Scottsdale: What to See, What to Skip

PHOTO: A general view of young baseball fans behind the outfield wall before a spring training game during batting practice at Scottsdale Stadium on March 3,2012 in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The posh desert oasis that is Scottsdale, Ariz., gets special attention from a special team of travelers this time of year: baseball fans. Like several cities throughout Arizona, Scottsdale becomes a spring training paradise in late winter and early spring, with the San Francisco Giants taking over Scottsdale Stadium and the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks taking swings at the Salt River Fields.

Scottsdale also offers something for everyone all year long, with pastimes like spa visits, upscale shopping and Tex-Mex grazing at the top of many tourists' to-do lists. But these alternative experiences are part and parcel to the Scottsdale experience, too, and can help make a desert escape here extra memorable.

Sip the Wine, Put Down the Marg

True, to suggest passing on a margarita at this Tex-Mex getaway can be sacrilege, but Scottsdale is also calling all wine lovers these days with a bevy of specialty bars. Terroir Wine Bar rotates its 30-plus wines by the glass regularly and also features several craft beers, cheeses, cigars and chocolates; several nights here are themed (Wednesday is open mic night).

And you know you're hip when you belly up to the wine bar at downtown hot spot Kazimierz, which (like a bona fide speakeasy) has its main entrance 'round back; it features more than 2,000 international wines (ever had a red blend from Lebanon?) and is open until 2 a.m. nightly.

Get High, Get Off the Road

The topography that envelops Scottsdale and its neighbor communities is stunning, and taking to the skies offers a breathtaking perspective of the desert below. Scottsdale-based Sky Blue Helicopters offers scenic rides enhanced by desert tales told by the pilots themselves.

And Adventures Out West, based in nearby Cave Creek, will take you on a 45-minute, hot-air balloon ride at sunrise, offering panoramic views that stretch some 100 miles and a peek at desert dwellers like coyotes, jack rabbits and mule deer.

Hang with the Kids, Forget the Grownups

Several classic Scottsdale activities -- from golf in the morning to spas in the afternoon -- will have you spending time with adults. But Scottsdale offers a wide range of activities for your kids, like the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park, where you can ride the classic Paradise and Pacific Railroad or the popular Charros Carousel, and gaze at comprehensive model-railroad displays.

The Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center gets you up close and personal with orphaned animals that are rehabilitated here, including bobcats, black bears and foxes. And at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, ask for the Family Passport, a scavenger hunt through the trailheads that will teach you about local flora, fauna and geology; get all your stamps to earn your Preserve bandanna.

Play the Music, Don't Just Hear It

Music icons like Tony Bennett and Carlos Santana have raved about the recently opened Musical Instrument Museum, or MIM. Located a short drive from Scottsdale in Phoenix, MIM is home to the Experience Gallery, which allows grownups and kids not only to see but actually pick up, touch and play exotic instruments from around the globe, like a Burmese harp, a sitar or a gong. The onsite theater offers an intimate setting to hear concerts by high-profile musical masters throughout the year.

Day Trip, Skip Downtown

Part of Scottsdale's charm is its proximity to other Arizona marvels, which makes day-tripping a neat pastime. Sedona is two hours away and can be a spiritual escape, with its towering red rock mountains and serene landscapes; art galleries and boutique shops abound. Just a bit further north is Flagstaff, where the Lowell Observatory is a must-do.

One of the oldest observatories in the country, this is where Pluto was discovered in 1930 and where a just-finished $53 million project has resulted in the fifth-largest telescope in the country; guided tours, solar viewings and evening stargazing occur daily.

Hop on the Trail, Forget the Loop

The popular Loop 202 will take you through many of Scottsdale's neighbor towns. But for a true adventure -- the kind of experiential drive inspired by Scottsdale's rugged surroundings --hop on the Apache Trail, an 80-mile roundtrip route that begins in Scottsdale and dates back to the 1930s.

It offers classic Old Western charm, including the tiny, dusty town of Tortilla Flat and the recreated ghost town of Goldfield. The trail's craggy turns reveal jagged mountains and crystal lakes. And a stop at Lost Dutchman State Park offers manageable hiking trails and idyllic picnic spots, while Tonto National Monument lets you glimpse at preserved Indian dwellings.

Eat Low Key, Forget the Reservations

Prime dining finds a comfortable home in Scottsdale. But when you're in the mood for good food at lower price points and with no reservations required, check out Greasewood Flat. The ambiance is unassuming by design: you're sitting down at picnic tables.

A game of horseshoe helps pass the time. But it's the burgers here -- all featuring fresh-ground, 90 percent lean beef and all priced less than $9 – that are legendary. Grab a local brew at the Tap Shack and enjoy live music several days a week.

Visit in summer, skip winter

Balmy weather explains why the winter months mark peak travel season to Scottsdale, while the sizzling summer months can create a travel slowdown. But don't let the towering mercury scare you away; these hot days help create some of the best values in the travel industry, with even the ritziest of resorts dropping summer rates by 75 percent off winter's highs. Discounts and incentives at restaurants, museums and tours become rampant, too.

Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo, which features hotel, airfare and a bevy of local deals in Scottsdale HERE.

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