French composer Claude Debussy is credited with writing, "There is nothing more musical than a sunset." Mother Nature struck up the band shortly after we arrived for a six-night stay in Scottsdale, during which I planned to scout the best places to bookend our day by watching the sun rise and set. It was cloudy when we checked into our first hotel—Mountain Shadows Resort—so I'd all but written off any chance of spying famous desert sunset show. Wandering around to get the lay of the land, I happened to look outside, and the sky seemed to be on fire. We made a bee-line to a hill on the resort's short course, where I stood in awe of the colors on the horizon. My mission was off to a promising start.
From the outside, Mountain Shadows (rooms from $399/ night), which originally opened in 1959 and was quite the swinging spot in that heady era, hosting the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and John Wayne, boasts a slightly brutalist facade, giving little hint of what lies inside. Completely rebuilt in 2017, today, the resort's midcentury heart is palpable within airy and contemporary interiors infused with subtle industrial touches that add just the right amount of edge. Towering walls of glass bookend the lobby, providing an unobstructed view of a terraced lawn and onto the iconic Camelback Mountain in the distance. There are ample areas for casual gatherings, outfitted with mid century-inspired furnishings with exposed brass frames and upholstered in jewel-toned velvet.
Two u-shaped wings contain 216 guest rooms and 42 condominium suites. One wing envelops the aforementioned lawn, the other, the hotel's social heart, including The Citizens Club, home to a very well-equipped fitness center and juice bar, as well as a hot tub and a pair of cabana-lined pools that stair-step the gentle slope of the land.
Immediately upon entering our spacious studio-style first floor room facing the garden, I was quick to notice the shower, with glass on three sides, that seemed to float in the center of the space. Moving into the bedroom, one is quick to notice that the concrete ceiling nearly doubles in height. The abstract pattern of the flat-weave rug under the bed paid homage to the region’s Native American heritage, while a colorful canvas abstraction of a mountain range on a nearby wall highlighted the property’s legacy.
Across the lawn, the second-floor Camelback Overlook is part of 37,500 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space and provides a front-row seat to the sunset. The terrace overlooks the par-3 18-hole Short Course, which promises fun and fast rounds for both beginners and pros. Arthur Jack Snyder designed the original 1961 course; it was later redesigned by Forrest Richardson, a Snyder mentee. Rounds end at Rusty's, a patio and lounge, where tradition mandates that the player with the lowest score on The Forest Wager (a bonus Hole 17.5) picks up a round of drinks.
At Hearth '61, chef Charles Wiley, named "One of the Best Hotel Chefs in America" by the James Beard Foundation, serves up elevated cuisine that draws inspiration from the exquisite flavors of local and organic ingredients. His exhibition-style kitchen turns out beautifully plated creations. Coming from cold Kentucky, we opted to dine alfresco at one of several fire pits positioned near the pool. Sipping a Winter Spritzer, a seasonal spin on the Aperol Spritz, we watched as the sky transitioned from pink to dark purple, and then an inky black perforated by twinkling stars. Presented with our first course— ahi tartare accompanied by blistered shishito peppers— we pulled out our phones to take photos before digging in. I'm not a vegetarian, but the beguiling blend of ingredients proposed in the quinoa and lentil stew piqued my interest. The colorful composition was hearty but not heavy, and left just enough room to indulge in dessert, a lemon confection encased in white chocolate.
On average, the Phoenix/Scottsdale area gets rain just 33 days per year; unfortunately, six of these happened to coincide with my visit. Rain thwarted our plans to watch the sunrise atop Camelback Mountain (the Echo Canyon trailhead is an easy one-mile walk from Mountain Shadows through the Paradise Valley neighborhood). Undeterred, we set out as soon as the skies showed signs of clearing. Be forewarned that the 4.8-mile out-and-back trail to the top of the area's highest peak is rated as extremely difficult, but in my humble opinion, the bouldering involved can bring out one's inner child, and the exertion is well worth the views. As a bonus, each time you glance up at the peak during your stay, you can relish in the satisfaction of knowing that you made it to the top.
The Phoenix/Scottsdale area is a mecca for urban hiking, and I found it fascinating how quickly you can go from a bustling city to what feels like the boondocks. At the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, located on Scottsdale's outer edge, there are more than 215 miles of trails for people of all abilities spread out over 35,000 acres. Other notable and challenging hikes with rewarding views include Piestewa Peak, the second-highest point in the Phoenix Mountains; Two-Bit Peak; and, Dobbins Lookout in the South Mountains, whose Depression-era observation deck can also be accessed by car.
If you want to feel miles away without working up a sweat, a visit to the Desert Botanical Gardens is in order. Home to more than 50,000 accessioned plants through its five thematic trails, I was genuinely surprised to learn that there was so much diversity in desert flora and fauna.
Prefer ogling structures over shrubbery? Make a reservation to tour Taliesin West, built by Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentices in the 1930s and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019. Wright's home, school, and studio served as a living architectural laboratory, and the tour offers a fascinating glimpse into the golden years of the United States most famous architect. If you time your visit just right, you can cap off your day with a sunset dinner at Isabella's Kitchen. A bustling spot popular with locals, its large patio and second-floor terrace overlooks the McDowell Mountains and Grayhawk Golf Club's Talon course, home to the 2021 and 2022 NCAA Men's and Women's Golf Championships.
Tyner's Trail at the base of Mummy Mountain and on the 125- acre JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa (rooms from $299/night) requires minimal effort for maximum views, including downtown Phoenix and Camelback Mountain. Our second stop, this AAA Four Diamond property, which originally opened in 1936, and was acquired by Marriott in 1967, holds the distinction of being the first resort in Marriott's history. Guests are comfortably accommodated in 453 adobe-style casitas, some with private pools, and all of which are surrounded by impeccably manicured gardens and pathways whose colors seem even more vibrant against the sienna shades of the natural desert landscape.
Tops among the vast amenities at the resort are the 32,000 square-foot destination spa and 36 holes of championship golf at Camelback Golf Club. COVID precautions are in full effect throughout the resort; at the spa, this translates to reduced capacity, requiring a reservation to use the expansive fitness center, and wearing a mask for the duration of spa treatments. Still, an aura of respite and tranquility is maintained throughout the facility, and after so many months of isolation, a massage feels even more indulgent and restorative. Those wanting to create an entire spa day can enjoy healthy and flavorful cuisine at Sprouts at the Spa, and reserve a private cabana for relaxing next to the spa pool.
There are seven distinct dining experiences on the property, many of which have outdoor patios. During our visit, the pinnacle of on-property cuisine, Lincoln Steakhouse & Bar, was still closed as a casualty of COVID. However, we still managed to indulge our yen for red meat with carne asada served with a savory chimichurri that we washed down with a signature margarita.
The area around Mountain Shadows and the JW Marriott Camelback Inn is largely residential. A notable exception is El Chorro, a local institution that's worth a short walk. Operated as a restaurant, bar, and lodge as far back as 1937, the current owner recently renovated the property, expanding the vast landscaped patio and incorporating several green-building features. What didn't change is an 80-plus year history of presenting patrons with a basket of their famous sticky buns. We took ours to go, and even two days later, warmed in the microwave, they were sinfully delicious.
In contrast, Hotel Valley Ho (rooms from $369/night) sits at the gateway to bustling Main Street in Old Town Scottsdale. Considered one of the most well-preserved mid-century modern hotels in the country, the architecture and interior design of Hotel Valley Ho takes guests on a sentimental journey to a bygone era. When it originally opened in 1956, Bing Crosby, Tony Curtis, and Zsa Zsa Gabor were among the members of the in-crowd to sign the guest registry. Recently restored to its former glory, the property’s 241 guest rooms have punchy mid-century-inspired décor. Our tower suite boasted a full kitchen with sleek and sunny yellow lacquered cabinetry and a large terrace that provided a view of Camelback's backside.
A hub of activity, Hotel Valley Ho’s OH Pool is lined with colorful cabanas and an Instagramable "It's Always Sunny in Scottsdale," mural, which I ironically spied during a walk around the property in the rain. Lining the corridor walls leading to the VH Spa are historical photos and hotel advertisements that guide guests on an interesting walk down memory lane. A more sensory journey to far-flung locales is offered via four Jet Set spa treatments. The hammam experience is infused with savory aromatics from the Far East, while wild-harvested Arctic Berry body wrap is part of the Helsinki treatment.
With an expansive poolside terrace, ZuZu, Hotel Valley Ho's all-day restaurant, is always buzzy. The approachable menu (hello truffle fries!) is accompanied by a chic cocktail list.
Hotel Valley Ho's Old Town location provides walkable access to a host of shopping and dining experiences. Inside the clubby Mad Men-inspired confines at Second Story Liquor Bar you'll enjoy savory, modern American cuisine. Citizen Public House blew our minds with their bacon-fat heirloom popcorn, so simple but oh so good. Equally rapturous was the guacamole at The Mission Old Town. The restaurant's beautiful and romantic interior design is a fitting complement to its modern Latin cuisine.
Knowing nothing about Arizona wines when we crossed the threshold at Merkin Vineyards' Old Town Tasting room, we were pleasantly surprised with the quality of wine produced at this family owned winery, whose cellars are located 120-miles north in Jerome. Wholly committed to delivering a 100% Arizona experience, grapes are grown on 100-acres in the Verde Valley and Willcox regions, and the food served to accompany tastings utilizes fruits and vegetables grown on the estate. Merkin's ground-to-glass ethos was the perfect ending to a trip heavily focused on relishing the many natural wonders found in the Valley of the Sun, even when it rains.