Rising Arizona

by Neil.Geraghty

With an exhilarating climate, beautiful desert scenery and laidback lifestyle, it's little wonder Arizona is fast becoming the new California


North America’s snowbirds have been having a tough time of it recently. With hurricanes lashing the Florida coastline and wildfires licking ever closer to Malibu, Arizona’s sunny, placid climate has never been more tempting. In reality Florida’s “Sunshine State” sobriquet is a tad misleading. Arizona is far and away America’s sunniest state, a fact reflected in Arizona’s psychedelic flag, which depicts a star set against a red and gold sunset. Phoenix alone enjoys a sizzling 325 days of crisp desert sunshine a year and with winter temperatures hovering sublimely in the mid 20s, thoroughly lives up to its “Valley of the Sun” nickname.

This partly explains Phoenix’s phenomenal population growth in recent years, making it currently the fifth largest city in the States. The east coast Sex and the City generation have flocked here in their thousands, keen to escape their stressed-out matchbox lifestyles. Nearly everybody in the city can afford a swimming pool; add to this a friendly Wild West community spirit and endless healthy outdoor activities, and it's little wonder that Arizona is fast becoming the new California.

Keen not to miss out on the obvious winter sun potential, dozens of luxury resorts have sprung up on Phoenix’s desert fringes. Driving along the palm-lined boulevards of Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, blink an eye and you could be cruising along Miami Beach. All that’s missing is the sea. The Montelucia InterContinental is the newest kid on the block and enjoys a spectacular location at the foot of Camelback Mountain, Phoenix’s most famous natural landmark, which lies slumped like a dozing dromedary on Phoenix’s skyline. Spanish casitas and Moorish pavilions meander through date groves, giving a touch of Alhambra magic to the resort. Dotted around the gardens, laidback swimming pools are perfectly positioned to ensure dawn-to-dusk sunbathing.

At sunset (especially after you’ve had a few prickly pear margaritas) something weird happens to the Camelback. When you stare hard at it, giant animal faces and skulls start morphing out of the cliffsides. Little wonder, then, that the mountain was once sacred to the Hohokam Native Americans, who long ago left mysterious offerings on the Camelback’s summit.

Arizona’s exhilarating climate is perfect for outdoor sports and each year from February to April a buzz of excitement sweeps over the city as 14 top US baseball teams hit the town for Spring Training. This warm-up tournament to the main baseball season has a devoted following in Phoenix and each weekend, groups of friends and families pack into the stadiums to enjoy afternoons of beers, barbecues and Bruce Springsteen. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable all-American day out but for the British novice, baseball rules are every bit as incomprehensible as cricket.

The Sonoran Desert’s twisted red mountains and hauntingly beautiful landscapes of saguaro cacti have long been the classic backdrop for some of America’s most famous cowboy films and TV series including High Chaparral and Gunfight at the OK Corral. Arizona is immensely proud of its Wild West heritage and has an action-packed calendar of thrilling rodeo events.

One of the most enjoyable takes place in late February in Scottsdale during the annual Parada del Sol parade, a dusty celebration of pioneer heritage in which hundreds of vintage horse-drawn wagons descend onto Scottsdale’s manicured streets. For the rest of the year you can enjoy bucking broncos, line dancing and sizzling steaks at Rawhide, a faithful reconstruction of an 1880s frontier town and one of Phoenix’s most popular family days out. Don’t miss the outlaw shoot-outs that send the kids screaming for cover.

Nightlife in Phoenix has a sedate almost Caribbean quality to it. Residents are often up before dawn jogging or walking their dogs before the searing heat kicks in, so late nights out are rarely on the cards. However, in the early evening, when the heat dissipates, the restaurant and bar scene really springs to life. Old Scottsdale is a great neighbourhood to come to for some top-notch al fresco dining. Dijestif by The Canal is a perfect spot for tropical martinis and delicious home-made pastas with an organic Californian twist. At Tarbells in Phoenix, Iron Chef-winning Mark Tarbell rustles up effortlessly elegant bistro classics, including a sublime bread pudding floating in Kentucky bourbon sauce. Meanwhile, back at the Montelucia, enjoy late night tequilas and crooning mariachi bands under the desert stars.

Arizona is one of the classic driving states in the USA and with a full tank costing just 20 bucks, jumping into a car and speeding off into the desert for a Thelma and Louise drive of a lifetime is simply irresistible. Route 10 down to Tucson is a classic freeway of vintage lorries shimmering on the horizon, curvy 1950s motel billboards and tumbleweed blowing in the dust.

Near Tucson, giant saguaros start popping up out of the desert and it’s here that you enter Carlos Castaneda’s shamanistic heartland. This ethereally beautiful region has long been a favourite New Age destination for Californian hippies and capitalising on the desert’s healing qualities, Tucson has recently become the detox capital of the USA. Driving into the city, you’ll spot dozens of health ranches, each offering a bewildering array of therapies ranging from horse whispering to water cradling.

Downtown Tucson is far more down to earth, with an easy-going Mexican ambience. At the heart of the city lies The Presidio a charming neighbourhood of crumbling adobe houses smothered in bougainvillea and jasmine. Here you’ll find El Charros, America’s oldest Mexican restaurant. Grab a table in the garden next to the sombrero fountain and order the best tamales you’ll find north of the border - but watch out for the Speedy Gonzalez sparrows pinching food from the plates.

From Tucson, head west into the breathtaking Saguaro National Park, where you’ll encounter dozens of hikers, cyclists and campers, all enjoying the exhilarating desert sunshine that makes southern Arizona the perfect antidote to our stressful post-credi-crunch lifestyles.


I grew up in a naval family and caught the travel bug when my father was posted first to the Caribbean and then to Papua New Guinea. As a teenager in PNG I developed a deep fascination in South East Asian and Pacific cultures and subsequently enrolled as a student at the School of Oriental and African studies in London where I studied Anthropology and Indonesian. In my final year I spent 6 months in the Sumatran Highlands researching a project on Pencak Silat an Indonesian martial arts form. After graduation I started teaching English and in the early 90s settled in Istanbul where I began freelance writing. Now based in London I specialise in lifestyle and travel writing and contribute regular features to The Scotsman, Easyjet Inflight and GT magazines Favourite places: Kas, Turkey Arequipa, Peru Antigua, Guatemala Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea Huahine, French Polynesia Budapest, Brussels, Istanbul, San Francisco, Venice and Rome