A Family-Friendly Phoenix Road Trip. Part One: Family Fun at Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs
In pursuit of her kind of wellness-themed vacation, chef and restaurateur Valerie Gordon takes her family on the road, checks out the best of Phoenix, and checks into two of Hilton’s top hotels. Part one features Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs.
What is “wellness”? When I started planning a family trip for the end of the summer, that was the question I asked myself. I wanted an experience that was more than just a getaway, but that was also somehow a recovery, that considered our well-being, and that gave us a much needed collective reset. It got me thinking about this all-encompassing word we see so often. While “wellness” makes you consider dieting or exercise (or, I don’t know…vitamin powders?) to me it means so much more. Yes to activity, moving around, and plenty of sun, yes to avoiding over-indulgence, getting more rest, and unplugging as much as possible. But in today’s climate, with two kids and almost two years of COVID, maybe the lynchpin of wellness is simply fun.
For my family of four—my husband Stan and our kids August and GeeGee—fun is generally food-based, with a variety of activities thrown in. I love enormous swimming pools, cocktails, and a stack of periodicals, and the kids can spend weeks on end swimming and splashing. We were not quite ready for a plane trip and opted for a road trip that would fortify our desire to indulge in delicious food, play in the sun, and take some restorative moments, after the longest 18 months of our lives.
So we packed up the car and headed east to Phoenix in search of the desert vibes I know to be so powerful and restorative. It’s the wide open sky and desert stillness that draw me in the most. Joshua Tree, Santa Fe, Montana—these are the areas I run to when I yearn for that feeling of freedom. And after my recent wellness trip, Arizona is quickly moving to the top of that list. The plan was: Find that wide-open sky, eat that incredible food, try new activities, and maximize the relaxation in opulent and restorative surroundings that would allow the adults to do their adulting and the kids to do their swimming and splashing—and, it turned out, so much more. As luck would have it, an opportunity to partner with Sunset and Hilton arose during the planning stage of this trip, allowing for a two-hotel stay that really felt like the perfect combination of all our vacation dreams.
I should note that after years of short-term vacation rentals, we were ready to be in hotels and treat ourselves. Truly, we’ve done enough dishes and made too many beds; this is vacation after all, and we wanted to feel a little more taken care of. We opted to divide the trip between two Hilton properties, Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort, a family-friendly option with plenty to keep us all engaged, and something more geared to the grown-ups, but with some kid-friendly perks on the menu: the legendary Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf Astoria Resort.
Fun fact: Phoenix is closer to Los Angeles than San Francisco. You get on the 10 (which everyone in Arizona just calls “10”, for some reason), go east, and that’s pretty much it. The route is insanely simple and the view is intoxicating, all expansive mountain ranges and wide-open sky, and yet, somehow, the view keeps shifting and morphing, keeping you engaged, which makes it an easy drive.
But First, Pizza
We landed at Pizzeria Bianco, the original location in downtown Phoenix, just as the sun was setting on the horizon, but while the fire was still raging in the pizza oven.
The food is delicious, in the most fundamental sense of the word. We were ravenous upon arrival, not just from the drive, but from years of Pizzeria Bianco lore. When you get a taste of their Spiedini—prosciutto-wrapped fontina, crisped in the wood-fired oven, on simply-dressed arugula, you understand why it’s a destination.
And then you get your first bite of that perfectly charred pizza crust, and you understand why it’s iconic. This restaurant hugs you on every level. Of course, Chris Bianco is a superstar, but the superstar of our visit was Jess, the lady with the cheerful voice and Arizona tattoo on her forearm, who graciously choreographed the room.
She was the first tour guide on our Phoenix excursion, without leaving the bar, generous enough to supply us with her LIST, written on thermal paper from the cash register. She also shared her opinions on my list, separating the must-visits and the if-you-have-times, with wit and discernment. Major travel tip: The locals are everything, always. Find your Jess, let her guide you. When I visit a city, I love chatting up the folks behind the bar, or the counter, as these folks are the gravy of the service industry, and the champions of delicious experiences.
Desert Bliss Begins
After our Bianco feast, we had a quick drive to the hotel and an evening check-in. Hilton has implemented a CleanStay program across all properties, which was reassuring as we were settling in, knowing that the rooms (and touchpoints throughout our stay) would be fully and regularly sanitized. After a day of travel, we were ready to sleep, and the peace-of-mind—and cozy bed—had us all out quickly.
We woke early to start exploring the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort, as seen on IG, an impressive and rambling property that feels like both family resort and nature retreat. It is bordered on the west by the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, and Lookout Mountain Golf to the North, but the three are so intertwined that it feels like they’re all the same property. On morning number one, Stan and I opted to launch into #nature, setting off on foot towards the mountains just across the street from the resort.
It’s connected via a short tunnel, so we moved seamlessly from our room, to the natural areas of the resort, to the sprawling preserve, North Mountain Park, interrupted only by the occasional mountain biker or jack rabbit. The intermediate 3.1 mile trail felt just our speed, and halfway through I indulged in a lengthy pause on a mountainside, to take in the magnificent view.
Just 12 hours into our Phoenix journey, and all our cravings were being fulfilled. The park is friendly to all levels of hiker, with a number of well-marked trails including elevation hikes, distance hikes, and alternate routes for mountain bikers, along with a visitor center for those who want more on the history of the area (or a bottle of water). When we got back to our room, we were inspired and exhausted in equal measure. With options that were both easy to navigate and challenging physically, and with paths both paved or in the wild, Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs’ easy access to North Mountain Park is reason enough to return.
We Do Like Piña Coladas
Let’s talk about piña coladas. There’s a renaissance afoot, my friends, and it’s super important we all get on board. I declare there is no beverage that better defines the full vacation sensation than the piña colada, and after our hike, we were really ready to go full-vacation mode.
Ridiculously restorative with its creamy coconut, fun hits of pineapple acid, and the warming underbelly of rum (unless it’s for the kids!), it takes me to a place of absolute joy. Right there in our darling poolside cabana at Tapatio Cliffs, I entered the vacation zone as I slowly sipped my fortifying wellness beverage. Twice.
Partially inspired by my piña colada glow, I joined the kids in the massive pool slide, The Falls Plunge, an incredible 138-foot rock-enclosed waterslide, and met all their new best friends. The main pool vibe at the Tapatio Cliffs feels easy, happy, like a multi-family vacation, the kids all instantly familiar with each other, everyone sliding and splashing, or getting Zen under the waterfalls, and impromptu games of water volleyball and catch breaking out among whoever was at hand.
I like a geometric sport—ping-pong, pool, tennis, anything where you have to visualize the point of impact against a ball, and see the angle that will jettison the ball to its desired location to keep the game moving. It makes me feel like sophomore year wasn’t a complete waste of time, and I have secured that information in my brain in a way that has improved my life. So why not golf? My 14-year-old son, August, expressed a desire to learn more about golf, so we were all in for a family activity. We made a quick call to the hotel concierge who arranged it all for us, including providing clubs for the day, which were waiting for us on the range.
The adjacent Lookout Mountain Golf Club is spectacular, and with the pro shop (and golf carts!) on the resort property, it’s a seamless part of the experience. The 18-hole course stretches farther than the eye can see, with vistas across the whole city. Our instructor, Jeff, was an absolute doll. He kept all four of us attentive and taught us the basics of the clubs, stance, and swings, and the nuances of golf etiquette.
The shocker in this activity was my husband Stan. We have done so many sports on trips, from snorkeling to tennis and everything in between, but this was our first time on the green (see, we’re experts now!), though it will not be our last. Stan was so authoritative and deft with his golf stroke—this is one of the great things about vacation: You get to explore new things and discover new talents. After our lesson, Jeff invited us to a tour of the entire course, and we spent 45 minutes in golf carts winding over the hills, and through the tees.
Every hole is beautiful, but the star is undoubtedly Picturesque Pointe, the tee on the 10th hole, the highest and grandest in Phoenix. It was really incredible to have access to this vantage point directly from Tapatio Cliffs property.
Ready, Set, Sunset
There’s something about a beautiful sunset that makes the travel experience complete, the perfect end to a perfect day, and a truly exceptional one demands that you pause. On our last night at Tapatio Cliffs, we were treated to a sunset of indescribable majesty. On the patio outside Different Pointe of View, the primary restaurant on-site at Tapatio Cliffs, the sky was already stunning, but as the sun sank lower behind the clouds, you could tell something special was about to happen, and then the last rays of the day lit up the darkening sky like a klieg light, for a sunset like we’d never seen. It was the perfect end to the day, our last at the resort, and one of the wonders of Arizona.
After relishing the sunset, and a classic Negroni, we walked into the foyer of the restaurant and my daughter whispered, “oh, Mommy this is fancy.”
The restaurant gives you that feeling of a “night out”, and our server, Ian, in his 16th year at the establishment and wearing those years with pride, shares his expertise on the wine list, menu, and the establishment as a whole. Ian was a fantastic chaperone to a great night of California-Mediterranean food, with that sunset permanently etched in our minds.
Every city we visit is met with a day of “checking it out.” I love cruising around an unfamiliar city in search of regional trends, architectural gems, street art, and of course food. As sprawling as Phoenix is, there were many options to explore that were a quick drive from the hotel. So we packed up and headed out for a day of exploration. Jess’ list came in handy on our primary tourist day, and so did the advice of Chris Lingua, owner of an incredible natural wine store, Sauvage, set inside The Churchill, a small courtyard-style complex filled with deftly curated local businesses, made entirely from repurposed shipping containers, in the popping Roosevelt Arts District of Downtown Phoenix.
Sauvage is a must-visit on my growing list of places to see in Phoenix; their wall of wine is a genius use of space in the narrow, cozy shop.
Downtown Phoenix, a collection of 14 vibrant districts, is clearly in the middle of massive growth, as new towers rise to mix with the old, much of it blanketed by the work of incredible street artists, like Tato Caraveo, who created the mural we found around the corner from Sauvage. Much of the local art is commissioned by the city of Phoenix, and it succeeds in creating an incredible sense of place in the area.
When it’s time for a sun break, we made our way over to the Phoenix Art Museum. The timeliness of the exhibits by fashion designer Rudi Gernreich and photographer Marion Pulfi felt sensitive and inspired. It’s possible my effervescent response to the museum was fueled by the fact that I had not seen real live art in 18 months, but good lord, was I smitten with PHXArt.
We found ourselves peckish after the art influx, and happy hour is a great way to feed the family, with everyone sharing bar bites instead of a big dinner. We quickly found an exceptional one at Chantico, a welcoming, modern Mexican restaurant that uses locally grown produce.
The airy, skylit dining room flows to a covered patio, bringing the outside right into the room. Incredible cocktails, fresh oysters, flautas, guacamole and chips, a table filled with delicious fare—at a discount—is something most traveling parents will appreciate. Refueled and rejuvenated, we headed off to the second stay of our trip, the legendary Arizona Biltmore.
The adventure continues! Read Part 2 of Valerie Gordon’s Phoenix road trip here.