A Guide to Scottsdale, Arizona

Escape to Scottsdale, Arizona for an unforgettable vacation under the sun

Credit: Catherine Tse 

Relax in world famous spa resorts, discover outdoor adventures for the whole family and have some old-town South Western fun in the charming city of Scottsdale

A quick 2.5 hour flight from Vancouver will land you in guaranteed sunshine and spectacular desert scenerywelcome to Scottsdale. This is the type of place that resonates with almost everyone, from celebrities to families, because it’s so nurturing and inspiring.

There’s an energy in Scottsdale that imperceptibly fluctuates from wildly invigorating to intently reflective. It’s the kind of energy that lulls wild mustangs to linger at water’s edge then rushes into a bull-riding pen, bolstering amateur cowboys atop bucking broncos. It’s also the kind of energy that inspires you to go rock climbing in 40° C heat at two o’clock in the afternoon.

To be clear, I didn’t participate in the rock climbing; I harnessed the energy differently, though still in quintessential Scottsdale fashion. I was at the spa.

Whether you prefer to direct your energy quietly or with adrenaline pumping, Scottsdale has some incredible experiences to make your visit extraordinary.

Water Sports in the Desert: Kayaking & Stand-up Paddle Boarding

It’s counterintuitive, but Scottsdale has large swaths of lush landscapes and waterfront, thanks to the lower Salt River, which offers a beautiful vantage point for taking in the dramatic vistas. If you have decent balance and a good sense of adventure, stand up paddle boarding (SUP) is always an exciting way to connect with the scenery. There are a couple of choppy areas where large rocks and shallow waters will keep you alert, but otherwise this is a pleasantly controlled ride. It’s definitely more difficult than SUP in False Creek, but the joy of not having to wear a wetsuit will counter any hesitations.

For less work and more floating, try kayaking. With minimal effort, you can easily slip along the river absorbing the amazing scenery at leisure. And if you’re very lucky, as we were, you’ll see wild mustangs gathered along the shore. We had the incredible fortune of drifting past three separate herds, the largest with 17 horses.

Credit: Catherine Tse 

Outdoor Adventure – Trail Hiking and Biking

With over 500 km of outdoor trails stretched over mountains, preserves and ranges, a hike here can mean anything from a pleasant stroll to a scramble up a cliff.  Pick your level of adventure and how long you want to be out, then pick your trail. Hiking here is near religion, so rest assured trails are generally well marked with plenty of resources to help you choose the right ones. If you’ve done the Grouse Grind in Vancouver, you’ll be fine on intermediate level trails.

These hikes are great on your own, but go with a guide for a deeper experience. If the Sonoran desert region is completely new to you, a guide can interpret this otherworld-like landscape. Our guide from Arizona Outback Adventures impressively kept hiking and talking (in a good way) for 2.5 hours straight, explaining everything from why you can’t really drink the liquid from the pulp of a cactus (too alkaline), to the contributions made by the ancient Hohokam Native Indian tribe (they established irrigation canals in the desert) to the urban legends surrounding nearby Superstition Mountains (notably, “The Lost Dutchman” about a German miner in the late 19th century who claimed to know the location of a secret gold mine. To this day prospectors are still in search of it.).

The cacti alone hold a dozen stories—the iconic Saguaro is often targeted by thieves despite being legally protected; the Cholla with its hollow needles that curl into barbs upon contact with moisture (i.e. skin) that make them dangerous to humans and deadly to small animals.

Many of the trails are multi-use, so be prepared to share the paths with cyclists and horses.

Credit: Catherine Tse 

Spas.. Many, many spas

Scottsdale is spa country (over 400,000 sq. ft of spa space in the Greater Phoenix area), and the resorts here take your relaxation and rejuvenation seriously. If this is your first visit to the region, try a spa that incorporates local, indigenous techniques and ingredients. Even if energy work isn’t typically your passion, at least know that this area, especially nearby Sedona, is known for its energy vortexes, which many claim to be a source of spiritual and metaphysical energy.

Part indulgence, part active meditation, the Lotus Blossoming Chakra Massage at Boulders Resort & Spa, is an 80-minute massage that focuses on realigning your seven chakras. Life forces aside, this is a luxurious treatment on its own that features seven different organic aromatherapy oils (each one attuned for a specific chakra). But if you follow your therapist’s directions as the treatment progresses, you’ll be guided through a series of visualisation exercises meant to clarify intention and focus on mindfulness. The result leaves you deeply connected with your treatment.

At the Sanctuary Resort and Spa, the focus is on Asian-inspired treatments and after a few days of early mornings and lots of desert hiking, their Reflexology treatment was bliss. I would take this over a pedicure any day. 60 minutes devoted to working on tiny yet disproportionately ache-y muscles in the feet will first have you asleep by the halfway point of this session, then hours later leave you feeling energised. Using acupressure to target reflex points on the feet (each one corresponding to a different part of the body), reflexology not only feels amazing but also releases blocked energy, often manifesting as sluggishness, pain or general malaise.

Boulders Resort and Spa, 34631 N Tom Darlington Dr, Carefree, AZ

Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa, 5700 East McDonald Drive, Paradise Valley, AZ

Credit: Catherine Tse 

Buffalo Chip Saloon: Bull Riding

When someone in Scottsdale offers to take you to a bull riding bar, there’s a good chance they mean Buffalo Chip, where the band is live and so are the bulls. Live bulls. For $20 and a signed waiver, you can try your luck on an 800 lb bucking bull. (For an extra $20, you can get a few perks like a helmet, safety vest, rope and personal assistance. In an activity where success is measured by fractions of single-digit seconds, pay the extra $20.)

It doesn’t get more authentic than this, surrounded by cowboys and cowgirls, barbequed everything and a community spirit that’s near palpable. When the original Buffalo Chip burned down late last year (on US Thanksgiving Day) after serving as a local landmark for nearly 65 years, public support immediately rallied and fundraising began the very next day, a day not typically known for being particularly charitable or compassionate.

Now, just a few months later, the heart of Buffalo Chip is operational and it’s actually hard to imagine any part of it confined indoors. The grounds are sprawling with picnic tables, fire pits, bleachers, elevated viewing galleries, a couple of bars, a dance area and, of course, the bull ring. Everything fluidly melds into one another under the open sky, as if it’d already been there for decades.

6811 E Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek, Arizona (Amateur bull riding is available Wednesday and Friday evenings, though you need to register in advance on the Monday prior)

Credit: Catherine Tse 

Where to Stay in Scottsdale: Casas and Casitas

Checking into a casa or casita is always a promising start to a holiday, and Scottsdale is full of these homey dwellings that exude a relaxed SW charm. Technically defined as small homes, these pueblo-esque units are usually clustered together in small “neighbourhoods” that are scattered throughout the each property. Some grounds are manageable (and preferable) on foot while others necessitate coordination with a cart & driver to get from golf course to restaurant to lobby to spa and back to your casita. Either way, keep your eyes out for local wildlife, such as road runners, bobcats, javelinas and fluffy-tailed bunnies.

Boulders Resort and Spa

As its name suggests, Boulders Resort is ensconced amongst some spectacular, towering boulders that date back 12 million years. Not only is this home to two championship 18-hole golf courses and a lavish 33,000 sq. ft spa, this is the place to go if you want to try rock climbing and rappelling. The setting is truly inspiring, even at ground level (which is exactly where I stayed). But if you choose to try your hand at this, the resort offers a guided experience that will reward you with some well-deserved vistas.

34631 N Tom Darlington Dr, Carefree, AZ

Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North 

At the northern end of Scottsdale, this Four Seasons resort is the kind of holiday destination you’re happy to stay on site for the entire time. Beautiful, with a couple of great restaurants and bars, a spa and access to the nearby Troon North Golf Club this might be all you need for an amazing holiday. Attention to service is typical of Four Seasons standards (read: impeccably gracious) and this property is particularly well-suited for families. 

10600 E Crescent Moon Dr, Scottsdale, AZ

Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa 

Look up as you approach Sanctuary on Camelback—its namesake mountain really does resemble the signature backside of a resting camel—and is best viewed from a distance. The resort itself is nestled right into the mountainside, giving this sprawling, contemporary resort a surprisingly cosy feel.

A favourite among celebrities, Sanctuary has hosted the likes of Lady Gaga and Jennifer Aniston, and was where Beyoncé and Jay-Z honeymooned. But everyone who stays here gets the same exceptional service. Be sure to catch the sunset champagne reception that the resort hosts for all guests every evening, a romantic way to take a moment to do nothing more than appreciate day melting into night.

5700 East McDonald Drive, Paradise Valley, AZ