“The West’s Most Western Town” has a nice cowbell ring to it, doesn’t it? Scottsdale’s motto is fitting: Many of the buildings in the Arizona city are the color of leather chaps and a giant cowboy sign in Old Town greets visitors with a permanent “howdy” on his lips.
During my March visit, I counted several Stetsons among the baseball caps accessorizing the heads of spring training fans. I even contacted the spirit myself at a Western-wear store that predates “Stagecoach” by more than a decade. (I found it lurking inside a pair of pink cowboy boots.) Of course, I can only play cowgirl for so long before my skin starts to prickle like an acupuncture session with cholla cactus.
Luckily, Scottsdale boasts a second tagline, “Most Livable City,” and I quickly felt at home among the racks of vintage clothing, veg-centric dishes and Frank Lloyd Wright architecture — real and inspired. The golf-cart taxis blasting party tunes kept me rooted in civilized Scottsdale, but whenever I heard the howling coyotes, I returned to wilder times.
GO: Local favorites
1. Odysea , the largest aquarium in the Southwest, provides residence to 30,000 animals. Start your visit in the bathroom, whether you need to go or not: The sinks overlook a shark tank. Guests follow the journey of a water drop, which travels through several marine environments, including rivers, shores (the habitat of African penguins and otters), oceans and reefs. The drop finally gets to sit down on a carousel ride that spins by three aqua-scapes. The finale: viewing the sharks that watched you lather up.
9500 Via De Ventura
2. Learn to hitch a horse, stare down a bison and swagger in an Old West scene at the Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West , a Smithsonian affiliate that holds several exhibitions a year. The museum tells the campfire tales of the American West through paintings, sculpture, photography and such artifacts as Meriwether Lewis’s tomahawk. One of the star collections features more than 1,400 items that detail every inch of the Western lifestyle, from the head of the cowboy to the seat of the horse.
3830 N. Marshall Way
GO: Guidebook musts
3. This year, the world celebrates the 150th birthday of Frank Lloyd Wright, and Taliesin West will honor the event with $1.50 tours of his winter abode on June 8. Even on noncaking days, immerse yourself in the World According to Frank on a guided visit of his office, private residence, garden room, performance spaces and drafting studio, where he designed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.
And, yes, you can sit on the furniture.
12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd.
4. Scottsdale’s sprawl stops at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve , a 30,000-acre swatch of the Sonoran Desert buttressed by mountains. Bike or hike along 182 miles of trails studded with the Mutt (saguaro) and Jeff (barrel) of cactuses. The Gateway Trail Loop, for instance, is a 41⁄2-mile route that peaks in popularity during the sun’s rise and fall. In the distance, listen for the Valley of the Sun Orchestra, a symphony of coyote howls and sirens.
18333 N. Thompson Peak Pkwy.
EAT: Local favorites
5. FnB co-owner Pavle Milic holds high praise for chef Charleen Badman: “She has the uncanny ability to take ugly duckling vegetables and elevate them.” Her magic green wand electrifies such dishes as hinona kabu long turnips with chimichurri and grilled spicy broccoli with tangerine aioli and pistachios. (She also prepares several meat entrees.) The restaurant has also earned accolades for its beverage program, which includes a full page of Arizona wines and beers.
7125 E. Fifth Ave. No. 31
6. It started with the chocolate-bacon caramel corn that Country Velador set out at Cowboy Ciao’s hostess station. The bags sprouted wings and flew out the door. In response to demand, the pastry chef and her husband, Sergio, took over the restaurant’s storage space and opened Super Chunk , shorthand for “a little super chunk of goodness.” The sweets shop is an imp with flavors. The Veladors add candied jalapeño and cayenne to the Cowpuncher cookie, homemade cocoa cookie crumbs and sea salt to the brownies and mesquite flour to the chocolate-chip cookies. They even update the original “super chunk” with blue cheese and mission fig.
7120 E. Sixth Ave.
7. Fat Ox gives regional cuisine the boot, creating a menu that dances all over Italy. If you sign up for the whole trip, you will start with antipasti, end with dessert and spend the middle of the meal with formaggio e salumi, primi piatti and secondi piatti, the best course for sharing. The 28-ounce, dry-aged prime porterhouse divides nicely, but no name-calling if you only permit one spoon per affogato, described as espresso with soft-serve hazelnut gelato.
6316 N. Scottsdale Rd.
EAT: Guidebook musts
8. At The Mission , you won’t get scolded for licking the wall of Himalayan salt; some patrons enjoy a pink buzz with their tequila. If you prefer to use proper utensils, dig into the Latin American dishes, such as Peruvian clam stew and chorizo porchetta. Order the guacamole and a waiter will pull up to your table with a cart laden with small bowls and a mortar. You are the maestro of the chunky dip, so omit or double up on fixings to your palate’s delight.
3815 N. Brown Ave.
9. Cowboy Ciao is celebrating 20 years of cooking by spotlighting some of its greatest hits: chicken-fried trout, exotic mushroom pan fry, corn-nut scallops. The menu proves that American West and Italian cuisine can ride off into the sunset together. The interior brims with whimsy: A mural depicts Italy’s outline as a cowboy boot; a sign labeled “Home on the Range” frames the kitchen window. The most coveted seat is the Stage, an elevated table that puts diners, and the food, above it all.
7133 E. Stetson Dr.
SHOP: Local favorites
10. At The Simple Farm , Michael and Lylah Ledner invite visitors to play with their girls, Penny, Chloe and Beatrix. The couple’s Nubian goats provide the milk for their homemade caramels, which come in such flavors as sea salt bourbon vanilla and coffee. The store, which is open during select hours on Thursdays, also sells fruits, vegetables and herbs grown in their suburban garden, as well as accoutrements (mugs, dish towels, soaps, cutting boards) that add rustic charm to any chic kitchen.
9080 E. Cactus Rd.
11. “You feel like you are in someone’s closet,” Misty Guerriero (the someone) said of her shop (the closet). Vintage by Misty is nearly splitting at the seams with fashions from the 1960s and ‘70s, plus some earlier and later eras thrown in for wedge-heeled kicks. Misty, who scours Europe and Israel for the golden threads, carries the usual high-society suspects (Gucci, Pucci, Versace, Chanel), but she also honors her Southwestern roots. Dress locally in a floral sheath from Goldwater’s, a now-defunct Arizona department store, or a Novis Denne frock with a roadrunner embroidered on the pocket.
7046 E. Fifth Ave.
SHOP: Guidebook Musts
12. Chief Dodge Indian Jewelry and Fine Arts has been selling crafts from four Southwestern tribes — Hopi, Navajo, Zuni and Santo Domingo — for nearly 50 years. No surprise, owner Mary Dodge has honed her eye for fakes. During a demonstration, she explains the hallmarks of authentic turquoise: weight (heavy) and temperature (cold). Also, never trust a store offering heavy discounts. The shop specializes in jewelry steeped in tradition and meaning. The dots on a Navajo bracelet represent rain, for example. If you are stumped on the significance of a circle or squiggle, Mary also acts as interpreter.
1346 N. Scottsdale Rd.
13. Don’t believe the crime scene outlines on the floor: Independent booksellers are not dead. The Poisoned Pen Bookstore is still alive after more than 25 years. About 75 percent of its titles are mysteries and thrillers. The staff also dedicates space for signed editions, authors with upcoming readings (about 300 per year) and books published by the Poisoned Pen Press, the literary venture run by the owner’s husband. For regional reads, browse such authors as Donis Casey, Betty Webb and Jenn McKinlay, whose “Cupcake Mysteries” are set in Scottsdale.
4014 N. Goldwater Blvd., No. 101
STAY: Local favorites
14. The Bespoke Inn feels like extended family. Kate Hennen named the three rooms after her parents and grandparents, and guests can borrow an oversize linen shirt (the tag reads “Hers” but it can be His, too) and a British Pashley city bike for tooling around town. The Signature Suite shares the second floor with an infinity lap pool that clings precariously to the edge. Below, diners chatter away at the courtyard tables of Virtu Honest Craft. In the morning, overnighters receive another familial perk: $10 brunch.
3701 N. Marshall Way
15. Despite its strip-mallish environs, Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Spa doles out plenty of decadence in the desert. Guests stay in casita-style bungalows and don’t have to suffer the heat for a dip in one of three pools or a bite at Weft & Warp Art Bar & Kitchen. The property partnered with the nearby Cattle Track Arts Compound, and the artists’ works — a curtain of colored felt balls, for instance — appear throughout the resort. Each week, creative types share their talents, so you can turn your home into an ersatz Andaz.
6114 N. Scottsdale Rd.
STAY: Guidebook must
16. At Hotel Valley Ho , I was half-expecting Tony Curtis, a previous guest, to appear on a chartreuse pool lounger or at the bar of Lulu’s, sipping a Smokin’ Hot Fuzz. Scottsdale’s first year-round European Plan hotel (est. 1956) oozes midcentury cool catness. The decor swizzles Palm Springs pop with Prairie-style earthiness. (The original architect, Edward Varney, studied with Frank Lloyd Wright.) Sign up for a 90-minute historic walking tour of the property, or soak up the past from the lap of a waterside daybed.
6850 E. Main St.
EXPLORE: Local favorite
17. “It’s been pretty dead,” Bespoke Inn’s Kate Hennen admitted of the neighborhood south of Main Street. “But now all of these things are happening in this area.” With the exception of the inn and Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, most of the new arrivals are best enjoyed by the glass. Go on a hydration hop: Sip Coffee & Beer House, which also hosts live music; Brat Haus, which pairs Belgian fries and sausages with craft brews; LDV Winery, which pours flights of its estate wines; and Goldwater Brewing Company, which has two tap rooms, including a subterranean space in a former basement shooting range. What is SoMa’s next development? “They are putting in streetlights,” Kate said excitedly.
EXPLORE: Guidebook must
18. See Saba’s, the cowboy boot retailer? In the early 1900s, the building housed the Sterling Drug Store. And over there, the Rusty Spur Saloon? That was once Farmers State Bank, which closed during the Depression. And the Mexican Imports Shop? It was a pool hall and then a Chinese grocery store. Many of the structures in Old Town are enjoying a second or third incarnation. (Find the points of interest on the Scottsdale tourist map or take a free walking tour from the Little Red Schoolhouse/Scottsdale Historical Museum.) However, a few of the sites have remained unchanged, such as the Old Adobe Mission (1933), Cavalliere Blacksmith Shop (1909) and the olive trees planted in 1896 by the town’s namesake, Army Chaplain Winfield Scott.