Winter is high season for many destinations throughout the Southwest, but Scottsdale, Arizona, with a wide range of resorts (for those who like resorts) and hotels in the middle of town (For those who don’t) is a particularly popular option for the cooler months.
But summer is a great time to visit Scottsdale, too: Yes, it can be warm--hot, even--but monsoon season brings cooler temperatures, gentle breezes and light rainfall that makes the area perfectly pleasant. I had the chance to stay at a Scottsdale resort--the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess--in both winter and summer, and got to take advantage of a range of seasonal options.
Winter in Scottsdale means a wide range of temperatures, from the high 30s at night to the 60s or even 70s during the day. Last winter was brutal, and the mercury occasionally dipped below the 30-degree mark several times.
But this was fine, actually: The outdoor bars all had large space heaters, and the tables can become firepits instantly.
The resort offers some fun seasonal activities in December: A huge Christmas tree is set up in the main courtyard, and holiday images are projected onto the surrounding walls. In the evenings, the lights on the walls and the tree become part of a show set to Christmas carols.
Indoors, fireplaces are lit for a comfortable vibe, and carolers wander the public halls to sing their songs.
Perhaps coolest of all is the huge outdoor skating rink, where families can rent skates and take to the ice. Bonus: A special package is available that includes rink-side seating, fur-lined throws to keep warm and hot chocolate.
Scottsdale is a great deal in the summer months, as many people stay away to avoid the (sometimes) extreme heat. But those willing to brave the warm temperatures will find great value for money, and a lot of activities that will help everyone stay cool.
The resort has several pools, and cabanas can be booked for those who want to dedicate plenty of time to relaxing poolside. Most of these pools are family-friendly, and drinks and snacks, of course, are available poolside.
Good to know: The pools are open 24/7, so no worries about getting there before nightfall. During summer weekends, family-friendly movies are screened at the South Pool, and activities like “Splash Zone” (a giant plastic ball that people can sit in while it spins and sprays water inside). By the lagoon (where families can try their hand at fishing), a zipline is set up that is ideal for children: At only 37 feet up and 240 feet long, it is not too intimidating for beginners or smaller adventurers, and many kids return to ride the line multiple times. (Individual or unlimited passes are available.) Sadly, my fear of heights kicked in just as I reached the top of the ladder, so I didn’t get to try the attraction, but from the squeals of the kids, it’s a lot of fun.
The Fairmont is also a good pick for fine dining, and locals go out of their way to visit the restaurants. Bourbon Steak is a classic steakhouse with some great cuts of beef and a great wine selection. Good to know: Groups (even large families) can book private rooms, and the bartenders can create a customized, original cocktail for the occasion. (If it’s particularly good, the cocktail may be added to the regular menu later, so feel free to offer suggestions.) The steaks here are terrific (the sirloin last winter was particularly tender), and the “bar bites” menu offers great value for money: Guests can sit on the restaurant’s patio at any time and order from the happy hour snack selections, which includes a steak frites that looked wonderful.
La Hacienda, meanwhile, is the resort’s high-end Mexican restaurant, and when it closed several years ago, locals raised such a fuss that it reopened under the guidance of Chef Richard Sandoval, reportedly known as the “father of modern Mexican cuisine.” La Hacienda’s Chef de Cuisine Forest Hamrick combines classic Mexican fare with European cooking techniques for a very tasty menu. (How tasty? My friend and I were at the resort for two nights and opted to go back to La Hacienda a second time just to try more dishes.) Nice touch: The restaurant also has a fire pit on the patio for warm seating in the winter. And best of all for fans of margaritas, it has more than 240 artisan tequila selections.
Speaking of tequila, the restaurant also has a dedicated Tequila Goddess who can recommend the right libation for any meal. Not on the menu, but highly recommended, is the “Snake Bite Flight”--a flight of three different agave-based liquors, including tequila, mezcal and sotol, all framed by a real rattlesnake’s head and tail. (My friend and I tried the Herradura Tequila, the Monte Alban Mezcal and the Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol, and would be hard-pressed to choose a favorite among them.)
Couples and groups should make a point of trying the “trios” on the menu, like the guacamole trio for an appetizer. (This comes with pomegranate, spicy crab and pepita guacamoles, as well as chips.) Those who already know what kind of guacamole they would like can order some to be prepared tableside. There’s also the tacos trio, which includes bite-sized soft tacos filled with “barbacoa” beef, chicken “tinga” and pork “carnitas”. (The barbacoa was particularly good.) The tortilla soup was also good enough to order twice, and I am actively seeking out the recipe to enjoy it year-round.
Also be sure to try the flaming coffee--a piece of culinary performance art that is exactly what it sounds like: As the coffee is prepared, cinnamon and alcohol are lit on fire for a great spectacle. (It also tastes wonderful.)
Well & Being
The Willow Stream Spa is massive, with and 27 treatment rooms. It is easy (and, it would seem popular) to book a full three-day escape and spend all three days at the spa trying a range of therapies, which cover everything from facials to mani/pedis to massages to holistic treatments.
I opted for an hour-long Craniosacral Therapy, which uses light touch to “shift and correct the rhythms of the craniosacral system, located around the head, neck and spine.” and replenish “internal resources.” My therapist, Tandy (who was absolutely wonderful) gently held first my head and then other areas of my body in order to adjust the craniosacral system, and I noticed her using gentle pressure to turn my head in one direction or another while I lay on my back. Afterwards, she told me that she hadn’t used any pressure at all--what I felt, she said, was my body’s own need to stretch those muscles and move in that particular direction. This treatment is reportedly helpful for headaches, minor neck and back pain, and relieving stress and tension.
My friend, meanwhile, tried the hour-long Hacienda Retreat, which uses local food items to improve the skin. The treatment begins with a yellow corn and lime body polish for exfoliation, followed by a hydrating mask of shea butter scented with lime zest, spearmint and lemon that penetrates the skin while the therapist massages the face with desert rose moisturizer. Good to know: The 90-minute version of the treatment includes a 30-minute massage with the spa’s signature Mojito body butter. My friend called her therapist, Sonya, “fantastic.”
It’s worthwhile to allow plenty of time to explore the spa both before and after a treatment as it has some nice perks that can help guests get energized or relaxed as needed. The single-sex lounges all have hot and cold pools adjacent to one another (good for the pores and muscles) as well as steam rooms, saunas and cool eucalyptus inhalation rooms. Outside, in a co-ed area, a heated waterfall pool lets guests stand under running water (different streams have different pressure) and work out the knots in their backs with wet heat. Up a spiral stairway built into the walls is a rooftop pool just for adults, with bean-bag floating loungers that guests can use to soak in the sun.
Tip: No matter what season, be sure to book a Fairmont Gold room. This brings a range of perks, including free self-parking, free in-room Wi-Fi, access to the tennis courts and (perhaps best of all) free access to the Fairmont Gold Lounge. This lounge offers free sodas, free appetizers every afternoon as well as a free honor bar, and free breakfast in the morning. And the breakfast is good: Think fresh egg dishes, bacon and sausages, creme brulee oatmeal and traditional bagels and lox. The coffee station has flavored syrups, so amaretto coffee is no problem, and a dedicated concierge can help arrange any activity or reservations for spa treatments...or golf ...or tennis...or anything else. The free breakfasts and in-room Wi-Fi immediately make the upgrade pay for itself, and the perks really add the ideal touches on the vacation.
Sadly, I did not get to try either of the resort's two 18-hole golf courses, or any of the tennis courts, so I will need to come back and explore both of those in-depth...perhaps next summer, if not before.