The New Phoenix, A Glorious Surprise Rising in the Desert

balloon1Rising 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.

Laurie Nessel showing me how to turn rods of colored glass into fanciful hand made beads.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.

Elegantly whispering of ladies in jewels and men in top hats.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.

Lunch at the edge of the olive orchard.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.

Our casita at Four SeasonsWe 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.

 sunsetWe 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.


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Four Seasons Scottsdale (

Care Free Tea, Roses and English Sweeties

We had walked off the hot dusty streets of Care Free, Arizona and into a magical world created by our film star gorgeous host, Jo Gemmil, born of her real life experience growing up in English Tea Rooms. The environment that she created has not a spare inch of space that hasn’t been filled with Roses, bits of iron fence, small photos of English gardens, hundreds of unmatched floral tea pots, cups, creamers and sugar bowls which blossom into a wonderful collage of festivity.

We were seated at a small table with iron cottage style garden chairs, and offered a tea list the likes of which I had never encountered. As we visually explored the small room, crowded with people doing the same thing we discovered the crowning achievement of this tiny jewel. In the corner we discovered a white arch covered with roses that lead into a side room filled with garden hats of every description, and dresses with frills and lace. The urge to play dress up was beyond us. We instantly became ten year olds in granny’s closet. Uplifted spirits guaranteed.

Over a flowered bone china tea cup my eyes picked up my friend in her red wide brim hat with red and white roses, sprinkled with diamonds around the brim no less. It was impossible not to smile. Here we were, old friends having tea and biscuits with Devonshire cream, strawberries, cucumber tea sandwiches along with every kind of diet violation on tiered plates.

Before long everyone in the room had made a selection from the joyous collection of hats and was happily probing the tiered plates for treats. The teas were wonderful, the goodies delicious and the atmosphere something that is good for your soul.

Easy Street, Care Free, Arizona

Winter’s Silver Lining – The Purple Mountain’s of Arizona

As I look out the window I am acutely aware that the six months of gray skies, cold temperatures and precipitation of some sort has begun. It is 15 degrees, everything is dim, and snow is spitting from the sky. And to think that just days ago I was surrounded by golden sunlight, endless blue sky, plum colored mountains and rolling golf links surrounding a graceful resort, several shops, a few restaurants and a lovely new spa. This is Tubac, Arizona.

Every morning we woke early to the warm breezes of an Arizona day. We walked out of our suite, and into a small village area where the scent of fresh bacon in the breeze brought us to the sunny breakfast room. We usually chose to sit outside and watch the brilliance unfold as cows wandered around the golf course and waiters brought fresh healthy things as we considered our options for the day.

One morning we crossed into Nogales, Mexico for a bit of bargaining in the shops. Mexican traders will drag you in off the streets saying “You are my first customer of the day, special discounts. Almost Free”. They are shameless flirts, will offer you tequila “made by my uncle” and give you small gifts for purchasing with them. If they don’t have the size of something you like, they will dash out into the street, haggle with another merchant, and sell you his product. They offer advice and suggest restaurants as long as you promise to return to their shop later. Go ahead, be shameless too. It’s fun and it’s the Mexican way.

One morning we rode bicycles down the short dusty road into Tubac. What a delightful little town spanning the range from Mexican hand crafts and traditional work, to stunning contemporary artistry. We had lunch at a fresh air bistro enjoying fresh Mexican cooking and the exotic wind vanes of another artist bending the light gently in the soft mid day breeze. Jewelry, leather and clothing of all types and price ranges was to be found in southwestern buildings, adobe shacks and modern lofts off the dusty streets.

Another morning we played golf on the beautiful course that surrounds the entire village resort. The course is a beautiful rolling landscape that surrounds the houses, hotel suites and inner village of the resort and is itself surrounded by towering purple mountains. Its most interesting feature to me was the ever present “girls” grazing next to the greens. They are practically pets right up until they become a fresh part of the restaurant menu, tender and delicious right off the hoof!

Every afternoon at the Tubac Resort, we went to the new spa, a lovely tile and mesquite building with tall windows and a balmy solarium in the center of the resort village. Treatments are perfectly designed to sooth sun drenched skin and golf tired muscles. Wonderful gentle falls of water ran down the walls infusing the air with moisture and the relaxing sound like very gentle rain. Pitchers of iced water filled with limes were at hand before and after treatments as we sat in cloud soft robes.

My first treatment was called Tui Na. Sara’s strong hands soothed the whole length of my body. She infused the air with different aromas blending calming herbs with long smooth strokes and greener scents with deep tissue work. Interesting guitar music softly filled the room to stimulate several senses at once. For 80 minutes this process eased from quiet and peaceful to energizing and back to soothing. The end result was a head to toe body hum that lingered for days.

Another afternoon I had one of the most refreshing facials that I have ever had. We had learned to come quite early to enjoy the ambiance of the spa and the comfort of the solarium before treatments. The spa room was as calming as I had found it the day before. Today though, I was offered a choice of scents for the air and the cleansers and lotions. I chose something light and floral which just barely lingered all evening. The treatment itself was soft and smooth and left my skin feeling calm and soothed, very nice.

There are very nice shops at the resort as well as in the town. We bought clothes there to remind us of the delicious stay in the purple mountains of southern Arizona. We enjoyed every minute of our time at the Tubac Golf and Spa Resort, and as I turn to the window again, I can barely believe that I left. My mind takes a small holiday into the possibilities of staying out there for the winter…..  It’s pretty easy to get to though, so I might just have to go back before the daffies start emerging!

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