Arizona: Mesa & Phoenix

– Story and photos by Diana Ballon

“Awareness is the greatest gift,” says instructor Misty Campeau as she leads us through an 8:30 a.m. yoga class at the Nature Centre in Usery Mountain Regional Park in Mesa, Arizona.

Saguaro Cactus at sunset

Sometimes being present in the moment is no easy task. But this morning, looking out onto the peach-faced lovebirds,  settling on the railing outside, at the red flowering chuparosa, saguaro cacti and the San Tan mountains in the distance, the present seems where I should be.

I have arrived in Phoenix and neighbouring Mesa in uncharacteristically cold weather for January, with overnight temperatures below freezing. But in this Valley of the Sun, encased by mountains on four sides, a bright light and blue sky persists, lifting my spirits in a way that a warmer grey day in Toronto cannot.

City and desert seem like an unusual pairing, but in Phoenix and Mesa—two of the three largest cities in Arizona— shopping malls, symphony, theatre, sporting arenas and museums lie in the desert, and are watched over by impressive mountain ranges on all sides. It’s a seductive combination.

Normally I seek rural on holiday: beaches, mountains, water and a skyline where stars are visible without the haze of smog and urban lights. I want to hear silence. And yet, I often miss civilization. Here, I find everything, and lack nothing.

On our first day in Phoenix, Canadian-owned Arizona Outback Adventures (AOA) takes us on a bike tour of the city.

We leisurely cycle along palm-tree–lined residential streets, past the famous Westward Ho hotel where Marilyn Monroe and Clarke Gable used to stay, through historic neighbourhoods such as Willo and Encanto, and downtown, where we gaze up at the monumental yet fluid net-and-ring-form sculpture Her Secret is Patience, by artist Janet Echelman.

The next day, we head to the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, a stunning Native American–owned resort in the Sonoran Desert with 500 rooms, two 18-hole golf courses, an equestrian centre on site, the top-rated restaurant in Arizona, and a super luxurious spa.

The artwork, legends and culture of the Pima and Maricopa tribes who have inhabited the area for more than 200 years are reflected in the design of the buildings, the architecture and even through their greetings.

Guests are welcomed with the Pima and Maricopa translation of “Welcome to my home. Good to see you. May the Creator be with you.”

Resort cultural concierge Rosie Rivera tells us about the stories depicted through the 10 panels painted on the impressive ceiling mural on the domed roof of its bi-level lobby.

The elaborate staircase

We stand, staring up in awe, at this mural, and gazing out at the floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the desert and mountains beyond. A waterfall flows down an enormous rock in the lobby, and into a pool below: nature lies inside this resort and out.

Later, at their four-star Forbes-rated Aji Spa, I luxuriate in an 80-minute Gaji River hot stone massage, in which a creosote bush, purported to be the oldest plant in the world, is incorporated into the oil and balm for the massage. I then while away the afternoon at the spa, using their all-women’s private outdoor hot tub, and the sauna and steam room.

That night, we are seduced through the doors of their five-diamond, five-star rated restaurant Kai with music of flautist Aaron White (of the Grammy award winning band Burning Sky). Led by its new executive chef Conor Favre and chef de cuisine Joshua Johnson, the meal lived up to its reputation.