There’s something sexy about the desert. I’ve often heard the allure of the desert is as enticing as a drug. Perhaps it’s the sultry hot days as the brown of the earth morphs into the blue of the sky as heat waves blur the distance. It could be the ruggedness of the landscape. Maybe it’s the survival of the fittest of the flora and fauna that exist in the desert. Or, maybe it’s the out of this world feeling you get as you take in the beauty of giant saguaros rising out of the barren land and towering high into the sky. Perhaps it’s the colors filling the sky at sunset in a watercolor painting only created on the canvas of the desert landscape.
My first trip to Scottsdale, Arizona, was a 48-hour adventure that left me yearning for the next time I can return to the desert. It is a year-round destination where luxury meets adventure and for me this trip it was also a culinary journey through the desert. I flew into Phoenix on a Friday evening and within a quick 30 minutes was walking into dinner with a friend who had lived in Scottsdale for years. I was lucky this trip as I had a tour guide to show me the best of what the Arizona desert has to offer. He picked SOL Mexican Cocina in the Scottsdale Quarter for my first meal in the “desert version of Miami’s South Beach” as dubbed by the New York Times. It was a lovely, slightly cool evening so the warmth of the fire on the outdoor terrace was welcomed. The Organic Slim Margarita I had while waiting for a table was delightful, but once we sat down, I splurged on SOL’s ultimate margarita. The Grande Clase Azul Margarita is made with Clase Azul reposado, fresh lime juice, agave nectar and Cointreau shaken tableside. From the antojtos (appetizers), the shrimp taquitos and coconut calamari sounded appealing, but we had to go with the Guacamole SOL, which is their naked guac topped with mango, tequila, creamy goat cheese, toasted pepitas and cilantro served up with crispy tostadas because I can’t go to any Mexican restaurant without ordering guacamole!
I couldn’t decide between two of their specialty tacos. I’m a huge fish taco fan so the Fish Taco “Gobernador’ was a given for me. It’s wild-caught fish pan roasted with lemon and garlic then served on a taco dorado with cheese, salsa, avocado, onion, cilantro, pico, and lettuce. My other selection was the Filet & Shrimp ‘El Jefe.’ The ‘El Jefe’ is grilled angus filet with two agave-chile shrimp then topped with melted cheese, slice avocado, and served with a spicy roasted green chile salsa. The two tacos were very different, delicious, and bursting with flavors. It was a combo of two of my favorite street tacos done in an elevated way with a side of black beans topped with pico and queso fresco. Pure Mexican food heaven to me! Wish I could have saved room for the ‘La Guera’ Blondie or Nachos Dulce for dessert but the sweetness will have to wait until the next visit. I was stuffed from a wonderful dinner at this Baja-inspired Mexican restaurant.
It’s no secret Scottsdale is a fabulous winter and early spring destination. If you want to beat the warm weather seeking crowds, try the shoulder seasons of November and April. The days can be very warm in the desert sun, but the evenings and early mornings are delightfully cool.
On a gorgeous Saturday morning, my friend and I set out on a hike. Of course, it wasn’t just a walk in the park kind of hike. Oh no, we were hiking to the top of Bell Pass in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The Pass in the McDowell Mountain Range tops out at an elevation of 2,889 feet. As we started at the Gateway Trailhead, I was giddy with delight. I’d never seen saguaro cacti in person before. Saguaros are the large, tree-like column cacti sprouting arms. Like trees, saguaros take years to grow. In the first eight years of a saguaro’s life, it will only grow 1-1.5 inches. It takes 35 years for a saguaro to produce flowers and a saguaro is usually 50-70 years old before it grows its first branch. Just like a wide-eyed kid at Disneyland for the first time, I couldn’t stop marveling at the green giants. As far as I could see, the saguaros looked like soldiers standing tall and proud scattered throughout the desert landscape.
We followed the Gateway Loop, which is one of the preserve’s most popular routes. After 1.6 miles, as Bell Pass Trail veers off and heads uphill, the crowds, which weren’t too bad the morning we hiked, thin out quickly. We started up a relentless series of ups and downs on the switchbacks up to Bell Pass. As you climb in elevation, the landscape changes from saguaros everywhere to a sea of cholla, ocotillo, and other more shrubbery like cacti and plants.
Bell Pass sits in the shadow of Thompson Peak, topping out at 3,969’. From the small, open and breezy pass you get incredible views of Four Peaks Mountains, Superstition Mountains, the expansive valley where Scottsdale sits, and the trail you just took snaking up the mountain. If you want more mileage you can continue on to Windgate Pass. After enjoying the view for a bit, we headed on a mostly downhill trudge back to our car for a 7-mile roundtrip hike. On the way back down the trail, the treat wasn’t only going downhill, but also enjoying the gorgeous desert vistas and hiking back through the land of green giants standing at attention.
If you want to see more desert scenes from the hike, check out my short video.
After our long hike in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona, we wanted a spot where we could go in our post-hike sweaty glory. So, we picked Coconut’s Fish Café since I’m a huge fish taco fan. Yes, Coconut’s is an order-at-the-counter joint in a strip mall, and admittedly, I had to question fish tacos in the desert, but the small restaurant chain started in Maui and is known for their killer fish tacos. Zagat rated them as “the perfect fish taco” so I decided on those. My friend went for the coconut shrimp and chips, which are fries with their special seasoning (and they’re delicious!). The coconut shrimp comes with house made Thai chili pineapple sauce. Coconut’s fish tacos are done on two grilled white corn tortillas and 17 different ingredients. The grilled fished is topped with organic tomato salsa, house made mango salsa, their famous cold slaw, tomatoes, and cheese. I agree with Zagat – they are worthy of being dubbed “the perfect fish taco.” After an amazing lunch, we spent the afternoon relaxing in the sun and enjoying a near perfect day in the desert.
The most picturesque spot for a glass of wine at sunset in Scottsdale just might be Isabella’s Kitchen. The Italian country bistro is at Grayhawk Golf Club. Savor your sips while nibbling on American Italian favorites as the last light of day illuminates the sky in shades of pink, purple, and orange. We were lucky to snag seats on the patio. Growing up in South Carolina, I always loved sitting in a rocker on the patio. I still love it to this day and squealed with delight to find two rocking chairs that were open. Rockers, wine, great apps, and an amazing sunset was the perfect way to relax after an adventurous day.
There are so many wonderful seating areas on Isabella’s patio with sofas and soft benches surrounding fire pits, cozy tables and chairs, and the kids will love the lush lawn to run and play to their hearts desires. We had planned to just stop in for wine and appetizers but could have stayed there all evening. Isabella’s is known for their bruschetta done on homemade ciabatta bread. We had the pear, bleu cheese, and pine nut bruschetta along with the Burrata, blistered cherry tomato, basil, and EVOO one. Both were fabulous. Just writing this whisks me back to a wonderful evening of delicious eats, wine, and an incredible sunset. Isabella’s Kitchen is high on my list for any trip to Scottsdale. Next time I’m going for the Fish & Wine, Tacos of the Day, hand-stretched pizza, or maybe the Fusilli Bolognese made with hand cut pasta….and definitely more bruschetta while hopefully dining al fresco on another delightful night.
For dinner we met friends at Sushi Roku, a trendy space in the W Hotel. The cuisine is modern Asian in a comtemporary space with natural elements. Bubbles and sushi in a lively, and packed, atmosphere made for a fun evening.
Sunday morning, it was breakfast meets hockey as we dined at Over Easy at the Ice Den, the official training center of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes. The weather was great so we sat outside on the patio. Over Easy is a diner and a great way to either start your day at the crack of dawn or enjoy a leisurely breakfast or brunch as we did. Over Easy has been featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” on the Food Network because of it’s scratch cooking, throw back décor, and Midwestern hospitality. They do breakfast classics with a twist and are known for their benedicts and brioche French toast. But as soon as I saw chilaquiles on the menu my decision was made. Their version is corn tortillas with ranchero sauce, chicken, sour cream, and cheddar topped with two eggs and green onions. Of course I had to pair the chilaquiles with a mimosa!
Needing to work off breakfast, we headed out for a quick hike. Pinnacle Peak is a favorite hike of locals and tourists. You start at 2,570’ at the trailhead and climb to an elevation of 2,889’. It’s not a huge elevation gain, but the majority of it is within the first half mile. If you hike the entire trail, it is 1.75 miles one-way for a 3.5 mile round trip hike. Pinnacle Peak is a distinctive granite summit rising 600 feet from the desert floor. You can pretty much see it from anywhere in the Valley. On the hike you experience its bouldering topography and the lush upper Sonoran Desert. It is home to such creatures as bobcats, gila monsters, desert tortoises, and diamondback rattlesnakes. On our hike, we didn’t see any of those as this popular trail was already busy with hikers and trail runners. It truly is a wildlife sanctuary with gamble quail, cactus wrens, lizards, even road runners along with coyotes, javelinas, mountain lions and some of the other larger animals you might catch a glimpse of on a hike.
Pinnacle Peak is a moderate hike. On it you go through a number of ups and downs as it winds along the bouldery mountain. You pass giant saguaros as you climb in elevation to a point with panoramic views of the McDowell Mountains, Four Peaks, Granite Mountain, Cone Mountains, and even some of the luxurious resorts including the Four Seasons Resort along with upscale homes and golf courses. I had to take a moment to soak in the view before doing the series of switchbacks back down the mountain.
We had a little time before heading back to the airport late Sunday afternoon so we decided to enjoy a relaxing late brunch at the base of Camelback Mountain. Many visitors to Scottsdale chose Camelback as their hike of choice. Guess I’ll have to put it on my list for my next visit. Sitting at Jade Bar at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort was sheer bliss. The views of Paradise Valley from the patio are extraordinary. I decided on the Jade Classic Grapefruit Basil cocktail with Ketel One Citroen vodka, fresh basil, simply syrup, grapefruit, and lemon. It was the perfect spot for light bites, with house made chips that are to die for, and to toast a wonderful 48 hours in the desert.