Aja B. Viafora

48 Hours: Phoenix

Welcome to the Valley of the Sun, which is primed to shine

By Keridwen Cornelius

Phoenix has its day in the sun about 325 times a year, but with Super Bowl XLII and the FBR Open golf tournament here in February, the city is really primed to shine. The once abandoned-after-5-o’clock downtown is now hopping well into the night with a sizzling arts scene and cool restaurants. Glendale, site of the Super Bowl stadium, goes old school with an antique shop-filled historic center and antiquarian petroglyph site. Flashy Scottsdale boasts world-class spas and golf courses, a Western-themed Old Town, and a cast of suntanned beautiful people. It’s all very urban, until you set off into one of several municipal preserves with miles of cactus-studded wilderness.

Fast facts

Phoenix and its suburbs, collectively called the Valley of the Sun, blend together like paint on a Jackson Pollack piece. Though light rail is in the works, you’ll need a car in the nation’s fifth largest city. The mercury can top 115 degrees in summer, but much of winter is still shorts and T-shirt weather.

Go native

Aldei Gregoire
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Tony Duncan, an Apache from Scottsdale, Ariz., competes at the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest at the Heard Museum.

The Southwest is steeped in Navajo, Hopi, and other native cultures, and the Heard Museum is the definitive source to learn about their art and artifacts (the Smithsonian asks the Heard for advice). “The museum mixes the traditional with the contemporary,” says curator Shaliyah Ben, a Navajo. “It’s an opportunity for people to realize that we’re dabbling in different mediums, we’re changing. It also gives me an opportunity to tell my truth of my history and not to have people read it.” On February 9-10, tribes from around the country will descend here to compete in the Annual World Championship Hoop Dance Contest. Year-round, the museum’s shop is one of the best places in the state to buy native jewelry, pottery, and kachinas crafted by world-renowned artisans. “The objects are every bit as authentic as the pieces in the museum,” says buyer James Barajas.

Commune with cacti

Aja Viafora
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The Desert Botanical Garden has the world’s largest outdoor collection of cacti, wildflowers and succulents.
Who says the desert isn’t green—and fuschia, mango, and violet? The Desert Botanical Garden has the largest outdoor collection of cacti, wildflowers, and succulents in the world. “People are always surprised when they realize that the desert can only get ten inches of rain, and yet the plants have figured out all these cool ways to use water efficiently and thrive,” says Tina Wilson, an Interpretation Programs associate. “When people see a cactus,” she says, “what they’re really looking at is a stem, and the spines are modified leaves.” In winter and spring, wildflowers splash color onto the desert canvas, and music wafts through the garden during weekend concerts.

See art and be seen

Patricia Borja
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An artist works during First Friday.
Twice a month Phoenix’s downtown art galleries, centered mostly on Roosevelt and Grand Streets, stay open late to showcase the city’s burgeoning alternative arts scene. “If you want a carnivalesque atmosphere, then First Fridays are certainly a spectacle,” says Kimber Lanning, owner of Modified Arts gallery. “If you’re interested in buying art, Third Fridays are when the curators and collectors come out.” Fuel up at Fate, a bohemian Asian restaurant offering exotic sips (try the lemon basil martini), a DJ and more art.

Sample Scottsdale

Aja Viafara
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A cowboy sign welcomes visitors to Scottsdale.
For more mainstream art with a Southwestern bent, wander Scottsdale’s gallery-rich Old Town. Here you’ll also find three very different, yet very Scottsdale, restaurants. Last May, Sea Saw chef Nobuo Fukuda won the James Beard Best Southwestern Chef Award for his inventive Japanese “tapas,” as entertaining on the palate as they are on the page (say “saikyo miso-marinated black cod with spicy shiko daikon slaw” three times fast). Next door, Cowboy Ciao serves up sophisticated Western chow with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility. With its 2,900-strong wine list and sybaritic setting, Kazimierz World Wine Bar is every local’s favorite place to sink into a couch with an exotic red (Bulgarian cabernet, anyone?) and groove to live jazz.

Time travel in Glendale

JMC 425
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Old Town Glendale, near 57th and Glendale Avenues, is a portrait of old Main Street life.
Glendale’s charming Old Towne brims with antique shops. Browse the sprawling Antique Treasures (623-931-8049), the countrified Apple Tree, and the collection of smaller pieces at Gatehouse Antiques (623-435-1919). Much further back in time, the Deer Valley Rock Art Center is the site of 1,571 petroglyphs chiseled by various tribes between 1500 B.C. and A.D. 1450. “What you’re looking at is human expression without boundaries,” observes Desert Little Bear, the site’s public educator. The rock art, he says, represents everything from ceremonial drawings to children’s doodles to art for art’s sake, and the inscrutable symbols can have dozens of interpretations based on culture and time period. “This is not Indian heritage,” he stresses. “This is our human heritage.”

Get your just deserts

Aja Viafara
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Arlecchino Gelateria serves a variety of flavors.
“When I have people come to town, if they’re in decent shape I take them to Camelback Mountain,” says Robert Stieve, editor of Arizona Highways magazine. “You get a great workout and the best views of the city.” For those not ready to tackle the Scenic Stairmaster, as it’s known, Stieve recommends the Freedom Trail that loops around popular Piestewa Peak in the Phoenix Mountains Park. “What’s great about the trail is that you really get out in the desert and see the desert flora.”

Do the Wright thing

Aja Viafara
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Colorful sculptures decorate Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home in Scottsdale.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy―“Build with the soul of the land in mind”―materializes in the organic architecture of Taliesin West, built on 541 acres of desert overlooking the Valley of the Sun. The structure “is totally unique because it was not built for a client; it was built as a lab,” says guide Myrna Horton. “You see things here just as they were coming out of his mind.” The 90-minute tour gives visitors a taste of what life was like for the iconoclast and his apprentices in the 1940s and ’50s, when guests like Georgia O’Keefe visited. It also offers insight into how the landscape inspired the architect. After seeing how saguaros’ natural pleats shade the cactus, Wright created shadow-casting canvas panels on the roofs.

Try gourmet all day

Aja Viafora
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Arlecchino Gelateria serves icy treats in Phoenix, Ariz.

Phoenix’s nod to Euro-culture is a cluster of gourmet eateries anchored by La Grande Orange Grocery. Breakfast on pillowy English muffins and some of the city’s best coffee at the grocery, or lunch on a wood-fired margherita at the pizzeria. Postino is the place to mix and match bruschetta with wines by the glass, and Arlecchino Gelateria holds its own against Florence’s best.

Reach the reporter at keridwen77@yahoo.com.

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