"The Valley of the Sun" is a portentous name, but the pleasures of Phoenix and Scottsdale, the valley's two main cities, are subtle: waking up on a quiet morning to a cloudless sky and fresh, dry air; hiking through a desert flecked with cholla, mesquite, and saguaro--and happening across a cave carving; endless rounds of golf or tennis, or languid hours poolside. Even the colors are subtle: tans and russets, maroons and browns, punctuated by occasional wildflowers and mountain peaks.
And there's nothing wrong with that. Phoenix and Scottsdale have catered to the relaxation crowd for generations--grandmas and grandpas in golf togs browsing for Navajo trinkets in Old West-style storefronts.
But if you haven't been since grandma and grandpa took you to Arizona, you might be in for a surprise. Once a haven for snowbirds, the region is now home to a healthy year-round population, with a diversity of families. Whether it's art or shopping, restaurants or resorts, the desert is suddenly cool. We wouldn't say that the valley's gone gay, but parts of it have certainly become gay-friendly.
Probably the biggest change has come in the arts. Practically overnight, Maricopa County (home to Phoenix and Scottsdale) has transformed itself into a place to be for art. And not just cowboy and Indian art: By some estimations, the valley has become the third largest art market in the country, after New York City and Santa Fe, N.M. In Scottsdale dozens of galleries have created a veritable scene, and neighboring Phoenix has recognized that art is both good taste and good business.
One of the easiest ways to view many Scottsdale galleries at once is on the Thursday night art walks downtown. If you can't make it on a Thursday, downtown Phoenix is home to the monthly First Fridays, a gallery-viewing-cum-street-party that attracts upwards of 20,000 visitors to some 80 art venues. Pretty much any café, boutique, restaurant, or open space nearby becomes part of the action. Even if you aren't here for these events, the galleries are well worth a gander.
ESSENTIALS: PHOENIX AND SCOTTSDALE
Time was when a visit to Scottsdale and Phoenix almost always involved a stay at a golf/tennis/spa megaresort like the Phoenician (6000 E. Camelback Rd., 800-888-8234) or the Arizona Biltmore (2400 E. Missouri Ave., Phoenix, 800-950-2575). The latter was originally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. They're still a big draw, but for something less formal and lighter on your wallet, fun, new hotels have opened since 2005. Just steps from the galleries of downtown Scottsdale, the Hotel Valley Ho (6850 E. Main St., 480-248-2000) was recently restored to its 1950s mod exterior, while updated rooms are sleek and fun (think frosted glass bathrooms, checkerboard carpet, and lots of sage and teal); there's a well-equipped spa and fitness center. On a quiet side street just north of downtown Phoenix, the gay-owned and operated Clarendon Hotel + Suites (401 W. Clarendon Ave., 602-252-7363) is a blast from the past--and toward the future. The contemporary furniture--designed by the hotel's owner--puts a new spin on the desert color palette.
All the hotels above are known for their restaurants. In addition, Cheuvront Wine Bar (1326 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-307-0022) pairs wines and exotic cheeses in flights of pairings--or just order off the regular menu. Owner Ken Cheuvront is a gay member of the Arizona state assembly. Cowboy Ciao (7130 E Stetson Dr., Scottsdale, 480-946-3111) offers refreshingly innovative takes on Southwestern cuisine, with dishes like the Stetson chopped salad (with pearl couscous) and blue corn elk tostadas. Plus it's ideally situated for shopping and browsing in downtown Scottsdale. Elements (5700 E. McDonald Dr., Paradise Valley, 480-607-2300), at the Sanctuary resort, boasts creative fusion fare and sweeping views from its perch on Camelback Mountain. If it's cozy and clubby you're after, the steakhouse Durant's (2611 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-264-5967) might feel like a throwback to the 1950s, except that it's original to that period.
Most of the region's gay and lesbian nightlife is in Phoenix. The bar of the moment is Amsterdam (718 N. Central Ave., 602-258-6122), with a piano player and martinis on the main drag in downtown Phoenix. In Scottsdale, BS West (7125 E. Fifth Ave., 480-945-9028) is a video bar with pool tables and a small dance floor.
A point of pilgrimage for architecture fans is Taliesin West (12621 Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd., 480-860-2700), which originated in 1937 as the winter workshop for Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentices (the original Taliesin is in Wisconsin). Although the mountain it sits on is now surrounded by Scottsdale, back then it was so far out of town that visitors thought they were headed to the end of the world. It still feels remote, and just like back in '37, the apprentices live in tents they construct on the mountainside, studying, eating and entertaining themselves communally in the main buildings. One former Taliesin apprentice is 86-year-old Paolo Soleri, founder of the Cosanti Foundation (6433 E. Doubletree Rd., Paradise Valley, 480-94-6145). Soleri's signature architectural style relies on the "lost earth" process--dirt is formed into a shape, clay or concrete is poured over it, and after it hardens the earth is scooped out. The result: half-domes, grottoes, and more that you might think you've seen on one of those outer planets in Star Wars. Today, Cosanti is also known for the rough-hewn brass bells and earthenware pottery made here. And changes are afoot at some of the area's most established arts venues. The Phoenix Art Museum (1625 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-257-1222) has spin-the-globe collections and a $41.2 million expansion to be completed in spring 2006. Down the street, the Spanish-Colonial Heard Museum (2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-252-8848) since 1929 has been one of the best venues to view Native American baskets, weavings, and pictorial art, and a recent expansion means that now it's even better.
The epicenter of the Scottsdale galleries is on Marshall Way between Indian School Road and Fifth Avenue; check out the Bentley, Udinori, and Calvin Charles Galleries as well as Art One, known for giving up-and-coming artists their first shot. In downtown Phoenix the First Fridays focus on three hubs: Roosevelt Road, the Warehouse District, and Grand Avenue, all connected by buses departing from the Burton Barr Central Library. At other times, start with the MonOrchid and Paulina Miller galleries and the artist cooperative Holgas. The gift shops at Taliesin West and the Cosanti Foundation have one-of-a-kind Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired goods and Soleri bells and pottery. If you really need something in silver and turquoise--after all, you are in Arizona--Gilbert Ortega in downtown Scottsdale remains a classic for native crafts.
Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport is served by all major U.S. airlines, and it is a hub for Southwest Airlines and the former America West Airlines (now US Airways). The airport is about a 10-minute drive from downtown Phoenix or 20 to 30 minutes from downtown Scottsdale.