Desert Heat: Rumbling across the Colorado River bridge into Arizona you feel the summer night air in your face and watch the heat lightning fork across the sky far ahead.
It’s even better in a convertible.
A craggy range of mountains looms up to the south, and you start seeing the cactus: light green “jumping” cholla, thorny stick-like ocotillo and the majestic saguaro, arms outstretched almost beseechingly.
Saguaro are only found in the Sonoran Desert, take about 75 years to grow an arm and can live to be 200 years old and up to 50 feet tall. Decide to hack one down and stick it in your pickup and you’re facing time in an Arizona hoosegow. Saguaro are zealously protected and their blossoms are the state flower.
I always head straight for the superbowl of cacti, the magnificent Desert Botanical Garden just outside Scottsdale, where you can wander around to observe all manner of succulents of North and South America. It’s a fine place to have lunch under the umbrellas and watch the birds and butterflies flit around.
True, in summer the desert warms up to around 115 on the heat-o-meter, but in return, as the temperature soars, hotel prices fall. You can splash around a lovely resort pool, opt for spa treatments and relax in swank casita luxury at motel prices.
A half-hour’s drive up into north Scottsdale, the five-star resorts of The Boulders and Four Seasons at Troon are 1,500 feet above town and a few degrees cooler. Well-appointed casitas that fetch $565 a night in May at the Four Seasons go for $205 starting June 1. A casita at The Boulders might run $400 in spring but only $116 in July. For the price of a drink you can sit on the Four Seasons patio and watch the day melt into sunset, nearby Pinnacle Peak outlined against the Monet sky and the lights starting to wink on down the valley in town.
Steps from The Boulders’ main lodge a nature trail takes you where rabbits hop and Gambel’s quail scurry, making their funny noises. Chef Wendy Little, formerly of the San Ysidro Ranch and Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara, has found a home at The Boulders’ Latilla dining room, turning out dishes with the essence of France’s Ecole de Cuisine la Varenne, where she trained.
At the Four Seasons, fresh from a $17 million renovation, the new Talavera dining room has a flaming fire feature and chef Mel Mecinas‘s tangy 18-ounce Nebraska ribeye steaks and Wagyu tartare. He too worked the stoves at Santa Barbara’s Biltmore and even cooked for the late Julia Child. From tables 30, 40, and 50 you get the best views through the flames into the sunset.
A two-minute shuttle ride from The Boulders, in the upscale El Pedregal mall, the new Luc’s restaurant is the talk of the town, hip and modern. My server there was a UCSB grad, Douglas Cortez.
The big news in downtown Scottsdale is that smart money is renovating a long-neglected stretch along the Arizona Canal into a high-end walkable “urban village” of shops, residences, and restaurants, called Southbridge. It’s the brainchild of developer-visionary Fred Unger and has spurred more than $2 billion in new development.
My family strolled over the bridge, ordered coffee at The Foodbar informal deli and chatted. Then Sue and I headed for the formal, French-inspired Estate House restaurant, all candles and white tablecloths. There we were greeted, not by a gent in a cowboy hat and bolo tie, but elegantly suited Paul Xanthopoulos, who carries the title of master du Soigner, meaning “master of looking after.” It’s that kind of a place.
The desert never changes, but Scottsdale has.