When I used to think of the desert, images of hot, dry, desolate stretches of land came to mind, with nothing but scorpions and cactus to break the monotony. But our recent trip to Phoenix and its neighbouring suburbs Mesa and Scottsdale has put those stereotypes to bed – for good!
Amidst the uninhabited stretches of land in the Sonoran desert surrounding the greater Phoenix area, rests a mecca of outdoor and indoor activities for parents and kids alike. With the temperatures hitting a comfortable 20-25°C throughout November to February, it’s also an ideal way to beat the winter chill. Plus, I have a whole new appreciation for cactus: the area’s native saguaro can grow an impressive 60 feet tall over 200 years and weigh up to 4,800 pounds when it’s fully hydrated!
See the sunrise from a hot air balloon. It’s worth waking up at 5 a.m. to get a bird’s eye view of the Phoenix landscape. Most tours will provide pick up and drop off from your hotel. Our tour, Hot Air Expeditions, even had a catered outdoor breakfast waiting for us when we landed. Recommended for children over age eight.
Be a cowboy for a day with a horseback ride through the desert. Fort McDowell Adventures provides leisurely, kid-friendly horseback riding trails with real cowboys leading the way. Located in a 25,000-acre Indian reserve, just minutes from Mesa, the two-hour trail took our posse through the Verde River, which was far less scary than I’d anticipated. There are also hay wagon rides available for the younger set.
Try paddle boarding on one of several rivers and lakes running throughout the desert. We tried this water sport for the first time on the Salt River within the Tonto National Forest near Mesa. Our board rentals and an introductory lesson was provided by No Snow Paddleboard Shop, whose owners are Canadian expats. Our enthusiastic and patient guide got us quickly standing on our boards, even as beginners. It was exhilarating!
Cozy up to the prickly plants at the Desert Botanical Garden, a living museum featuring more than 50,000 desert plants and five well-mapped walking trails. Check the website for a host of activities geared to kids, such as butterfly walks, storytelling and concerts. www.Dbg.org
Have some indoor fun at LEGOLAND Discovery Centre. Geared to three- to 10-year-olds, it features all of Arizona’s iconic buildings and attractions made from LEGO bricks. There’s also a large “soft play” area and a 4D cinema.
Get pampered at one of several area spas, considered among the best in the U.S. We tried the one at Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch and were not disappointed. A tranquil oasis for parents, it features an outdoor heated mineral pool and rain showers, as well as a Himalayan Salt Room, where you can inhale micronized salt air particles to boost your immune system and enhance your breathing. While mom and dad are getting buffed and exfoliated, kids can play at the resort’s 2.5-acre water playground, complete with gondola rides, a sandy beach and a three-storey, high-speed waterslide. There’s also a daily camp for kids aged three to 12.
Indulge your taste buds with Mexican-inspired flavours at one of many family friendly eateries and cafes throughout the greater Phoenix area. We had a delicious dinner at the long-time regional chain called Macayo’s, whose owner claims to have invented the chimichanga.
Teach your kids about farm-to-table at Agritopia, a residential development where a working farm is the central focus and visitors can get a first-hand look at how real food is produced. Opt for lunch at Joe’s Farm Grill on-site, which serves fast food options (burgers, fries, pizza and salads) using fresh, local ingredients.