Photos by Larry Shiflet

Everything under the sun

It is an early morning, cold and dark, as we drive to our prearranged pick up spot. We meet the vans as the sun’s earliest rays peek over the mountains. Thirty minutes later, we arrive and see a group of young men scurrying around a huge basket. Flames are shooting upward while a balloon lies on the ground like a wilted flower. Its stunning red, orange, yellow and blue panels begin to lift. We climb into the basket and with the slightest of nudges, we are aloft.

Hot air ballooning in Phoenix is sheer delight. Our basket holds nearly a dozen of us – sleepily rubbing our eyes as we drift higher and higher. The sudden blasts of flames embrace us and take us upward just as the sun’s rays warm us with light. The sunrise is spectacular.

The desert flows beneath us like a quilt marked with jack rabbits, deer, cacti, cows and grassy inclines. For 90 minutes we dip and soar; our amiable captain, Patrick Stevens, points out interesting landmarks and discusses the physics of our flight. His crew scurries in a truck to meet us some 45 minutes later; we see them waiting expectantly for our landing – which again, is little more than a gentle bump.

We climb out to see an enormous feast: fresh fruit, champagne, warm chocolate-filled croissants, cheeses, coffee. Tables are laden and elegantly swathed in damask tablecloths. The sun beams overhead and beckons the tall, stately saguaro cacti to cast their shadows.

 

Phoenix in winter is lovely. The days are perfect – sunny but comfortable; the nights are brisk. The city sprawls over the mountains and valleys; a magnificent row of matching palm trees welcome us to the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa. Our casita looks upon the lazy river which winds through the resort; golfers tee off while the smack of tennis balls can be heard from our patio. The Westin is a bustling, upscale place. We wander downstairs to Deseo and watch with enchantment as the bartender makes cocktails by a process he calls “muddling.” Beautiful hand blown glasses are filled with our choice of fresh fruit and mint. I choose mango and raspberries. He adds rum and ice and a stick of sugar cane. Delightful! The restaurant is filled with the lively and passionate art of Nelson Garcia-Miranda. The food is artsy and modern. Do not miss the chocolate cigar dessert. Impressive.

 

There are many great places to stay in this historic city. If you are looking for a romantic weekend, we recommend the Hermosa Inn. Situated on six acres, with the Camelback Mountains as backdrop, the Inn originally opened in 1936, with a complete restoration in 1994. Cowboy artist Lon Megargee crafted an art studio which, over the years, became an expansive ranch and inn. No two rooms are alike, with each more charming than the rest. Luxurious Southwestern architecture includes adobe bricks, vaulted ceilings, beehive fireplaces and hand-painted Mexican tile. Lon’s, the Hermosa’s award-winning restaurant, is a favorite with Phoenix residents. We had a cocktail on a private patio in front of a blazing fire – the deep night sky shone with diamond-like stars. We decided then and there we would come back to the Hermosa one day. Delightful meals feature vegetables and spices grown in the resort’s garden. Every bite we had was outstanding.

Probably nothing can beat the elegance and history of Phoenix’s Biltmore Hotel. Every U.S. president since Hoover has stayed here; the Reagans honeymooned under the hundreds of orange trees as did Gable and Lombard. (Gable lost his gold wedding ring on the golf course until an employee found it.) Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” here in 1939 and Marilyn Monroe said the Catalina pool was her favorite in all the world. Don’t miss the breathtaking gold leaf ceiling in the lobby, second only to the Taj Mahal’s, or the Aztec Room – an astonishingly beautiful ballroom where celebrities have danced, sung and enjoyed themselves. John and Cindy McCain were married here. The Hollywood celebrities, the gorgeous black and white photographs from yesteryear, the art deco design inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright – the Biltmore is a treasure.

Choosing where to play golf in Phoenix, with more than 200 courses, is almost as hard as choosing where to stay. No wonder the National Golf Federation describes Phoenix as “The Golf Capital of the World.” Consistently rated among the area’s top courses are the Westin Kierland, the Phoenician, Troon North, Eagle Mountain and Grayhawk. These courses are excellent, challenging and well maintained.

Many of the courses are public or offer daily fees. The world’s best golfers have played here and many have designed courses here: look for names like Robert Trent Jones Jr., Homer Flint, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus and Greg Nash. Nearly all have partnered with area hotels for golf packages. The metro area has more courses listed in USA Today’s Top 100 than any other golf destination.

Phoenix offers another once-in-a-lifetime experience – Bob Bondurant’s School of High Performance Driving. If you are a thrill seeker or desire to race with the pros, Bondurant’s will put you behind the wheel of classics like the 2007 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe and Corvette ZO6, Cadillac CTS and CTS-V or the Pontiac Grand Prix GXP. The school features a 60-acre racing facility and the racing courses range from four hours to four days. A one-day intro course is $1,375; the four-day anti-kidnapping course is $5,925. They do offer last-minute specials, so be sure to sign up for e-mail alerts.

Phoenix offers many delights – more we recommend: Taliesin West – the home of master architect Frank Lloyd Wright, now a school of architecture; The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa featuring Rawhide, a replica of an 1880’s town; Downtown Scottsdale – newly completed upscale restoration of Scottsdale’s ancient Indian canal system booming with shops, restaurants, hip nightclubs and trendy stores. Also worth a visit: the Heard Museum, the Phoenix Art Museum and the Phoenix Zoo.

For complete information, visit or call 1-877-225-5749.

PLANNING A TRIP

Getting there: Continental and Southwest airlines offer nonstop flights from Houston to Phoenix. In a little over two hours, for $225-260 round trip, you’re there.

Where to stay: So many great choices! The Westin Kierland has a country club feel with first-class amenities, dining and recreation and a  fabulous shopping center, the Kierland Commons, within walking distance. The Biltmore is a must for those who love history and beautiful art deco while the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass  is situated on  Native American land and owned by the Pima tribe. Wild horses are often seen in the distance.  The Hermosa Inn, quiet with lush tropical patios, is an elegant ranch-house boutique hotel. The Phoenician, in nearby Scottsdale,  is a world-class destination resort with an art collection worth millions.

References:  ; ; ; ; ;

Cynthia Calvert
Author: Cynthia CalvertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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A trained journalist with a masters degree from Lamar University, a masters from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, as well as extensive coursework toward a masters of science in psychology from the University of New Orleans, Calvert founded the Tribune Newspapers in 2007. Her experiences as an investigative, award winning reporter (She won Journalist of the Year from the Houston Press Club among many other awards for reporting and writing), professor and chair of the journalism department for Lone Star College-Kingwood and vice president of editorial for a large group of community weeklies provides her with a triple dose of bankable skills that cover every aspect of the journalism field. Solid reporting. Careful interviews. Respect and curiosity for people and places.