valley Ho

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The Rusty Spur
Photo courtesy of The Rusty Spur

The Rusty Spur

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Scottsdale's Museum of the West
Photo courtesy of Scottsdale's Museum of the West

Scottsdale's Museum of the West

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Pork Belly and Kimchi Taco
Photo courtesy of CRUjiente Tacos

Pork Belly and Kimchi Taco from CRUjiente Tacos

For a watering hole with a Wild West flavor, mosey over to the Rusty Spur Saloon (rustyspursaloon.com) on Main Street for twangy hoedown sounds from the house headliners, the Psychobilly Rodeo Band. In a similar vein, cold ones go down nicely on the huge porch at the rustic Coach House (480-990-3433); like the Rusty Spur, it has been around since the ’50s. And then there’s Scottsdale’s vino culture. As Arizona has a growing winemaking industry, including two American Viticultural Areas to the south near Tucson, Scottsdale is home to a handful of tasting rooms, including the aptly named Aridus Wine Company (ariduswineco.com), where imbibers can sample individual vintages for a nominal fee in its stylish Main Street space.

For an epicurean side trip, it’s worth driving into the adjacent Phoenix neighborhood of Arcadia. There, scratch corn tortillas get a gourmet treatment at CRUjiente Tacos (crutacos.com). Think proteins like lamb, duck, tuna poke, and even lobster, along with more traditional fillings. For an extravaganza of edibles, visit Le Grande Orange Grocery (lagrandeorangegrocery.com); it’s a gourmet market fused with a pizzeria, deli, gelateria, espresso bar, and lounge. The adventurous pies are made with a tangy, three-day fermented dough and artisanal toppings, from shaved fennel and crimini mushrooms to sausage made in-house.

When it’s time to work off all those calories, you’re in luck: Old Town embraces the outdoors. A bike-share program has fat-tire cruisers ready for rental at seemingly every corner in town. Merely download an app to start riding; as a bonus, the first hour is free. For hiking among stately saguaro cacti, Echo Canyon Recreation Area at lofty Camelback Mountain (phoenix.gov) is a short jaunt in a car, as is immense Papago Park (phoenix.gov) a mile or so to the south. For fans of America’s national pastime, Major League Baseball’s Cactus League spring training season is a big draw to the overall Phoenix area, including the San Francisco Giants, who play in Scottsdale Stadium on the eastern edge of Old Town (cactusleague.com).

Old Town is also noteworthy for its vibrant visual arts scene, and its sidewalks are lined with independent galleries, like Altamira Fine Art (altamiraart.com). A quick walk from the Valley Ho, it specializes in paintings with a New West aesthetic. For a touch of the abstract, stroll into Gebert Contemporary (gebertartaz.com) — you can’t miss the titanic head sculpture out front. For a stunning collection of paintings and artifacts from west of the Mississippi, spend time in Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West (scottsdalemuseumwest.org). While the moniker is a mouthful, the institution is a Smithsonian affiliate and has artistic treasures like a large-scale painting of Kit Carson by modernist Maynard Dixon in the lobby, and landscapes by Thomas Moran, the 19th-century master of depicting America’s wild lands. Four blocks to the east, along First Street, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (smoca.org) showcases recent aesthetic trends. And scattered about the neighborhood, stores like Bischoff’s Shades of the West and the plainly named Mexican Imports sell Southwestern wear and tchotchkes. If you’re in the market for shiny new cowboy boots, find sizes and styles galore in Saba’s, pardner. Indeed, whichever side of yourself you’re ready to indulge, Scottsdale has you covered.

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