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TRAVEL Phoenix: The warmth of sun and smiles
by Andrew Davis
2022-01-02

This article shared 1665 times since Sun Jan 2, 2022
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It's 75 degrees in December.

Obviously, I wasn't in Chicago, although there's something to be said for the charm of the season's first snowfall. I was actually in Phoenix—and, although it's only a four-hour plane ride away, the city (with some exceptions) offers an entirely different scenario than what many live through in the Windy City.

Smiles were in abundance. (And again, why not? It was 75 degrees.) This visit showed exactly why everyone seemed so happy—from the options at two hotels to the vibrant food scene.

NOTE: At the time I visited, COVID restrictions were relatively loose, as masks were only required in the Phoenix Art Museum and Uber vehicles. Please check COVID policies for any place you visit.

A relaxing stay

During my visit, I was fortunate enough to split my time between Scottsdale's The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa (6902 E. Greenway Pkwy.; http://kierlandresort.com) and the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown (340 N. 3rd St.; www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/phxgp-sheraton-phoenix-downtown/&. Both had its assets that made the stays comfortable—and, with the former, the amenities almost seemed indulgent.

Located in the heart of Scottsdale (which some call "the Beverly Hills of the Phoenix area") and set against dramatic landscapes of the Sonoran Desert, The Westin Kierland offers 732 guest rooms, 55 suites and 32 casita units. The resort experience continues with luxurious treatments at Agave, The Arizona Spa; 27 holes of championship golf at Kierland Golf Club; various dining establishments; eight dining venues; tennis courts; an adventure water park and much more—like a 25,000-square-foot. main ballroom. There's even a scotch library in which, during weekly lessons, "ambassadors" guide guests through more than 300 whiskey labels. (Also, there's wildlife inside the hotel, as I noticed glass boxes with reptiles inside; they included a rattlesnake, racer, king snake and Gila monster.)

And as high-end as the Westin seemed, I immediately felt at ease (even though Marcy, a part of the welcoming committee, made me feel I might not survive if I didn't take a cookie). Everyone seemed happy—including staffers AND guests. Everyone seemed so happy the atmosphere was almost Stepford-esque—until I realized the smiles were sincere.

Agave is one of the more tranquil spas I've experienced, and that's saying a lot. The other male visitors I saw were cordial and my masseur, Carl, expertly gave me an athletic massage topped with an application of CBD oil. I could feel my worries evaporating.

Also, as you may have gathered, the Westin has a LOT of facilities devoted to athletic pursuits (and hiking is an option as well). The fitness studio (outside the hotel and next door to Agave) had everything and more that one could want, including something I had never seen in a gym: a station with Hyperice massage guns to help people work through their soreness. The only caveat I have is that during my usual workout time (4 to 5 a.m.), there was no light between the main part of the hotel and the Agave/fitness studio area. I wasn't really concerned about someone (or something) hiding in the shadows, but it may give someone else cause to pause—so wait until the sun shines on the Westin to exercise.

The Sheraton is also relaxing, albeit in a different way. It has an outdoor pool, a state-of-the-art fitness center, an on-site restaurant and bars.

While the Westin provides a feeling of seclusion, the Sheraton gets to the heart of the matter—because it's in the heart of the city. The hotel is close to the Phoenix Convention Center as well as an array of restaurants, sporting and cultural venues and amazing nightlife.

As for dining inside the Sheraton, the spot &More by Sheraton is a spacious area that offers some enticing breakfast, lunch and dinner options. And while the Sheraton's fitness area doesn't have a massage area, it has every bit of equipment one could want as well as something extra: a smaller room with dozens of videos you (or a group of people) can select and follow. (By the way, Jillian Michaels does NOT play around, let me tell you.) If you need motivation, you can rely on the many quotes on the walls, from everyone from Muhammad Ali to lesbian WNBA player Brittney Griner.

The food scene (with a drink or two)

If you think Phoenix is known for what is known as "Southwest cuisine," you'd be right—and wrong.

Phoenix, while known for that, has a whole lot more to offer—and the menu items are appealing to every palate.

One of the most pleasant surprises was Phoenix Coqui (at the LGBTQ+ club The Rock, 4129 N 7th Ave.; phoenixcoqui.com/ )—an LGBTQ-owned food truck that offers authentic (and absolutely delightful) Puerto Rican cuisine. Alexis Carbajal, Juan Ayala and Rolando Vasquez are behind a menu that has such items as empanadillas (turnovers stuffed with ground beef, chicken or even mushroom), mofongo (fried green plantains mashed with garlic, seasoning and pork rinds topped with jumbo shrimp in a tomato-garlic sauce on a bed of mixed baby greens) and bori fries (fries with garlic-mayo sauce—and it's beyond addictive). A steady stream of customers and friends stopped by to purchase items, only to return to their cars in the parking lot—but if you ask nicely, the Coqui team might break out a table for you and a friend to dine.

By contrast, the action at The Sicilian Butcher (15530 N. Tatum Blvd.; thesicilianbutcher.com ) was much more intense. With casual dine-in and to-go services, The Sicilian Butcher all about the customer's build-your-own meal experience, complete with gourmet meatballs (including lamb, steak and eggplant varieties, among others) and Italian-cured meats for charcuterie boards. (Plus, you have a love a place that has the pasta choices for the customized experience under the listing "Bottoms.") My spaghetti with turkey meatballs and carbonara sauce was simply amazing—making me understand why there might be a substantial waiting time if you don't make a reservation. And don't forget to check out next door's The Sicilian Bakery, which has items like chocolate almond ricotta bars.

Celebrity chef Joey Maggiore is behind those spots, and he's also behind the wonderfully unsubtle Hash Kitchen (14838 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd., Scottsdale; www.hashkitchen.com/ ), with a name that's a nod to various hash dishes as well as the hashtag—as in Instagram-worthy offerings. The Bloody Mary is known for being over the top and a meal in itself, but other menu items stand out as well. Take, for example, Billionaire's Bacon, which is thick slab bacon with a yuzu glaze, honey, a brown-sugar chili rub—and 24-karat gold flakes; Captain Crunch peanut butter and jelly French toast; and The Ferris Wheel, which consists of tie-dye cupcakes and cereal-milk pudding shooters.

Trapp Haus BBQ (511 E. Roosevelt St.; trapphausbbq.com ) may be a problematic name for some—but the food is a must-have who appreciates incredible slabs. Pitmaster Phil Johnson—called the "Jay Z of barbecue" because he seems to know everyone and is in the middle of the action—is behind the family-style 'que (with beef, hot links, pulled pork, rib tips, burnt ends and more); "sammitches" like the New York Reuben and the Boss Hog (pulled pork and chopped brisket topped with jalapeno honey slaw and bbq sauce on a crispy hero); and Phil 'em Up Fries (seasoned waffle fries with cheddar cheese sauce, pico de gallo and BBQ) sauce. One taste of the Mac Roll (an egg roll filled with mac 'n cheese and pulled pork, with optional BBQ sauce) and your troubles melt away, I swear.

Barrio Cafe (2814 N. 16th St.; www.barriocafe.com/ ) has the motto "Comida Chingona since 2002"—and the food is as bad-ass as the slogan states. Opt for anything, whether it's guacamole with pomegranate seeds; quesadilla borracha; tacuba enchilada; or Nana's chile verde and you'll be guaranteed at least two things—the food is absolutely delicious and you'll have leftovers for days.

If you want to get your drink on, definitely put Greenwood Brewing (425 E. Roosevelt St.; greenwoodbrews.com/ ) on your list. Greenwood Brewery believes beer isn't just tasty, but it is also about creating conversations and positive changes with friends. Its location houses a 10BBL brewery with 100BBL capacity and a taproom with two beer gardens. Flagship beers include Herstory Brew, Essence Ale, Forward IPA and the specialty of the month—although if you want to try a non-alcoholic item like kombucha (as I did), that's cool, too.

Last but certainly not least, The Churchill (901 N. 1st St.; thechurchillphx.com/ ) is a collective that offers food (Freak Brothers Pizza and Latin-focused Provecho among them) but also has businesses scubas the apothecary Gather, the clothing store State Forty Eight and wine store Sauvage. The Churchill's unique, open setup also makes the venue a favorite for private events (e.g., wedding receptions and graduation parties), according to John Evans, the director of the spot's events and activations. Evans—a photogenic, friendly transplant from Austin, Texas—said that tenants often work together on community events, making the happenings that much more special. Adding to the venue's unique vibe is a welcoming, all-encompassing atmosphere that embraces diversity of life and lifestyle.

Activities

Just one of the other attractive things about Phoenix is that there is so much to do, whether you're in the mood for something cultural, educational or physical—or if you just want to let it all out and have fun.

The Phoenix Art Museum (1625 N. Central Ave.; www.phxart.org/ ) is the largest venue of its kind in the southwestern United States, with millions of visitors experiencing visual arts and educational programs. Part of the reason for the popularity is that the museum covers a wide range of interests. If "Landscapes of Extraction: The Art of Mining in the American West" doesn't pique your interests, other exhibitions—like "Generation Paper: Fast Fashion of the 1960s" or the beguiling, interactive "Oscar Munoz: Invisibilia"—just might. By the way, no visit is complete without entering Yayoi Kusama's infinity mirror room, "You Who are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies."

The Phoenix Zoo (455 N. Galvin Pkwy.; www.phoenixzoo.org/ ), of course, provides a different type of cultural/educational experience. Having welcomed more than 43 million guests since 1962, this expansive area allows visitors to see all types of animals (including flamingos, Komodo dragons, eagles, mountain lions and many more) while engaging in interactive activities—although hardly any with the animals. (For example, people can see how many pull-ups they can do to compare themselves to the strength of an orangutan. I only managed to kick out a disappointing seven.) Perhaps the most impressive part of the zoo is the expanse that puts many African creatures together; they include giraffes, ostriches, camels, vultures and many more—although an Arizona jackrabbit made a cameo appearance as well.

And lord knows Phoenix provides plenty of opportunities for hiking and exploration. From fantastic views to secluded valleys, hikers will be completely immersed in the beauty of Arizona at the 2,608-foot Piestewa Peak. Similarly, Pinnacle Peak is a granite summit that rises 3,169 feet. It's located within the 150-acre Pinnacle Peak Park, which features rock climbing routes and interpretive displays along the trail. Part of the Sonoran Desert, the park is home to a variety of native desert flora and fauna. In addition, Papago Park features the aforementioned zoo, Desert Botanical Garden, golf courses, museums and much more.

But Phoenix has a bustling nightlife as well—and one of the must-see spots is Luckys Indoor Outdoor (817 N. 2nd St.; www.luckysphx.com/ ), an LGBTQ+-friendly spot with all sorts of quirks and cool things, from the retro outdoor area (with a '70s trailer bar, hanging seats, picnic tables and bocci) to the Skee-Ball and pool table inside. It's a very cool bar, and food is available as well.

However, there are other intriguing LGBTQ+ venues as well. They include (among other) Charlie's Phoenix (727 W. Camelback Rd.; www.charliesphoenix.com/ ), with its drag shows, daily drink specials, foam parties and annual shrimp boil; and Stacy's @ Melrose (4343 N. 7th Ave.; stacysatmelrose.com/ ), with drag shows such as the upcoming "Opulence," complete with $5 chocolate martinis.

Yes, many snowbirds visit Phoenix to escape the sometimes frigid climes of the northern states. However, be advised that Phoenix has far more to offer than warmth. Sometimes, fun happens at the most unexpected times—like the Tesla-driving Uber guy who played a sound effect of passing gas when I entered the car and who then had us singing karaoke. (I kid you not.)

Note: This visit was arranged. Many thanks go to Visit Phoenix.


This article shared 1665 times since Sun Jan 2, 2022
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