A high desert retreat from the doldrums of winter
written by James Sinks
No one would blame you for glancing around the room for a Cheshire Cat.
It’s a magical world in this dimly lit subterranean speakeasy, where birds are chirping on the speakers, the barkeep is concocting craft cocktails amid greenery, and wall-to-wall video screens offer virtual panoramas of moonlit landscapes. And it’s happening in the most unlikely of places: Down an astroturf stairway in what was once the pit for an oil change shop, northeast of downtown Phoenix, Ariz.
On a recent afternoon, we made a reservation at 36 Below—a good idea because the place is tiny, at just 600 square feet—to see if the libations and decor lived up to the hype. We weren’t disappointed in either, especially the smokey whiskey one that arrived in a mock Faberge Egg.
The basement bar, hidden beneath what is now a bright coffee-and-beer pub on a nondescript busy boulevard, offers a stark contrast to the sun outside—and serves as a metaphor for what’s happening in parts of Phoenix nowadays. Built as a car-focused place, it’s morphing into something artsy, hip, and decidedly unexpected.
Of course, you can still expect to drive—a lot—in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun, the sprawling and fast-growing metropolis made up of Phoenix, Scottsdale, and several other interconnected cities, all in the shadow of striking desert panoramas like Camelback Mountain. Thanks to wintertime temperatures that hover near 70 and a bevy of hotels, spas, golf clubs and nightclubs, the valley offers an irresistible draw for frostbite escapees across the West.
And come February and March, like migrating Loons (and Mariners), visitors include professional baseball players and fans for the annual spring training Cactus League.
Given the comfortable weather, winter is the season to be outdoors. It’s a strenuous but rewarding hike to ascend Camelback, or you can prowl winding walkways amidst colorful cacti, critters and wildflowers at the Desert Botanical Garden, a 140-acre reserve with more than 50,000 different plants. Rather get your steps on the golf course? There are 200 of them scattered across the valley, catering to duffers with a range of handicaps and bank balances.
Hungry? Bacanora’s flavorful southwest cuisine won a coveted mention on the 2022 New York Times Restaurant List. CiBo serves up delicious craft pizzas in a bungalow. And if you like toe-tapping music and bar fare, head to the historic Rusty Spur Saloon, the oldest tavern in Scottsdale, where performers hit the stage daily.
Long ago, the Valley of the Sun was home to indigenous tribes who dug canals to irrigate crops. Centuries after that, the area was ceded to the United States when the Mexican American War ended in 1848, and soon after the city was established as a frost-free agricultural hub, with a name chosen because Phoenix rose from the ruins of an earlier civilization.
Southwest indigenous culture is in the spotlight at the Heard Museum, with expansive exhibits and a goal to be the world’s preeminent place for American Indian art. For other fun things indoors, don’t miss Butterfly Wonderland, where your inner child can marvel in a giant atrium as hundreds of the star attractions flutter overhead. And next door at the OdySea Aquarium, you can even see swimming sharks from the bathrooms.
Downtown, Phoenix is transforming into a walkable, art-filled entertainment hub. The Roosevelt Row district boasts galleries, restaurants, bars and boutiques, and outdoor murals around almost every corner. They cover an entire alleyway block in the 1½ Street Mural Project—perfect for Instagram backdrops. If it’s early in the day, get caffeinated at Fair Trade Coffee before you wander.
The art doesn’t stop when the sun goes down. At nearby Civic Park, an undulating aerial sculpture called “Her Secret is Patience” blushes colors into the night.
Even if you’re not staying there, duck into the Found Re: Phoenix boutique hotel, which has a gallery of kitchy art including an oversized painting of a lounging Burt Reynolds, plus a sofa where your sweetie can get a photo (without Burt) under a neon pink sign that announces, truthfully, “You’re like really pretty.”
And in case you haven’t found everything you’re looking for, down the street in the parking lot behind Gracie’s Tax Bar, there’s a mural of a grinning Cheshire Cat.
Fair Trade Coffee
Pa’La Wood-Fired Cooking
Rusty Spur Saloon
Bespoke Inn Scottsdale
Hotel San Carlos
Camelback Mountain trails
Desert Botanical Garden
Old Town Scottsdale
Roosevelt Row Arts District