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An Insider’s View of Phoenix, Scottsdale & Sedona with Jeff Ficker

1. What should you do if you only have one weekend in Phoenix and Scottsdale?

Get to know the Valley of the Sun from its geographic heart, Papago Park. The easy climb up its rounded, red-hued butte to the Hole-in-the-Rock formation offers a spectacular view of the city. Within the protected reserve, you’ll also find the Desert Botanical Garden and its impressive collection of cacti and desert plants. Then visit Pueblo Grande Museum and the remains of the ancient Hohokam civilization, Archaeological Park, from which the modern city of Phoenix arose. Spend the rest of your time like the locals: sitting by the pool drinking margaritas, playing golf, or shopping at one of the open-air malls.

2. Every great city has an iconic landmark: New York has the Empire State Building; Seattle has the Space Needle. What is Phoenix’s answer to the Eiffel Tower?

It’s pretty hard to improve upon the Sonoran Desert, which is why the dramatic landscape defines so much of the city, including its most prominent landmark: Camelback Mountain. It doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to make out the mountain’s “kneeling camel” profile, right down to the eyelashes. The 76-acre park lures some 300,000 hikers every year to its red sandstone and granite cliffs. It’s also a great place to see Sonoran critters like spiny lizards, roadrunners, rabbits, and even the occasional rattlesnake, in their native environment.

3. Is there more to the Valley of the Sun than golf and hiking?

Absolutely. The Valley, once dismissed as an ever-sprawling suburb, is transforming into a cultural hub, building a host of new, architecturally significant museums like the Phoenix Art Museum, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, the Arizona Science Center, and the Heard Museum, the world’s finest collection of Native American art. Also, be sure to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, Taliesin West, and the ancient cliffside ruins at Montezuma Castle, situated about 45 minutes north of Phoenix.

4. Where can you find the best Mexican food?

Depends, what are you looking for? Cheap and laid-back? Generations of Phoenix families are fans of Tee Pee Mexican Restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall known for its chiles rellenos and cheese enchiladas. Foodies swear by Barrio Café and its tableside pomegranate-seed guacamole, 12-hour roasted pork, and amazing pollo poblano. America’s Taco Shop serves the city’s best carne asada and is a great lunch spot. A hip vibe and deliciously simple menu inspired by Mexican street food has made Gallo Blanco Café and Bar a popular choice for locals, and The Mission is a perfect Scottsdale combination of Latin flavors and chic style. In Sedona, don’t miss one of Arizona’s best restaurants, Elote Café. Elote’s executive chef, Jeff Smedstad, has traveled through Mexico for more than 15 years, and has created a flavorful distillation of the country’s diverse cuisine in his restaurant.

5. For those making a quick trip to Arizona, wouldn’t it make sense to skip Sedona and drive a bit further to the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley instead?

Sedona’s red-rock formations easily compete with the Southwest’s best-known geological wonders, both in terms of grandeur and beauty. As Sedona’s residents quip, “God created the Grand Canyon, but He lives in Sedona.” Red-rock country is a quick hour and a half day trip from Phoenix and Scottsdale, while the Grand Canyon requires a four- to five-hour drive. If you only have a day or two—and prefer not to spend most of it in a car—Sedona won’t disappoint.

6. Is planning a trip to Phoenix, Scottsdale, or Sedona in the scorching heat of the summer a mistake?

You may actually love Phoenix in the summer when it sizzles—of course, it may be the nosedive in rates at luxury resorts and spas that helps you embrace the heat. The searing, triple-digit temperatures leave visitors and residents with little choice but to stake out the closest swimming pool or air-conditioned oasis. Wake at dawn to take advantage of an early tee time or a sunrise hike. Also, take a cue from the locals, who come out to play in the evening when the sun dips below the horizon.

7. Golf courses, award-winning restaurants and spas, hundreds of shops and art galleries—Scottsdale sounds more like a resort than an Old West town, but its nickname is “The West’s Most Western Town.” What’s the story?

Scottsdale may call itself “The West’s Most Western Town,” but visitors are immediately struck by its pleasure-loving attitude. Residents happily fill their days with weeklong culinary events and international film festivals, while their evenings at the dozens of nightclubs and lounges that lure the party set–including pro athletes and pop stars—simmer with energy. Witness the clash of civilizations in Old Town Scottsdale: The eclectic mix of expensive galleries, trendy clubs, biker bars, and boutiques selling Western and Native American kitsch creates some of the best people-watching this side of the Rocky Mountains.

8. Can visitors still find a bit of the Old West in Arizona?

Definitely. In fact, you can still see much of the state as many of its first visitors did: on horseback. Kids will also love the Arizona Museum of Natural History, which offers hands-on exhibitions like panning for “gold” and a re-creation of a territorial jail. Adults will enjoy Scottsdale’s cowboy bars, which still attract boot-wearing regulars to their live shows and dance floors. Old Town’s restaurants, saloons, and Old West–themed boutiques can be a little touristy, but you’ll still find some historic sites, as well as live music (courtesy of singing cowboys and Native American performers). Also, historic sites—such as Fort Verde and the old mining town of Jerome, once dubbed the “Wickedest Town in the West”—dot Central Arizona’s Verde Valley.

9. What’s your favorite place in Phoenix/Scottsdale?

I’m always inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West; it’s the perfect synthesis of architecture and the desert. Wright’s use of local sand, gravel, and stone (what he called “desert masonry”) creates the impression that the complex emerged from the ground. He masterfully incorporated the environment, diffusing harsh sunlight through canvas ceilings and creating asymmetrical lines evocative of the surrounding mountains. The effect is simply stunning, and every time I visit, I’m reminded why I love living in Arizona.

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