When you take into account all of the surrounding municipalities like Scottsdale, Tempe and Mesa, Phoenix’s metropolitan area is a whopping 4.3 million people, making it the 13th-biggest city in the U.S. One thing most of those residents know that tourists don’t — besides the fact that the best way to remove thorns from the beloved saguaro cactus out of your skin is with packing tape or Elmer’s glue — is that Phoenix’s cultural and culinary scenes are exploding with flavor. If you had two days to spend in and around the Salt River Valley, there’s no way you could see everything the area had to offer — but it’s fun to give it a try.
For logistical reasons, modern enclave Hotel Palomar Phoenix gets the nod over more established spots like Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Phoenician on this quick trip. Located just down the street from Chase Field, where the Arizona Diamondbacks play, and right next door to Cityscape Phoenix, the entertainment hub of downtown, Palomar couldn’t have a more plugged-in address. But beyond locale, the property’s rooms are modern (leather furniture; bright, spacious bathrooms) and fun (loaner “pet” goldfish, a Kimpton signature amenity). And the ground-floor gastro-lounge, Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails, serves up playful dishes, like bison jerky, tater tots and duck confit flatbread, as well as fabulous mixed drinks, like the gin- and lemon-powered Jasmine.
Don’t go overboard with the lunchtime libations though; there’s too much left on the schedule. In fact, for your first afternoon, you can go one of two directions — the Desert Botanical Gardens or the Heard Museum. The former is a spectacular natural wonder less than 20 minutes from the city center. With 50,000-plus plants displayed in outdoor settings, the attraction offers one of the world’s largest collections of desert flora. Some of renowned glass sculptor Dale Chihuly’s work welcomes you at the entrance. Gertrude’s, the onsite restaurant with a focus on locally sourced ingredients, has a citrus-berry cheesecake that makes for a delicious parting gift.
If you choose the Heard Museum instead, you’ll be equally pleased with your decision. A literal walk through the history of Native American tribes indigenous to Arizona, the museum’s 10 permanent and changing exhibits will spark a host of emotions. Pay particularly close attention to “Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience,” a moving photo and audio gallery that explores the forced assimilation on various groups.
By the time that emotional visit ends, you could be drained. If that’s the case, a power nap back at the Palomar is in order. If the D-Backs have a game across the street, you’ll want to grab a ticket. If they don’t, head over to Beckett’s Table for dinner. Though chef Justin Beckett’s sophisticated take on comfort food is seasonal, there might still be time to try his deep-fried deviled eggs or seared Scottish salmon. Seal the night with a brown-butter ice cream that’s magical.
Your second day gets off to an early start. A 6:30 a.m. wake-up call is a challenge on a vacation, but to get the full experience of a hot-air balloon ride, your basket has to be up around sunrise. While a host of companies offer the extreme service, we feel the takeoff-to-touchdown experience is best handled by Hot Air Expeditions’ Bill Heck. After your hour of blissfulness in the air, the jolly pilot steers you to ground, where a thoughtful spread of breakfast quiche, croissants and champagne awaits.
After scratching that from your bucket list, head over to the Musical Instrument Museum, the finest museum you probably didn’t know even existed. Founded in 2010 by Robert J. Ulrich, the former CEO of Target Corporation, the MIM is more of an experience than an actual museum. Equipped with wireless headsets, you’ll walk around the 200,000-square-foot facility, hitting various “hot spots” where recordings teach you about everything from John Lennon’s piano to stage performers in Lebanon. The place is a treasure trove of world tunes that deserves at least three to four hours to fully appreciate.
For lunch, you have a number of quality options — it just depends on how far you feel like driving. Scoot over to Mesa and try TQLA, a fairly new Southwestern-style eatery that boasts more than 80 varieties of tequila; drive to Glendale shopping area Westgate City Center and experience the fun, family-friendly Saddle Ranch Chop House; or make your way over to North Central PHX and try Windsor, a laid-back neighborhood hangout with superb casual dishes, sensational service and a sweet shop, Churn, right next door. Be sure to try the Loopy Bar, a Rice Krispies-treat-like dessert made from Froot Loops that you’ll wish you had the recipe to.
About a 15-minute drive from Windsor is Royal Palms Resort, a rustic villa that in-the-know travelers have frequented for years. While you could get lost for hours just taking in the Mediterranean-style architecture and fabulous views of Camelback Mountain off in the distance, you’re making this trip specifically for the Alvadora Spa’s citrus massage.
Finish the evening off at T. Cook’s, Royal Palms’ European-influenced restaurant that prides itself as much on its wonderful flavors as it does its work with local farmers. Standouts on the menu include the crispy black cod and prime-aged filet. The chocolate decadence cake could prove the perfect end to two amazing days in the desert. But just in case it doesn’t, the bar, which can get jam-packed by 9 p.m., will certainly have the nightcap you need.
Photos Courtesy of Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, The Heard Museum and MIM