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Desert Companion

Phoenix: Bright and Blazing Phoenix

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Hula's
Courtesy Hula's in Scottsdale

Hula’s in Scottsdale

This desert metropolis can make you dizzy with options. Here’s our must-do list

The Valley of the Sun is a vacation wonderland. It’s also huge! Filled with palm tree-lined resorts and charming boutique hotels, Phoenix and its surrounding cities make for one of the most fantastic travel destinations in the U.S. We could go on for pages about the top amenities and hot spots in this metro area of some 5 million residents. Instead, let’s hit the best of the best — my latest favorites in the area’s culture and cuisine.

First Friday

First Friday in downtown Phoenix.

SAMPLE, SAVOR, REPEAT

For gastronomes, Phoenix is a woefully underrated destination, and not just for its restaurants. As much of a cultural experience as it is a foodie mecca, the charming Queen Creek Olive Mill (queencreekolivemill.com) makes for quintessential agritourism. Take a tour to learn how olive oil is pressed and bottled, then order lunch from a menu filled with charcuterie, cheeses, salads, panini, pizzas, and gelati. The grassy, shaded backyard is made for family picnics. There’s also an impressive gourmet retail shop. Be sure to plan for a full day, though, as it’s a 50-minute drive from central Phoenix to the mill.

For heartier fare with flavor to spare, fuel up in the morning for Sonoran Desert adventures at the high-energy Hash Kitchen (hashkitchen.com), a local family of daytime eateries. Eggs are the specialty, from scrambles and Benedicts to frittatas, and feature ingredients like chipotle-braised chicken breast, house-smoked salmon, herb-whipped goat cheese, caramelized onions, and fresh broccolini. The extensive bloody mary bar is a head-turner, too.

Support comes from

Arizona benefits from a great deal of cultural influence from Mexico, and that naturally makes for top-notch quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas, and more. For a modern take on all things tortilla, take a table at the hopping Blanco Tacos & Tequila (blancotacostequila.com) in the fashionable Biltmore neighborhood. Savory upscale fillings include braised short rib, chipotle shrimp, and grilled mahi-mahi.

It isn’t just the food that’s spicy. No doubt about it, it gets blazing hot in Phoenix and Scottsdale — even in May. Take refuge from the radiant Sonoran Desert in tropical-island style at the two Hula’s Modern Tikis (hulasmoderntiki.com). Inside the attractive and sociable lounges that blend mid-century modernism with tiki culture, you can chill out with a potent Mai Tai, Zombie, or shared Scorpion Bowl.

If you’re more of a worshipper of the grape, you’re in a bunch of luck. Arizona has a burgeoning wine industry, with grapevines now filling farmland and orchards in numerous parts of the Copper State. So sip on some rocking varietals at the new Merkin Vineyards Wine Bar in Old Town Scottsdale (merkinvineyards.org). It’s owned by musician and wine baron Maynard James Keenan, who fronts the renowned band Tool — a perfect example of the Phoenix area’s multi-sensory appeal. Cheers!

CULTURE AND CURIOSITIES

the Musical Instrument Museum

The Musical Instrument Museum

Located in the heart of Downtown Phoenix, the Arizona Science Center (azscience.org) is a must-visit space for lifelong learners of all ages. This summer, get face-to-face with ancient cultures with the excellent Mummies of the World exhibit, which features preserved folks from Ancient Egypt, Europe, South America, and beyond. Maybe the timelessness of music is more your tune. If you love good sounds, take in the audio-visual extravaganza that is the super-cool Musical Instrument Museum — or MIM, as the cool kids of Arizona say (mim.org). The collection is diverse and even a bit kooky, from the world’s largest playable sousaphone to some of Tito Puente’s cowbells and Johnny Cash’s guitars.

Phoenix offers plenty to feast on for the eyes as well. Situated in one of Phoenix’s oldest neighborhoods, the funky and energetic Roosevelt Row Arts District (rooseveltrow.org) has grown recently into a string of independent galleries and local eateries just north of Downtown’s gleaming skyscrapers. With shady streets, it’s an ideal avenue for strolling on feet or exploring with bike shares or electric scooters. Even better, it’s on the Valley Metro Train route for easy access.

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