In 1937, Frank Lloyd Wright sought respite from the frigid Wisconsin winters in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. The renowned architect bought 600 acres at the foot of the MacDowell Mountains, northeast of the tiny town of Scottsdale. With free labor from his apprentices, he carved from the desert Taliesin West, an earth-toned marvel where he would winter until his death in 1956. Wright was prescient. Today, the Phoenix/Scottsdale area ranks with Orlando and Miami in popularity among refugees from frozen locales.
Ironically, winter in Arizona feels downright chilly coming from Honolulu. Temperatures hover in the 50s and 60s during the daytime. You can see your breath at night. So why go? Different food, different golf, dry air and a change of scenery that is both jarringly austere, but breathtakingly beautiful. An excellent reference point for the entire Valley of the Sun experience is Taliesin West itself. Built entirely with materials from the surrounding environ, the low-slung cluster of sleek, yet rustic, buildings is a serene masterpiece of the so-called “organic” school of architecture. Tours are well worth the entry price. Another must-do is the Desert Botanical Garden, with a large collection offering amazing insights into the intricate ecosystem of the arid Sonoran Desert.
The Valley of the Sun is perhaps one of the few places to match Hawaii in terms of golf course concentration. In the Scottsdale area, 23 courses carry four or more stars out of a possible five in rankings by Golf Digest. The standout is the Boulders Resort and Golden Door Spa, located outside the city in the town of Carefree. The course boasts not only killer holes, but also untrammeled desert scenery, including jaw-dropping natural rock formations and, naturally, towering saguaro cacti. Other top courses include Troon North Golf Club (Monument Course), Talking Stick and the Papago Park Municipal Golf Course. Hot for a trail trek? The Valley of the Sun is tops in urban hiking. Camelback, Squaw Peak and Pinnacle Peak all offer easy climbs through cacti, ending with stellar panoramic views of the whole valley and the sky-blue desert horizon.
Like Hawaii Regional, nouveau Southwest cuisine in Arizona no longer qualifies as a hot new food trend. But it still works. A top plate in the genre is the Roaring Fork, a bastion of comfort food gone Wild West. I totally dug the macaroni and cheese, with hot chiles, and my sugar- and chile-cured duck breast was a wow. When in the Southwest, eat Mexican and follow the natives to Carolina’s, a hole-in-the-wall in an unpretentious nabe (the windows have bars—nuff said) that throws down killer tamales, chorizo, machaca and a legendary homegrown dubbed the Oaxaca burro. For a tipple, the classic joint is the lobby bar at the Biltmore, a smoothly dark and lovely resort of massive timber rafters and square desert motifs that Frank Lloyd Wright himself helped design.
The region has far too many sprawling, monotone housing developments, but stick to the outskirts, or the attractions at hand, and you’ll see why Wright made the desert pilgrimage each year.