We all know someone who joins the annual exodus of snowbirds as they migrate to the Valley of the Sun; but any age will find plenty to do and experience in this sunny destination south of our snowy borders. This valley comprises Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, Buckeye, Glendale and many other suburbs. The locals here happily welcome the influx and the economic spinoffs coming from their northern neighbours. Many Canadians own property in the region, which can range from trailers or condos to houses, some of which are palatial.
You never know who you will bump into at the many festivals and events that can keep us winter-weary Calgarians active and engaged. The valley region has a decidedly western culture, whether you’re saddled up at the local saloon, Arabian Horse Show or getting dusty at Greasewood Flat, chowing down on a big, messy burger. This destination south-of-the border abounds with excellent dining choices and innovative chefs, whether at a small local gem or five star resort.
To fully enjoy this sunny and sandy area of Arizona, a vehicle is a must. The road systems are superb and generally easy to navigate, though GPS can be a man’s best friend in a foreign land. Greasewood Flat should be an early destination to get a full sensory indoctrination into the old west style. This outdoor venue comes with barnyard and donkeys and the burgers are award winning – try the green chilli bacon version. Pinnacle Peak Brewery is just down the road and if you wear a tie, it will becut and nailed to the ceiling to join the million plus collection.
A full day drive is the spectacular Apache Trail. Narrow dirt roads with some stretches clinging to vertical 300 mile drop-offs, means that the driver must pay attention…to say the least. Start at the base of the Superstition Mountains and look for the Lost Dutchman Mine. You’ll be craning your neck not to miss the vistas, including fluorescent green lichen covered rock faces and a saguaro forest. Take a picnic lunch or stop at Tortilla Flat or the Apache Lake Marina to refuel your appetites in picturesque surroundings.
Sedona, famous for its red rock and vortexes is another great day trip. It reminds you of Banff in a sense, with its many art galleries and boutiques. Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village is home to El Rincon, a home-style Mexican restaurant with house salsa and tortilla chips comped while you decide on a generously portioned, flavourful meal. Oak Creek Brewery and Grill serves up an eclectic cuisine; the Grilled Cajun Mahi Spinach & Mango Salad with Prickly Pear dressing is excellent. Order the Seven Dwarfs beer tasting; three gold and two silver medal winners plus. The town has many casual and fine dining options to choose from. Stop at Rock Springs Café, Saloon & General Store on the way back to Phoenix for some of the best homemade pies anywhere.
Queen Creek Olive Mill is a great day and lunch destination. This working olive grove is home to the most modern milling equipment in America. You can catch the last of the harvest and processing of their extra virgin oil into early December. The 16-varietal groves are in full bloom in mid-April with a very busy restaurant year-round, adjacent to the boutique store (try the chocolate infused olive oil). There is Superstition Coffee Roasterie on site. Queen Creek also operates a store in Kierland Commons in Scottsdale. Kierland features many outstanding restaurants. Try Zinc for flavourful bistro fare, or Tommy Bahama. There are lots of other excellent choices from high-end steak and seafood to P.F Chang’s and full, local organic at True Food Kitchen in Scottsdale Quarter across the street.
Old Scottsdale features high-end galleries, jewellery, knickknack stores, restaurants and nightclubs. Heritage site, Rusty Spur Saloon features excellent musicians who clamour to play here for just the tips. Hit the energetic R & R Bar on Sunday morning for Happy Hour mimosas. Grimaldi’s is one of the best pizza spots in the USA, with coal-fired ovens. Malee’s on Main is a good Thai restaurant, but not nearly what we enjoy in Calgary. Later, hit A288 for cocktails or Mission for Latin. The nightclubs open late with great venues like The Mint, Epiq, Cake and the over-the-top Maya.
Explore and shop Westgate Entertainment District for a Coyotes game or football. Pre-game brings the area alive with lots of busy restaurants and bars, not to mention tailgating, which we don’t see too often in Canada. Try the Yardhouse, featuring over 125 beers on tap and good grub to match. Kona Grill in Fashion Square presents an array of excellent sushi, sashimi and rolls. Two Jade Palace locations in Scottsdale provide excellent, light and fresh Chinese food with outstanding service. Fountain Hills presents many dining options, from Flapjacks for puffy, baked pancakes, Soffrita’s for home spun Mexican, Phil’s for the diner experience, Vu Bistro for casual with aview or Alchemy at Copperwynd for fine dining and a spectacular vista. Bread Brothers in Mesa craft first-rate breads – try the Sun Dried Tomato Basil with Feta.
What’s a visit to the states without a little gambling? If you like taking some odds with the chips, there are several casinos in the valley area, including the Native American-operated Fort McDowell. Its restaurant, Ahnala, will have you returning after playing their two award winning golf courses. Don’t forget to make a run to Cave Creek for a fried chicken lunch at the Horny Toad or hit the biker bar next door.
This desert in bloom is a truly sight to behold. Needless to say, you won’t miss the snow one bit.
Fred Malley is President of the Calgary Academy of Chefs and Cooks and author of On Cooking, a textbook of Culinary Fundamentals.