Travel: Springtime Oasis

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With sophisticated Scottsdale leading the way, Greater Phoenix steps up to the plate as a superb March getaway. Its spring-training baseball games, great golf, luxurious resorts and Southwestern ambiance are like a desert balm for winter-weary Northern Californians.

For baseball fans, Arizona’s Valley of the Sun doubles as the valley of fun this month, when teams that include the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics play spring-training games. Greater Phoenix triples as a splendid place to play golf, and what with all the fine lodging, dining and cultural attractions that the area has to offer, vacationing here is like hitting a home run.

Northern Californians and folks from colder climes have been making the spring pilgrimage to south-central Arizona for decades. Most of them weary of cold and rain, many of them eager to watch rusty ballplayers begin their transition to the boys of summer, others content just to be somewhere that’s geologically distinctive and not their workplace, they come to unwind—but with a spring in their step. With each passing year, there is more to do and enjoy in Greater Phoenix. So many possibilities and, sadly, so little time. A week here can zip by faster than a Randy Johnson fastball.

Johnson, standing at 6-foot-10 with more than 4,500 strikeouts and 40 birthdays notched on his seemingly 28-inch belt (his official and possibly exaggerated weight: 230 pounds), is the sequoia of the Cactus League, composed of 12 major league teams. After having spent a few misguided seasons with the New York Yankees (a peacocklike team whose humorless fans have exhibited a pronounced and misguided sense of entitlement every season since the 1920s), Johnson is back with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The home-state team trains in Tucson, as do the Chicago White Sox and Colorado Rockies, but the bulk of the Cactus League squads make Greater Phoenix their springtime home. (The Yankees participate in Florida’s Grapefruit League, an inferior spring-training setup beset by big bugs, worse traffic, stormier skies and inferior Mexican food.)

From Surprise in Greater Phoenix’s extreme northwest to Mesa in the east, stadiums in the cozy 12,000-capacity range host at least a couple of games (and sometimes five or six) each day during the four-week Cactus League season, which this year begins on March 1. Most games start at 1:05 p.m., but each season a half-dozen or so are held under the lights at 7:05 p.m.—a burn-avoiding scenario for those sensitive to Arizona’s often-blistering March sunshine. (Highs in the low 90s are not uncommon.) Tickets, at $5 to $20, are cheaper than regular-season admissions. They can be purchased online, through the mail, on the phone or at stadium ticket offices. Find schedules at mlb.com.

The Giants, who appeal largely to the Bay Area’s froufrou crowd, appropriately play their home games in the wealthy eastern suburb of Scottsdale. The lower-payroll A’s, whose fan base leans more toward blue collars and domestic beers, inhabit grittier Phoenix Municipal Stadium, not far from Scottsdale Stadium geographically but nowhere nearby in terms of upscale attitude.

Scottsdale Is One Hot ‘dale

With its median household income of $84,747 and median home price of $370,000, Scottsdale is high-priced by Arizona standards and last year was ranked No. 7 on Money magazine’s list of best small cities. For vacationers with bulky wallets or plenty of credit, it’s a delightful place to stay and savor. The rest of us can sample it in snippets (for example, the free Thursday evening Artwalks, a more-extensive equivalent to Sacramento’s Second Saturdays).

The downtown area, a square-mile Southwestern sensation, contains the stadium, arts district and two places where people can wear out their credit cards harder than Barry Bonds wears out most pitchers: Scottsdale Fashion Square mall (with high-end chain stores) and the Fifth Avenue Shopping District (where shops tend to be locally owned and include many art galleries). Fifth Avenue contains an early-21st-century spin on Roaring ’20s naughtiness: a speakeasy. Tucked beside a nondescript walkway behind two fancy restaurants, through a plain door topped with a sign that contends “The Truth Is Inside,” Kazimierz World Wine Bar (7137 E. Stetson Drive; kazbar.net) is the flavor of the moment among Valley of the Sun nightclubbers.
When I peeked inside “the Kaz” in mid-January, the lighting was so dim that the people all looked young and gorgeous. Maybe they were—or maybe they were like me.

More my speed was the Mandala Tearoom (7027 E. Fifth Ave.; mandalatearoom.com), a block or so from Kazimierz. Popular restaurants abound in downtown Scottsdale, including Furio (7210 E. Second St.; furio.tv) and the Old Town Tortilla Factory (6910 E. Main St.; oldtowntortillafactory.com), but Mandala is distinctive with its organic and animal-free ingredients, including a sumptuous black-bean veggie burger.

Before you set out to conquer downtown Scottsdale, grab a map of restaurants, galleries, shops and the like at the airport or onsite at the corner kiosk at Fifth Avenue and Stetson Drive.

If baseball plays a prominent role in your vacation, consider grabbing a pre- or post-game drink at Don and Charlie’s (7501 E. Camelback Road; donandcharlies.com), which was recommended by several local residents. The décor is sports memorabilia mania and the food, in my opinion, is overpriced. For years, I have enjoyed patronizing the less-expensive, very friendly Sluggo’s Sports Grill (161 N. Centennial Way; sluggosgrill.com) in Mesa. Be prepared to be overwhelmed by Chicago Cubs fans extensively attired in blue, however—the Cubs’ spring-training facility is a mile or so north of this downtown restaurant.

Sluggo’s, founded in the early 1990s by Cubs TV broadcasting legend Harry Carey and his incisive partner Steve Stone, has outdoor dining and, over its massive bar, a mural that depicts former Cubbie greats.
Mesa, just east of Scottsdale, was recognized by Money magazine last year as the third-best place to live among large U.S. cities. Its population is 442,800, its median income $54,850 and its median home price $199,000—further illustrating that Mesa is Oscar to Scottsdale’s Felix, in “Odd Couple” terms.

Good Walks Not Necessarily Spoiled

Rather than merely watching guys in stretch pants flail away at spherical objects, take some whacks yourself in more restrained attire, if you prefer, on one of the metropolitan area’s 80-some golf courses. Take a mighty swing with your titanium driver and see how a white ball can disappear in the bright Arizona sky, thereby helping you empathize with the A’s outfielder whose dropped fly ball cost his team a couple of runs earlier in the day.

Golfing options range from rather dry public courses to incongruously lush and green private ones. Among Phoenix proper’s eight public courses, Papago Golf Course is described by Golf Guide USA’s website as being “one of the most beautiful municipal layouts in the United States.” On the other end of the economic spectrum, Hyatt Gainey Ranch (a few miles north of downtown Scottsdale) has been rated highly by both Golf Digest and Golf Magazine. It consists of three nine-hole courses: one with a lot of sand, one with a lot of water and the third with, well, a lot of both. Phantom Horse Golf Club (a few miles south of the airport) also receives high marks; its final hole, named Alcatraz, has an island green.

ArizonaGolfer.com is a fantastic resource for the entire state; “Phoenix Area” in the upper-left portion of the home page brings up a helpful map. Click on any of the 80 numbered courses and find out the suggested reservation time, dress code and amenities. Also get a rough idea of greens fees: One dollar sign means less than $50 for 18 holes, two dollar signs mean $51 to $100, and three dollar signs indicate that you probably wear a Rolex. The website also lets you make a tee time, with discounts possible. For example, in mid-January, you could have signed up for an 11 a.m. date at Camelback’s Padre course for precisely $121.11 per player, a 32 percent discount that entitled golfers to practice balls, a cart and—a concept I am unfamiliar with—GPS navigation. What’s that for, a brutally awful slice?

For those who prefer walking without sticks, old-fashioned trail signs adequately point the way on the city’s desert hikes, the most notable of which are centrally located Piestewa Peak in the Squaw Peak Preserve and Camelback Mountain, whose profile resembles a kneeling camel: head to the west, large hump in the middle and slightly smaller hump to the east. Having neglected to pack water, I managed only to ascend to the hollow between the two humps, a 35-minute one-way trek on a clearly marked path that contains moderately difficult portions but universally good views, especially of downtown Scottsdale. The trick for climbing or trail running Camelback, aside from the “Duh!” fact you’ll need water, is parking. No formal lot exists, so what many people do is leave their vehicles on Invergordon Road, on the mountain’s east side, and walk a half-mile or so to the trailhead.

More Daytime Attractions

Although the proliferation of golf-course and subdivision lakes suggests otherwise, Greater Phoenix sprawls relentlessly in an arid environment. (The average annual precipitation is less than 8 inches; summertime highs average about 105 degrees.) Appropriately, a must-see for visitors unfamiliar with the flora and fauna of the area is the Desert Botanical Garden (1201 N. Galvin Parkway; dbg.org), in Phoenix’s centrally located and humongous Papago Park. Here, you can see how plants and animals flourish in the Sonoran Desert, which straddles the Mexican border and encompasses much of Arizona and Southern California.

Composed of a wheelchair-accessible main trail and a couple of dirt-path side paths, the garden is a tidy place with signage that entertains as well as informs. Questions are posed and succinctly answered, including, “Why do woodpeckers peck holes in the saguaro cactus?” They do so to create nests, of course, but when they move out (perhaps fleeing to the suburbs, where little woodpeckers receive a better education), what moves into the cactus caverns? Owls, European starlings, bats, mice and insects, a garden visitor learns.

One of my favorite exhibits, and one that must be especially interesting in the summer, is along the garden’s Sonoran Trail. Separate thermometers measure the temperatures 3 feet below ground, on the surface in the shade, and on the surface in the sun. The first two dials go up to 120 degrees; the sun-driven one tops off at 240 degrees—let’s hope global warming never takes hold to that extent.

The Heard Museum (2301 N. Central Ave.; heard.org), north of Interstate 10 in the northern (and seemingly less-thriving) of Phoenix’s strangely dueling downtowns, is the city’s other premier nonsporting attraction. Devoted to the history and culture of American Indians, the Heard is one of the best museums in the West. In its signature exhibit area, Home: Native People in the Southwest, you can read about “the first American Revolution”—events that occurred nearly a century before Paul Revere’s frantic gallop through Boston. On Aug. 10, 1680, the Pueblo peoples of present-day Arizona and New Mexico revolted against their Spanish masters, killing hundreds while routing them out of the area. (The Europeans reasserted their control a dozen years later, although with a lighter touch.)

Dwight and Maie Heard, who moved to Phoenix from Chicago in 1895, founded the museum in 1929.
Dwight had been involved in land development, finance, ranching and farming, and once ran for governor of Arizona. Maie, according to an exhibit about the two, “was one of Phoenix’s silent philanthropists.”

Another prominent figure who emigrated from the Great Plains to Arizona was Frank Lloyd Wright. Taliesin West (12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd.; franklloydwright.org), the architecture school he founded in northeastern Scottsdale, has engaging tours. Also worth visiting: the Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting (6101 E. Van Buren St.; hallofflame.org), adjacent to Phoenix Municipal Stadium; the Mystery Castle (800 E. Mineral Road), a funky mansion near South Mountain Park built in the 1930s and ’40s by Boyce Luther Gulley for his daughter, who leads some of the tours; and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (7374 E. Second St.; smoca.org), which through April 29 features Celebrity, 201 works by 41 artists who include Andy Warhol and Farrah Fawcett.

Resorting to the high life

Grand resorts are a dime a dozen in Greater Phoenix, and most of them charge a truckload of dimes for overnight stays. Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa (2400 E. Missouri Ave.; arizonabiltmore.com) remains the most famous and one of the most luxurious. Wright was the consulting architect, and his influence can be observed throughout the complex, composed of several residential wings, numerous swimming pools and meticulously manicured grounds. Even if you don’t stay there, squeeze in a visit and consider how you are strolling through the same exquisite art-deco lobby that has welcomed presidents, movie stars, all manner of other wealthy and famous people, and at least one slightly disheveled travel writer who had a hard time ignoring his room’s 42-inch high-definition TV. (The Biltmore’s 2007 room rates are $465–$1,935 through May 24, $205–$950 during the low-season summer months and $394–$1,360 from Sept. 12 onward.)

Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa (7500 E. Doubletree Ranch Road; scottsdale.hyatt.com) has many outstanding features, including a 21,000-square-foot spa that opened in 2005. Swimming pools, including one with a sandy beach, are all over the resort’s extensive grounds. Pool temperatures are kept at 80 to 82 degrees year-round, said resort spokesperson Ann Lane, “which is hell on our electric bills.” Lane has been with the facility for all of its 20 years and while she was showing me around drew my attention to the inarguably peaceful atmosphere. That’s a real trick for a place that’s in the midst of a metro area with an estimated population of 3.9 million people, the 14th-largest in the country. The resort also is lauded for its environmentally sensitive waterways and interactive American Indian exhibit, where guests can learn jewelry making from Hopi instructors or, on Fridays, watch a native dance performance for free. (Hyatt Regency Scottsdale’s 2007 winter rates start at $535; summer prices start at about one-third of that, at $180.)

Pointe South Mountain Resort (7777 S. Pointe Parkway; pointesouthmtn.com), a few miles south of the airport and home to the previously mentioned Phantom Golf Course, is a 640-suite, family-friendly place that includes a refreshing water park (complete with huge slides and a 10,000-square-foot wading pool). Like the Biltmore and Hyatt Regency Scottsdale, it has several restaurants and bars, a health club, tennis courts and various other pampering services. (Point South’s Splashdown packages, which include admission for the water park and a $50 food and beverage credit, start at $179 through Labor Day weekend; unlimited-golf packages are $399 through April, then drop to $169 per night by the summer months.)

Wherever you stay in Greater Phoenix, whatever baseball team you cheer for, whichever restaurants you patronize, be sure to carve out some time to simply relax and take in some awe-inspiring Arizona sunrises and sunsets. Because unless you’re careful, the Valley of the Sun, with all its attractions, will keep you on the run.                    


Who’s on First, Second . . . and in the Dugout

Twelve major league baseball teams now play in the Cactus League, with the Cleveland Indians and—Giants fans are sure to shudder—the Los Angeles Dodgers scheduled to defect from Florida’s Grapefruit League and join the Cactus League in 2008. Here’s a quick rundown of which teams play their March home games where:        

• Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox, Tucson Electric Park

• Chicago Cubs, HoHoKam Park, Mesa

• Colorado Rockies, Hi Corbett Field, Tucson

• Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers, Surprise Stadium

• Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Tempe Diablo Stadium

• Milwaukee Brewers, Maryvale Baseball Park, Phoenix

• Oakland Athletics, Phoenix Municipal Stadium

• San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners, Peoria Sports Complex

• San Francisco Giants, Scottsdale Stadium              

Let’s Play Spectator! 

My parents and I first attended a Cactus League game in March 1969. The Seattle Pilots (since 1970 the Milwaukee Brewers) traveled to the Chicago Cubs’ ballpark, in Scottsdale. Desert wilderness surrounded the place, a sharp contrast to today’s strictly urban feel at all the league’s stadiums.

Back then, and for many subsequent years, the atmosphere at games was intimate and informal. Players weren’t making $5 million per year, which is what many crummy ones haul in these days. They talked with fans. They happily signed autographs. They were, for the most part, approachable.

No longer. Major league baseball has become a big business, and the Cactus League is no more intimate than Joe Six-Pack is with Barry Bonds. Tickets, especially for weekend games in Mesa (Cubs), Peoria (Mariners and Padres) and Scottsdale (Giants), can be difficult to obtain. For the 2008 season, best start ordering tickets on mlb.com the preceding December or January.

All that being said, however, spring training still represents a delightful experience for baseball fans, where they can gather in small venues and josh each other good-naturedly, knowing that the games’ outcomes mean absolutely nothing. The Cactus League is where people from throughout the country come when they’re tired of being cold, to be hopeful when they suspect their favorite team isn’t very good. For many, traveling to Arizona for spring training is like having dessert before dinner, knowing that there might be more dessert ahead, but as Cubs fans know all too well, all that’s likely to follow is just a bunch of overcooked vegetables.

Insider tip: As a free alternative to big-league exhibition games, consider catching a minor league game instead. They generally are held in the mornings on the practice fields adjacent to the main stadiums. You can watch the Sacramento River Cats train at the Oakland A’s facility in Phoenix.