By Joey Amato
Phoenix, Arizona is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. With a population topping 4.5 million people, the desert oasis provides a sprawling landscape complete with fabulous dining, retail, cultural attractions, and natural wonders that will surely please almost anyone. My last visit to Phoenix was highlighted by Phoenix Pride, which is tentatively scheduled for 10-11 April, 2021. This year is the 40th anniversary of the organization and one can only hope that ample amounts of vaccines are available to ensure the parade and festival go forward as planned.
As a travel journalist, I take it upon myself to not only promote destinations, but also promote safe travel. I would not travel anywhere or do anything that would put myself or my readers in danger, so on this trip, I abided by all COVID-19 protocols as well as dined outdoors for my entire stay. I typically visit a gay bar or two when I visit destinations but opted not to on this trip since cases were on the rise.
Here are some things you can do on your next visit to Phoenix:
Take a Hike in the Desert – Outdoor adventure company REI organizes numerous guided hiking tours in the desert. There is no better way to remain socially distant than by taking a 2-hour hike through the Sonoran Desert. I was able to get up close and personal with numerous desert plants including Arizona’s state tree, the Palo Verde, as well as the saguaro cactus, which is protected under law. Depending on the time of year you visit, as well as the time of day, you may get to see some desert wildlife, but don’t worry, your guide knows how to deal with rattlesnakes should you have a close encounter.
OdySea Aquarium/Butterfly Wonderland – Both attractions are located in Scottsdale, about a 20-minute commute from downtown Phoenix and are part of a large complex of attractions known as Arizona Boardwalk. Some highlights of OdySea include touch pools containing Russian Sturgeon, and various types of stingrays as well as SeaTREK, a once-in-a-lifetime experience where guests can suit up and go in the water for a 25-minute dive with zebra shark as well as hundreds of other tropical fish.
Adjacent to OdySea is Butterfly Wonderland, one of the largest butterfly conservatories in North America. The conservatory contains over 70 different species of butterflies and is also home to dozens of colorful Koi fish, tropical finches, two chickens, and tree frogs.
Taliesin West – Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the most talented architects of all time. His winter home and studio, Taliesin West, is truly a site to be seen. Even the drive up to Taliesin West is testament to Wright’s creativity and eye for beauty. The home blends seamlessly into the surroundings and is a true masterpiece, worthy of being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Guests can take a self-guided audio tour of the sprawling grounds to see where Wright and his students created unique masterpieces.
Hot Air Ballooning – Ever since I was young, I’ve wanted to ride in a hot air balloon; and although I have been to Phoenix before, I just didn’t find the time to check this item off my bucket list. On this visit, I decided to take a sunset ride with Rainbow Ryders, but I was quite nervous being a mile up in a balloon. I was comforted after I discovered that Rainbow Ryders was founded in 1983 and has 40 balloons in their fleet. This isn’t a small operation, and I knew safety was one of the highest priorities. As guests gather in basket, I began to panic a bit. I have become increasingly anxious about any sort of flying. As the balloon slowly ascended, I began to become more comfortable and enjoyed the panoramic view of the desert and surrounding mountains. After about an hour traveling wherever the wind blew us, we landed safely and enjoyed a champagne toast as we watched the sun set over the mountains. The experience was one I won’t soon forget.
ARRIVE Hotel – One of Phoenix’s newest hotels, ARRIVE is a retro-chic property containing luxurious rooms, an ice-pop stand, swim club complete with fire pits galore, as well as an on-site coffee shop. Some of the rooms at the 79-room hotel contain private fire pits, in-room record players, luxury linens and large walk-in showers.
Lylo Swim Club is a destination in and of itself. The super trendy restaurant/pool contains a delicious menu of classics with a twist as well as some swanky cocktails. One item that really stood out on the menu were the Togarashi Fries prepared with crispy garlic, lemon mayo, jalapeño, and cilantro. I was a bit hesitant to try these at first, but after one bite, I knew I was in heaven. Chef Simon took an American classic, gave it a modern twist, and kicked it up about ten notches. Emeril Lagasse would be proud.
A visit to Phoenix is exactly what I needed; a bit of a mental escape from our COVID-19 world. The city will surely see an influx of visitors over the next few months, mostly those from colder locations looking for a warmer locale. If you travel in the near future, be sure to research local restrictions and travel safely.
Joey Amato is the publisher of Pride Journeys, an LGBTQ travel website and syndicated travel column. Please visit www.PrideJourneys.com for more info.