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

Nora Burba Trulsson

Scottsdale travel planner: where to go, stay, eat, and more »

Our hike up Cholla Trail to the peak of Camelback Mountain isn'treally about exercise ― although that last heart- pumpingstretch, a scramble up granite boulders, surely burns a millioncalories. Instead, my husband and I are seeking a little yin to theyang of downtown Scottsdale, radiating below us to the southeast,where we've just spent a dizzying long weekend, sampling all sortsof excitement in the once-sleepy suburb.

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

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

Retro swank reborn

Our time in Scottsdale starts innocently enough. We establishbase camp at Hotel Valley Ho, itself a reinvention story. The circa1956 garden-style motel had the bulldozers circling until newownership 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 ubiquitousTrader Vic's.

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

We slink around the serpentine bar and toast legendary actorsRobert Wagner and Natalie Wood, who had their wedding receptionhere not long after Hotel Valley Ho originally opened. And then weretire to the pool, the sparkling centerpiece of the hotel, forsome serious lolling.

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

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

My credit card's beginning to come out at warp speed. I call itquits and reunite with my husband for a glass of Chardonnay at thegrottolike Kazimierz World Wine Bar, which, along with Sea Saw andCowboy Ciao, makes up a troika of trendy (and really good) downtowneateries owned by restaurateur Peter Kasperski. We move on to Olive& Ivy Restaurant & Marketplace ― a darling new spoton the Scottsdale Waterfront ― for delicate veal-stuffedravioli and olive oil-poached salmon, followed by much-neededespresso, 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 MainStreet and Marshall Way staying open late with new shows, livetunes, and plastic cups brimming with complimentary wine. Swept upin the sidewalk throng, we wander in and out of galleries; atChiaroscuro, we walk through an other-worldly installation, and weogle oversize watercolors at Duley-Jones Gallery.

We follow the tide down the street to SMoCA Nights, theScottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's thriving intellectualnightlife hybrid: part club scene, part art event, staged threetimes a year. Until midnight, cocktails flow, DJs spin, artistspaint, and models sashay down catwalks.

Invigorated by the natural energy of the evening ― orperhaps the caffeine ― we soon find ourselves at Axis/Radius,one of about 20 nightclubs within a mile-wide area. Techno and top40 music pulses as dancers swarm Radius's illuminated floor; wecross the glass walkway over to Axis and take in the scene from acozy booth. Needless to say, we sleep in the next day.

Once atop Camelback Mountain's boulders, taking in thatphenomenal view, we reflect on our whirlwind weekend ― andplot 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 twoof espresso, and we'll be back. Soon.


Scottsdale travel planner: where to go, stay, eat, and more »

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