Rising into the early dawn darkness over the desert outside of Phoenix was a surprising and mystical experience. I had been in a hot air balloon, once, so I was not surprised by the huge flame lit volume of air overhead, or by the roaring of the burners as they raised the contained air temperature. The fact that without any sense of movement you are suddenly looking down on things you were looking across at seconds ago was interesting, unnerving for some at first but everyone quickly acclimated. What really moved me were the colors.
Millions of stars dimmed as the light slowly amped up, mesmerizing to watch. What had been shapes of black and gray stretching for miles towards the mountains began to grow colors silently. Long dark shadows were creeping towards the western mountains leaving sages, tans and russet colors in their wake. The phrase “line in the sand” crossed my mind as clearly on one side of that line there was shadowy darkness and on the other was the rich gold of the new light cresting the ridges. Coyotes, cactus’ and even desert hares stayed in the dark side for protection. We gazed down from our brightly colored now sun lit hot air balloon above them. They must have heard us, but were certainly focused on other things like breakfast and shelter, rather than the beautiful ritual of the desert awakening as seen from the air.
We were offered the traditional post-hot air balloon breakfast as the day warmed up. We watched the balloon getting packed up as we were served wilderness cooked eggs, sausages, sweet rolls and of course chili, accompanied by cold Champagne. We were then offered, I kid you not, cotton candy. Turns out to be pretty much of a palate cleanser served at many restaurants in the area!
Phoenix had never been on my radar to visit, I am pretty much of an ocean girl. But then I heard about how the city was reinventing itself, and that people seemed to be liking it so I decided to take a look. Opening that exploration with watching the sun rise over the desert bordered on strategically brilliant. I was primed to like what I found even though I had only been inside the airport previously on my way to somewhere else.
My sister and I had given most of a week to exploration of this “new” city. Sure enough everywhere I looked there was renovation. Phoenix really did appear to be reinventing itself. Traffic was continually snarled up because areas of construction were cordoned off in all the streets but you could see the potential. I felt sorry for people working downtown in this snarl, but with parks emerging where there had previously been trash filled lots, and people based cityscape architecture evolving from old square brick buildings it was going to be worth the temporary inconvenience.
The Mesa Arts Center was something I was so looking forward to seeing, and it exceeded anything I could imagine. It was like a small city of art studios with gardens, restaurants, and public spaces woven through it designed to inspire the right side of your brain. There are free performances by the symphony on Sundays “weather permitting” but this is Phoenix where the weather is always permitting. When I got there I realized that pretty much anything that you could wish to learn to make you could find in this place. I had signed up for a lesson in how to make glass beads with Laurie Nessel. She showed me things that could be done with glass rods and a torch which made me wish I had a room there for a month.
We moved out to the historic Arizona Biltmore hotel. Turns out it was not in fact designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, but rather by one of his students who got the design contract. He called Wright to see about licensing a deco tile design that Wright had shown him. Wright decided that made him a consultant, which was fraught with problems for all parties involved but did at least result in the building of beautiful Taliessen. It’s an interesting story that they tell on the tour of the Arizona Biltmore which is worth the time to go on.
The Arizona Biltmore is a wonderful blend of the original design as seen in the large photos that hang all over the building, and a modern facility with all the conveniences. It feels very deco, elegant and timelessly graceful. Perched in the desert it is a jewel. Our room was in one of the new buildings which was spacious and had a lounge of its own accessed by our room key, and a pool that was a short easy stroll from the back balcony or our room. The large hot tub out there turned out to be a perfect place to sit out one of the cloud burst that came through making the desert around bloom.
We took a drive out to the Queen Creek Olive Mill as I had never seen olive oil pressed. Coming from Vermont the term “localvore” has a whole lot of importance for me, implying healthy locally grown food, as well as healthy employment for the locals. All of that turned out to be true, and it was a beautiful family owned olive grove which processed and aged it product right on site. We had a wonderful lunch there (surprising considering vast number of things we sampled from the olive buffet) as well as a demonstration of all the steps that go into making fresh pressed olive oil. It was a very nice afternoon.
While we were in the area one day we visited the brand new Museum of Music. I wish we had been able to give that a whole day, which it richly deserved. It is wired for headsets which they give out when you pay admission. Every time you stop to look at something, a gentle voice offers information about that thing. There was music from all over the world, and instruments, as well as a fabulous special exhibit on music from the 60s which had photos, costumes, instruments and songs from “rockers” of my childhood. Be still my heart.
If I could only revisit one thing there though, it would be the exhibit of mechanical music. I kid you not, calliopes, carnival organs, metal robots that would sing and dance for a nickel placed in the palm, clocks that sang with tiny dancers moving around, and a truly astonishing collection of miniature musical players that were hard to fathom in their complexity. Not all of them worked, but those had videos and sound which became activated when you approached.
We spent another afternoon exploring the area around one of the many sports centers that Phoenix has recently invested in. The spring training baseball field at Talking Sticks was as intimate as Fenway, but all brand new. You could see everything happening on the field in detail as if you were part of the team.
From there we crossed the street to one of the most fun restaurants I have ever been in, complete with a mechanical bull and a cowboy who clearly just lost his last dime at poker and needed to make a very quick escape. The food there was western style, chuck wagon plentiful, and followed up of course, by cotton candy served in a very fancy cone just ripe for the plucking! There is a whole community of things to do and see with families in mind surrounding the Talking Stick baseball field.
Another day we spent an afternoon at the Heard Museum. I happen to really enjoy museums that preserve the style, artwork and culture of the west, and this was one of the better ones that I have visited. While we were there an exhibit of each tribes costumes, artwork and lifestyle complete with full sized dioramas for each culture was ongoing. You walked through their lives, saw the rituals of daily living and heard the music of their lives. I was surprised at how different each culture was when laid out this way.
We arrived in the mid-day heat and had the kind of smooth entry to the Four Season’s Scottsdale that Four Seasons always delivers. Our suite looked like part of a small adobe village from the outside, and a very private casita from the inside. We had a large comfortable ramada off the bedroom that put us face to face with the tumbled rocky landscape of high desert right down to a cactus the size of a school bus on end 10 feet out.
We spent a relaxing day roaming this small estancia starting with the bar by the pool, some excellent southwestern chow and the mandatory margarita, or two. The spa there is cool and dark and very nicely comforting from the heat of the desert. That evening we met some friends at the western facing cantina before dinner. In front of us a hundred yards across a wide grassy plaza a fifty foot wide fire blazed as the sun went down, the shadows retook the desert and the stars reclaimed the sky. I thought of the desert hares and coyotes we had seen the first day we arrived, and saw in my mind the images playing backwards. I could happily do this hundreds of times over.
We were liking this new Phoenix. The atmosphere of the new Phoenix is fun, energetic filled with great food and interesting things to look at, learn and do are everywhere. The reinvention of this city is creative and beautiful and I really enjoyed its new burst of life. We even eventually got accustomed to the tradition of serving cotton candy after meals.
Check the weather in Phoenix (http://www.accuweather.com/en/us/phoenix-az/85003/weather-forecast/346935)
Hot Air Balloon Tours (http://www.hotairexpeditions.com/)
Mesa Arts Center (http://www.mesaartscenter.com/)
Arizona Biltmore (http://waldorfastoria3.hilton.com/en/hotels/arizona/arizona-biltmore-a-waldorf-astoria-resort-PHXBMWA/index.html?wt.srch=1
Queen Creek Olive Mill (http://www.queencreekolivemill.com/)
The Museum of International Music (http://mim.org/)
Talking Sticks Baseball (http://www.saltriverfields.com/)
The Heard Museum (http://www.heard.org/)
Four Seasons Scottsdale (http://www.fourseasons.com/scottsdale/accommodations/?c=t&_s_icmp=mmenu)