Surprising adventures and cool new openings are heating things up in the Sonoran Desert
“People always ask me how we steer the balloon, and I tell them, we don’t!” laughs Gary Davalos, a commercial hot air balloon pilot for Hot Air Expeditions, and the man who currently holds my life in his hands. I laugh nervously as we float high above the ground in a wicker basket affixed to an oversized balloon that dons the company’s signature Saguaro, and I wonder if I should have stayed grounded instead.
My nervousness subsides when I learn that Gary has been piloting hot air balloons for decades. He knows what he’s doing, and has mastered the art of ballooning. Calm washes over me as we gracefully float through the sky. I take in sweeping views of the Sonoran Desert below and smile to myself. I’ve finally done it: I’ve simultaneously faced my fears and found my footing on my first-ever hot air balloon excursion—an experience that I’d always wanted to try.
It was exciting to see a region I’ve visited before from a new perspective, and this was just one of the new-to-me adventures that I enjoyed on my latest visit to Scottsdale—a city chockfull of surprises. Whether you’re looking for a lively getaway or a laidback escape, Scottsdale’s latest offerings are sure to impress.
Here are just a few of the new ways to play, sip, spa and stay on your next visit to Scottsdale...
1. Play: Find adventures by land, water and air
Jenn Smith NelsonScottsdale is a surprising site for outdoor adventure—something I hadn’t realized on my first visit. Within an hour from town, you can kayak along the 1000-foot cliffs and cactus-lined coastline of Saguaro Lake; hike to the peak of Tom’s Thumb trail and take in panoramic views of both the Phoenix and Scottsdale skylines from its peak; float over the desert on a family-owned hot air balloon; and ride horseback through the flora and fauna found throughout the Sonoran Desert.
If arts and architecture are more your speed, take a stroll through Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West for an up-close look at the famed architect’s winter home and studio in the desert—a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2019. From now until June 19th, you can admire the paired artistry of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and Dale Chihuly’s colourful blown-glass creations during the "Chihuly in the Desert" display. The Desert Botanical Gardens (pictured at top of article) is another stunning spot where nature meets art. Chihuly installations are set amongst the lush landscape. It's a rare occurrence to have two Chihuly displays in the same city—a true treat for art lovers.
2. Sip: Try turn-of-the-century cocktails on a train
Bianca BujanEnjoy 20th-century-inspired craft cocktails aboard a presidential Pullman-style vintage train car that takes guests on a (virtual) 90-minute journey through the Rocky Mountains. Recognized as one of the world's best cocktail bars, Platform 18 is a train-themed cocktail bar that takes you on a journey back in time through inspired tipples from back in the day. My pick: the Duesenberg Whisky Sour, made of High West Bourye whisky, Solerno Blood Orange liqueur, bergamot juice, calamansi lime, Mauby Bark, Angostura bitters, lemon juice, and egg white.
Not ready to call it a night? Consider visiting one of the other two turn-of-the-century cocktails bars housed under the same roof. Choose from Grey Hen Rx—a New Orleans apothecary-inspired cocktail bar, or Under Tow—an immersive, underground tiki bar serving up a wide range of tropical-themed cocktails made of rare rums from around the world. The trio of cocktails bars are part of the Century Grand cocktail bar experience. (Note that food is not served at any of these cocktail bars.)
3. Spa: Unwind with a cactus massage
Head to the spa at the Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North and relax with the newly-offered Nopal cactus massage—which isn’t as prickly as you may think! For this unique treatment, restaurant-grade nopal cactus paddles (needles removed) are heated in hot water and then sliced in half. Gooey side down, the warm paddles are then used to massage your body. The Nopal cactus (also known as the “prickly pear” cactus) has highly-beneficial healing properties, touted for its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. My skin felt silky smooth after my session.
4. Stay: Sleep steps from the action or escape to a quiet casita in the desert
Jenna McKoneFor easy access to a night on the town, head to Senna House Scottsdale, a new, lively addition to Old Scottsdale, and the first hotel to open in the city's entertainment district since 2008. There you’ll find the Sonora Swim Club, a poolside cocktail lounge with day beds, a full bar and freshly-made fare. The hotel also houses Cala Scottsdale, the city’s newest hot spot. Named after a street in Mallorca, Cala adds Mediterranean flavours and flair to the area, featuring a tasty menu created by Food Network celebrity chef Beau MacMillan and his talented team. My picks: the Whipped Ricotta is a creamy, craveable starter, and the Lumache à la Vodka pasta was a big hit at our table.
For a more laidback, luxury stay, head to Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North, an oasis set in the serene surroundings of the Sonoran Desert. Sleep soundly in a stunning and spacious casita, and engage in on-site programming such as a nighttime stargazing session with NASA ambassadors, an early morning sound and soul yoga session outdoors, or a hands-on aromatherapy class where you can make your own personalized scent to take home. Dine on the patio of Talavera, the property’s on-site steakhouse, and take in stunning sunset views while noshing on succulent Lobster Tostadas and a steaming dish of Talavera Paella. You won’t want to leave.