Winter Vacations in Phoenix, Arizona

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Modest hotels, discount sports, soothing pools, and tribal history

The blazing Phoenix sun, shimmering nonstop day after day, is guaranteed to bake winter's chill out of your bones. Splash in the pool. Chase a golf ball. Take in a preseason baseball game. Tackle a desert hike. Sounds great, doesn't it? No wonder the city has become the annual refuge of choice for flocks of northerners-they call them "snowbirds" down in Arizona-fleeing the icy blasts of home. And you can savor the welcome warmth-and the fun-at surprisingly affordable prices. Check into an attractive resortlike motel for under $100 a night for two. Dine on hearty chili-flavored dishes for no more than $12 per person. Of course, there's no way 18 holes of golf can be called a budget sport. But if you're eager to play, a couple of well- regarded courses keep their rates in close proximity to budget territory. Best yet, tickets begin at just $4 to see the seven major-league baseball teams that train in Phoenix.

What's more, if you stay for at least seven days, many hotels and motels offer a reduced weekly rate. AAA and AARP cards cut costs big here, too. February and March, when the largest crowds show up, are the most expensive months. January and April, still inviting times to go, come slightly cheaper. At least three discount airlines-Southwest, ATA, and Frontier-fly here.

Curiously enough, I've never thought of Phoenix, which is ranked as America's sixth largest city, in terms of urban pastimes, although it boasts excellent museums. As a frequent visitor, I see it more as a vast outdoor playground spread across the Sonoran Desert. Maybe it's because the winter weather-dry, mild, and sunny-is so invigorating I spend most of my time outdoors, as do the local folks; officials boast of over 200 golf courses.

Winter play

So how would you fill up a budget-priced week in Phoenix?

Day 1 Spend the first day soaking up the sun by the pool, usually heated for winter's occasional nippy day. This is what you dreamed about as you slogged to work on those gray, drizzly days back at home. In summer, the Phoenix sun can scorch; in winter it caresses.

Day 2 Visit the unique nonprofit attractions that will introduce you to the city's natural and cultural heritage. Entrance fees are modest.

A favorite of mine is the Desert Botanical Garden (480/941-1225), one of the world's largest outdoor collections of desert plants. Meandering trails provide an introduction to the exotic cacti of the region, many of which flower in winter. Adult admission is $7.50, but promotional handouts distributed at tourist spots offer a discount.

Nearby, Pueblo Grande Museum (602/495-0901) is an outdoor archaeological park, chronicling the life of the Hohokam people, who farmed the Phoenix area from the first to the fifteenth centuries. A huge adobe platform mound topped with small rooms, perhaps used for ceremonial purposes, and a large ball court are part of the still-preserved ruins. In their day, the Hohokam mastered the technique of irrigation, digging hundreds of miles of canals. The Arizona desert is farmed much the same way today. Adults, $2; everyone free on Sunday.

I always check the events calendar in local newspapers to see if any of the nearby tribes is holding a powwow, lively carnival-like events for which a minimal fee may be charged. Awhile back, I caught one at the neighboring Salt River Indian Reservation, home to the Pima and Maricopa tribes. Dozens of ornately costumed dancers performed to live drumming on the reservation's ball field. The most exciting and athletic are the "fancy dances," in which male competitors are permitted to embellish traditional steps, each trying to outdo the other. In the background, Indian vendors set up food, crafts, and handmade- jewelry stalls. Almost everyone (me, too) seemed to be nibbling on Pima fry bread topped with beans and cheese ($3).

Save a couple of hours for a visit to the Heard Museum (602/252-8848), generally regarded as housing the finest collection of southwestern tribal art and artifacts anywhere. The display of hand-carved Hopi kachina dolls, traditional as well as modern, is especially good. A half hour spent here offers a basic lesson in what to look for if you go shopping for a kachina of your own in the many crafts shops in Old Town Scottsdale, a suburb. Adults $7.

Day 3 After the lessons, spend your third day at recess. At no cost, except to your muscles, climb to the summit of famed Camelback Mountain, the big, brown rock that is an easily spotted landmark from almost anywhere. A 1.16-mile trail (one way) begins at Echo Canyon Park just off McDonald Drive. Rated strenuous, the well-marked trail ascends to Camelback's 2,704-foot peak for a grand 360-degree desert view.

The more costly option is golf. Many Phoenix courses charge as much as $200 per person or more for winter play. But at the well-maintained Scottsdale Silverado Golf Club (480/778-0100), conveniently located to most of the lodging I describe below, the rate is $64 per person weekdays/$74 weekends, including cart. Camelback is the backdrop; a desert lake all but rings the 18th hole. On the distant north edge of town, the 500 Club (623/492-9500) charges $50 weekdays/$60 weekends.

Day 4 Hop in the car for a day trip 85 miles north to Sedona, a resort town tucked at the base of a spectacular array of giant red rocks soaring above. Drive or, for best effect, hike among the rock formations. Just outside Sedona, stop for an hour at Montezuma Castle National Monument, a canyon park that preserves a 20-room cliff dwelling dating back to the twelfth century. An easy trail threads the narrow, tree-shaded gorge to the ruin. Adults $3.

Day 5 Back in Phoenix, relax on the fifth day at a budget-priced major-league baseball game (spring-training version). Phoenix is the preseason camp for seven teams forming part of the Cactus League: the Anaheim Angels, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, and Seattle Mariners. In March, you can watch your favorites almost daily in small, up-close ballparks for as little as $4 for a seat in the grass near the outfield and up to $15 for a box seat. For the schedule, contact 800/283-6372, mesacvb.com.

Days 6 & 7 End your week at the pool, souvenir shopping (if you're careful, tribal crafts make a good buy), or trying any of the other Phoenix adventures that will tempt you. Maybe it's a visit to the Las Vegas-style casino (800/843-3678) at Fort McDowell, the Mohave-Apache Indian reservation just east of the city.

Where to stay and eat

Phoenix sprawls, which means you need a car to get from your hotel or motel to anywhere. Bite the bullet and forget public buses. On the Internet, the lowest weekly rental rate I could find was quoted by Dollar (800/800-4000, dollar.com) at $130. Next lowest is Advantage (800/777-5500, arac.com) at $159 for a compact car with unlimited mileage.

Top choices for attractive resortlike motel lodgings at a budget price are the city's three InnSuites (800/842-4242). Each of the chain's three local properties looks well kept and inviting. The best-located is the 116-room Scottsdale El Dorado Park, and the runner- up is the 109-room Best Western InnSuites Phoenix. The 170-room Tempe/Phoenix Airport, the third of the Inn Suites, suffers a bit from a busier location close to I-10. Peak- season rates at each vary somewhat, but the nightly charge is about $80 to $100 per room. If you stay seven days, the rate drops to $50 to $75 a night. Better yet, the price includes daily buffet breakfast, a nightly social hour with complimentary beer and wine, and a no- charge Wednesday-night poolside burger barbecue. All three are close to a choice of inexpensive restaurants. At the Tempe location, Claim Jumper (480/831-8200) features a sizzling chicken fajita plate for $12.95. Near the Scottsdale property, Hometown Buffet (480/946-7544) promises an all-you-can-eat buffet with barbecued ribs on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at just $8.19 for adults.

Other similarly inviting accommodations (all centrally located) include the new 129- room Wellesley Inn & Suites in the Park Central Mall (800/444-8888), starting at $99 per night or $90 per night for a week's stay; the spiffy 167-room Days Inn Scottsdale Fashion Square (800/329-7466), $104; the nearby 92-room Scottsdale Econo Lodge (480/994- 9461), $109 but open to bargaining; the lovely 105-room Sierra Suites Hotel Scottsdale (800/474-3772), $124; the well-located 122-room Scottsdale Motel 6 (480/946-2280), starting at $69 per night, and the 166-room Red Roof Inn Camelback (602/264-9290), $59. Outside the city, prices drop. In suburban Chandler, stay at the 127-room Red Roof Inn (480/857-4969) for $55.

In Phoenix do as the locals do and dine on inexpensive Mexican food. A favorite is bustling Garcia's (480/367-0220), which has five local outlets. Garcia's offbeat southwestern fish-taco plate is $8.99. In business for more than 50 years, Macayo's (602/264-6141, nine locations), another south-of-the-border standout, features chimichangas at $7.50. Too hot for your taste? A meal at Scottsdale's Village Inn (480/513-8375) will seem just like home. Go for the country meat-loaf plate, an easy $7.29. One night, treat yourself to dinner with live country-and-western music at the hokey but fun Rawhide Steak House (480/502-5600), Scottsdale's 160-acre Wild West theme park. Budget travelers will order the fried-chicken plate at $14.99.

All the prices I've quoted are for the high season of winter. Which suggests one last thought: Summer temperatures soar, but humidity is fairly low and the heat, so I've learned, is surprisingly bearable. To see Phoenix at its cheapest (far below the levels we've cited in this article), go in summer when lodging and golf rates plummet. Just remember to pack a water bottle and a wide-brim hat.

Information: Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau (877/225-5749, phoenixcvb.com).

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