YOU’D HAVE THOUGHT Phoenix might have grown up by now. It is, after all, the sixth-largest city in the U.S., a sprawling economic powerhouse. The population stands now at about 1.5 million, up from 100,000 in 1950. Yet this exuberant expanse of a suburb has at least three distinct “downtowns” and loses three residents for every five people who move in. Although a gawky adolescent in many ways, there’s still something liberating about the place. You can be anyone in Phoenix—or no one at all. Perhaps that’s why it keeps drawing immigrants and real-estate agents and people with dreams—anyone with a need to reinvent himself.
Author Peter Aleshire Photography Dave Lauridsen
DAY ONE / Awake in north Phoenix in the 738-room Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, a distinctive hotel with a Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired design. The repeated renovations since 1929 have preserved its flavor while adding a spa and massive meeting facilities. Order a room-service breakfast and relax while you relish the hotel’s old-money luxury.
To understand the city’s deep roots and the logic of its location, your first stop is the Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park, built around an excavated 1,500-year-old Hohokam Indian village. Phoenix sits at the juncture of the Salt, Gila, and Verde rivers, which drain half the state and now mostly disappear into a chain of reservoirs. For 1,000 years, that same confluence sustained the Hohokam, who dug hundreds of miles of irrigation canals and built the Southwest’s most densely populated civilization. The 102-acre park provides insight into the mysterious disappearance of the tribe in the 1400s, with perhaps thought-provoking implications for a thirsty modern city living, in large part, on water imported from the distant, drought-plagued Colorado River.
Next stop is the Heard Museum, where you’ll see a collection of 39,000 artifacts illuminating Native American life in the Southwest. The Heard offers a fascinating overview of the surprising array of modern Native American cultures that so enrich any visit to the state. Wander the massive collection of katsina dolls, pottery, jewelry, baskets, cradleboards, paintings, and sculptures. Each year, the museum hosts one of the biggest Indian art markets in the country, and the gift shop is known for high-quality art pieces and a variety of good books. By now you’re hungry, and the newly renovated café on the grounds, featuring Southwest-inspired entrées, is a great place to stop for lunch.
All right. Enough culture. Time to shop. Most visitors head for the galleries and upscale shops of Scottsdale, but you’re detouring instead to the jumble of Mexican curio and patio shops in the unusual little enclave of Guadalupe, a fragment of Mexico surrounded by Phoenix and Tempe. Yaqui Indians established the community, which now supports a handful of shops that will appeal to anyone fond of Mexican folk art, furniture, pottery, and yard decorations.
You change gears next with an in-town hike. On the border between Phoenix and Scottsdale stands popular Camelback Mountain. Your schedule is full, so choose the short, easy pathways at the bottom for a look at the stark and spectacular landscape of contorted blood-red rocks.
Now you’ve earned some pampering. The Camelback area is awash in luxury resorts, so you might as well go for the valley’s most conspicuously luxurious one, The Phoenician. Built by disgraced Phoenix financier Charles Keating and representing the hyperbolic peak of his ambition, the Phoenician has everything, including a 27-hole golf course, acres of marble, and a lavish spa.
Now that you’ve recovered a bit, drive over to Richardson’s, where you’ve made reservations. This tiny restaurant, tucked into a strip mall, offers wonderfully creative, flavorful
New Mexican cuisine, which could account for its popularity. The hammered-copper bar dishes up signature prickly pear margaritas while diners sink into walled booths fluffed with throw pillows. Owner Richardson Browne makes an art of dishes like chorizo-stuffed pork chops, Chimayo chicken, massive roasted garlic cloves, carne adovada, and green-chile stew.
Assuming you haven’t gorged too heavily, put on your dancing shoes—preferably cowboy boots. You’re sampling Phoenix nightlife at Handlebar J in Scottsdale, where there’s live country music and an impressive display of country two-stepping on the joyfully brimming dance floor. Get there at 7 any night except Friday or Saturday and enjoy a free dance lesson. Then, head back to the Arizona Biltmore to rest up for the coming day’s adventure.