THE PERFECT TRIP: ARIZONA, THE USA

The curves of Antelope Canyon were formed by flash floods, smoothing the sandstone walls
Photographer: Matt Munro

Make yourself at home with Frank Lloyd Wright in Phoenix and Scottsdale, then get to grips with the cactii in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Size up the Grand Canyon and connect with the land in the Navajo Nation, before sampling the fine wines of Sedona and the Verde Valley

WORDS KEVIN EG PERRY
PHOTOGRAPHS MATT MUNRO

Your trip mapped out
Set out on an adventure that covers the length of our Best Value Destination for 2018, from the architectural wonders of the twin cities Phoenix and Scottsdale to the dusty bike trails of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, and from the Grand Canyon to the Sedona and the Verde Valley – home to some of the finest wines in Arizona…

1. PHOENIX AND SCOTTSDALE
Discover why Frank Lloyd Wright found inspiration in these twin cities – and see the architect’s influence writ large
Days into your trip: 1 – 3

At dusk, downtown Scottsdale’s Valley Ho Hotel looks like the sort of place Don Draper from Mad Men would come to get away from it all. As the sun sets, guests sip cocktails by the patio fire pit, reclining on loungers that mix retro and modern design as if they were drawn for The Jetsons, then magicked into reality.

Yet this is no ersatz recreation of ’50s cool – it’s the real thing. Opened in 1956, the Valley Ho was a magnet for the likes of Bing Crosby, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. In 1957, it hosted the wedding reception of Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, and it’s said that Zsa Zsa Gabor and her daughter Francesca rode horses around the hotel. Presumably not while the wedding was still going on.

“We were a resort community back then, so Hollywood stars came here, because the paparazzi wouldn’t follow them,” explains Ace Bailey, who runs an art and architecture tour in Scottsdale. “They could come here for ‘recreation’ and maintain their anonymity.”

That much hasn’t changed. “To this day, the hotel will not release its current guest list to anybody except hotel staff, so it’s very discreet,” adds Bailey, before reeling off a list of contemporary Hollywood stars she’s spotted hanging around the lobby recently.

The Valley Ho is not alone. Scottsdale and Phoenix are dotted with superb examples of mid-century architecture and design, much of which displays the fingerprints of the man generally regarded as America’s greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright came to Phoenix in 1928, to work as a consultant on the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. A decade later, he returned to build Taliesin West, his winter home, school and studio 42km from Phoenix. The real genius of Wright’s design is his ability to “bring the outside in”. In the living room, the sunlight streaming through the glass walls and translucent roof makes the garden feel like just another part of one contiguous space.

In the drafting room where Wright created perhaps his best-known work, New York’s Guggenheim Museum, a group of young architects scratches away. They are students at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and, just as in Wright’s day, they are encouraged to get their hands dirty. They have to build their own rudimentary abode in the nearby desert to ensure they understand the basics of designing shelter.

And the students are spoilt for inspiration. Phoenix Art Museum sprawls over 26,500 square metres, housing work from the Renaissance to today. In one hallway, adults and children alike lose themselves in their distorted reflections in the polished surface of Anish Kapoor’s Upside Down, Inside Out sculpture. Further on, they wander through American art history, from an iconic portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart to modernist work by Georgia O’Keeffe.

Across town at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, visitors gaze at Knight Rise, an installation by the Californian artist James Turrell that frames the sky in a disorientating fashion. Upon leaving, they’re hit by a riot of colour from graffiti artist James Marshall, also known as Dalek.

Even public buildings, like the Scottsdale City Hall and Library, are prime examples of Southwestern architecture, influenced by the clay adobe dwellings once built by the native Hopi people. “It’s minimalist, without any froufrou,” says Bailey. “We’ve got great neighbourhoods full of mid-century architecture, as well as structures that are true adobe compounds. It’s quite a mix.”

The blurring of past and present is still going on back at the Valley Ho, where the drinkers are determinedly stretching the cocktail hour into the night. They’ve moved indoors to sit beneath concrete block walls that show Frank Lloyd Wright’s undying influence. While they toast to the future, the music in the air is pure Rat Pack.

 2. MCDOWELL SONORAN PRESERVE
Hit the dusty trail between majestic saguaro cactii as you explore the archetypal desert of the American West
Days into your trip: 4 – 6

From central Scottsdale, follow the Arizona 101 Loop north for 35 minutes to reach the edge of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Like the wagon trails that once traversed this desert, the sun is heading west. As the light moves, the shape of the huge boulder known as Cathedral Rock seems also to warp and mutate as shadows pass across its face. In the foreground, giant saguaro cactii stand proud and tall. Instantly familiar from their appearance in many hundreds of Westerns, they are also ancient markers. The saguaro grow an average of a foot per decade, so those towering 20 or 30 feet will have stood on that spot for around 250 years. They are the constant watchmen in the ever-changing landscape, yet adventure guide Phil Richards has a more immediate concern.

The ground is scattered with balls of jumping cholla, a cactus that looks so cuddly it has earned the nickname “teddy bear cactus”. Phil has just lightly placed one of these balls onto his arm to demonstrate their strength and he’s already struggling to prise it free from his flesh with a length of wood.

“They may look soft, but, if they get onto you, they won’t let go,” he explains, pointing out the strong barbs that cover the plants. They’re known as “jumping” because they latch on so hard even when brushed past that cyclists and hikers will swear they jumped out at them. Their real purpose is to hook themselves onto passing rodents and, when the poor creatures try to burrow down, they’ll find themselves stuck to the cactus and inadvertently doing the job of planting it. Invariably, the animal is killed in the process. “This gives rise to their other name,” says Phil darkly, “The “skeleton cactus”.”

For a desert, the Sonoran has a relatively lush terrain and is covered in plant life that blooms in spring. However, that doesn’t make it an easy place to survive. Phil takes issue with John Ford’s 1948 western 3 Godfathers, in which John Wayne finds himself stranded in this very desert. In need of water, he hacks the top off a barrelhead cactus and squeezes the pulp into his flask.

Sadly, this sort of thing only works in the movies. In truth, the moisture in a barrelhead is so filled with acids that it will most likely give you diarrhoea – not useful if you’re already dehydrated and stranded in a desert.

“This is a unique desert,” says Phil. “We’ve got about 3,500 varieties of plant out here, including a number of cactuses found nowhere else, and that’s because of the climate. We don’t get a hard freeze.”

The desert, ranging from Sonora in Mexico to the south of California, covers a swathe of Arizona. Here in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, there are 30,200 acres of protected land: nothing can be built and no motorised vehicles may travel its 146 miles of trails.

“It’s very peaceful here,” says Phil, whose transport of choice is the mountain bike. “The only things you hear are your gears shifting and your wheels on the gravel.” His quiet progress provides many opportunities to spot desert wildlife – he points out Gila monsters (venomous lizards), tusked, pig-like javelinas and grazing mule deer.

He says that it’s the beauty of the land itself, though, that keeps him coming back day after day, whether he’s guiding a group or not. “You can never get enough of the desert,” he says, “so the best way to get more is just to ride out to a different spot.”

With that, he’s off again, dashing along a sandy trail, but still mindful enough to keep clear of the jumping cholla.

NOW is the time to go on an adventure trail to Arizona! To know more about this perfect trip, check out LPMI’s August  2018 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.