Arizona’s “Secret Season” Starts … Now

With fewer people, lower prices and tolerable temps, this is the time to visit

November 24, 2020 12:06 pm
Camelback Mountain
Camelback Mountain
The Brandman Agency

A couple of crucial new criteria have arisen for traveling during a pandemic. First of all, lower capacity has become an important caveat, as has the ability to comfortably be outside for the majority of the time. The intersection of these two factors makes Scottsdale and Arizona’s Sonoran Desert — already attractions in their own right — new hotspot destinations for the intrepid Angelenos who are still interested in traveling this winter.

About the same driving distance as San Francisco, the greater Phoenix area is an excellent alternative to yet another Palm Springs trip for L.A. locals who want to (safely) mix things up. Close enough to avoid the airport and just a straight shot down the 10-east, Scottsdale enjoys moderate temperatures during the off-season that transform an artsy town into a cool, collected desert oasis. There’s even a name for it: locals and hospitality folks refer to the calm, more temperate winter months as Arizona’s “secret season.” Ninety degrees is about as hot as it will possibly get, with 70- to 80-degree highs much more common, and room prices drop significantly as resort capacities drop.

So, in summary: nicer weather, cheaper prices and no one else around. What better time to visit? Tell your friends you’re going to the desert — no, the other desert — and six hours later, send them pics of Arizona’s native Saguaro cactus. It only grows here, and these iconic, massive succulents immediately establish this is not Palm Springs. 

To get a real sense of the mid-century architecture and Hollywood history that Scottsdale has to offer, first check out the historic downtown. One of the oldest hotels in the area, the Hotel Valley Ho has all the charm of a 1950s motel, updated with sleek modern flair and world-class hospitality to boot. With original buildings designed by Edward L. Varney (a student of Frank Lloyd Wright), the hotel first opened in 1956, and has been a staple in the community ever since. In the early 2000s, a complete renovation, brand new seven-story tower and other additional buildings brought the hotel back to its former glory, and with a close proximity to the heart of downtown, it’s perfectly located for visitors. 

Hotel Valley Ho
Hotel Valley Ho
Amelia Robertson

While you’re there, stop into their restaurant ZuZu’s for brunch fare, sandwiches and salads, or just a killer Bloody Mary that will take the edge off. The Signature Blood is a $14 affair with spicy, veggie-infused Tito’s vodka, and a skewer filled with enough veggies and peppers to qualify as a snack, plus bartender PJ Baron will probably give you an extra pepperoncini if you just ask nicely. Don’t feel like going the full nine yards? $5 mimosas and a smaller version of this monster bloody are available all day, with plenty of outdoor tables. Take a drink (or two) out to the pool and safely distance on a massive daybed while soaking up some rays. 

This hotel even has two pools, so if one gets too crowded for your liking, stroll on over to the other. But that likely won’t be an issue; only two other guests were around while I was using the pool and jacuzzi during a recent visit. That means no one is around to judge you for getting not just the carne asada breakfast quesadilla, but the mini donuts with chocolate dipping sauce, too. Both are crispy, hot, and flavorful — vacation food to the max, executed with pride.

When you’re not lounging, learning the history of this landmark hotel is equally entertaining. Concierge staff is currently on furlough, but ask around and see if veteran tour guide Ace Bailey can be convinced to take you on a historic tour of the building. Bailey grew up in Scottsdale and her spirited, hilarious commentary will deepen your understanding of this community’s roots — and its future.

If you’re up for al fresco dining, there’s plenty of bars and restaurants in the historic old town, but one is a cut above the rest. FnB, the brainchild of James Beard-winning chef Charleen Badman, has been running the culinary scene in Scottsdale since 2009. With an assortment of dishes that utilize fresh, local produce in exciting and often surprising ways, all of Badman’s cooking can be exquisitely paired with wines selected by Front Of House Manager/Beverage Director Pavle Milic. Milic recently began making wine in his own right, and his guidance through Arizona’s local vintages is half rollercoaster ride, half tall tale. It’s characters like Pavle who are most missed during restaurant lockdowns and the era of takeout, and his presence at our table, even for a few minutes, was arguably the most memorable part of the night. 

Actually, that honor goes to the swordfish confit, served atop smashed zucchini so buttery it read like avocado on the palate, topped with pickled golden raisins, fennel, and pine nuts. Or, it could’ve gone to the chanterelles in Badman’s sunchoke dish, which drifted in a sauce of butter, tarragon and melting mascarpone. After being nominated for a James Beard six times, Badman finally won her much-deserved accolades late last year, only to have COVID swoop in and steal her thunder. FnB is a restaurant to keep on your radar for years to come, and the food, service, and drinks were on par with any fine dining I experienced while living in New York for several years.

If downtown doesn’t appeal to you, or you’re more interested in the wilderness appeal of the desert, try one of the more remote resorts located on the outskirts of town. I switched gears to a wellness resort called Civana for the second half of my trip, trading out cocktails and rich foods for fresh smoothies and a saltwater pool. One of the draws of Civana is their wellness programming, curated by on-site Chief Wellness Officer, Amanda Grant. Morning yoga, pilates, wall, water, and aerial yoga, meditations, sound baths, gratitude circles and hikes all pepper the daily schedule at Civana, and all the classes are complimentary for guests. An early morning hike was slow and gentle, with breathtaking views of the desert sunrise, along with a mindful moment of sound meditation and notes on local plant life.

How’s this for a socially distanced yoga studio?

After you get your fill of fitness, the on-property all-day cafe, Seed, has plenty of breakfast options that pair incredibly well with pool lounging. Grab a couple of plates to share, like the avocado toast with salmon and a veggie breakfast burrito that boasts tangy, bright orange hot sauce for dipping. Roaming waiters can bring your food right to the poolside, so lather up with plenty of sunscreen, chow down, and spend the requisite 30 minutes soaking up sun before dipping in the water. Also check out the spa, where an hour-long Swedish massage gets upgrades like a CBD booster, and the even more private pool attached to this haven boasts the same saltwater with less company.

In case all the wellness and conscious living gets a little overwhelming, sneak off campus for a few hours and hit up a gloriously-dive-y local watering hole, The Horny Toad. It’s the oldest original restaurant in the nearby town of Cave Creek, featuring decades of campy merch. Smoked wings with buffalo sauce and local Arizona beer are the perfect complement to a day spent opening your heart and flowing vinyasa — life’s all about balance, isn’t it?

Before you go, it’s essential to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterful western compound, Taliesin West. Though his longtime home in Wisconsin, Taliesen proper, is perhaps better-known, this desert escape served Wright well during his later life, when he was too ill to survive the brutal midwest winter. Recently re-opened for slightly altered, safely-distanced tours, the compound’s relationship to and use of the outdoors is reason enough to visit during the pandemic. It’s strange how certain environments were already able to bend to our new guidelines with ease, and Wright’s emphasis on bringing the outdoors in is fascinating viewed through that lens.

“The cataclysm wasn’t so far away here,” Wright opines of the Sonoran Desert on one of the audio snippets included in the tour. Gazing out at the wilderness surrounding Taliesin, it’s easy to see the chaos and disruption that prompted this comment. At the same time, recognizing nature’s determined force is comforting in this moment of uncertainty. All of these organisms are constantly struggling and adapting to survive in the heat and pressure of their environment, and Wright’s home, too, was a massive adaptation. But traveling to the desert is part of what kept Wright going in his later years, and though I can’t guarantee it will have a similarly therapeutic impact on all visitors, Scottsdale is now on my permanent list of restorative getaways.


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