Phoenix: a winter getaway

By | Category: Travel destinations

yes, that is a London bus in the desert! © Real London Bus Company

Think of the American state of Arizona and most people would say is that where the Grand Canyon is. And to get there people often fly into Phoenix, the largest city in the state (and the USA) and one of the fastest growing. But is there enough for you stay awhile?

I first went to Phoenix over ten years ago, not as a stopping off place but as a destination in its own right. I was slightly put out on leaving the airport to see a giant advertising hoarding for Newcastle Brown Ale instead of a local brew. Was Phoenix going to be like home? No, is the very definite answer.

But Phoenix – and Arizona – is becoming a place where more and more Brits are either moving to or having second homes there to avoid our winters.

You can guess then, that, one of the attractions is the climate. In the summer, the average temperature will be over a hundred degrees. I have been there in November and it is not uncommon for it to be in the high eighties (say in the late twenties celsius) so it certainly has an appeal as a winter resort when you want some strong sun on your bones. If you are there in summer make sure your hotel has air conditioning and that it is working. Some hotels at the cheap end just have ceiling fans.

Getting around has been made easier as well. Earlier this spring, the PHX Sky Train opened which carries passengers directly from terminal four at the airport directly into downtown where it connects with the light metro service. And unlike a lot of places, this service will operate every single day and will run through the night as well so whatever time you arrive, there will be a service. I wish I could say the same for some of our major airports! By July this year, 1 million people had travelled on it which exceeded the forecasts of all concerned. The other terminals at the airport will be connected within the next two years.

Once you get into the heart of Phoenix, there is a bus service that takes you out to the suburbs but you can probably take advantage of the bike share program operated by Cyclehop. Obviously designed for people with little sense of direction, these bikes have an integrated GPS system. By December 2013, they should be up and running. The city hopes to have 500 bikes at 50 different bike stations.

But if you do arrive at night, there is even an attraction available to you although a slightly odd one. The Real London Bus Company operates “Night Hunt”. This is an adult only scavenger type activity and buses will convey guests up and down looking for clues and drinking booze. Teams must compete against each other physically and mentally whilst looking for clues, acquiring swag, solving riddles and taking photos of themselves! It only happens on some Thursday nights so check first. Incidentally, the company was founded by two Brits who wound up in the city!

Taliesin West © the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

You might prefer on a Sunday evening to wander along to the Arizona Biltmore’s Mystery Room,” the secret speakeasy that was hidden in the resort’s main building. The attraction of this room is that it was designed by one of the twentieth century’s finest architects, Frank Lloyd Wight so if you don’t fancy a prohibition style night, try seeing if you can get in during daylight hours.

The other big Lloyd Wright draw is Taliesin West, claimed to be his desert masterpiece, which is in 480 acres of desert in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains. The complex of buildings overlooks the entire Phoenix Valley and includes where the master himself worked.

And Phoenix has built on the Lloyd Wright legacy by becoming a cultural attraction. Four museums are to be found in the centre, the Heard, Arizona Science Center, the Children’s Museum and the Phoenix Art Museum. The Heard concentrates on the art of native Americans of the southwest but, as museums go, it is a bit unusual. It may chronicle the past but it is firmly in the present in encouraging modern native American art and creativity as well. If you want a cultural souvenir, this is where to buy it – and meet the creator sometimes as well. From the end of next month it will also be hosting a travelling exhibition about Georgia O’ Keefe one of the most significant US artists of the last century.

Quite a different exhibition is on at the Phoenix Art Gallery. Lasting only until the end of September, they explore the art of video games. Over 80 games for twenty gaming system are part of this exhibition. More traditionally there is another explaining how the cowboy is seen in art. Or if music attracts you visit Phoenix’s newest museum, the Musical Instrument Museum, on the outskirts of the city. Here there are 15,000 instruments from around the world. Video screens will show you how they are played and the sounds that can be coaxed from them.

I could talk of the shopping but, to be honest, you’ll find the upmarket designer shops that you’ll find in many places around the world but most will be outside the centre in Scottsdale, a posh suburb where the wealthy live. What surprised me was the number of Mexican restaurants here but maybe I shouldn’t have been given the number of Hispanics that live in the city. You can still find the good ‘ol diner if you want to eat traditional American but Mexican food is definately the most popular cuisine.

a Dale Chihuly creation © Adam Hernandez, Desert Botanical Garden

Being situated in the desert, expect there to be long, dry periods. Surrounded by mountains on every side, you’ll see cacti like you see in old-time Westerns. It also means that it is well worth a visit to the Desert Botanical Garden which claims the world’s finest collection of arid-land plants from deserts of the world. The garden has more than 50,000 desert plants on display and if you catch them when desert plants bloom it is memorable. From October there will be an exhibition by the glass artist, Dale Chihuly, one of whose works is over the reception area in the V&A in London. It is certainly very different from the botanic gardens we have!

A seemingly unlikely event will greet you if you are in the city in early November. Being in a desert region, visitors might think of cowboys and their horses. Instead think of polo players and their ponies. Phoenix hosts America’s most-attended polo event, Scottsdale Ferrari Maserati Polo Championship: Horses & Horsepower on November the first and second. 15,000 polo fans are expected to turn up to watch and enjoy it.

And when you tire of Phoenix, the desert and the Grand Canyon beckons. As there are direct flights on American and BA into Phoenix, its easy to get to and the queues that travellers might have experienced at other US airports tend to be much shorter – at least at times when the UK and European flight land.

Like a lot of us, you might find that you’ll be returning to Phoenix too.

For more about Phoenix, click here.

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