The first time I visited Scottsdale, Ariz., I was in my mid-20s and catering for the rock band Tool (yeah, I know that dates me). One of my oldest friends, Sonia, and her husband had just relocated there from Los Angeles. I escaped work for a few hours to explore the city with them and I was immediately struck by the contrasts. The arid Sonoran desert and soaring mountains bumped up against vast swaths of cultivated, urban sprawl. Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece house/school Taliesin West, built in 1937, seemed forged from the very landscape, while elsewhere, so many shopping centers resembled Lego sets plunked down on a child’s play table. It was a place of raw and natural beauty, but also of highly tailored fashion and a preponderance of plastic surgery. I concluded that Scottsdale could be summed up with three S’s: sunshine, silicone and strip malls.
Fifteen years later, and the three S’s hold true, but on a recent visit I was impressed with how much Phoenix and its tony twin, Scottsdale, have matured into their own. Bonus: Direct flights out of Baltimore from carriers like Southwest mean that even a quick jaunt is doable.
In February, I hopped a flight to meet my four oldest friends, including Sonia in her adopted hometown. I first met these women growing up in Baltimore. We realized recently—to our joy and middle-aged horror—that we have known one another for more than three decades. Now, we’re scattered across the country and living busy lives, but we try our damnedest to meet up whenever we can.
Sonia suggested we make Camelback Inn Resort & Spa our home base for the trip. Located on 125 acres between Mummy and Camelback mountains, this is the kind of place where you could spend the whole weekend without leaving.
Individual sachets of dried lavender grown on the property greet you at check-in, and that’s just the start of the sensory overload. Orange trees, herbs, cacti bursting with flower all scent the property, while local ingredients, like Arizona prickly pear and dessert honey, find their way into cocktails or the treatments at the wellness spa.
Guest rooms are scattered throughout adobe-looking villas. All offer at least 500 square feet of living space, and a few come with their own private pool. JW Marriott recently invested more than $70 million to upgrade this 1936 resort, and it shows. Rooms are modern yet retain their Southwestern charm. There’s a range of restaurant options, like French chef Laurent Tourondel’s popular BLT Steak. For golfers, two new courses opened in 2013, including one called Ambiente, which offers native desert landscaping instead of the usual expanses of water-fed grass.
Into this desert paradise stumbled five overworked, overtired souls. Three of us had traveled from the East Coast, including our friend Erika who had stopped tallying the snowfall count in her Boston backyard at 80 inches. Now here we were in a place averaging 330 days of sunshine.
The first thing we learned at Camelback was that the orange trees dotting our veranda were “ornamental.” The fruit is incredibly bitter. “We use it for lemonade,” Sonia explained. Sonia knows food. She is the general manager of The Mission, one of the area’s best restaurants, and it became clear in our planning that this weekend would be less desert exploration and more culinary adventure.
Our first night, we drove into downtown Scottsdale for dinner. The Old Town neighborhood is one of the few walkable destinations in this car-centric city. You can take a guided 60-minute walking tour and see things like a historic mission built in the 1930s from over 6,000 adobe bricks. If you’re here on a Thursday evening, there’s a weekly ArtWalk. During spring training in March, the town is taken over by baseball fans ready to watch the San Francisco Giants, Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks at the nearby stadium.
We headed to The House Brasserie, one of three restaurants in Scottsdale from chef Matt Carter, a Phoenix native who trained in Paris and cooked at the famed French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. At House, you feel like you’ve stepped out of the Southwest and into a cozy Parisian bistro. We dined on charcuterie of smoked Burrata cheese with black truffle vinaigrette, black kale salad with orange, feta and plum, and delicate pasta and seafood.
The next morning we half-heartedly debated a hike up nearby Camelback Mountain, but decided that a leisurely walk along the Mummy Mountain Trail at the resort was more our speed. Afterward, we lounged in the shade of a cabana by the spa pool. Elizabeth Arden opened a celebrity spa in Scottsdale in the 1940s and now the city is a destination for wellness retreats. We ate poolside from Sprouts, the healthy spa restaurant, where you can take your cocktail with a side of denial and order the hilariously dubbed “Detox Margarita.”
After a spa massage and steam, it was time to re-tox with dinner. We’d been directed to the latest trendy spot in town called Sumo Mayo, but as soon as we walked in, we knew we were in trouble. Daft Punk blared from the oversized TV above the bar and the vibe was more Forever 21 than fine dining. So we walked a few doors down to Vivo Ristorante for a delicious Italian dinner.
The funny thing about Scottsdale is that some of the best dining often happens in a strip mall. You can have a glorious meal across from a neon sign advertising the LunchBOX, where you can get your privates waxed on your lunch hour. (A 15-minute Brazilian? Wrong on so many levels.) The food at Vivo was nice, but the wine! We lucked into a 2008 “Super Tuscan” red from Umbria recommended by the restaurant’s wine supplier.
Sunday night we hit The Mission in Old Town where we sampled several of the 10 varieties of classic margaritas. The guacamole, made tableside, is also a must.
The gluttony continued right up until my flight left Phoenix on Monday morning. Next to my gate was an airport outpost of Chef Carter’s other French restaurant, Zinc Bistro. I returned home to Baltimore sated and sun-soaked and grateful for a satisfying weekend away with dear friends.
WHEN IN SCOTTSDALE…
Hike. Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve offers 120 miles of trails and excellent rock climbing. Camelback Mountain, located in the center of the Phoenix Valley, has an elevation of 2,704 feet and affords beautiful views. mcdowellsonoran.org
Spa. The lauded, four-star spa at the Sanctuary resort sits perched on the edge of Camelback Mountain. Chill in the Zen meditation garden—hit the spa tennis courts amid the mountains for a dramatic view. sanctuaryoncamelback.com
Stay. Massive resorts abound in Scottsdale, but boutique offerings are on the rise. The brand-new Bespoke Inn in downtown Scottsdale is a gem of industrious hand-built design. Hosts even lend out—free of charge—handsome (hand-built) British Pashley bikes for guests keen to explore. bespokeinn.com
Shop. Frances Vintage is hidden in a non-descript building on Camelback Road in Phoenix, but it’s a must-shop. Stocked with local jewelry, vintage and new clothing, it also carries beauty products from the local Flora Apothecary. francesvintage.com
Drink. There are some great vineyards in the region and the wines from Arizona Stronghold are a favorite of local chefs. azstronghold.com