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The desert sky became more vibrant each minute as the sun set in northern Scottsdale. I shot one photo after another, thinking the sky was at its best.

Colors of day-glow orange and pale pink filled the evening sky with silhouettes of saguaro in the foreground.

I have always loved spending time in Scottsdale, but it had been five years since I holidayed there. On a recent visit, I found much to love about this sun-splashed city. Here are my picks for the best of Scottsdale.

Best of Scottsdale View from The Phoenician
View from the author’s balcony at The Phoenician. Photo by Sherry Spitsnaugle

The Phoenician

Location, location, location. The Phoenician sits at the base of Camelback Mountain, the iconic Phoenix landmark which resembles the hump and head of a kneeling camel. The luxury resort is located an easy fifteen-minute drive from Old Town.

On my first morning at The Phoenician, the sky was still dark when I opened my balcony doors to a gorgeous view of the dramatic Papago Mountains. (Guests on one side of the resort have a view of Camelback and on the other side, the Papago Mountains.)

Cactus wrens warbled and a sky of indigo and orange changed as the sun rose in fiery colors.

As part of the Marriott’s Luxury Collection, The Phoenician oozes good taste, but I didn’t get a whiff of arrogance. Guests wore jeans and cowboy boots to gather in the lounge to watch sports on television and families strolled the Cactus Garden Walk.

Best of Scottsdale. Pet-friendly services are available at The Phoenician
Vacay with your furry friend. Missy chills at The Canyon Suites at The Phoenician. Both properties are dog-friendly (up to 40 pounds). Photo courtesy of The Phoenician

Dog-friendly Service at The Phoenician

Both The Phoenician and The Canyon Suites at The Phoenician, (the AAA Five Diamond, Forbes Five star boutique hotel on property) are dog-friendly. The Canyon Suites offers a canine room service menu created by The Phoenician’s culinary team.

Pawsickles, puppy poppers, and tail-waggin’ salmon are options for Fido, or in my case, my Shih-Tzu, Alfie.

Best of Scottsdale. Dinner in the desert with table set and cactus in the background
Gourmet dinner in the desert is on the list for the best of Scottsdale. Photo courtesy Cloth & Flame

Gourmet Dinner in the Desert

The aroma of creosote filled the air as I stood amidst towering cactus and photographed the stunning sunset at MacDonald’s Ranch, northern Scottsdale. In an area of the ranch called Saguaro Basin, we were far from city lights and buildings.

To arrive at MacDonald’s Ranch, my group shuttled from our hotel and then drove on a narrow, dusty, pot-filled road to reach the secluded site for dinner in the Sonoran Desert.

My travel companions and I took selfies, as the setting sun dazzled as a natural backdrop. Nearby a table adorned with linens, fresh native flowers, wine glasses, and candles awaited.

Cloth & Flame, a “wilderness and outdoor dining company,” arranged the dinner in the remote setting. The company’s website describes the experience as an “immersive and collaborative farm-to-table dinner in an unexpected place.”

After cocktail hour, we gathered at the table and dined by candlelight on an appetizer of fig jam, farmers cheese, and brioche; followed by a green salad with butternut squash, pomegranate, and burnt honey vinaigrette. For the entrée we devoured red wine-glazed short ribs served with my personal favorite, white cheddar grits.

Best of Scottsdale. Table setting at gourmet dinner in the desert
Table setting at gourmet dinner in the desert with Cloth & Flame. Photo by Sherry Spitsnaugle

Dining Under the Stars

Dinner was as exquisite as in any five-star restaurant, yet we were in a stunning yet isolated setting. A full moon completed the evening.

Cloth & Flame husband-wife team Matt Cooley and Olivia Laux are the personalities and vision behind their company.

“It’s really all about having an amazing meal in a stunning location,” Matt said.

Best of Scottsdale. Espresso martini
Espresso martini at Piccolo Virtù, an intimate restaurant that serves small plates and desserts. Photo by Sherry Spitsnaugle

Piccolo Virtù, Virtù Honest Craft, and Pizzeria Virtù

What’s not to love about an espresso martini?

At Piccolo Virtù, an intimate restaurant that serves small plates and an array of desserts, my friends and I settled in at the copper bar and ordered espresso martinis. The boozy cocktail tasted rich with coffee flavor and had just the right amount of spirits.

But the flourless chocolate cake topped my list for perfection. The sweet creation was served with chile chocolate gelato, salted bourbon caramel, toasted almond panna cotta, and maracona crumble.

Chef Gio Osso and his team work hard to create an innovative, fresh menu.

Best of Scottsdale. Copper bar at Piccolo Virtu.
Copper bar at Piccolo Virtù. Photo by Sherry Spitsnaugle

Best of Scottsdale Includes Copper Bar at Piccolo Virtu

Piccolo Virtù has an outside seating area, but I preferred sitting at the shiny copper bar, watching the place hum.

The Virtù trio, all in Old Town, includes Piccolo Virtù and sister restaurants Virtù Honest Craft and Pizzeria Virtù. They are situated within a quarter-mile of one another, and you could easily walk to all three. Virtù Honest Craft was named one of the top 20 “Best New Restaurants” in the U.S. by Esquire Magazine.

Piccolo translates to “little” in Italian. But there’s nothing small about the style, sophistication, and food at any of the three locations.

Best of Scottsdale. Old Town scene
Historic Old Town Scottsdale. Photo courtesy City of Scottsdale

Historic Old Town Scottsdale

My favorite thing about Old Town, the trendy area packed with restaurants and shops, is its walkability. The pedestrian-friendly area is ideal for strolling and discovering.

Here, you might come across the occasional kitsch shop selling prickly pear jam and jojoba oil, but you’ll also find five-star restaurants and imaginative public art installations.

Old Town has earned a reputation as a fashionable area to dine, drink, meet up with friends, and visit world-class art galleries.

Visitors will find more than 100 bars and restaurants, bars, and nightclubs.

My friends and I dined at Hula’s Modern Tiki, serving dishes such as calamari and Hawaiian lobster bisque. Their website reads, “The only thing better than a friend, is a friend with a Mai Tai.”

Best of Scottsdale. Cactus on hike in McDowell Sonoran Preserve
A hike in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve offers a chance to see many types of cacti. Photo by Sherry Spitsnaugle

Guided Hike in the Desert

Cool, early morning temperatures called for a light jacket the morning my group of five met guide Steve Sproviero with REI Co-Op Experiences at the entrance of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

With over 200 miles of trails and 30,000 acres, the wild, undeveloped preserve offers plenty of choices for hikers. The overcast morning was perfect for hiking the Gateway Loop Trail.

Before we set off, Sproviero offered tips.

“Always stay on the trail,” he said. “You don’t know what’s out there that you may not want to come in contact with.”

He gave the example of a prickly teddy bear cholla, or “jumping cactus,” and explained that the harmless-looking plant can penetrate your skin if you brush up against it.

“And watch out for rocks in the trail. It’s easy to stub your toe if you’re not looking where you’re going and take a faceplant.”

Our guide shared facts about the beloved and iconic symbol of the desert, including that the cactus grows about one inch per year.

Best of Scottsdale. Author Sherry Spitsnaugle poses in front of a Saguaro cactus.
Author Sherry Spitsnaugle poses in front of a saguaro in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Photo by Laura McMurchie

Spiky Selfie

Each of us took a selfie in front of the cactus, which our guide calculated to be over a hundred years old.

As we hiked the path and gained elevation, we had views of the city of Scottsdale. We met half-a-dozen other hikers as they were coming down, but for the most part, we had the desert to ourselves. 

Along the way, Sproviero plucked some jojoba beans and handed one to each of us. He reminded us how to pronounce jojoba, which is to pronounce the “j” as an “h.”

He added that one of his friends insists that it’s possible to make coffee out of the bean.

“Personally, I think you’re better off going to Starbucks,” he added, laughing.

We could have hiked the trail on our own, but we all agreed that having a guide was more educational, and most definitely, more fun.

If You Go to Scottsdale

The Phoenician has too many accolades and awards to list, and staff may be at the heart of the success of The Phoenician. They go above and beyond to make your stay perfect.

Afternoon tea at The Phoenician, with live piano music and champagne, is so popular during the holidays, that they begin taking reservations in September and sell out quickly.

Visit Cloth & Flame to check availability for dinner in the desert. The company hosts corporate dinners but also community events.

To schedule a hike in the desert with a guide, visit REI. They also book bicycling and kayak adventures.

For the best source of information, visit Experience Scottsdale.

Sherry Spitsnaugle
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