Eat and Play in Phoenix

The “Valley of the Sun” is enthusiastically wooing LGBT travelers

Few cities have grown faster and more dramatically in the past half-century than Phoenix, which in 2005 overtook Philadelphia to become the fifth most populous city in the nation. It’s also larger in area than Los Angeles and the hub of a metro region that includes several other fast-growing metropolises, including Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, and Glendale. But the “Valley of the Sun” is much more than a popular place to live – tourism here has taken off thanks to the bounty of lavish resorts, a cultural renaissance in downtown Phoenix, and some of the best shopping, dining, and recreational opportunities in the West. More recently, the region’s office of tourism has begun enthusiastically wooing LGBT travelers.

A highly contemporary metropolis surrounded by mountains and high desert, Phoenix is in many ways the last stronghold of the western frontier. The region is dogged by certain challenges prevalent in the West, such as rampant sprawl and sometimes oppressive smog. It’s also bone-dry here – only the Sahara is less humid than Phoenix’s Sonoran Desert. Most of the year, the weather is ideal for outdoor recreation, with winter highs in the mid-60s and spring and fall highs in the mid-80s. About the only period with blistering heat is summer, when daytime temperatures routinely climb into the low 100s (and many accommodations drop their rates precipitously).

In terms of gay-friendliness, Phoenix defies labels. This somewhat conservative capital city has long maintained strong Republican leanings, but some of the region’s most famous right-of-center politicians – including Sen. John McCain and the late Sen. Barry Goldwater – have expressed relatively accepting attitudes toward gays and lesbians. And somewhat surprisingly in 2006, this traditionally “red” state became the first in the nation to vote down a proposed ban on same-sex marriage. Phoenix has a highly visible LGBT community, and a huge number of queer bars, social organizations, and “family”-friendly eateries.

Visitors to this area have traditionally made a beeline for swanky Scottsdale, with its chichi hotels, lush golf courses, haute galleries, and sumptuous spas. However, Phoenix proper – which is home to most of the region’s LGBT bars and other businesses – has enjoyed a notable comeback of late, especially the once soulless downtown commercial center.

The action centers on Copper Square and its massively expanded convention center, plus dozens of trendy restaurants, high-end hotels, and fine performance venues. There are also a 24-screen cinema, several museums, and sports stadiums that host baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks and basketball’s Phoenix Suns. A cultural must is the outstanding Phoenix Art Museum, a dramatic green-quartz structure containing 19th-century European paintings, delightful artworks of the American West, and Abstract Expressionist masterworks. Two blocks north is the Heard Museum, a 1928 Spanish Colonial Revival hacienda containing the nation’s top collection of Native American art and artifacts.

Several peripheral residential neighborhoods have become gentrified of late, such as the Willo and Garfield Place historic districts. Of particular note is Roosevelt Row, a burgeoning mixed-use residential district that supports several excellent galleries as well as a wonderful bakery, Tammie Coe Cakes (stop in for a latte and a sweet treat or two). Speaking of baked goods, ardent pizza connoisseurs have been known to travel thousands of miles for a meal at Pizzeria Bianco, inside a historic building in the heart of the bustling Heritage Square section of downtown. Chef-owner Chris Bianco has been dubbed a pizza-making genius for his simply sensational wood-fired pies, including the Wiseguy (topped with roasted onion, house-smoked mozzarella, and fennel sausage). Just beware the long lines.

Vinophiles have taken a shine to Cheuvront Wine & Cheese Cafe, the brainchild of the city’s openly gay state senator, Ken Cheuvront. This happening place near the Phoenix Art Museum serves countless vintages by the glass and bottle as well as a long menu of stellar cheeses, salads, pizzas, and snacks. It’s a short walk down Central Avenue from here to reach the city’s premier gay bar, Amsterdam, an elegant lounge that’s part of a larger complex that includes Club Miami and Malibu Beach Bar. Other gay night spots within a short drive include the lesbian-favored Club Vibe, which replaced long-running Ain’t Nobody’s Biz and offers dancing, darts, and pool; the leather-and-Levi’s-oriented Phoenix Eagle; and the high-energy Karamba Nightclub. Gay two-steppers and country-western fans gather at Charlie’s, while fans of drag and karaoke get their fix at Burger Betty’s, an Aussie-themed gay restaurant and bar.

With all the snazzy new resorts that have opened in Scottsdale and other outlying cities, it’s easy to forget that Phoenix itself is home to a pair of aces: the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Arizona Biltmore, and the intimate, old-world Royal Palms, both of which opened in the late ’20s. The 40-acre Biltmore, with its gray, low-slung, angular buildings containing 738 guest rooms, lies in the shadows of Phoenix Mountain Reserve. There’s also fine golfing and an acclaimed spa. Set aside an evening to dine at Wright’s at the Biltmore, where such inventive regional American fare as milk-poached pork tenderloin with foie gras sauce draws fawning accolades. Many a diva whiles away a Saturday afternoon at the nearby Biltmore Fashion Park, strolling through high-end boutiques and snacking at trendy restaurants.

The genteel and cozier Royal Palms Resort and Spa could pass for a splendid private villa in Spain, with its fanciful stone paths meandering past fragrant gardens and citrus-tree-shrouded casitas decked in old-world antiques and tiles. The weekend brunch at T. Cook’s – best enjoyed on the sunny patio – is a Phoenix tradition, and the resort’s tranquil Alvadora Spa provides some of the most supremely relaxing treatments you can imagine, from Watsu water therapy to crystal-stone facials. Die-hard massage junkies should book one of the seven state-of-the-art spa suites.

In downtown Phoenix, the upscale Hyatt Regency Phoenix is within a short drive or walk of area bars, restaurants, shops, and museums. A less obvious pick is the funky, gay-friendly Hotel San Carlos, a grand if faded 121-room Italian Renaissance-style lodging that’s allegedly haunted (by friendly ghosts). It’s definitely seen better days, but for the price, it’s a good bet with a convenient, central location – especially if you prefer quirky over glamorous.

Nearby Scottsdale abounds with more recently built resorts, from the supremely cushy Sanctuary Camelback Mountain resort and swish Four Seasons Scottsdale, to the retro-chic Hotel Valley Ho. In Chandler, consider the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass, an attractive spread on the Gila River Indian Reservation, 20 miles southeast of downtown. The vibe here is low-keyed and unpretentious, thanks in part to the consistently genial employees. The much-lauded Kai restaurant and the transcendent Aji Spa remind you, however, that you’re staying at a truly splendid desert hideaway. An equestrian center offering trail rides and a campy ersatz frontier town called Rawhide (think stagecoach rides, goofy gift shops, and gunfightin’ reenactments) may help you to channel your inner cowgirl or -boy.

Greater Phoenix also has a handful of gay-oriented accommodations, which range from homey B&Bs to saucy clothing-optional retreats. A racier option is the Arizona Royal Villa, a nudity-permitted men’s compound with an impressively enticing pool, hot tub, and sunning area and rooms and suites in a variety of configurations. For $10, non-overnight guests can spend the day here swimming, tanning, and mingling with fellow sun-bunnies. It may lack the pizzazz of the Biltmore, but this frisky compound is the closest you’ll find in these parts to a Palm Springs-style gay resort.

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