Story by Jim Byers
SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA — I knew Canadians had been coming to Arizona for decades. But I didn’t realize things went back this far.
I was in Scottsdale in February, checking out great resorts, fabulous food spots and some of the excellent cultural offerings in town. My wife and I wandered into Western Spirit, Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, and were gazing at some of the amazing art work. We found beautiful portraits of Indigenous people, their faces weathered and furrowed by years of heat and dust and dryness and sun and wind. We also saw wonderful, Impressionist-style paintings with cotton-candy pink clouds and deep green mountains and works that looked like they could’ve been painted by Tom Thomson or one of the members of Canada’s famous Group of Seven.
Then, as we were passing through a corridor with colourful paintings of Indigenous citizens and western trappers, there it was: A brilliant painting of two white trappers high in the snowy Arizona mountains. One was clad in bright red outerwear, the other in a multi-striped Hudson’s Bay coat.
Although these two gentlemen were up in the mountains in search of wild game, they were clearly part of an early trend of snowbirds heading south. Today, you’ll find thousands of Canadian licence plates at the best resorts, golf clubs and shopping malls in and around Scottsdale, which loves it northern visitors so much it has come up with a yearly “Loonie Love” program to help ease the pain for Canadians who have to deal with the unfavourable currency exchange rate when visiting the United States.
The program includes deals for “amazing resorts and spas, championship golf, award-winning cuisine and more adventures and activities than you can shake a hockey stick at,” according to the Experience Scottsdale website.
Here are some recommendations on great things to see and do in Scottsdale, written by a Canadian who has visited the city just east of Phoenix at least a half-dozen times in the past few years.
Check Out Hockey and More in Arizona
Canadians tend to pay a lot to see an NHL game. But I recently spotted upper-deck tickets for a Phoenix Coyotes-Winnipeg Jets game for a mere $18 USD. That’s roughly the price of a large beer at a Maple Leafs game in Toronto. Okay, great lower-deck seats were close to $100, but that’s still a bargain compared to a Canadian arena.
If you’re travelling in March, remember that spring also means spring training. The Scottsdale-Phoenix area is home to 15 Major League Baseball teams for spring-training practice and games. Tickets cost much less than you’d pay for a regular-season game, and the atmosphere is arguably better in the smaller stadiums used for spring training. The San Francisco Giants play at Scottsdale Stadium. Other teams are close by, including the Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers, where former Blue Jays catcher (and Canadian) Russell Martin now plays.
Golf fans will note that the Waste Management Phoenix Open on the PGA tour is played early every year at the TPC Scottsdale course and features a wild par-three hole where fans — who have sampled a bit too much of the local craft beer— scream and holler for their favourite players and boo golfers who fail to hit the ball on the green.
Wine Tastings in Scottsdale
You’re not likely to see Arizona wines at a Canadian liquor store, as almost all of the product is consumed in state. Scottsdale isn’t the best area for growing grapes, but higher elevations of Arizona grow tremendous vinifera, especially the southeast corner of the state. On my recent visit to Scottsdale I tried Arizona wines from both LDV Winery and Carlson Creek Vineyard, both of which offer downtown Scottsdale wine-tasting rooms. LDV has a new tasting room in a shop that backs onto the Arizona Canal, a fun place for a stroll that’s lined with pretty parks and restaurants. The winery specializes in plush red blends such as Syrah and Petite Syrah.
I found Carlson Creek wines to be less expensive but just as good, especially the soft, ripe and not-too-jammy Sangiovese, the grape used in the best wines of Tuscany. There are several other wineries in town, and you can save a couple bucks if you buy a tasting pass for all of them.
Where Canadians Shop in Arizona
Fashion Square is one of the largest malls I’ve seen, a sprawling, multi-level affair that offers everything from high-end stores like Neiman Marcus to inexpensive sports shops selling memorabilia from NFL, baseball and hockey teams. I prefer smaller, independent shops to a shopping centre, and downtown Scottsdale is packed with them. Old Town has the usual assortment of western gear and T-shirts, but also shops selling colourful cloth blankets for as little as $7. Giving Bracelets makes wonderful leather products and jewelry, while Carmen offers up beautiful scented candles, unique clothing and a wide array of products designed and made in Arizona.
Hotel Deals in Scottsdale
Hotel Valley Ho, smack dab in downtown Scottsdale, is one of my favourite hotels in the world; a mid-century, 1956 beauty that’s been hosting celebrities (think Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, Bing Crosby and baseball legend Ted Williams) for decades. Rooms are bright and feature tons of colour. You’ll also find tangerine and aquamarine accents around the swimming pool, a hugely popular spot with younger folks when the weather’s good, which is almost all the time. ZuZu Restaurant makes amazing dessert milk shakes that you have to see to believe.
The same owners at Valley Ho also run Mountain Shadows, a fabulous property a couple minutes north of downtown. It’s another hotel that attracted Hollywood A-listers for years before closing. It was rebuilt and opened again less than two years ago. The look is sleek and sexy, and the swimming-pool complex is a beauty. The property also hosts a terrific golf course that’s kept in stunning condition. The on-site restaurant, Hearth 61, is outstanding. Try the California diver scallops or the short rib agnolotti, which is rich, moist and tender, and comes with toasted bread crumbs for a perfect crunch.
The Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa is a little farther north but still easy to reach from downtown and offers a marvellous spa with steam rooms, a dry sauna and an outdoor hot tub that’s segregated by sex, which means you can wear whatever you want; or nothing at all. The property has 10 swimming pools (some of them fairly small, but still), a waterslide, a beach that’s great for kids, gondola rides, a free, weekly birds of prey demonstration, live music at night and much more.
The SWB Restaurant has a fabulous program called Wine Me/Dine Me, where the chefs prepare new dishes every night based on what they have on hand or what has inspired them. The food is matched with tequila and terrific wine and includes four courses. It’s just $65 if you don’t want liquor, and $90 if you want to indulge.
Dining Delights Near Phoenix
Diego Pops is a terrific spot downtown, with a young clientele, a good-sized patio and great Mexican food. Try the pork and pineapple tacos or the Brussels Sprout Nachos, which come with the usual fixings and also with roasted sprout leaves and a fried egg on top. We had a great breakfast at Farm and Craft, which makes wonderful smoothies filled with organic goodies as well as an outstanding breakfast burrito with bacon and just-right avocado toast with egg whites.
Craft 64 brews its own beer and serves up marvellous pizza. The Fico comes with house-made mozzarella, house-made dough, arugula (all the produce is local and organic), ricotta and parmesan, with a fig sauce base instead of tomato sauce. Add some salty prosciutto for a truly remarkable pizza.
Hula Modern Tiki is great if you want a taste of the tropics. The mahi mahi with a macadamia-nut crust will make you feel like you’re on the beach in Maui, while the “Jawaiian” pork dish features a huge mound of pulled pork with rice, Jamaican johnnycake and plantains. The cocktails are rich and boozy and remarkably priced. I had an outstanding, not-too-sweet Mai Tai for $6 at happy hour. It’s only $8 on the regular menu.
Citizen Public House has a buzzy, youthful vibe and very good food. I had a great salad with local greens, almonds, goat cheese and a lemon vinaigrette, along with scallops topped with creamy grits. The restaurant is home to the famous Scottsdale or Stetson “Chopped Salad,” which was invented in an eatery that has since closed. At Citizen, the dish features couscous, corn, arugula, smoked salmon, cranberries, pepitas and tomatoes with herb dressing. It’s so popular it even has its own Facebook page! If you want more variety, try the Taste of Scottsdale program with Arizona Food Tours, where you’ll sample five great restaurants and also learn about the city’s history.