Southwest Sojourn

By Andrew Collins

Originally published on Advocate.com March 04 2009 12:00 AM ET

The fifth-largest city in the united states, Phoenix sprawls across the bone-dry Sonoran Desert, surrounded on all sides by sizable communities: Scottsdale, Tempe, Glendale. But beyond the tangles of freeways and strip malls strung together like sausage links, the Valley of the Sun provides its denizens with stunning, easily accessed opportunities for outdoor fun, artsy exploration, and chic pampering. Of late, Phoenix has brought its once-undistinguished downtown triumphantly into the 21st century, with rapidly gentrifying Roosevelt Row and Willo neighborhoods, and a shiny new light-rail system.

Extended Stay If work takes you into the city's booming downtown, check into the brand-spanking-new Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel (340 N. 3rd St.; 602-262-2500), which rises 31 stories above such nearby landmarks as the bustling Arizona Center complex, Chase Field (go Diamondbacks!), and Symphony Hall. With 1,000 rooms, the Sheraton won't be mistaken for a cozy hideout, but the understatedly elegant furnishings lend a homey vibe.

You'll find the valley's more alluring lodging options in neighboring Scottsdale. Go the hip-contemporary route by staying at the FireSky Resort and Spa (4925 N. Scottsdale Rd.; 800-528-7867), part of the gay-friendly Kimpton Hotels group; rooms open around a gorgeously landscaped courtyard and pool. Or take the retro-'50s nostalgic approach and book a room at the Rat Pack-inspired Hotel Valley Ho (6850 E. Main St.; 866-882-4484), an artful study in mid-century modern architecture with such offbeat features as Trader Vic's, a Polynesian-themed dining homage to pupu platters and foofy cocktails, and the see-and-be-seen Oh Pool Bar, with private cabanas for rent. If hours holed up in boardrooms enduring mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations get you down, stay at the glamorous InterContinental Montelucia Resort & Spa (4949 E. Lincoln Dr.; 480-627-3200), which opened in November at the base of the red sandstone Camelback Mountain. The Andalusian decor and bathrooms with huge sunken soaking tubs can calm even the most harried souls; if not, try the resort's serene Joya Spa.

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Convention Exit Strategy Sneaking away from downtown corporate confabs is as simple as hiking several blocks up Central Avenue (take the new light rail if you'd rather not walk) to the Heard Museum (2301 N. Central Ave.; 602-252-8848), which was established in 1929 as a means to preserve and exhibit Native American artwork. The museum has succeeded far beyond its modest beginnings and now holds nearly 40,000 works. In the city's saguaro cactus-studded Papago Park, the Desert Botanical Garden (1201 N. Galvin Pkwy.; 480-941-1225) brings together the Southwest's mesmerizing flora with the whimsical work of an American glass artist: "Chihuly: The Nature of Glass," through May 31.

Enigmatic architectural icon Frank Lloyd Wright wound down his later years at his desert compound, Taliesin West (12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd.; 480-860-2700), his winter home and school in northern Scottsdale, which today is open for exceptionally insightful guided tours lasting from one to three hours, depending on the theme. Wrap up a day of exploring with cocktails at Amsterdam Bar (718 N. Central Ave.; 602-258-6122), a trendy downtown gay entertainment complex comprising a popular after-work lounge, a pulsing disco, and a laid-back patio bar.

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Meal Plan On the edge of downtown, in the up-and-coming Roosevelt Row arts and retail district, Cheuvront Restaurant & Wine Bar (1326 N. Central Ave.; 602-307-0022) was established by openly gay Arizona state senator Ken Cheuvront, serving up plates of hard-to-find artisanal cheeses, globally inspired tapas, and well-chosen wines by the glass, flight, or bottle. Next to the vaunted Italian sandwich shop Pane Bianco (4404 N. Central Ave.; 602-234-2100) is Lux Coffee Bar (4404 N. Central Ave.; 602-696-9976), modern Phoenix's answer to a Beat Generation java café, complete with organic espresso of the bracingly potent variety, edgy art exhibits, and the best people-watching in town.

In Scottsdale some of the hottest chefs in the Southwest turn out innovative, high-concept fare. Try the scene-y Cowboy Ciao (7133 E. Stetson Dr.; 480-946-3111), a Wild West-meets-Far East spot in a hip SouthBridge urban village.

Take a Hike There are more than 200 parks within Phoenix, and dozens more in the outlying cities and towns, offering visitors a chance to satisfy their desert wanderlust. On your own, it's simple to tackle South Mountain Park and Preserve (10919 S. Central Ave.; 602-534-0527), a 16,000-acre landscape laced with some 51 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback trails. Hike to Dobbins Lookout (reached from several trails), the park's highest trail-accessible point (elevation: 2,330 feet), for a dandy view of the valley. For a guided ramble through some of the region's most alluring wilderness, book a half- or full-day tour through Take a Hike Arizona (866-615-2748), a gay-friendly, eco-minded outfitter offering nature strolls suited to all abilities.