The Sonoran Desert is a strange place. For one, it’s the only desert in the world that can grow saguaro cacti (AKA the type of cactus you’re probably imagining right now). For another, it houses an array of interesting, cute and truly terrifying wildlife, including javelinas, quail, coyotes, scorpions, desert rabbits, mourning doves and more. And finally, Scottsdale, Ariz.—a veritable oasis for high net worth individuals, as well as luxury-seeking vacationers—is situated squarely within it.
The Sonoran Desert is a mystifying place. It appears to be the perfect spot to not only get away from it all but also to spend some valuable time with yourself, assessing where you are, where you’re going and what it might take to become all that you want to be. It’s a great backdrop for experiencing world-class wellness and spa services.
The Sonoran Desert is also a nourishing place. Spending time in nature, amongst the mountains, is something I always find rejuvenating, but paired with the top-notch dining, once-in-a-lifetime adventures, stunning architecture and friendly people that Scottsdale has to offer, it’s a vacation destination that has all the makings of a truly relaxing and memorable getaway.
And I can confirm that it is. In June, Experience Scottsdale brought me out to the desert to, well, experience all that Scottsdale has to offer right now. Let me tell you, it’s been a month since my trip at the time of writing, and it’s one of the best trips I’ve taken in recent memory. Now my trip was probably less relaxing than yours will be, as mine was packed with things to do and places to be. So below are the eateries, activities and hotels I’d recommend for your consideration when you plan your trip out West (and I seriously recommend that you plan that trip ASAP).
The Boulders Resort & Spa
The two properties I stayed at on my trip exemplified different aspects of luxury. The Boulders is a truly expansive resort. As we pulled up to the main lodge, I was struck by how secluded it felt, like you never really needed to leave the resort. The property is stunning, giving you the feeling of being part of the desert. As the name suggests, there are great, massive boulders throughout the property, including at the main lodge, where you can actually climb them when it’s not too hot. The resort also offers four swimming pools, two world-class golf courses, tennis and pickleball courts, four on-site restaurants, a full-service spa, nature trails and an array of outdoor activities ranging from rock climbing to guided desert hikes and hot air balloon rides. My sister and I stayed in a casita at the Boulders, which was cozy and outfitted in a Southwestern aesthetic, complete with a fireplace and a balcony fit for stargazing. I would recommend staying at the Boulders if you love being in nature and want to make the resort the focus of your stay.
The Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa
The Sanctuary is a completely different experience from the Boulders. While the Boulders embraces the desert in its design, the Sanctuary has a sleek, modern style that has attracted celebrities like Beyoncé and Jay-Z. We stayed in a mountain suite, nestled at the base of Camelback Mountain, which had a balcony across the whole suite, room service and close proximity to a pool (and by that, I mean, I walked down our private staircase from our balcony, and I was basically at the pool). The resort also has a gorgeous infinity pool, tennis courts, a restaurant and a cocktail bar. The dining was absolutely incredible, from the room service to Elements restaurant to Jade Bar. I would recommend staying at the Sanctuary if you want fantastic dining and incredible service with breathtaking views.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
Some aspects of my Scottsdale trip were incredibly relaxing. This was not one of them. But who takes a hot air balloon ride to relax, right? We were picked up at 3:50 a.m. by Hot Air Expeditions to take a sunrise flight. The wind was being somewhat tricky, so we ended up unable to board the balloon until well after sunrise—but better safe than sorry. The ride itself was serene and delivered some of the most amazing views. While being up that high in a basket might not be for me, it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience made all the more memorable by the fantastic and spirited crew who guided the whole expedition. For thrill seekers and those who aren’t afraid of heights, Arizona is a stunning place to take a hot air balloon ride.
Sonoran Explorin Tour
At the Boulders, I was invited to take this ethnobotany tour of the desert. It ended up being a two-hour tour, but I loved every minute of it. Our guide Brandy Anderson was so knowledgeable and really gave us a hands-on experience, showing us different cacti and the fruit that grows in them, as well as teaching us about the different wildlife in the desert. It was a really cool experience and honestly was one of the highlights of my trip.
For Frank Lloyd Wright fans, Scottsdale is a mecca, housing one of his most iconic works—Taliesin West. Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019, Taliesin West was built in the 1930s by Wright and his apprentices. The structure would serve as his studio and winter home until his death in 1959. Today, you can take the masterpiece in for yourself through a guided or self-guided audio tour. It looks like an oasis in the middle of the desert. Truly, the property is sprawling and so stunning; you’ll want to explore every nook and crevice of it, taking in the brilliant details installed throughout.
At both resorts, I got to spend time at the spas, and truly they were both wonderful experiences. At the Boulders’ spa, I got the Desert Zen massage. After traveling six hours the previous day, it was incredibly needed. And it delivered. Even the bed and massage oil were both heated, which added to the relaxation. The spa itself was lovely and had some unique offerings, including an emotional rebalancing. The spa also has an adults-only pool, a café—which I highly recommend for lunch one day, as it offers a very tasty tuna poké bowl and a refreshing strawberry basil lemonade—an authentic teepee that was made for the resort and blessed by a shaman and a labyrinth, which was constructed to help you relieve your burdens and aid in self-reflection.
At the Sanctuary, I did reiki for the first time, which is a treatment that is supposed to help relieve stress and promote healing. The treatment itself was something totally new for me and was a nice experience, but what I really loved was all the amenities at the spa itself. It has a hot tub, a quiet room and a sauna, all of which I spent time in whilst waiting for our hotel room to be ready. And I couldn’t imagine a better place to wait it out.
This is the only activity on this entire list I didn’t actually do in Scottsdale, but everyone said I should. The truth is, I just didn’t have the time, but on my next trip, I will absolutely seek it out. When I went, it was about 108 degrees during the day, so I wouldn’t recommend hiking in June, but when the weather gets cooler during the fall and winter months, I would absolutely suggest this. When I stayed at the Sanctuary, I was told that many people like to hike up Camelback Mountain. It seems like a serious trek, but it also would make for an amazing hike with the views to match.
Food & Drink
The Mission Old Town
This was my first stop after getting off the plane, and it was just what I needed, starting with the white bean puree. I never consider getting bean dip as an appetizer, but this was truly something special—creamy, savory, luscious. We also got a flight of margaritas, my favorite being the cucumber jalapeño iteration. If you end up at The Mission, definitely try the tacos. The sleeper was the brussels sprouts taco, which was rich in flavor without having the sulfuric taste that brussels sprouts can sometimes have. As well, the Tecate-battered mahi-mahi taco was great—fried fish that melts in your mouth, refreshing slaw, green olive aioli. Truly worth a visit, whether for lunch or dinner.
The Americano was hands down one of the best eating experiences I had while in Scottsdale (and I had a lot of good eating experiences). The staff was incredibly friendly, the atmosphere was chic yet approachable, the food was both thoughtful and delicious and the drinks were so fun! I sampled approximately half the menu, and I can tell you honestly, it was all good. But my favorites were the focaccia ripiena filled with potato and gooey, melty cheese, the garlicky caviar fries, chef Scott Conant’s signature pomodoro and the equally tasty tagliatelle wagyu Bolognese. I also sampled a few cocktails, and for me, the standout was the Pop Rock & Drop It, a Franciacorta and amaretto cocktail with strawberry essence that tasted so nostalgic, like a strawberry candy I just couldn’t put my finger on. And the garnish! The drink had a strawberry dipped in strawberry Pop Rocks on the rim of the glass, and that is now my favorite way to eat strawberries.
Hash Kitchen Frank Lloyd Wright
For a brunch that feels like a party, complete with an in-house DJ and make-your-own Bloody Mary bar, make your way to Hash Kitchen. The location I visited was near Taliesin West, which made for a fun morning. As the name would suggest, they have a myriad of hashes on the menu. I sampled the blackened shrimp and grits hash, which was decadent with its creamy grits, Cajun garlic butter and poached eggs atop crispy potatoes. The real winner of brunch, though, was the cannoli donuts we kicked off the meal with. They were hot, crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside and set off perfectly with sweet cannoli cream. This was one of the dreamiest things I ate in Scottsdale. The cocktails on offer are just as playful as the place itself. Apart from the build-your-own Bloody Mary bar, which has over 50 toppings to choose from, they also offer CBD cold brew cocktails, a cereal shooter flight and a mimosa flight.
Elements was truly a culinary experience, from the food to the drinks to the stunning view of Paradise Valley from our table. We got to sample an array of dishes at Elements, as well as a series of cocktails, which you can also enjoy at the adjacent Jade Bar. Some of the standouts for me were the lobster and squash blossom tempura with green romesco sauce, which was like eating a high-end crab rangoon, a duo of tartares—of the steak tartare and tuna tartare, the tuna was my preference as it was fresh and citrusy with a light avocado crema, but the two together made for a nice juxtaposition, the rich with the refreshing—and oysters on the half shell served with wasabi tobiko and raspberry mignonette. Throughout the night, we tried a few different cocktails, as well. I’m partial to a mezcal cocktail, so I really enjoyed the Little Leaf, which had mezcal, cucumber, cilantro and jalapeño. (Can you tell I like jalapeño cocktails?) I also really enjoyed the River’s Edge cocktail, which is reposado tequila with apple, ginger and truffle. The truffle was incredibly subtle, so what really shined through was a bright, citrusy note with some sharpness from the ginger.
LDV Winery Tasting Room
Something I was surprised to learn on this trip is that Arizona produces wine. And the owners of LDV Winery Tasting Room are some of the winemakers producing vino out in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains. The land that their vineyard resides on was once inhabited by Native Americans who used it to grow corn and squash. The land is remarkable for the fact that it has never been used for producing commercial agriculture, so the vineyard has never had pesticides, herbicides or any chemicals used on it. And I can confirm that the wine coming out of this region is really quite good. But you don’t have to take my word for it, as the winery was awarded a silver medal by the San Francisco Chronicle for its 2015 Grenache, 2015 DECADE Red Wine Blend and 2014 Petite Syrah. I sampled the 2017 Viognier, the 2015 Grenache, 2015 Syrah and the 2014 Petite Syrah. The Viognier was crispy, citrusy and refreshing; the Grenache was jammy and spiced with notes of rich dried fruits; the Syrah was a smooth blend of 96 percent Syrah and 4 percent Viognier; and the Petite Syrah tasted of dark fruits, like cherries, with an acidic kick. If you’re an oenophile, definitely stop into one of Scottsdale’s wine tasting rooms, or better yet, embark on Scottsdale’s wine trail.
On our last night in Scottsdale, we sat down for dinner at FnB—a place everyone I talked to told me they loved. The menu changes frequently to truly highlight the top local farms and culinary artisans. I started with the Peaches & Smoke cocktail, which was one of my favorite cocktails of the whole trip. Consisting of blanco tequila, mezcal, peach liquor, honey syrup, lime juice and bitters, it was a lovely blend of sweet and smoky, and quite honestly, one of my favorite cocktails of the whole trip. On this particular night, one of the specials was a dish we can probably call a salad with green apples, brie, walnut vinaigrette and Palo Verde honey (which was so deliciously sweet and floral, I was scraping it off the plate with my fork). This was one of my favorite dishes of the night, as it was very flavorful, fresh and light, great with some grilled sourdough and overall a nice starter to get the palate going. From there, we had kale falafel, which tasted like fried hummus with a yogurt-based sauce that also had kalamata olives, Aleppo pepper, radish tops and bottoms and habanero in it. Then, it was on to the spring green salad, with green beans, grapes, watermelon radishes, goat cheese and salsa verde. The dish that came next was one that surprised me. It was diced cucuzza squash with crispy croutons and topped with a fried egg. The squash was tender and slightly sweet, while the egg was salty and rich. It was a tasty juxtaposition that created a beautifully harmonious dish. We then moved on to the arctic char, which tasted very similar to salmon and was nicely grilled with some hearty beans and fragrant herbs. We took some of their butterscotch pudding to go, and I enjoyed it as a late-night snack back at the hotel. The waiter told me this is the dessert they always have, even when they change the menu. And let me tell you, I love a pudding. This one tasted almost like burnt caramel—sweet, but deep, rich, nearly bitter, which is nice because it counters the sickly sweetness puddings can sometimes have. It was a wholly enjoyable way to end my night, and ultimately, my time in Scottsdale.