A journey through desert beauty and unexpected surprises

Kerry DiotteMy wife Clare and I had just completed an invigorating kayaking trip on the Lower Salt River that snakes through the otherwise parched Sonoran desert when the wild horses came to visit.

A small herd meandered right next to us as we disembarked from our inflatable kayaks. The healthy-looking horses slurped deeply of the clean river water, quenching their thirst on this 39C (102F) scorcher of a day, barely noting our awe-struck presence.

It was a magical moment after our exciting kayaking trip on the river accompanied by a good-natured, knowledgeable guide from REI Co-op Experiences who pointed out highlights ranging from red rock cliffs to Great Blue Herons.

Communing with wild horses would be one of the most memorable surprises we witnessed in a region that’s full of surprises.

Wild-horses-we-saw-rafting Scottsdale Arizona

Wild horses Kerry saw while rafting

Kierland Commons shopping area Scottsdale Arizona

Kierland Commons shopping area

Hermosa Inn Scottsdale Arizona

Hermosa Inn


Kerry on a hiking trail


Camelback Golf Club


Fairmont Princess pools


Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West


Dave Alford from Scottsdale Rodeo Museum


Wine tasting at LDV winery

In this fast-growing, affluent part of Arizona, you can experience world-class dining, sensational shopping, entertainment galore and major league sports, including hockey, baseball, football and the legendary Waste Management Phoenix Open golf tournament that draws hundreds of thousands of fans annually.

The phenomenal shopping is akin to what you’d find at top fashion destinations, including places like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills or South Beach in Miami. Maybe that’s why you see so many well-dressed, physically fit, health-conscious people in the region.

The bar and restaurant scene is also surprisingly cosmopolitan in this part of the world.

Accommodations run the gamut from nationwide family-friendly chains to palatial properties and quaint boutique hideaways. I had the chance to be hosted at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, a stunning, sprawling property adjacent to a Tournament Players Club (TPC) golf course that hosts the aforementioned Waste Management Phoenix Open.

I also was able to experience the charm of The Hermosa Inn, a boutique hotel nestled in the foothills of Camelback Mountain in nearby Paradise Valley, an abode created by painter Lon Megargee. Here, guests stay in one of 43 spacious hacienda-style guest rooms and casitas decorated in Southwest style.

While Scottsdale allows you to experience the very lap of luxury, outdoor adventures beckon minutes away, whether it be a balloon ride in the desert, horseback riding, an ATV trip in the untamed outdoors, a hike in the mountains or rafting in a desert.

Shortly after arriving in the region, I was treated to an early morning hike by REI Co-op Experiences’ Kathi, a super fit retiree who guides people through the Gateway Loop Trailhead in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

We kept a brisk pace (thankfully, I’d had a good night’s rest) and completed the 7.2 km (4.5 mile) loop in a couple of hours, gaining 650 feet of elevation. Note to those who want to hike this trail: Running shoes will suffice, but hiking boots would be even better.

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If hiking causes you to want to chill out a bit back in the more civilized part of Scottsdale, well, there’s another activity that some folks might find surprising. Yes, this part of the world has a fledging wine industry, and it’s growing all the time.

I had the pleasure to visit LDV Winery and get the lowdown from co-owner Peggy Fiandaca: the 15-year enterprise produces up to 3,000 cases a year, most notably a Petite Sirah.

Luckily, I also had time to check out a tasting at Aridus Wine Company’s Old Town Tasting Room, located in the very heart of Scottsdale’s gallery district.

If you’ve got a passing appreciation for good wines, the products at these two places won’t disappoint and – while it might surprise some – they’re part of several successful wine enterprises in Arizona.

Galleries and museums are also much in evidence in Scottsdale and area. There’s the Museum of Contemporary Art, the very impressive Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, and the truly amazing and gargantuan Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in nearby Phoenix which boasts a head-spinning collection of 16,000 instruments and memorabilia from almost 200 countries displayed in 80,000 square feet.

It’s a museum you’ll want to spend several hours exploring, seeing an array of instruments and artifacts, including the telegram Elvis Presley sent to the Beatles to wish them well when they were to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, Roberta Flack’s 1922 Steinway piano and musical clips and videos of everyone from Johnny Cash to local legend Alice Cooper. It’s no wonder guidebooks and attendees routinely name this attraction as one of the best of its kind anywhere – and a must to explore.

But one of the smallest yet most charming museums I had the pleasure to visit was the Scottsdale Rodeo Museum, not just because patrons are encouraged to pose atop a stuffed Brahma bull but because general manager Dave Alford, a former bronc rider and bull rider, will regale you with all kinds of stories about life in this area in the 1950s. Dave is something of a local historian who’s seen Scottsdale boom from a tiny town to a wealthy metropolis of more than 250,000. “This area was little more than an agricultural hub in the early ’50s until folks here realized people from up north wanted to come here to escape winter,” says Alford.

If architecture is your thing, you can check out Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s an architectural marvel built largely by hand by Wright and his apprentices in the 1930s with materials scrounged from the desert and in the days when there was no heavy machinery to help. Wright dubbed it with the Welsh name that means “shining brow” because he wanted to create a home and studio that was part of the hill, not on top of it. He succeeded admirably.

Of course, one of the driving factors of the Scottsdale area’s phenomenal boom has been the golf industry: Phoenix and surrounding communities are said to be home to about 200 courses.

On this trip, I was lucky enough to visit the 36-hole Camelback Golf Club and play the lush, Ambiente 18-hole, links-style course with its stunning views of the famous mountain. If you’re a little wild off the tee, remember: links-style courses aren’t built with adjoining fairways, so bring a few extra balls. Overall, Ambiente is a highly enjoyable, scenic course with friendly and helpful staff.

More surprises? Scottsdale and area truly is a Shopper’s Paradise, especially for stores you just won’t find in many parts of Canada or the U.S.

Scottsdale Quarter and Kierland Commons are worth exploring for numerous stores unique to the area. I was impressed by the Tommy Bahama Restaurant, Bar & Store, a very friendly Tesla dealership and the one-of-a-kind Rock Star gallery that sells signed and framed albums, signed sheet music, signed guitars and other items you’re not likely to find anywhere else.

For those looking for high-end goods at bargain prices, Scottsdale and area has a wealth of consignment shops. My favourite (and Clare’s favourite) was My Sister’s Closet Fashion Consignment, which also has a men’s section. For high fashion mint-condition clothing at bargain prices, these outlets are well worth checking out.

You could also spend years and not try all the delectable restaurants in this area.

My two favourites included LON’s at the Hermosa Inn, where we were seated outdoors under a giant mesquite tree as strings of lights twinkled above us. We shared a memorable Caesar salad tantalizing ahi tuna appetizer and enjoyed main courses of a seafood trio and New York strip loin.

Another favourite was the elegant husband- and wife-owned restaurant, Sel at 7044 E Main St., where the chef whipped up one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever tasted and an individually created warm bread pudding with fresh whipping cream and berries. The menu notes it takes 20 minutes to prepare. Hint: It’s worth the wait.

Other exceptional eateries I was fortune to try included HULA’s Modern Tiki, La Hacienda and Ironwood Kitchen (both at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess), The Mission Restaurant Kierland, The Herb Box (E. Shea Blvd. location), The Canal Club at The Scott Resort & Spa and Prep & Pastry restaurant.

For more information on all of these attractions and many more, visit the official tourist information website www.experiencescottsdale.com. It features a host of itineraries, special offers and loads of tips on visiting the very surprising Scottsdale area.

Kerry Diotte is a long-time journalist who has written about his travel experiences in numerous cities and countries worldwide. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

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