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By Kristen Shirley | April 4 2019
The desert is not dead — certainly not in Scottsdale, Arizona. Located on the outskirts of Phoenix, the city sits next to some of the Southwest’s most pristine and accessible desert landscapes.
It has a lively nightlife scene, which means you can have a fun, outdoor vacation that isn’t overly healthy, and enjoy a dose of culture as well. Scottsdale’s restaurant scene is booming, and chefs let local ingredients (and even some local wines and spirits) take center stage.
You’ll find everything from perfect street tacos to Michelin-worthy fine dining. Scottsdale is best known for its amazing weather and jaw-dropping natural beauty, which is at its best at dusk.
Every night has picture-perfect sunsets; be sure to find a prime spot to watch unbelievable shades of pink and red streak across the sky, tinting the saguaro-dotted landscape a rosy hue.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 edition of Elite Traveler.
When it opened, Virtù was an instant success with locals and attracted national attention when it was nominated for a James Beard Foundation award for Best New Restaurant. The menu changes almost daily, reflecting chef Gio Osso’s strong commitment to locally sourced ingredients and using them at their peak, perhaps the reason it’s so popular with locals in the know — you won’t have the same dining experience twice. Artfully plated, Mediterranean-inspired dishes fill the menu, including excellent antipasti, handmade pastas and imported seafood.
This longtime Scottsdale favorite, a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement in the state, was the first restaurant to feature an Arizona-only wine program (the list has expanded over the years, but don’t knock Arizona wine until you’ve tried it!). Charleen Badman, chef and co-owner, has been nominated every year for the past five years as Best Chef: Southwest by the James Beard Foundation. Start with the chicken fried gizzards with green goddess dressing, move on to a salad with crunchy radishes and pepitas, and finish with Creole-style barbeque shrimp with fermented hot sauce.
One of the city’s most elegant restaurants, Café Monarch is beautifully decorated with vivid Spanish art, warmly lit chandeliers and plush chairs. A favorite spot is the dreamy outdoor space, where the walls are covered in trailing jasmine vines, and the decor includes palm trees and hanging lanterns. It offers a four-course tasting menu with dishes like Maple Leaf Farms duck breast with foie gras bread pudding or a surf and turf trio with filet mignon, Chilean sea bass and lobster ravioli. And there’s also a thoughtfully considered vegetarian menu from chef/owner Gus Lewkowicz.
Head to Old Town Scottsdale (or its Kierland Commons location) for dim lighting, sultry decor, inventive cocktails and fabulous food. French-trained chef Matt Carter imparts a fresh take on Latin cuisine, pulling a variety of influences from classic dishes and adding his personal twist. While there are tasty crowd-pleasing favorites — get the 12-hour slow-braised pork shoulder tacos and tableside-prepared guacamole — there are unique dishes like New Bedford diver scallops in a merquen mussel broth with pepita butter, and green chile duck confit with serrano peanut mole.
Photo Credits: Halie Sutton Photography / Lonna Tucker
Tucked into the mountains of northern Scottsdale, Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North has a remote vacation feeling, despite being just a 30-minute drive from Old Town. It’s a prime location for hikers (Tom’s Thumb Trailhead and Pinnacle Peak are nearby) and golfers (it’s located next to Troon North Golf Club), and it has a lovely spa with destination-inspired treatments, four delicious restaurants and a beautiful pool. Stay in the Three-bedroom Pinnacle Peak Suite, whose focus on indoor/outdoor living makes the most of the incredible weather. There is a plunge pool, terrace with fire pit and large living area, all with views of Crescent Butte Mountain. Three-bedroom Pinnacle Peak Suite from $6,270 per night.
You can’t get much closer to Camelback Mountain than Sanctuary Resort: The pool looks out onto the iconic camel-shaped mountain’s ‘head.’ The luxurious resort places a strong focus on health, offering guided hikes, standup paddleboard yoga, tennis, nutrition workshops and fitness classes, and it has an award-winning, Asian-inspired spa with unique treatments. For the ultimate wellness retreat, check into the Villa del Sol, a four-bedroom, 3,500-sq-ft paradise. It has an in-house treatment room for private therapies, as well as a pool, large lawn and fitness room where you can bring in a wide range of expert instructors. Villa del Sol from $3,200 per night.
The former private estate of the Cooke family was inspired by grand European manors. Situated at the base of Camelback Mountain, it keeps the feel of a charming home with its lush grounds, including a magical orange grove. The award-winning spa is not to be missed, nor is T Cook’s, one of the city’s best restaurants. Rest your head in the 1,700-sq-ft Presidential Villa, which has a living room, dining room, butler’s kitchen, master bedroom with a large fireplace, and a glass-enclosed indoor/outdoor shower. During the day, enjoy your prime views of Camelback from one of your three patios. If traveling with a group, you can add a second bedroom. Presidential Villa from $1,699 per night.
There are many ways to explore the Sonoran Desert. Experience the unique landscape up close by hiking through it: some of the most popular are Pinnacle Peak, Camelback Mountain (beware, this one’s only for experienced hikers) and McDowell Sonoran Preserve, which has over 200 miles of trails for all levels, including the famous Tom’s Thumb Trail.
If you prefer a gentler pace (and a paved path), visit the beautiful botanical gardens. To admire the views from above, take to the skies in a hot-air balloon with Hot Air Expeditions.
It’s no surprise that the desert means incredible golf. Scottsdale has dozens of courses, although many are private members’ clubs. If you don’t have a connection, don’t despair, there are plenty of excellent public courses.
Troon North Golf Club has two 18-hole golf courses, both designed and updated by Tom Weiskopf, set in the foothills of Pinnacle Peak. Grayhawk Golf Club’s two 18-hole courses — Raptor by Tom Fazio and Talon by David Graham and Gary Panks — take you to the edge of steep drop-offs and through the desert landscape. TPC Scottsdale hosts the city’s premier golf tournament, the Phoenix Open, each January.
With superb mountain views, We-Ko-Pa’s two courses feature target-style desert golf at Cholla and a traditional course at Saguaro. After you’ve got your fill of the great outdoors, spend an afternoon exploring Old Town’s historic Western buildings and Southwestern shops (Scottsdale’s motto is “The West’s Most Western Town”), then stop by one of Old Town’s charming restaurants for dinner.
On Thursdays, the city’s galleries open for an Art Walk, which is a fun way to see all the new shows. Despite its size, the city has a booming art scene: Old Town has several top-notch galleries, where you’ll find everything from Banksy and Andy Warhol at American Fine Art, to local painter Charles H Pabst, who uses a pallet knife and paintbrush to create stunning Southwestern landscapes at Signature Gallery.
Design aficionados should flock to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and a National Historic Landmark, to marvel at his groundbreaking architecture and uncompromising vision.
Wright created Taliesin West as both a winter escape and a school for his apprentices. Deeply influenced by Arizona’s raw beauty and natural materials, he employed desert-masonry techniques using large desert rocks and concrete, which makes you feel as if he found these rock walls and built his modern retreat around them.