Hot Air Expeditions is known for its hot air balloon excursions that take visitors floating over the lush, green Sonoran Desert. (Photo: Hot Air Expeditions)
Last summer was so extremely, record-breakingly hot, the very idea of vacationing somewhere toastier — Arizona?! — sounded insane. But now that our region’s weather has turned drizzly and cold, of course, we’re dreaming of warmer climes. And there you are, sunny Scottsdale, less than two hours by air. No passports needed. No mittens, either.
We’re talking balmy temps, gorgeous landscapes and a culinary scene that includes more than 800 restaurants, as well as some intriguing Arizona-grown wine. (And spring training, of course.) Here’s a weekend itinerary for what to do, eat and drink this winter in Scottsdale, besides baseball.
Friday: Cactus coolers, incredible art
Scottsdale boasts lodging options at every price point, but if you want to go luxe, check in at the 23-acre Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Bungalows, near the base of Camelback Mountain and just 2 miles from Old Town. The resort’s 185 bungalow-style rooms are clustered along citrus tree-lined pathways, with individual patios and midcentury modern interiors inspired by that era’s desert art scene. It’s a showcase, too, for unique, locally made art, furniture and installations, much of it from the Cattle Track Art Compound nearby.
So finish up that “welcome” cactus cooler cocktail, then head out for a tour of Cattle Track, a 5-minute drive or 20-minute walk — it’s not summer anymore, walking is doable — away. Walking into the arts colony feels like walking onto a movie set, a fantastical place filled with artists studios and living quarters. The 13-acre compound, purchased for $100 in the 1930s by Rachael and George Ellis, has more than a dozen artists-in-residence and much of what is made here goes to museums. Peek into the studios and meet the artists, including, if you’re lucky, Mark McDowell, who has lived at the art compound for the last 30 years and has astounding stories to tell about the artists here and Scottsdale’s art scene.
“We are part of the history of this community,” he says.
Back at the hotel, you’ll likely notice some of the pieces McDowell described, from the custom dinner plates used at the resort’s Weft & Warp restaurant to the spice blends, grown at Cattle Track and sold by McDowells’ granddaughters. The photographs and furniture in your room are the work of Cattle Track artists, too, whose work has been commissioned now for other Hyatt properties around the globe.
Andaz’s Create and Cultivate programs offer a fun way to kick off the weekend, perhaps with a Raise Your Glass cocktail class. Mixology nerds will appreciate the technical tips and savvy thrown down, while more casual cocktail fans will enjoy sipping mini versions off the seasonal drink list. There’s a Pasta Like a Pro class, as well, and a Sweet Escape chocolate truffle class led by the hotel’s pastry chef Morgan Malzahn, with ample tasting opportunities in the restaurant’s glass-walled exhibition kitchen.
After your experiential tutorial, have a seat for a leisurely dinner at Weft & Warp, with a shareable menu of Mediterranean inspired small (and giant) plates. Start with a mezze or two, like the Moroccan eggplant Zaalouk ($15) and the sumac-spiced beet dip with labneh ($15), accompanied by textured laffa flatbread you’ll have a hard time not nibbling all throughout. Don’t miss the pasta — the pappardelle ($34) with pork sugo, perhaps, or tagliatelle ($28) with arugula pesto, heirloom tomatoes, preserved lemon and stracciatella.
Details: Rooms are spendy ($700 and up, plus a $45 resort fee per night) but the stay is luxurious at Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Bungalows, 6114 N. Scottsdale Road, www.andazscottsdale.com.
The Cattle Track Arts Compound is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, free admission, at 6105 N. Cattletrack Road, www.cattletrack.org.
Saturday: Aloft and downtown
This morning’s painfully early wake up time will be hard, but what’s waiting won’t disappoint. Head for the rendezvous point for Hot Air Expeditions — rated “best balloon flight in Phoenix” by Fodor’s for 26 consecutive years — then pile into the expedition van and head out into the desert. You’ll witness the incredible set up and inflation process, as a large team of strong folks prep the balloon. Then climb into the basket and head skyward, taking in the vast desertscape and spotting wildlife (and early morning joggers) down below. Finish the adventure with a breakfast spread, sipping mimosas as you celebrate your return to Earth.
Take a snooze or lounge back at the hotel. (We headed for the Andaz’s Apothecary Pool, an adults-only oasis adjacent to the Palo Verde Spa and fitness center, to relax.) Then catch a ride to Old Town Scottsdale to explore the Entertainment district, as well as the Waterfront and Bridge districts. Browse art galleries, crystal stores, old time saloons and ice cream parlors. The central Fifth Avenue Shopping District — look for its famous bronze horse fountain — is a fun place to shop, whether you’re looking for lovely linen pieces (stop at Conscious Coterie) or designer activewear made in-house at Yoga Democracy.
If you’ve never considered Arizona a wine destination, shift your perspective at Scottsdale’s Wine Collective, where you can taste through some Arizona-grown selections. The shop highlights small producers that don’t have their own tasting rooms, and it’s a great place to sample some things you might not get a chance to try otherwise.
A reservation is a must at chef Charleen Badman’s James Beard award-winning FnB. If you have any time to kill before dinner, go across the courtyard to Citizen Public House, a local favorite for its lively vibe and convivial, cozy ambiance. Barrel-aged cocktails are predominant here, and the layered Instant Gratification ($16), with its cognac, single-malt scotch and amaro, is a great one to try.
Don’t indulge too much, though, because there’s incredible food waiting at the plant-forward FnB. The menu is seasonal and ever-changing, but we enjoyed a beet salad with vadouvan, pumpernickel croutons and goat curds, and fresh pasta with braised lamb and delicata squash. This is another place to sample local wines, and you’ll be well guided by beverage director Pavle Milic, who has his own wine label, Los Milics. The restaurant is set back in the historic Craftsman Court, with dining areas that feel tucked away, like eating at your favorite foodie friend’s home. A cute bar in one room will help satiate your cocktail craving, and the newly finished mosaic glass paneling in the front of the space is a stunning thing to behold.
Details: Hot Air Expeditions’ morning balloon rides are $219 for adults and run 363 days a year. Meet the van at Deer Valley Airport, 702 W. Deer Valley Road in Phoenix; www.hotairexpeditions.com.
The Wine Collective opens at noon daily at 4020 N. Scottsdale Road; www.the-wine-collective.com. Citizen Public House is open from 4 to 10 p.m. daily at 7111 E. Fifth Ave; www.citizenpublichouse.com. FnB is open from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday 7125 E. Fifth Ave.; www.fnbrestaurant.com. Find more shopping and dining information for Old Town Scottsdale at https://oldtownscottsdaleaz.com/.
Sunday: Hikes and barbecue
Some physical activity will be a welcome concept after all this eating, and a hike at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is the perfect place for all levels. At more than 30,500 acres, it’s one of the largest urban preserves in the world, and it’s 225-plus miles of hiking trails invite you to explore its cacti forests and rugged landscapes.
After your hike, refuel at The Thumb nearby, a Guy Fieri favorite — this gas station-meets-barbecue joint run by a former surgeon starred on an episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”. Come for the hardwood-smoked brisket and barbecue, but check out the impressive baked goods too, including giant cinnamon rolls and churro doughnuts. The coffee counter slings surprisingly legit espresso drinks, and the mega gift shop brims with kitchy finds and curios to take home.
Details: The Gateway Trailhead at McDowell Sonoran Preserve is open from sunrise to sunset daily at 18333 N. Thompson Peak Parkway; www.mcdowellsonoran.org.
The Thumb opens at 7 a.m. at 9393 E. Bell Road; www.thethumb.com.