Arizona: a small piece of unforgettable heaven

Cowboys and cacti, deserts and creeks, horses and hiking – your holiday is sorted

McDowell Mountain Preserve, Scottsdale, Arizona.

McDowell Mountain Preserve, Scottsdale, Arizona.

 

Some places are iconic: spots so mythologised by films and TV that it can be easy to feel disappointed with the real thing. Being in such places can be disconcerting, as if you have stepped onto a set, and are half waiting for the director to call cut, and for the actors around you to step out of their roles and go back to being ordinary people.

As an avid lover of westerns and of horses, I had expectations of, and desires for, Arizona. I wanted cowboys, trail riding, barbecues and cold beer, I wanted deserts, Stetsons and cacti, but I wasn’t expecting camels.

The Boulders Resort and Spa, Arizona.
The Boulders Resort and Spa, Arizona.

To be fair, the camels were my mistake. Who was to know that “Sunrise on Camelback” wasn’t wandering around, pre-dawn, on dromedaries? Everyone but me, as it turned out, which became clear as we set off before sun-up on our trek. As we passed signs warning of double black diamond danger and death from heat exhaustion, Camelback Mountain seemed a pretty poor substitute for hump-backed beasts. But as we walked, climbed, scrambled and panted up the trail, and the sun rose, outlining the raised arms of the saguaro cacti, everything became epic, and I began to realise how incredible it can be to do things you hadn’t realised you were able for. En route, the highly enthusiastic guides kept telling me how awesome I was, so I climbed faster, more repelled than propelled by such ultra American praise.

Scottsdale is a chi chi suburb of Phoenix, about 3½ hours’ drive from the Grand Canyon. Its troubled evolution from the territory of the Hohokam Native Americans, who irrigated the area with an network of canals, and later the Pima and O’odham, has been overlaid by more recent histories of gold prospecting, farming and, most recently of all, as a playground for the artistic, creative and wealthy, in search of winter sunshine.

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright came here in 1937, and built Taliesin West, as his winter home, and laboratory for his ideas. The place is fascinating, but visits are by guided tour only, and are a little frustrating as, pitched somewhere between hagiography and description, experts will be unsatisfied, and newcomers unenlightened.

Intense heat

What Lloyd Wright and other Scottsdale builders were struggling with were the intense heat and bright light – the city claims an average of 299 days of sunshine a year, and this results in an attractive architecture of long, low buildings, with overhangs for shade. It’s called Desert Modern, and you can see it in spades at both Hotel Valley Ho and Mountain Shadows.

This pair of gorgeous hotels, the former walking distance from Scottsdale’s downtown district, and the latter having fabulous views of Camelback Mountain, are also highly glamorous, in a margarita sipping, pool-side posing kind of a way. The food is also fantastic in each, with subtle spicing, and a strong debt to nearby Mexico.

The pool area at the Mountain Shadows hotel, Arizona.
The pool area at the Mountain Shadows hotel, Arizona.

The Boulders, where we spent the middle part of our trip, is a different experience altogether. Clusters of little dens, called Casitas, are reached by electric golf-buggy, making me think of the 1960s series The Prisoner (actually filmed in Portmeirion in Wales). Set up for golfing, rock climbing and spa-ing (with treatments from around $150/€129), and set among clusters of huge granite boulders, I felt as if I had stepped into another world.

Slightly less transporting was a Boulders’ special: Animal spirit readings and meditation at the Tipi. My animal spirit for the week turned out to be a rabbit. Alice (a most un-ratty girl) was a weasel, so I reckon I got off lightly. Fully prepared to launch myself into the experience, we were distracted from our Zen-like animalistic state by the sounds of the far more tantalising Bike Week going on in Cave Creek, just beyond The Boulders borders.

Perfectly western

Cave Creek is so almost perfectly western that, once again, that feeling of being on a movie set assailed me. There’s Big Earl’s Greasy Eats for burgers, Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbecue and the Buffalo Chip Saloon, where you can do real bull riding – just not on the night we were there. This is either disappointing or life-saving, depending on how you look at things. The Eagles’ song Takin it Easy is playing in my head on repeat.

Gemma Tipton on Prince.
Gemma Tipton on Prince.

Bike Week was an odd one. Countless Harley Davidsons lined the roads, and leathery leathered bikers, of both sexes, hung out in the bars, mingling with Stetsoned men who were either cowboys working the remaining ranches, or caught up, like me, in the mystique of them.

There, in the desert, with the wild and majestic land almost daring you to try to tame it, spreading out in numberless miles around you, it’s easier to imagine the attractions of a culture of heroic individualism. As soon as you do, however, you also spot the signs glorifying guns, and the Pop Up Trump Shop, in town for the duration of Bike Week, and come back down to earth with a bang.

Next door to Cave Creek is Carefree, a town that sounds like a feminine hygiene product, and which seems, according to Rico Riley, the charming Irish American guide who took us for a fascinating desert hike, past old mining settlements, and rather dangerous cacti, a little like Stepford. With this much land, you can start a new town, and try to make it into your own idea of what a perfect life might look like – an odd concept for a European like me, raised on the compromises of history.

Cowboy college

The complexities continue. In the spa at The Boulders, my therapist, a Native American, told me her brothers and father were cowboys. A western had been playing on screen as we had tucked into tasty ribs at Bryan’s Barbecue the night before, and Indians, it seemed to me, might rather be anything but cowboys. Do they ride horses? I wondered. They do, she replied. Their father snaffles the quad bike for himself. Somehow quads don’t have quite the romantic appeal for me, a mere holiday maker, so we stopped off to buy boots, and went to spend an afternoon at Cowboy College.

I saddle up Xena, a small black mustang, and learn that cowboy horses like long reins and the occasional reminder of where to go and how speedily to do it. It’s a totally different kind of riding to the European style, designed for long days in the saddle, with a hand free to do some lassoing (eventually I manage to “capture” a straw bale). The next day we go riding through the desert, this time I’m on Prince, who usually spends his time pulling the stagecoach for parades and special occasions. We wander through a surprisingly lush desert landscape, and through a creek, where wild horses are taking a drink. There’s no crazy galloping, and we’re certainly not pursued by a posse, but nonetheless, it’s a small piece of unforgettable heaven.

Hunger and thirst

All that effort leads to hunger and thirst, and Scottsdale has some most excellent restaurants. Being a cool and trendy hot spot, menus are somewhat afflicted with unexpected vegetable du jour – the Brussels Sprout, but the margaritas are excellent, most particularly at The Mission, a dark and romantic spot, where they make your guacamole to order, right in front of your eyes (themissionaz.com).

Arizona was one of the first parts of America to go into Prohibition, led by the strong Women’s Temperance League, a reaction to the drunkenness of the mining towns. Draconian laws stayed on the books long after The Untouchables left town, so that, according to Curt Dunham of LDV Winery (ldvwinery.com), it was still illegal to make and sell alcohol in Arizona until the 1980s.

Things are changing, and there are now some excellent wines from the region, and we enjoy a tasting session along with highly innovative cooking at FnB in Scottsdale (fnbrestaurant.com). I could have stayed sipping things, including Merkin Shinola by Maynard James Keenan, who, when not making wines with quirky names, is also lead singer of Tool; but it was another sunrise start the next day for a quick hot air balloon jaunt across the territory.

Hot air balloons

Sceptical of the whole “bucket list” idea of ticking off experiences while still on earth, I had nonetheless always wanted to go hot air ballooning. The best bit is actually while you’re still on the ground, watching other balloons rise majestically around you, knowing you’ll soon be joining them. Eventually we too rose, and floated over the desert, spotting rabbits, horses and cattle grazing alongside creeks and cacti.

Scottsdale is another world, an America that is both strange and familiar, the landscape of which has formed a key part of the American culture and psyche. Trump Pop Up Shop and Brussels Sprout Nachos notwithstanding, the people were wonderful, the scenery awe-inspiring, and the food delicious. Would I go back? Absolutely, and I’d stay for longer and all this despite there not being a single camel in sight.

Fact box

The Irish Times was a guest of Experience Scottsdale, experiencescottsdale.com. British Airways has daily direct flights from London Heathrow to Phoenix.

We stayed at Hotel Valley Ho, where rooms start from $109, hotelvalleyho.com; Mountain Shadows with rooms from $109, mountainshadows.com, and The Boulders Resort and Spa where casitas cost from $139, theboulders.com.

Hike Camelback’s Echo Canyon trail with Wild Bunch Desert Guides from $95, wildbunchdesertguides.com; Taliesin West Tour from $34, franklloydwright.org; Morning Spur Cross Hike with Rico Riley from $85, theboudlers.com; Day session at Arizona Cowboy College $450, cowboycollege.com; Fort McDowell Horseback Riding from $80, fortmcdowelladventures.com; Morning hot air balloon flight $179, hotairexpeditions.com; Guided Meditation and Animal Spirit Reading at The Boulders $100, theboudlers.com.

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