Scottsdale's new day

Elegant shops, art walks, nightlife, and fancy hotels: This Arizona downtown is now anything but dusty

Nora Burba Trulsson

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Our hike up Cholla Trail to the peak of Camelback Mountain isn't really about exercise ― although that last heart- pumping stretch, a scramble up granite boulders, surely burns a million calories. Instead, my husband and I are seeking a little yin to the yang of downtown Scottsdale, radiating below us to the southeast, where we've just spent a dizzying long weekend, sampling all sorts of excitement in the once-sleepy suburb.

Lulled by sunny March days and balmy nights, we have grazed our way through swank eateries, sipped one too many ­cocktails, nearly maxed out our credit cards, and gazed at inspiring art. And we even managed to stay up waaaay past our bedtime at the pulsating nightclubs for which Scottsdale is quickly becoming known. Our hike, then, is atonement for urban excess.

But who could blame us for getting caught up in downtown's new temptations? Bristling with cranes and construction fencing, the city's center has seemingly reinvented itself overnight as a sophisticated destination and a large, floating party scene, complete with fashionable hotels, pricey boutiques, and restaurants that alone are worth a trip. More than $2 billion is being sunk into the 2-square-mile area roughly centered on Scottsdale and Camelback Roads ― and it shows.

Retro swank reborn

Our time in Scottsdale starts innocently enough. We establish base camp at Hotel Valley Ho, itself a reinvention story. The circa 1956 garden-style motel had the bulldozers circling until new ownership transformed it into a paradigm of midcentury cool, outfitted with a see-and-be-seen bar and olive-shaped pool, spa, and two retro-chic restaurants, Café ZuZu and the ubiquitous Trader Vic's.

We kick back in the lobby's multicolored chairs and people-watch; passersby are so stylish that they look like they've stepped off a Hollywood movie set.

We slink around the serpentine bar and toast legendary actors Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, who had their wedding reception here not long after Hotel Valley Ho originally opened. And then we retire to the pool, the sparkling centerpiece of the hotel, for some serious lolling.

We could easily spend hours lounging in our shaded cabana, summoning froufrou cocktails and snacks from the Oh Pool Bar, but downtown beckons. As does the San Francisco Giants' spring ­training, which is always a major tourist draw this time of year. So, as stereotypical as it sounds, my husband splurges for a $15 bleacher seat ― and I follow retail's siren call.

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I leave no stone unturned at the new Scottsdale Waterfront, where locally owned shops mix with all the big names. I hit Estilo for a flirty wrap dress, and Mahsa for matching sandals. Next, I saunter over to Haus, which is kitty-corner to Scottsdale Fashion Square mall, for a peek at vintage furnishings and Jonathan Adler vases. And then I move on, across the canal that bisects downtown, to check out Fifth Avenue, where the dusty, old turquoise-jewelry and souvenir stands share space with chic boutiques selling everything from custom handbags to herbal cosmetics.

My credit card's beginning to come out at warp speed. I call it quits and reunite with my husband for a glass of Chardonnay at the grottolike Kazimierz World Wine Bar, which, along with Sea Saw and Cowboy Ciao, makes up a troika of trendy (and really good) downtown eateries owned by restaurateur Peter Kasperski. We move on to Olive & Ivy Restaurant & Marketplace ― a darling new spot on the Scottsdale Waterfront ― for delicate veal-stuffed ravioli and olive oil-poached salmon, followed by much-needed espresso, as good as any we'd find in Italy.

After all, it's a Thursday night. Which, in downtown Scottsdale, means ArtWalk: an always-hopping scene, with galleries along Main Street and Marshall Way staying open late with new shows, live tunes, and plastic cups brimming with complimentary wine. Swept up in the sidewalk throng, we wander in and out of galleries; at Chiaroscuro, we walk through an other-worldly installation, and we ogle oversize watercolors at Duley-Jones Gallery.

We follow the tide down the street to SMoCA Nights, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's thriving intellectual nightlife hybrid: part club scene, part art event, staged three times a year. Until midnight, cocktails flow, DJs spin, artists paint, and models sashay down catwalks.

Invigorated by the natural energy of the evening ― or perhaps the caffeine ― we soon find ourselves at Axis/Radius, one of about 20 nightclubs within a mile-wide area. Techno and top 40 music pulses as dancers swarm Radius's illuminated floor; we cross the glass walkway over to Axis and take in the scene from a cozy booth. Needless to say, we sleep in the next day.

Once atop Camelback Mountain's boulders, taking in that phenomenal view, we reflect on our whirlwind weekend ― and plot our return visit. Next time, we'll try the W Scottsdale Hotel, which is opening later this year. And, by early summer, SouthBridge, a collection of locally owned restaurants and shops, will debut on the canal's south bank. Give us another shot or two of espresso, and we'll be back. Soon.


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