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Best Of 2004

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Best Of :: Sports & Recreation

BEST PLACE TO GET AWAY FROM IT ALL
The Japanese Friendship Garden (Ro Ho En)

Finding solace in this bustling metropolis isn't easy, but there are a few nooks where peace and quiet prevail. With more than 50 types of plants, 1,500 tons of handpicked rock, a 12-foot waterfall, a koi pond and meandering streams, the Japanese Friendship Garden, officially named Ro Ho En, is our choice for a getaway when we can't really get away. Ro is the Japanese word for heron, the bird symbol of our Japanese sister city Himeji. Ho translates into Phoenix, and En means garden. While its effect gets lost in the translation of its name, there is no lack of beauty to this 3.5-acre hub of harmony. We're relaxed just writing about it.

1125 N. Third Ave., Phoenix, 85004
MAP
602-256-3204
BEST PUBLIC TENNIS COURTS
Phoenix Tennis Center

Though we hardly could be called card-carrying members of the country-club set, we do occasionally enjoy pretending that we can smack a tennis ball with the best of 'em. And that's a backhanded way of informing our fellow lob-sters that our favorite place to run ourselves in circles is this wonderful city-run facility, tucked away in a west Phoenix residential park. For a few bucks (and a few more at night), you can hit the yellow orb to your heart's content on one of the 22 well-kept, lighted courts. It doesn't hurt that the pro shop is stocked with goodies, the locker rooms are more than adequate and the vending machines rarely are empty. Now if only we can figure out how to get that first serve in more than once in a blue moon.

6330 N. 21st Ave., Phoenix, 85015
MAP
602-249-3712
BEST PLACE TO SEE A SPRING TRAINING GAME
Surprise Stadium

Head west, young sports fan! West Valley leaders know what their constituents want: good sports in good facilities and lots of 'em. Take a typical spring afternoon out at Surprise Stadium, the gorgeous baseball mecca that opened in 2002 for the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals. The stadium is packed with everything from Sun City retirees keeping their own score books and West Valley families enjoying the up-close-and-personal with major league stars to college spring breakers sunning on the plush grass beyond the outfield fence. It's a great baseball vibe in a beautiful baseball facility, a facility that, in time, will serve as part of the walkable urban core of the exploding city of Surprise.

15930 N. Bullard Ave., Surprise, 85374
MAP
623-222-2222
BEST SKATE PARK

While many skateboarders are willing to dish out $10 to skate in indoor parks with smaller ramps and a load of regulations (or illegally skate in commercial strip malls), adrenaline junkies in the know ride their boards under the sun at the Paradise Valley Skate Park. The Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department has three skate parks (including the Desert West Skateboard Plaza on Encanto Boulevard and the Pecos Park Skate Park), but the PV Skate Park has way more than the other two -- the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department's PR materials list the PV Skate Park's virtues with savvy heretofore unknown to bureaucrats: "kinked snakebowls, a kidney bowl, spine bowls, a banked alley, street plaza, flatbars, grinding ledges and blocks, pump bumps, sloped ramps, radial banks and an elongated funbox."

And best of all, it's free.

BEST PLACE TO CLIMB THE WALLS
AZ on the Rocks

For those about to rock, we direct you . . . to AZ on the Rocks, where beginner, intermediate and women-only classes convene every couple of days. Learn the ropes -- and the lingo -- on 14,000 square feet of textured climbing terrain, with 50 top ropes, a lead-only cave, rappelling platform, chimney, separate bouldering area and -- we're not sure we like the sound of this -- "multiple cracks." "Arizona's largest indoor rock climbing gym" also has the hookup for kids, with designated family climb times, Saturday-morning "Kids Climbs," and certification classes for ages 12 to 14. While "Rock and Climb" sessions add a rock 'n' roll soundtrack, and three-hour party packages include a private room and party host, not-so-social climbers can get in the zone during members-only gym times.

Rock on!

16447 N. 91st St., Scottsdale, 85260
MAP
480-502-9777
BEST RESORT POOL

Sure, there are other resort pools in town. But only at the Oasis can 25 adults party in a hot tub secluded from the lifeguard-patrolled toddler pool by faux red rock boulders and pretend they've found a private hot spring in Sedona.

The 17-year-old resort opened the $12.3 million water park just two years ago as one intentionally designed for an older demographic, and the rolling, six-acre enclave is full of the kinds of water features parents "ooh" over while the kids just yawn. Not to worry. There's something for everyone -- particularly you.

Yeah, the steep slides barreling down from the 83-foot tower at the back of the park rival Waterworld's Kilimanjaro for sheer free-fall thrills, and the 10,000-square-foot wave pool can keep the kids bobbing happily all afternoon. But it's the meandering lazy river feature, dubbed the Zuni, that really draws the crowds -- of chillin' grown folks content to float endlessly around the manmade red rock canyon, entertained by little more than misters, arcing water squirts and the occasional current-speeding jet stream.

The kids might eventually tire of the falls at Slide Canyon after a few climbs up the three-story staircase, but mom won't have to hear "I'm bored" until they find her -- which may take until dusk.

BEST PLACE TO RUN WITH THE DEVIL
Arizona Canal at 40th Street just north of Camelback Road

We don't care what Jack Hanna says. Bats are just plain creepy and, dare we say, evil little critters. Still, we can't help but be drawn to the southern border of Paradise Valley along the Arizona Canal where, from late spring through November, Satan's Little Helpers gather at sunset and hover along the warm flood-control waters in search of mosquitoes and moths. Joggers and spectators alike have been known to gather at the overpass at 40th Street just north of Camelback Road to catch a glimpse of the flying mammals, which migrate annually from Mexico. But we suggest a real adrenaline rush: Start your evening run along the canal at 37th Street just behind Phoenix Country Day School (where, rumor has it, the bats nap during the day) with a raw, bloody steak in tow. Best. Workout. Ever.

Central Ave. and Northern, Phoenix, 85020
MAP
602-236-3333
BEST OUTDOOR HOLIDAY EXPERIENCE
Desert Botanical Garden

One of our earliest childhood memories of Christmas in Phoenix involves a very big saguaro cactus that used to reside near the intersection of Invergordon and McDonald in Paradise Valley. We called it "the cactus with the two crossed fingers," and every holiday season, someone decorated it with a red ribbon. Or maybe it was a Santa hat.

Anyway, it made us feel really cheery, and in lieu of ice rinks or tree lightings at Rockefeller Center, seeing that cactus marked, for us, the beginning of the holidays.

The cactus died years ago, but one Valley Christmas tradition has flourished -- and it's another one that involves desert foliage, and a lot of it. Las Noches de las Luminarias offers a walk in a winter wonderland, Phoenix-style. Thousands of hand-lighted luminarias line the paths of the garden, making the desert plants glow. You'll glow, too, after a glass of wine or cider and the sounds of carolers and other musicians performing along the paths. Arcadia Farms caters dinner, and the gift shop always offers up super holiday gift ideas.

We miss "the cactus with the two crossed fingers," but we're keeping our fingers crossed that Las Noches de las Luminarias is a Valley tradition for years to come.

1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix, 85008
MAP
480-941-1225
BEST ESCAPE FROM THE HEAT

Precision Marine operates a fleet of pontoon boats at both Saguaro and Canyon lakes less than an hour outside of town. With 50 miles of shoreline at the two picturesque lakes, it's easy enough for you and your crew to lose yourselves amidst the stunning vistas. At $280 for five hours, you will probably want to divvy up the expense amongst friends who will be grateful you've told them to go jump in the lake. Offering shade and wet escape, the pontoons are easily operated and almost idiot-proof -- just remember to haul up the anchor before returning to the marina.

BEST WAY TO ROW, ROW, ROW YOUR BOAT

If you can float, you can boat -- or row your boat, to be exact. You don't have to be an Olympic athlete (though some have trained here) to participate in crew classes on Tempe Town Lake. But be ready to show the instructors that you can float. Classes start at $100, with all your gear included. You'll be rowing early in the morning or at sunset, perfect for busy school and work schedules, and a nice time to be on the lake.

Just be sure to watch out for mosquitoes. And don't fall in the water. We're still not sure what's in there . . .

BEST HIKE

With more than 180 miles of trails, hiking the Superstitions is more a lifetime goal than a day trip. But it's worth the commitment. Nothing within hundreds of miles of the Valley compares to the Superstitions' rugged beauty, variety of challenges and sense of isolation and mystery. And you may just find the legendary Lost Dutchman Mine, if you don't find one of the legendary devil creatures first.

October through May is the best time to explore the area's 35 trails. The Peralta Trail is arguably the best marked, most traveled path with the most easy scenic rewards, so if you're new to the 'hood, this might be your best bet.

After tackling Peralta, you can move on to the more isolated trails. Just be extremely careful. Tell someone where you are going and bring plenty of supplies, especially water. Hikers can be lulled into thinking of the Superstitions as an easy day hike just outside town. But this is a different world. You need to be prepared.

Okay, lecture over. Enjoy!

BEST PUBLIC GOLF COURSE
Bear Creek Golf Course

While many of the Valley's city courses are brown in attempts to save the region's depleted water supply, Bear Creek's fairways are as green as an Irish countryside. Give thanks to effluent, reclaimed sewage water known as "poop water" in these parts. It allows a city to feel okay about keeping decadence lush in a drought-riddled desert.

Crafted by Nicklaus Design's Bill O'Leary, Bear Creek is built for quality speed on a local's paycheck. Subtle risk/reward scenarios meet you on each of the links-style holes, with water, sand and, most often, snarly desert scrub, waiting to eat an errant or ill-conceived shot.

In the off-season, you can have this private-club-caliber golf challenge for around $20. And you can often bag 18 holes in three to four hours.

Bear Creek also includes an 18-hole short course, which is ideal for a quick golf outing with the kids.

And don't worry, you can't smell the poop water.

Readers' Choice: Papago Golf Course

500 E. Riggs Rd., Chandler, 85249
MAP
480-883-8200
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BEST PLACE TO GET AWAY FROM IT ALL: The Japanese Friendship Garden (Ro Ho En)

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