Friday, April 27, 2012

A visit to Scottsdale and a whole lot of family fun

Our family trip to Scottsdale, Arizona can best be described as an insane amount of fun. There's good reason Travel & Leisure named Scottsdale one of the best warm-weather family adventure destinations. Before we went I did lots of research on stuff to do, and prayed for some stuff not to do (read: lounge by the pool).


The Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch is a 27-acre wonder framed by the McDowell mountain range. It's beautiful, family-friendly and conveniently located to cool stuff.

Let's start with the view from the lower lobby (this is not a postcard, I swear)

Our room, #3511. I think the kids would have been content if we roomed in a closet, they were so psyched to be there.  

The view from our room

Part of the 2.5 acre water playground, which has ten pools and a sand beach. Sabrina loved the three-story waterslide and would be quite pleased if we got one in our backyard, only we'd need a pool to go with it.

Look! No kids! Ahhhh, the adult-only pool

Sabrina tested out an outdoor bed and decided she'd like one in our backyard, too. I can't wait till she strikes it rich.

The Hyatt is home to the Native American Learning Center, a showcase for the land, art, language and culture of the Hopi, with cultural interpreters on hand to guide visitors and answer questions.

The hotel has a whole lot of activities—during our stay they offered a Kids' Tennis Clinic, face painting, Native American Dancers, aqua volleyball, S'mores by a campfire and a poolside movie screening. Somehow, I missed the high-intensity Boot Camp fitness class. There's also a kids camp that's open daily, Camp Hyatt Kachina; four tennis courts; jogging and bike trails; gondola rides and a 27-hole golf course.

At night, local bands played and we all liked to hang out and listen (as you may have heard, Max is now a groupie).

Another favorite spot (for me!): Spa Avania, an oasis with steam rooms, saunas, gardens and pools  ("avania" is Greek for tranquil). There's also a fully-equipped fitness center. Somehow, I missed it.

The spa treatments are geared toward the body's daily cycles: morning (awakening and revitalization); midday (restoration and balance) and evening (relaxation and renew). Not available: a treatment for pre-bedtime meltdowns, that other significant part of a parent's day. Guests can choose from 10 playlists. I went with Desert (flute music) for my Crushed Pearl Facial. I looked so glowy and blissful afterward, it's a wonder the kids even recognized me.


You need a car to get around the area, and also so the kids have a backseat to fight in. Favorite car games: Pull Each Other's Hair and Spot The Tallest Cactus. We had some interesting conversations on road trips, like this gem:

Sabrina: "If you love something, don't marry it."
Me: "WHAT?!!! Where did you hear that?"
Sabrina: "That's what my teacher told us!" 
Me: "WHAT?!!!"

A couple of nights Dave and I got out on our own; my friend Sara at Saving For Someday lives in the area and she introduced us to a wonderful high school junior, Melissa. God bless vacation babysitters!

Old Town, Scottsdale

On our first evening in Scottsdale we wandered around Old Town, a charming part of the downtown area complete with wooden sidewalks, hitching posts and eclectic clothing, specialty and gift stores.  There are free trolleys and if you're there on the second Saturday of the month, at 10:30 a.m. you can get a free tour through Ultimate Art & Cultural Tours.  

Sabrina, ready for a showdown 

We got sundaes at Sugar Bowl Ice-Cream Parlor & Restaurant, an old-fashioned soda fountain run by the same family since 1958. If you read The Family Circle comic strip growing up, you might recall that local Bil Keane occasionally mentioned it.

There's a game room in the back too, which makes it doubly hard to get kids out of this place!

Scottsdale is home to the first global museum of instruments, just two years old. It has 2500 instruments and artifacts from more than 200 counties on display. The wireless headsets every visitor gets automatically tune in to the videos mounted on the displays so you can hear the sounds of the Beijing Opera or drums in Cuba (the galleries are divided by continent). The Artist Gallery houses instruments from famous musicians including Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and the Black Eyed Peas. You can spend a good several hours here before the kids start to whine, and then you can bribe them with treats from the lovely café so they'll stay a bit longer. Not that I know any kids like that.

The piano on which John Lennon wrote Imagine

In MIM's Experience Gallery, where you can play guitars, gongs, drums and other stuff. The kids loved it. Nearby is a Family Center room filled with games for families in need of a break.  

The Mongolia display in the Asia gallery 

A mini train that rides around a park? Check. Trains to explore and model train displays to check out? Check. Antique carousel and play area? Check. Max heaven? CHECK!  

The Magma Arizona Railroad Engine No. 6, which served the mining railroads of Arizona for 54 years and not once did any passenger ever complain their wireless connection wasn't working.

Inside the restored Pullman car; Max said he wanted to sleep here.

At The Model Railroad Building, full of cool displays

The Hall of Flame Fire Museum, Phoenix

Like many kids, Max has a thing for fire engines. I didn't, until I visited this museum, the largest of its kind in the world. It is a humongous warehouse filled with 90 restored pieces of fire equipment dating from 1725 to 1969, including ones from England, France, Austria, Germany and Japan. There's also a National Firefighting Hall of Heroes, which honors firefighters who died in the line of duty or who have been decorated for heroism. Every visitor gets a binder that gives detailed information about each display.

Max chose the self-guided tour

  The fire alarm system that served Glendale, California from 1925 to 1970

Before there were headlights. Even if you and your firetruck-obssessed child never make it here, he'll enjoy checking out the website.

No trip for us is complete without hitting the local zoo. Phoenix's is home to more than 1300 animals, including 200 endangered or threatened species. There are four trails—Africa, Tropics, Children's and Arizona—and you can rent a pedal boat, splash in the fountains of The Leapin' Lagoon and hang in a petting zoo. Naturally, we went on the 25-minute narrated train ride.

At Stingray Bay

These baboons were more well-behaved than coworkers I've known.

Hitching a camel ride

My first encounter with a collared peccary.

Children's museums rarely disappoint, but the kids had a particularly good time roaming around this one (55,000 square feet big). It's filled with hands-on activities and exhibits that sneak in learning, too, including an Art Studio, a Pit Stop where kids can race cars on three levels of racetracks, a Place For Under Threes (dedicated to toddlers), even a Book Loft. There's a cute cafe on the premises but for lunch we wandered over to The Corner Bakery Cafe, located a few blocks away in The Arizona Center.  

I crawled through the entire Schuff-Perini climber with Sabrina; I had no idea my body could still hunch down like that. (In case you're wondering: Yes, Sabrina wore the same shirt for a good part of our vacation and who do you think I can call for a style intervention?)

Stones to draw on  

The Noodle Forest

Max spent a lot of time in The Market (Dave gave him a price break at checkout). Meanwhile, Sabrina and I spotted the Pedal Power area on the second floor—basically a car wash (Max is still obsessed with them). "Tear Max away from fake shopping and get him to the fake car wash!" I texted Dave.

Max was in joy overdrive.

I've never been on a safari, but this park—with hundreds of animals from around the world—seems like the next closest thing. Max loved the drive there, with its desert landscape; he thought we were in Radiator Springs from the Cars movies.

First we took the African Bush Safari bus tour

Yes, we were thisclose to Pilgrim the Giraffe 

Max's favorite animal

The sable antelope are considered dangerous, because of their horns, so you wouldn't want to bring them to your spa treatment

The Wildlife Preserve has over 40 big cats including tigers, leopards, lions, mountain lines and jaguar. There are also grizzly bears, hyena, javelina and wolves. 

This is how I feel a lot of days.

During The Tiger Splash show, tigers romp with caretakers, chase balloon creatures on sticks and jump into the pool. I asked one of the staffers there about the secret to befriending the animals. It's not about trust, he told me; it's about engaging with them as friends who play. Good life advice in general, eh?

The Giant Snake Show, where a group of lucky visitors got to hold Radiance the Python

Max made friends with her but, happily, did not want to take one home

Ever seen hyenas laughing? Me, either. Word, this does not mean they're happy—just excited, or feeling anxious or fearful.

Green Zebra Adventures tour of the Sonoran desert

One of the highlights of our trip: our two-hour exploration of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Reservation. The Green Zebra tour guide lead the way in his vehicle; Dave and I took turns driving driving a Tomcar, a high-performance military vehicle that absorbs shock amazingly well.  

The Verde River runs through it! 

At one point, we stopped at an overlook and hung out with two women from the Arizona Bald Eagle Management Program who were tracking a bald eagle couple and their new baby. FYI, the average nest is 3 feet wide by 5 feet long and 3 feet deep, and designed by Ikea (OK, not).  

 Max giggled the entire time we went over this rocky patch, thrill-seeker that he is.


Pinnacle Peak Patio, Scottsdale

This sprawling restaurant, more than 50 years old, serves mesquite-broiled steaks, chicken and baby back ribs with traditional cowboy fixings like corn on the cob, baked potatoes and Diet Pepsi.

Yes, those are ties hanging from the rafters. Pinnacle Peak Patio is emphatically casual and years ago, the owner cut off the tie of a patron. Ever since, anyone who shows up wearing a tie has it removed (I believe they use scissors, not a steak knife). 

Afterward, the kids ran up and down the ramp to burn off calories. Or maybe just because it was fun.

SWB, A Southwest Bistro, at The Hyatt Regency Scottsdale

Years from now, we will be able to trace Max's guacamole addiction to this source. It's made tableside by the waitress (and your kids, most likely) and it's delicious, as is the Roasted Pear Salad, Vegetable and Bean Stew, and Pan Seared Maple Glazed Salmon served with Granny Smith Apple relish. We came back twice more for dinner, it was that good.

We had a magical night at this steakhouse, and not just because Dave and I had a night to ourselves. The space is beautiful, with a contemporary interior with woody Southwest accents; the wine list, diverse, with interesting international selections; and the food, memorable. I'm just going to caution you to stop reading RIGHT NOW if you are at all hungry, as there is a good chance you might start nibbling on your computer screen.

 The restaurant, headed by acclaimed chef Michael Mina, has no bread basket to tempt you—just fries, a starter served to all guests with three varieties (paprika-dusted, truffle and herb-seasoned) and dipping sauces (truffle ketchup, smoked-onion aioli and homemade ketchup). Made in duck fat, the fries are particularly tasty and dangerous, even more so than a sharp-horned antelope.  

The view from the patio, where we sat. We started off with the Ahi Tuna Tartare with ancho chile, bosc pear and sesame oil, and the Avocado and Grapefruit Salad with smoked ricotta salata (I'm going to recreate this salad at home, the combo is really amazing). 

The steak—made over seasoned wood-fueled flames—was amazingly tender and tasty and the sides (White Cheddar Hashbrowns, Michael's Truffled Mac & Cheese and Sauteed Broccolini) sinfully good. Again, apologies for making you hungry.

The Maine Lobster Pot Pie with truffled cream and seasonal veggies. Your server unearths the lobster from beneath the pastry and reassembles it on the plate.Voila! Dave said it was delicious (I'm not a lobster eater).

The restaurant is into deconstructed foods, like this carrot cake with cream-cheese icing and creme fraiche sorbet.  

Other steakhouses are going to be downhill after our experience here. But we won't be getting to them anytime soon, because two weeks later I'm still full.

This restaurant has some of the best Mexican food I've ever had. It's gourmet, but not overly fancy—just super-fresh and exceptionally enjoyable. I had the Smoked Chicken Enchilada with salsa verde and chipotle crema; Dave had the Mahi-Mahi with Chirmol and is still raving about it. Sabrina was into the corn chowder and the hand-made tamales, one green corn and one black bean. And guess what Max had? Yep: two bowlfuls of guacamole.

On our second kid-free night out, we headed to T Cook's. Originally a private mansion, the Royal Palms was built in 1929 and still feels very intimate.

We ate in the quiet, flower-filled patio that had a view of Camelback Mountain. It was a crisp night, and heaters kept us warm—so romantic. Kids? What kids?

We started with the Antipasto Platter with house-cured meats, pickled vegetables and Artisan cheeses. All of our food was beautifully presented.

A sumptuous piece of salmon

Chocolate Decadence. It felt like a shame to eat such a work of art but we got past that, fast.  

If you're planning a visit to Scottsdale, you can get a free visitors guide at Experience Scottsdale or call 800-782-1117. If you'll be there in the summer, check out 100 Days, 100 Ways to Save, a list of discounted and free activities and restaurants.

One of the first things I did after we got home? Buy a mortar and a pestle, of course.

Images: Sugar Bowl, Patricia Drury and dbz885; bald eagle, vai_boy

Disclosure: I received some discounted and complimentary meals, services and tickets, but the opinions expressed here are my own. 


  1. You all look so happy! Wesley would love those pools and that outdoor bed. Now if I could only figure out how to keep him from running away, (and sleeping without a bed tent) I'd be all over this :)

  2. Looks like a fabulous vacation! So glad it went so well.

  3. Love Max eating his guacamole! Totally adorable!

  4. Loved reading your trip report, I'm living vicariously through your vacation. Great pictures! The ones of Max eating guac inspired me to make some for lunch today.My kids would love the musical instrument museum (OK, so would I). Thanks for sharing.
    Erica (the fellow B'deis alumna)

  5. awesome just happened along your blog and am really neice has severe cerebral palsy so i love reading blogs that include others living with a special needs child in their life. ive wanted to start one of my own but dont really know where to start also i was wondering if you had any suggestion of where our family could get an ipad funded from monica(thats our babyB-) is a kindergarnder shecis non vocal and had an ipad with a speech assistant program however someone at her school stole it .....and now the school is refusing to replace it or even baby is frustrated and unable to communicate right now because of a selfish person.....i would love to buy her one right now but im just not ablevmy sister(monicas mom) has three other girls and cannot afford another one either if you know anybody that can help us please email me at

  6. Fabulous! Love the report.

  7. I am officially green with envy!!!!!! I have a little feller who would go crazy for those trains, too!

  8. Heaven! I am putting all of these places on my bucket list - and luckily I have connections to somebody in Arizona!

    My dad would go bonkers at the Railroad Park. He's totally into trains both big and small. In fact, my mother and I could leave him there and go on to other things and he'd surely never notice we'd left...

  9. O my! Soo beautiful! I have to admit... I quite jealous of Max! ... I LOVE guacamole!

  10. Ellyn, so glad you enjoyed your trip out here! I have no idea, how I forgot to mention the "Car wash" at the Children's Museum ... Renzo's Fav. place. Glad you liked the MIM too ... my hubby put in the atlas that is on one of the floors!

  11. I live in Scottsdale! We are from NY, I moved here when I was 12. One of our all time favorite activities is hailing the trolley outside our house and being dropped off just a few blocks from the Sugar Bowl. What a nice post about this beautiful city!


Thanks for sharing!

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