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Motoring around a desert town with a soon-to-fly teen
We’re running out of time. While our 17-year-old is still down with travelling with his parents, it likely won’t be long before he’s jetting off with friends instead.
Sure, our little family has had a good run, with getaways ranging from rambling Western Canada road trips to eye-opening South Asia sojourns. But before Thomas tosses his Class of 2024 grad cap high into the sky, we wanted to savour at least one more trip with him on board. And a city just a three-hour flight away in the middle of the Sonoran Desert was calling.
With Vancouver battling rain, snow and ice, Scottsdale, Arizona, had us at sunny skies. But more than that was the promise of high-speed adventure for a tireless teen. It also didn’t hurt that Scottsdale had just scored a Best of the Best win at the 2024 Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards.
Rolling along a desert track on our first morning, we’ve donned helmets and neck gaiters for an ATV sand buggy tour with Desert Dog Offroad Adventures. Thomas is behind the wheel of our two-seater 800-cc rig, while my husband, Dan, has a ride all to himself. With a guide leading the way, our tour group’s six buggies zip along straight stretches and sandy washes before crawling through tight canyon turns and gnarly rock gardens. It’s loud, dirty and oh-so fun—the bright light in Thomas’ eyes says it all.
Stopping for a break halfway through the two-hour drive, we learn that Arizona’s ubiquitous saguaro cactus can take up to 80 years to grow its first arm, and that deer, coyote and javelina share this ruggedly beautiful land with the likes of Gila monsters, 13 types of snakes and wild horses.
Back at the sprawling 750-room Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, our home for the first half of our four-night trip, we chill for the afternoon. Easy to do, what with six pools—one has a 9,000-square-foot white sand beach—and a balcony room overlooking cacti-dotted grounds. Then there’s the four onsite restaurants. Earlier we’d tucked into the Ironwood American Kitchen’s brunch buffet, complete with doughnut wall. Tonight we’ll sit down to traditional Mexican fare at the cozy La Hacienda, where chef’s specialties like Carnitas Hacienda (slow braised pork shoulder) will be savoured in between sips of a blood orange margarita for me, Modelo Especial beer for Dan and pineapple passion mocktail for Thomas.
Bellies full of healthy breakfast bites from the breezy Farm & Craft bistro the next day, we join guide Denny Brua on an REI Co-op ebike tour. The 18-kilometre-long Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt was originally a solution to the city’s flooding woes but eventually morphed into the slice of recreational nirvana it is today. Passing by parks, golf courses, lakes and fields, the belt’s multi-use paved pathway—with traffic crossings and underpasses—offers a serene glimpse of Scottsdale behind the streets.
At times switching into our ebikes’ Turbo mode on the undulating route, we pedal past lush greenery and water fountains on one side and tidy tan-coloured condos with bougainvillea-lined patios on the other. Breaking for water, Brua points out Camelback Mountain and its namesake humps in the distance, and tells us Arizona was the last of the 48 contiguous states to achieve statehood. “This whole area never started growing until the late 1950s. Do you know why then?” he asks us. “The invention of air conditioning.”
Still, with winter temps here hovering in the low-to-mid 20°C—compared to summertime’s 40°C-plus—it’s comfortable enough today for a post-ride patio lunch. Modestly billing itself as “Just your average gas station,” The Thumb not only offers car washing, detailing, fuel, cheeky gifts and wine, but also a counter-service menu that’s heavy on hardwood smoked BBQ. Tucking into stacks of sliced brisket and pulled pork topped with cheese sauce, pico de gallo, fries and sunny-side-up eggs, we can see why this eclectic pitstop was showcased on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Another day finds us roaring around Octane Raceway’s indoor-outdoor track. Belted into high-speed electric karts, we floor it through straightaways and brake for switchbacks along the half-kilometre loop. A newbie, I don’t come close to reaching the karts’ top speed of 45 miles (72 km) per hour. Meanwhile, Thomas effortlessly zips to first place in our 14-lap race. A few arcade games later at Mavrix next door, we share plates of street tacos and chicken wings in the entertainment complex’s cavernous dining space.
Checking into the cool and colourful 1956-built Hotel Valley Ho for the second half of our trip, we’re at once immersed in Hollywood history, midcentury modern design and contemporary style and comfort. Black-and-white photos on the second floor capture a young Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner’s 1957 wedding here, while geometric concrete panels and cantilevered balconies keep things retro after the property’s major 2005 makeover. But it’s our two-bedroom tower suite, with glossy yellow kitchen, terrazzo-tiled bathrooms and artsy lighting accents, that brings us into the 21st century. Rounding out our evening will be dips in the two outdoor pools and dinner at the onsite ZuZu restaurant.
In the meantime, the nine walkable neighbourhoods of Old Town Scottsdale beckon. We browse Indigenous jewellery stores in Historic Old Town and cross a 40-metre-long public art pedestrian passage in the Southbridge District. Not much of a shopper, Thomas still takes a shine to the decidedly hip men’s clothing store Rooster Bus in the Fifth Avenue Shopping District. Sprinkled throughout Old Town are eateries like The Herb Box (with a seemingly bottomless serrano-shrimp salad) and Craft 64 (think wood-fired pizza and local craft beer).
Fast pursuits behind us, we switch into the slow lane for the remainder of our trip, starting with a guided horseback ride at family-owned MacDonald’s Ranch. I’m straddling a gentle palomino named Lakota, while it’s a trusty black mare (Gypsy) for Dan and a strapping bay stallion (Denver) for Thomas. Leading us along a trodden track that winds through the expansive 518-hectare property, wrangler Bryan points out flora and fauna like the Arizona state tree, the palo verde, with its green bark and tiny leaves, and the tubby Gambel’s quail that deftly dart across the dry ground. He’s also quick to toss in some on-the-range humour, with one-liners like: “Do you guys know why cowboys are so bad at math? Because they’re always rounding things up!”
Speaking of up, our last afternoon in town has us taking to the skies with Hot Air Expeditions. Watching the team inflate the balloon (known as an envelope in the biz) and then heat the air with fiery blasts from the propane burners, we and nine fellow passengers are stoked to hop aboard. Tucked in our allotted pockets of the oversized wicker basket, we smoothly soar to over 5,000 feet for 360-degree city, desert and mountain views. But not before we spot a pack of trotting wild burros and a leaping jackrabbit below. It’s a truly blissful hour that we’ll never forget.
Looking more pop star than pilot with a pink mohawk, pink-tinted shades and pink gel nails, captain Jonathan Wright gently returns our basket to the desert floor. Soon we’re gathered around a linen-covered long table of champagne flutes, a bottle of bubbly and sweet-and-savoury nibblies. “It doesn’t get much cooler than this,” says Wright, popping the cork and pouring a celebratory round. “We’ve got a beautiful sunset on the horizon over here and a full moon behind us.”
Chatting with another family at our end of the table, I become hopeful about travels to come. Heather from Phoenix tells me that her daughter, celebrating her 25th birthday today, has never stopped travelling with her family. “It’s because you get to create memories,” she says.
Perhaps this won’t be one of our last family trips together after all. At the very least though, we’ll be returning home with lifelong memories—and I’ll take that for now.