by Albert Rodriguez -
SGN A&E Writer
Rain in Phoenix? Believe it. On my recent visit to this city, the fifth-largest in the United States, it poured sporadically throughout my trip - rare, of course, yet possible. Year-round sunshine and hot temperatures are almost always guaranteed, but don't fret if it showers during your tennis match, because there's lots to do in the "Valley of the Sun" under cloud coverage, from a tour of the Musical Instrument Museum to a full day of shopping at Kierland Commons to a meal at one of many Southwestern-accented restaurants. Arizona might be a red state, but the Greater Phoenix area is blueish - solid purple, at least - especially in the college districts and downtown sectors. Nonstop flights to Sky Harbor International Airport from Seattle are just under three hours and offered daily by Alaska Airlines (www.alaskaair.com), and relatively new is light rail service from the airport to Phoenix's city center - trains don't go directly to the airport yet; you'll need to board a free shuttle for a portion of the journey. Whether traveling for leisure or business, here's a suggested itinerary for your Phoenix visit.
Resort & Spa
The better hotels are outside of downtown, primarily in Scottsdale or the outer rim of the city. The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa is an 11-floor corporate hotel with surprising wow factors - it's quite contemporary, boasts great restaurants, has family and adult pools, comes with its own spa, and sits next to a golf course and shopping center (Kierland Commons). My deluxe room was tastefully decorated in neutral colors with a king size Westin-signature heavenly bed, private balcony, flatscreen TV with cable, work desk, leather armchair with ottoman, spacious bathroom with separate bathtub and shower, abundant closets and drawers, Westin brand slippers, and the hotel's own line of bath products like its white tea aloe body lotion (that I never leave behind). Because of the resort's Scottish roots, a bagpiper can be seen and heard on the golf greens in a traditional kilt each evening. As for dining, the premiere restaurant is Deseo, which features a Latin-infused menu inspired by James Beard award-winner Douglas Rodriguez. Known for its seafood entrees and ceviche plates, this place is ideal for fish eaters seeking a sophisticated menu with bold flavor. Nellie Cashman's Monday Club Cafe offers familiar items with a Southwestern kick, like an Arizona frittata for breakfast, honey BBQ chicken flatbread pizza for lunch, and herb-marinated grilled pork chop with sweet potato mash for dinner. Coffee Flats & Snowbowls is terrific for a snack. Lastly, I opted for in-room dining and loved my healthy breakfast of white egg frittata (with asparagus and assorted peppers), yogurt, fresh fruit, and just-squeezed orange juice. Starwood Hotels rewards members can collect points here, so have your account number handy at time of booking or check-in.
EAT / DRINK
Among popular dining attractions in Phoenix, this restaurant is near the top. Located in a historic building on the busy Camelback Road, the two-level restaurant helmed by chef Aaron Chamberlin offers basic fare cooked superbly such as pot roast, burgers, flatbreads, and roasted chicken in a trendy, fun environment. My halibut was crisp on the outside, moist inside, and I seriously considered asking for seconds. I loved the atmosphere and layout of St. Francis; it was intimate yet lively, and the loft-style second floor with views of downstairs diners was nifty, as was a projection screen with vintage Julia Child clips. The clientele is sexy and upscale, and the staff couldn't have been better.
House of Tricks
Celebrating 25 years of business, the husband and wife couple-owned House of Tricks is unbelievably affordable with a worthy selection of salads, sandwiches, and specialties. Located next to the Arizona State University campus, it struck me as humble - it wasn't trying to be anything more than a restaurant serving good, honest food in a patio setting. Portions were generous and presented in colorful presentations - from a Moroccan fruit and chicken shawarma salad to an Asian barbecue tenderloin bahn mi sandwich to an albacore tuna melt, my travel companions and I ate with our eyes as well as our mouths. Note: The espressotini was right on the money.
SWB (Southwest Bistro)
Tucked into the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch, this ample dining spot forced me to overeat because everything in front of me was well-seasoned and fresh. The tableside-made guacamole and chips were sinful, followed by a zesty tortilla soup with roasted chicken and a Cobb salad loaded with the usual suspects, which I gave up attempting to finish. Other items worth mentioning include the shrimp tamale, lump crab and avocado salad, and oven-roasted sea bass with a three-bean stew. The ambiance is relaxed, the decor and servingware are authentic to its Southwestern theme, and signature cocktails like pineapple chile margaritas are irresistible.
You'll have to drive or take a taxi to reach the Gay bars in Phoenix. Charlie's (www.charliesphoenix.com) is probably the biggest and most recognized of the bunch, with multiple bar counters, dance floor, darts, pool, and weekly events. There's a light rail stop across the street from Charlie's, but double-check the schedule to make sure you don't miss the last train. Another hangout is Roscoes Sports Bar & Grill (www.roscoeson7th.com), The Valley's only Gay sports bar - it's smaller than Charlie's and lower-key, but it too has dart boards, decent food, and 13 LCD flatscreen TVs to catch all the action from March Madness to the NBA finals. Amsterdam (no website, 718 N. Central Ave.) is a piano bar that shakes a mean martini, and BS West (www.bswest.com) in Scottsdale is a fun place to mingle with cute locals - the crowd is young, and the dance floor is the size of a cracker, but the atmosphere is upbeat on most nights, and bikini-clad men will sometimes entertain.
VISIT / REFRESH
A cultural and educational excursion is a visit to the 10-month old Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), where you'll discover 10,000 instruments and associated objects from nearly every nation on the planet. Displayed on two floors in a 192,000 square foot building, the MIM is divided into 10 world regions and then sub-divided by country, and in some cases separated by instrument category or its specific use - for example, instruments in The Republic of the Congo is found in the Africa wing, but split into categories by their intended use (ritual, entertainment, communication, etc.). This is a fascinating museum with everything from American-crafted guitars to Japanese gongs to French accordions to some of the most awkward instruments you've never heard of before.
Desert Botanical Garden
With over 50,000 plants, situated on 145 acres, the Desert Botanical Garden is an outdoor attraction that provides a tranquil escape from the city bustle. Exercise-seekers will get a workout from its five themed trails, and those wanting a scenic landscape for their commitment ceremony will be warmly welcomed. A great time to visit the Garden is December, when it's transformed by Las Noches de las Luminarias, a night of music, food, community and more than 8,000 hand-lit luminarias lining the trails and grounds.
I've seen my share of relaxation rooms, and the one at Spa Avania comes with generous privileges. The men's quarters includes a steam room, sauna, French Celtic mineral pool, multi-person shower stall with nine separate showerheads, and a lounging room with light snacks, herbal teas, and water. It was larger than many co-ed relaxation areas at other spas I've been to, that's for sure. For treatments, I opted for the signature Avania Massage, an hour-long session of Swedish techniques that emphasized heavy stress points. Something unique was that I got to select the overhead music from a list of about 8-10 choices. After your treatment, order food at the relaxation room or change back into your street clothes and have a good meal at SWB inside the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale.
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