Phoenix is hot in more ways than the heat

Burning and rising every 1,000 years, the mythic firebird has nothing on the new-and-improved Valley of the Sun

PHOENIX -- Arriving by air in Phoenix, visitors note a vast, sprawling city -- the nation's fifth largest -- a collection of palm tree-studded cities and towns ringed by mountains, where a car is in indispensable necessity.

The similarities to Los Angeles are striking, right down to analogous municipalities, including exclusive Paradise Valley, Phoenix's Bel Air, and tony Scottsdale, its Beverly Hills. It's markedly different from most American cities with its almost eerie lack of litter -- hardly a scrap of paper on highways, sidewalks and heavily trodden park trails.

Located in south-central Arizona at an altitude of 1,100 feet above sea level, this desert Southwest city is blessed with 330 days of sunshine a year. From May through September, this relentless barrage of solar power may seem unbearable to visitors and even locals who occasionally grumble about having to remain housebound during the day to avoid oven-like temperatures of 110 degrees. At these times, residents get their exercise in malls and other heavily air-conditioned environments. October through April is the best time to visit, and spring showers produce a patina of green in the surrounding desert with flowering cacti enlivening the burnt-red rocks with a burst of vibrant colors.

Despite Arizona’s new immigration law that has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy, it's impossible to paint the area with the broad brushstroke of intolerance. Phoenix boasts a thriving community of LGBT residents and remains a warm and welcoming destination for gay and lesbian visitors. The population of Arizona is about 30 percent Hispanic, a group that depends heavily on tourism for employment. The other 70 percent is incredibly diverse, ranging from bona fide desert cowboys to hippy-dippy energy healers in Sedona.

As one of the last bastions of the Old West with these intriguing contradictions, Phoenix is well worth a visit.

Gay life

With gays and lesbians living throughout the vast metropolis, there's not a single defined gayborhood. That said, there are nearly three dozen bars and clubs catering to queers, making it the gay nightlife capital of the Southwest, with a concentration of businesses along Seventh Avenue in central Phoenix.

Fez offering American cuisine with a Moroccan flair, is a popular restaurant near

Amsterdam bar on Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix is the happening weekend club attracting a range of gays and lesbians. It's located along the newly developed light-rail line, an exciting development for a city that has long been so completely car-dependent.

The more residential-feeling Scottsdale, home to some of the nicest resorts and hotels in the city, has two dance bars, charming BS West tucked into Old Town Scottsdale with its fun drag shows and Forbidden, also in Old Town, which attracts a younger crowd.

David, a local gay sales executive, describes the gay scene.

"There are guys who go to bars and those who don't, which is the dinner-party crowd, mostly couples," he said. So, unless you bring your own partner, plan on hitting a few nightspots.

Phoenix Gay Pride takes pace in April to avoid the much hotter summer weather, and is a terrific time to visit.

Culture

A former executive of Target is behind the opening of the new Musical Instrument Museum, a stunning $250 million development, with its collection of 12,000 (and counting) instruments from around the world in a new 190,000 square foot building. The MIM provides an opportunity to journey around the globe through music. It's the only museum like it on the planet, and a visit here is just about worth the trip to Phoenix.

Allot time to visit Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden, a huge outdoor park near the airport that helps visitors better understand the incredibly varied flora and fauna flourishing in this sometimes extreme and inhospitable environment. It boasts the largest collection of succulents in North America. In December each year, the Botanical Garden features Las Noches de las Luminarias, a signature event with live music and 3,000 candles lighting the crisp desert night.

Many of the rock formations ringing the area are named. One of the most iconic is Camelback Mountain, which resembles, not surprisingly, a supine dromedary. There are two ways up; the Echo Canyon trail is the more challenging. There are handrails to help hikers up the steepest sections of the path. The real thrill comes in the surprisingly difficult descent. The views all the way up and particularly at the peak, with its 365-degree view of the surrounding metropolis, are breathtaking. Even the most in-shape hiker should allow a couple of hours for the hike up and down. Pack plenty of water, apply sunscreen, and take a camera. Go early to avoid both crowds and heat.

Star gazing

A truly magical experience is an evening stargazing Hummer tour with Steller Adventures.

This three-or-so hour tour departs at dusk to a remote desert vantage point far from the lights of the city. Upon arrival, participants meet an expert astronomer who discusses the wonders above in layman's language, then uses a powerful, sophisticated telescope to show up-close views of constellations, planets, galaxies, baby stars and other heavenly objects.

You haven't really experienced the stars till you've seen the rings and moons of Saturn, a billion miles away, with your own eye.

Where to sleep

It opened at the worst possible time for a luxury hotel: November 2008 at the beginning of the nation's worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Constantly tinkering, experimenting and adjusting its business model, Paradise Valley's InterContinental Montelucia, the brand's only resort property, survived and is now thriving thanks to its excellent service, gorgeous architecture and surroundings, great amenities, and views of Camelback Mountain.

The style and look are an updated Spanish Colonial with tiled interior courtyards, gardens, and gurgling fountains, with bright flowers blooming throughout the resort. Many rooms have views of Camelback, particularly the spacious standard rooms above the Prado Restaurant (room 125 has a particularly gorgeous view and a wide terrace to enjoy it). Mesmerizing like a Monet painting, the mountain changes look and colors continuously, depending on the angle of the sun. Joya, the destination spa, which attracts visitors and locals alike, features a self-guided Hammam experience (sauna, steam, cold 'deluge'), a relaxation room, and top-notch therapists. The gym with cardio equipment, weight machines and some free weights is quite large for a hotel gym.

In Scottsdale, the Hotel Valley Ho, originally opened in 1956 as a motor court-style hotel, re-opened after an $80 million renovation on its anniversary in 2005 as a hip urban hotel that pays homage to its Mid-Century Modernist roots. It was the first resort with air conditioning thus attracting the first-ever year-round visitors to the area, including many big stars of the day. Robert Wagner's star-studded on-site wedding to Nathalie Wood placed the Valley Ho squarely on the Hollywood glamor map.

Units boast plenty of light and storage, and spacious bathrooms. The pool area features DJ and live music during weekend afternoons and attracts a hot young crowd of mostly heterosexuals. It's a bit Real World Phoenix, but it makes for fun people watching. The onsite Cafe Zu Zu offers inexpensive and delicious meals all day including a tasty weekend brunch. There's also a spa and a decent gym.

Valley Ho is at the edge of Old Town Scottsdale with its restaurants, shopping and Artlink, the first Friday of each month. On site, Trader Vic's offers happy hour specials.

Where to eat

Phoenix considers itself a foody city and in that vein offers a surprising range of topnotch restaurants representing a wide variety of cuisines from American to French to Mexican and many others.

Prado at the Montelucia (above) offers Italian and Mediterranean cuisine with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients. On Thursday and Friday nights the restaurant features Flamenco dancers and live music.

Roq, Montelucia's outdoor bistro/bar, features live music on Friday and Saturday nights.

For a casual lunch, join the shoppers and local business people at
Zinburger
, which opened in 2010, a locally owned burger-and-shake joint with a contemporary feel in a popular upscale mall. The Kobe burger is mouthwatering, and the shakes are delicious (though better think about hiking Cameback the next day to burn off some of those calories.) If you're on your own, Zinburger's deep 20-seat bar provides the perfect people-watching perch for solo dining.

The same folks who developed Zinburger, opened Culinary Dropout, a hip dining and drinking hot spot along Scottsdale's developing canal-front area where it's possible to park your car or take a taxi and walk around. This relaxed environment offers a $20-or-less menu, a sizable wine list, and inventive cocktails. It's a short walk to BS West (see above) from here for a gay after-dinner nightcap.

La Petite Maison in Old Town Scottsdale is an authentic French bistro restaurant with a limited menu of traditional French selections, beautifully presented. It's really nice for brunch.

Located in upscale Paradise Valley, El Chorro Lodge (a restaurant, not a hotel) at first blush seems older, conservative and a bit stuffy. However, the atmosphere is actually quite warm with live music and an enchanting outdoor patio dining space with breathtaking views of Camelback. The food is consistently good and fresh: Chef James Porter is one of the local leaders in the farm-to-table movement.

To celebrate another lovely sunset or for after-dinner drinks, head to Elements at Sanctuary, an outdoor bar/bistro/lounge for incredible views of Paradise Valley and its surrounding mountains, to engage in some star gazing, or to simply relish the discovery of this city's surprisingly rich offerings.

Ed Salvato has been called “the world’s foremost expert in gay travel.” You might remember him as editor in chief of OUT & ABOUT and The Out Traveler. He also oversaw travel as senior online editor for Gay.com, PlanetOut.com and Advocate.com. He has logged over a million miles visiting countless destinations on six continents. Antarctica is next on his list. Reach him at Ed@EdSalvato.com.

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