Sonoran Desert Escapes: The Spas, the Palms, the Golf-Sunny Arizona's Charms Have Been Luring the Weary Snowbound for Decades. Its Biggest Appeal? There Are Choices for Every Budget

By Woolston, Chris | Sunset, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Sonoran Desert Escapes: The Spas, the Palms, the Golf-Sunny Arizona's Charms Have Been Luring the Weary Snowbound for Decades. Its Biggest Appeal? There Are Choices for Every Budget


Woolston, Chris, Sunset


It's another blue-sky, 75[degrees] January day in Scottsdale, and winter feels far away. Anyone teeing up for a $175 round of golf at The Boulders--where flowering cactus and natural mounds of granite frame lush green fairways-would have trouble imagining a world where some people have to shovel snow. Likewise, anyone losing veneers of skin with a $169 sugar scrub at the Well & Being at Willow Stream Spa could easily forget that some people actually feel tense.

Scottsdale, once a quiet cotton-growing outpost in Sonoran Desert, has turned luxury into a civic duty. Bigcity refugees started coming here in the 1930s looking for health and rejuvenation in the dry, clean air. Wealthy snowbirds soon followed, building palatial second homes with Southwestern flair. Today, Scottsdale is a Shangri-la of adobe buildings and infinity swimming pools, saguaros and palm trees. With more than 200 golf courses nearby to go along with a seemingly endless supply of resorts, spas, and sunshine, it has become a destination for people looking to escape winter and splurge on a few days of over-the-top extravagances.

The Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa epitomizes Scottsdale spendiness. For $559, you can get a night in a spa suite with a lava-rock fireplace, soaking tub on a private patio, goose-down bed, and deck with a view of the palm-filled valley. The resort is home to Elements, a sleek restaurant where chef Beau MacMillan, a former winner on Iron Chef America, has been serving $75 meals with a side of star power since 1998. "I love my stage here," MacMillan says. "We have to work a bit harder in the desert, but our guests still have high expectations."

Still, there's more to the Sonoran scene than pricey indulgences. About 120 miles to the south, not far from the Mexican border, Tucson offers authentic experiences full of local flavor. This city was settled largely by farmers and laborers, people who were more interested in building homes than vacation retreats. Every school year, the University of Arizona brings another wave of immigrants who expect cheap meals and good beer. You can still find resorts, spas, and golf courses here--if that's what you want--but you can also have an Arizona vacation that won't break the bank.

Tucson isn't big on pretension. From the outside, the much-loved Cafe Poca Cosa downtown looks like the corporate office for a paper supply chain. Inside, chef-owner Suzana Davila changes menus twice a day to spotlight her fresh Mexican fare. "We don't have a freezer," she says. "We get three deliveries a day. That's how I decide what to make." Many locals choose the Poca Cosa plate, which gives Davila the liberty to create a meal from her repertoire of moles, carnes asadas, and baked fish dishes. "You never get the same thing twice," she says.

For the price of little more than two holes of golf, you can take a great walk in the sun at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which, the name notwithstanding, showcases saguaros and hummingbirds, not paintings behind velvet ropes. "I've seen people come here in high heels because they don't understand that it's a living outdoor museum," says Vicki Pepper, a longtime volunteer docent. Most visitors spend at least a couple of hours exploring the mini versions of Southwestern desert habitats, from the seaside to shaded mountaintops. Hawks and owls soar over crowds during daily free-flight demonstrations, and the black bear, mountain lion, and bighorn sheep seem to find extra energy in the relative cool of a Tucson "winter."

After working up an appetite in the desert, you might want to head to El Guero Canelo Mexican Restaurant, a Tucson institution that's famous for Sonoran hot dogs wrapped in bacon, grilled, and topped with beans, onions, mayo, mustard, diced tomatoes, and jalapeno sauce. Perhaps not many people bookend a vacation with a luxury spa treatment and a loaded hot dog, but that's an option when you visit the Arizona desert. …

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