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My First Rodeo (But Not My Last)

Sunshine, saguaros and sophistication makes Scottsdale hotter than ever

“The best thing about Scottsdale,” the super healthy-looking woman with perfect teeth tells me, “is that the only people who live here really want to be here.”

We’re in the car park of Taliesen West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural wonder home on the edge of the southern Arizona town. The mercury has topped 40 degrees, but that doesn’t bother her – or me. For a couple of months in summer, the dry desert heat feels like opening the world’s largest oven door; for the other 10 months the perpetual sunshine is the reason so many refugees from urban America have made this city in the Greater Phoenix area home.

Taliesen West

“Have a fun time,” says my car park buddy, all smiles as she climbs into a fancy 4x4, “it’s hard not to!” And she’s gone, presumably onto her next fun activity. A tennis lesson, maybe. Or a round of golf. Or maybe an art lesson on sculpting with found objects.

In Scottsdale, each is a realistic possibility. Since Frank Lloyd Wright pitched up to what was basically a dusty ranching station in 1937, Scottsdale has grown into a mecca for architects, artists and other creatives hellbent on carving their distinctive signatures onto the desert landscape. The most obvious signature is an architectural style known as Mid-Century American, which for all of its pleasingly minimalist lines and cool shapes is basically a style designed for the maximum comfort of its outdoorsy citizens, who eat, sleep, shop and play in one of the most attractive cities of the American southwest.

My car park encounter took place a couple of years ago, but I’m back for more. This time, I and a group of friends arrive in late spring, direct from London on a British Airways flight that delivers us right into the welcoming heat of southern Arizona. We breeze through immigration and within half an hour we’re at Scottsdale’s city limits. It feels good to be back.

Now I’m not naturally outdoorsy but Scottsdale makes getting active so easy. Take kayaking, for instance. A 20-minute van ride from downtown courtesy of Arizona Outback Adventures and I’m paddling on the Lower Salt River, which cuts through a red rock canyon landscape of Palo Verde trees and Saguaro cacti. There are wild horses grazing by the river’s edge and the occasional bald eagle soaring overhead. I’m in a kind of paradise and all I have to do is paddle, and not even that hard. By morning’s end I’ve committed my future to the outdoors and sworn that I too will be as fit and toned and at one with nature as Brian, our ridiculously handsome guide.

Kayaking on the Lower Salt River

All of which is highly unlikely, despite my man crush and the options at hand. There’s rock climbing on 12-million-year-old giant granite boulders. There’s horse-riding, cowboy-style, in the Sonoran Desert. I can take a moonlight bike ride, go for an early morning flight in a hot air balloon, or gaze at some stars with a professional astronomer who will point out that the low-hanging bright dot is, in fact, Jupiter and not a UFO in a holding pattern over the earth.

I can even do some of these things in the one resort, The Boulders, a luxury hideaway about a half hour’s drive north of town. While one of my friends scaled some rocks and others rode the trails on friendly palominos, I did what thousands come to Scottsdale to do: I played golf. The Boulders is home to two of the region’s 200-odd golf courses, both beautifully laid out against the desert landscape.

A tough lie, a tough life.

A couple of years ago, I played the area’s best-known course, the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale. It’s home to the Waste Management Open, the boisterous PGA Tour event that sounds like it’s sponsored by Tony Soprano and his crew but is really just a weekend of beer-fuelled “baba booeys!” from the massive crowds. There’s nobody there when I play, which is a blessing (mostly for the crowds), but what surprises me is just how easy it is to get a tee time – and how relatively inexpensive it is: in summer, you can play most of the region’s courses for less than $80 a round including a golf cart; if you can handle the midday sun (the carts are loaded with wet towels and there’s water stations everywhere) the rates are even cheaper. You can add Irish golf addicts to the list of mad dogs and Englishmen who go out in the midday sun.

Grilled meat at Weft & Warp Art Bar and Kitchen, Andaz Hotel

Scottsdale’s dedication to the pursuit of pleasure is also clear in the quality of the local cuisine. Eating well is easy, whatever your tastes. At the gorgeously elegant Andaz – which Conde Nast Traveler named as one of the world’s best hotels a couple of years ago – the Weft & Warp Art Bar + Kitchen is, despite its highfalutin name, a superb grill that offers excellent southwestern cuisine prepared by a chef working in what is effectively a large glass box. This is Scottsdale, after all, so design counts for a lot: the hotel is a Modernist stunner, with blackened steel, Brazilian hardwood and thermal glass dominating. The bungalows follow suit, with each decorated with art created at the nearby Cattle Track Arts Compound, a community founded in 1936 and still going strong.

BBQ Master Bryan Dooley

As adult playgrounds go, Scottsdale is hard to beat. The elegant architecture and the perpetually sunny weather are huge attractions, but what really sealed the deal for me the second time around was a night at the rodeo. But first, there was barbecue, maybe the best I’ve ever eaten, at Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbecue in Cave Creek, just north of The Boulders. This is American cuisine at its finger-licking finest and Bryan Dooley is a master of smoked meats, from tasty brisket to the perfect slab of ribs.

These bulls really don't like anyone riding them...

With barbecue in our bellies, we cross the street to the Buffalo Chip Saloon. There’s line dancing and live music, but this is just an appetizer for the bull riding, which lives up to every part of my wild west fantasy. In the bleachers are a cheering mix of flag-wavin’ cowboys and tattooed hipsters from the city, who come to watch the professional riders and enthusiastic amateurs try their luck on the back of a bucking bull – the best of them last around 40 seconds, an eternity when considering how much the bull works to unseat them.

My lack of double denim and my Irish accent revealed that this was, in fact, my first rodeo, but most everyone around me is keen to give me the lowdown on what to look out for. Within an hour, I’m seriously thinking about having a go myself, but I don’t want to spend my last night in Scottsdale in an ambulance. Next time, I tell my new friends, I’ll definitely have a go. Another unlikely promise, but one thing is certain: I’m definitely coming back.

Fact Box

Getting There Daily return flights (incl baggage) from Dublin via London Heathrow with British Airways (ba.com) start at €246 in economy, €496 in World Traveler Plus; high-season rates start at €469/€719

Staying There

Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Spa (andazscottsdale.com) has summer rates starting at $159, with in-season rates (Jan-Mar) from $349

Boulders Resort & Spa, Curio Collection by Hilton (theboulders.com) costs from $139 Jun-Aug; $299 Sep-Dec; and from $459 Jan-Mar.

While You’re There

Sunrise Balloon Flight with Hot Air Expeditions (hotairexpeditions.com) costs $179pp; $199 including hotel pick-up.

Half-day Kayaking on Lower Salt River with Arizona Outback Adventures (aoa-adventures.com) costs $145pp, min 2 people per tour; hotel pick-up available.

Horseback Riding with Fort McDowell Adventures (fortmcdowelladventures.com) costs $74/84pp for 1½/2 hours.

For More Information

Experience Scottsdale (experiencescottsdale.com) is the official visitor website.

This article was published in the Irish Daily Mail, July 13 2019.

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