Scottsdale offers the ultimate oasis for weekend retreats or luxurious weeklong escapes.
By Sharon Stello
A six-hour drive—or a quick flight—from Orange County, the majestic landscape of the Sonoran Desert unfolds as you travel through Arizona. The shapes and shadows of rocky outcroppings and saguaro cactus shift as the sun sinks lower in the sky, eventually melting into streaks of pink and purple at sunset. And Scottsdale, your destination on the horizon, is like an oasis filled with upscale resorts and spas, green golf courses, high-end shopping, fine dining and art galleries. It’s perfect for a wellness weekend, a golfing getaway or a full week’s vacation.
For those who want a more secluded retreat, Mountain Shadows Resort, nestled in serene Paradise Valley near Scottsdale, offers desert chic accommodations and stunning views of the Camelback and Mummy mountains. Originally opened in 1959, it was completely rebuilt in 2017, featuring distinctive design, two swimming pools connected by an over-water walkway and surrounded by private cabanas as well as a fitness center with classes from yoga to Pilates and cardio kickboxing, an 18-hole golf course, on-site restaurant Hearth ’61 and more. With over 180 guest rooms, the property also has 42 luxury condos and suites.
Visitors seeking to explore Old Town Scottsdale may want to choose a place that’s a bit closer to this area, which is filled with boutiques, restaurants, galleries and public art installations. A great option is Hotel Valley Ho, a fun, retro property with midcentury modern architecture and vibrant colors, two pools, a spa and hip eatery ZuZu. Established in 1956, the hotel was a desert hideaway for Hollywood celebrities from Bing Crosby to Tony Curtis and Zsa Zsa Gabor to escape the paparazzi back in the day. After a change in ownership and an $80 million restoration, the hotel reopened in 2005, now boasting more than 240 rooms including luxury suites for all to enjoy the vintage vibe with contemporary amenities.
When it comes time for dining, options abound in Scottsdale. To start, excellent choices are available on-property at local resorts. Start with a delectable brunch at Hotel Valley Ho’s ZuZu, which also serves dinner in a modern take on 1950s American classics. Whether you select sweet or savory, you can’t go wrong. A plate of doughnuts stuffed with raspberry, chocolate and vanilla fillings and covered with sprinkles are a fun way to start the morning. Or opt for a classic eggs Benedict, avocado toast, huevos rancheros, breakfast fried rice or even a Hawaiian ahi tuna poke bowl. There are also burgers and sandwiches like the fried chicken banh mi sliders. And don’t forget a cocktail like the Happy Pineapple with Pau Maui vodka, pineapple, passion fruit, hibiscus and Ancho Reyes liqueur, or an over-the-top Show Stopper Shake in rotating flavors like the Crunch Bomb, a chocolate milkshake topped with a giant truffle, Rice Krispies Treats with chocolate ganache and a Nestle Crunch Bar. Enjoy on the shaded patio or in the dining room.
Over at Mountain Shadows Resort, Hearth ’61 prepares seasonal California fare in an exhibition-style kitchen under the helm of renowned chef Charles Wiley. Choose from appetizers like charred octopus with pancetta and shaved fennel or hamachi crudo with Calabrian chile-caper vinaigrette, and a Little Gem Chop Salad that’s chock-full of flavorful ingredients like artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, cucumbers, feta and crisp, fried chickpeas with dill vinaigrette. There are also flatbreads and hearty entrees like Niman Ranch beef tenderloin with red wine demi-glace, blue cheese fondue and truffled mashed potatoes, a mustard-crusted salmon or Duroc pork chop. Plenty of sides and desserts round out the meal as well as a long list of wine selections and cocktails like the Pink Mayan, a tasty mix of tequila and pink peppercorn syrup, grapefruit and orange bitters, Campari and lime juice.
And visitors to Scottsdale would be remiss to leave without having dinner at FnB downtown, which showcases Arizona’s seasonal bounty in often-changing dishes created by chef and co-owner Charleen Badman, who won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southwest in 2019. Nicknamed the “veggie whisperer,” Badman’s inspired use of local produce brings together impressive flavor combinations. And Beverage Director Pavle Milic, who curated the first Arizona-only wine program, received recognition early on for FnB, which was nominated in 2017 by the James Beard Foundation for Outstanding Wine Program, an honor bestowed on only 20 restaurants across the country.
Among the standout veggie-forward options at FnB are a salad of local citrus, shaved fennel, olives, feta, thyme, garlic and almonds, and a sunchoke dish with ricotta cheese, Meyer lemon relish and iitoi onions. However, the menus isn’t strictly vegetarian: A recent iteration also featured pork shank, braised chicken thighs and grilled sea trout in the lineup, not to mention a Santa Barbara white seabass with Sri Lankan white curry and the crispy Chinese five-spice duck wings with persimmon sweet-and-sour sauce. The fresh flavors and global influences are sure to take our taste buds on an adventure.
Another dining option is Gertrude’s Restaurant, for those who make a visit to the Desert Botanical Garden. The all-day cafe offers farm-to-table
seasonal cuisine indoors and on a patio with garden views. Serving up a menu of American favorites with global influences, Gertrude’s offers a wide array of creative and tempting choices from the delicious elote fritter appetizers to the chorizo baked brie. Several soups and salads
provide healthy yet flavorful options and the entrees list features epicurean delights like duck enchiladas, lamb curry and shellfish jambalaya.
Before or after a meal on the terrace, take a stroll around the Desert Botanical Garden, which includes a wide variety of cacti and succulents. Through June 19, catch the exhibit of blown-glass installations by Dale Chihuly amid the desert plant collections and within a major indoor gallery; some are never-seen-before pieces. Arrive early enough to view them during daylight and then, again, once the sun goes down and the colored glass sculptures are illuminated; advance reservations are required. More of Chihuly’s glass works can be seen at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in a companion exhibition through the same date.
In addition to the garden, the Scottsdale area is filled with seemingly endless options for filling your hours there. Lounge at the resort pools and soak up the sunshine or peruse the boutiques and art galleries in Old Town with its old western style and public art sculptures on just about every corner. Among the must-see shops are The Merchantile of Scottsdale, a store that brings together all manner of locally made goods from clothing to jewelry, mugs, magnets, candles, artwork and more, and the Native Art Market, which is Indigenous-owned, allowing these artisans to directly sell their jewelry, horsehair pottery, artwork, Native Ground Coffee and even decorated skateboard decks.
To become further steeped in local culture and history, make sure to visit Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, a Smithsonian affiliate. View photos, sculptures, artifacts and memorabilia related to the many Native American tribes and other aspects of the West’s past, from a collection of cowboy boot spurs and saddles to old sheriff’s deputy pins and a stagecoach you can step inside. Get up close to examine hand-beaded Native American clothing and a papoose for carrying a baby as well as handmade pottery. Through spring 2023, view the haunting photos by Edward S. Curtis, an ethnographer, adventurer and photographer who traveled the territories west of the Mississippi and visited more than 80 Indigenous peoples to document their way of life.
Those traveling with children—and those who are young at heart or just like animals and nature—will also want to explore Butterfly Wonderland and OdySea Aquarium at the Arizona Boardwalk, which offers many attractions on the edge of Scottsdale. Perhaps surprising that there’s an aquarium in the middle of the desert, this multilevel, state-of-the-art facility is well done with over 65 exhibits, 370 species, two stingray touch exhibits and a tidal touch pool. Holding more than 2 million gallons of water, it’s the largest aquarium in Arizona. Before you begin your tour, visit the bathroom—trust us. It was voted America’s Best Restroom in a contest sponsored by Cintas Corp. in 2017. Above the sinks is a view into a huge tank with sharks that often swim by.
And while California has its own impressive aquariums, this one has a unique attraction. Guests fill a stadium-seating theater called Voyager, which rotates past four of the aquarium’s largest exhibits to glimpse sea turtles, a giant Hawaiian broad stingray, sea lions, sharks and Atlantic goliath groupers. The journey is narrated by animal care team members who share facts about each species and anecdotes about their experiences with these sea creatures.
Lastly, in the same center, Butterfly Wonderland offers the largest butterfly conservatory in the nation. A wide variety of winged species of many colors flit and fly through the rainforestlike atmosphere with lush plants and even a large koi pond. The butterflies often land on bright-hued flowers—and even on visitors themselves—providing plenty of photo opportunities. Other exhibits inside allow guests to learn about butterflies and a few different reptiles that also live in rainforests. And all of this can be found in the desert of Scottsdale.