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The narrow, serpentine Apache Trail cuts through deserts, around mountains, near cliff dwellings, along the shores of three lakes dammed up along the Salt River, past active copper-mining towns, and through beautifully eroded canyons. It's easy to see why this gorgeous 120-mile route has been a favorite of tourists since its completion in 1922.
President Teddy Roosevelt described the route as "one of the most spectacular, best-worth-seeing sights in the world." It's a gem no matter what time of year, although late summer can pose extra hazards from monsoon rains and washouts. The drive is doable by passenger car, but is best done in an SUV. The descent down a narrow gravel road into Fish Creek Canyon is one you'll never forget, and is guaranteed to scare the wits out of Aunt Minnie from Queens. Your guests may want to slit your throat before you reach historic Roosevelt Dam, but by the end of the day they will sing your praises for taking them on the drive of a lifetime.
To get there from Apache Junction, go north on State Route 88 toward Apache Lake. The paved road becomes a graded gravel surface after Tortilla Flat, a tourist trap with all the usual goodies but no pay phone. The less adventurous may want to turn around here. Otherwise, continue to Roosevelt Lake and take State Route 188 toward the twin copper towns of Miami and Globe. Go west on U.S. 60, and be prepared for a wild two-lane mountain road through Devil's Canyon, the Queen Creek Tunnel and on into Superior.
The only thing that keeps us away from a poker table is our serious and committed relationship with money. (Well, that and a large man with a concealed weapons permit who really hates losing.) Lucky for us, we found the Horse & Hound on a Saturday night, where two free poker tournaments -- run by the Nationwide Poker Tour (www.pokerplayersinc.com) -- start at 7 and 10 p.m. with at least a half-dozen tables of Texas Hold 'Em open to anyone who signs up.
What's the point of playing poker without money involved? Actually, there is none. While it doesn't cost a thing to play at the Horse & Hound (unless you take in the happy hour specials that offer a dozen wings for $3 and $2.25 well drinks), it does pay to win. Folks who make it to the final table earn points toward a paid seat in monthly cash tournaments at Las Vegas' Bellagio and, ultimately, a $10,000 spot in the annual World Series of Poker. Just be careful with those pocket jacks in your hand at the H&H: Because it ain't real money, your fellow wanna-be World Series champs have been known to call your "all-in" with an off-suit 7-2 (statistically, the worst starting hand in Hold 'Em), and score a full boat on the river. Sure, you're out, but at least you're not down.
Other casinos might throw a gimmick or two your way to get you through the door for a poker tournament, but none offers the action you'll find at Talking Stick, home to the best cash players in the Valley.
With 45 tables of nonstop poker (most tables offer Texas Hold 'Em, but you'll also find Omaha and seven-card stud), you're still bound to wait 20 minutes to get a seat. If you're learning and aren't willing to lose this month's mortgage, play a 3-6 table (that's $3 for an opening bet with a $6 raise to start per hand).
Or if you're looking to brush up on your skills before heading to Vegas for the next World Series of Poker, take your chances at the 75-150 table, the casino's highest limit. Talking Stick also hosts morning and evening tournaments Monday through Friday, with buy-ins from $60 to $130, and first-prize payouts as big as $5,500. But get in on those tournaments early; they're usually limited to the first 120 who register, and they sell out quickly.
For Valley urbanites who think dog tracks like Turf Paradise are just too doggone far away, there's an abundance of off-track-betting sites scattered across our sprawl. These havens for bombastic betting behavior are usually found inside assorted sports bars and taverns and allow wagering on races at numerous dog and horse tracks both locally and around the nation, with remote video feeds of all the action. Gallagher's bar and restaurant, located in north Phoenix, is particularly entertaining, as wager-friendly folk from all walks of life gather in an expansive, smoke-filled side room. Gambling-prone grannies edge their walkers close to the wall filled with video screens, while thirtysomething tweaker types howl desperately for certain pooch es to place first, until the long shots finish back in the pack and bet tickets are torn up in disgust.
By the end of the night, broken peanut shells, torn-up tickets and shattered dreams litter the floor, as a few holdouts remain to sample one of Gallagher's particularly delectable desserts, consisting of a mound of ice cream covered with fudge on top of a just-baked chocolate chip cookie. It's tasty and helps take the edge off the realization that you just blew your rent money on some dog-and-pony show.
Take a break from the strip malls, the freeways, the dog eat dog of the real world, and break for the ponies. Few things in life are as satisfying as leaning against the fence at the finish line, nursing a drink and looking left to catch the first glimpse of the pack coming home. If your horse finishes out of the money, no big deal. There's always the next race -- and plenty of beer. Anyway, gambling isn't the point. It's the fresh air, the scent of the stables, the tight jeans the escort riders wear as they guide the thoroughbreds to the gate. There's enough superstition in the air to fill 10 Bank One Ballparks. Dare you wager on a pony called U R Toast, or is Notanotherskidmark the safer choice?
Sometimes college students need to just let loose, get a little crazy and occasionally get escorted out of a building after a bit of debauchery. Spending your nights on Mill Avenue can get old. The real place to catch raucous 18- to 22-year-olds mid-shenanigans is at Wal-Mart. By midnight, at least 10 people will be running, yelling and climbing over displays in a heated game of hide-and-seek. Letting off steam by acting like a 6-year-old must work, because larger games of 20 to 40 players are orchestrated monthly at MySpace.com. The hide-and-seek activity at the Mesa Wal-Mart peaked a few months ago, but there's nothing stopping you from getting on MySpace.com and starting a fresh game. After all, when was the last time you were kicked out of anywhere for playing hide-and-seek? Unlike when you were a kid, your mom won't be there to be embarrassed by you.
Face it: Steak houses can be pretty bland. The menu of most typical wood-paneled, sawdust-on-the-floor family restaurants can easily be replicated on the grill at home if you know your way around a kitchen. But throw in a giant steel slide that propels you into the dining room at relatively scary velocities, and you've got Rustler's Rooste. The designer of the two-story building with a lounge on top and dining below decided a slide leading from the entrance through a mine shaft to the banquet room beneath was the only way to go. Okay, so there's a staircase for those not adventurous enough to coast to their dining table, but we of course suggest the ride. Maybe we're incurably 10 years old, but we love this little bit of playground mayhem at the start of any meal.
It's late on a Saturday night in the PHX. You've just downed a dozen Seven and Sevens at the strip club Band Aids. There's a $20 bill left in your wallet, and before you know it, you're rollin' down Van Buren, checking the ho stroll for a 10-minute GFE (Girl Friend Experience). Don't do it, bro! Sure, you might have an industrial-strength, steel-reinforced condom on hand, but them chicas -- if they really are chicas -- have got diseases that'll eat their way through concrete.
Better to save the Jackson, cruise home and pop in that DVD you copped from Phoenix photographer Lokey, titled Hookers . . . on Van Buren. Set to the soundtrack of the movie Superfly, Lokey's stills were snapped from a moving car after shouting "Hey, Baby," to workin' girls on the street. Under the glare of Lokey's unforgiving flash are many, many hella-scary-lookin' ladies of the night, none of whom you'd want to get with in the light of day and fully sober.
Most frightening, perhaps, is the fact that at one point, the best-lookin' puta of the lot flashes his/her penis for Lokey's camera. Cue Aerosmith's "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)." Now, aren't you glad you didn't get played as a trick for the evening?
Shhh! Don't tell. The other night we went for a little spin while seriously soused. With our bloodstream filled with more booze than John Q. Law permits, we hopped into a souped-up streetcar and set out broadsiding Caddies and crashing through cinderblocks on a private path of destruction. Don't fret; you're not going to be seeing our mugs on the local news anytime soon. Why? This bout of vehicular violence was contained within the aptly named Smashing Drive, one of numerous driving games available for playing after getting pissed at GameWorks' Arena Bar, located upstairs at the mega-arcade and nightspot. Gulp some of the watering hole's premium spirits, gourmet beers, or signature drinks -- like the delicious honeydew martini or the 40-ounce Megarita -- before getting behind the wheel of racers like Outrun 2 SP, Ferrari F355 Challenge, Motocross Go!, or Crazy Taxi to see how much inebriation affects gaming performance. We guarantee you'll be driving under the influence -- of fun, that is.
There are few breathtaking views in town to be had as easily as the one from Echo Canyon. Around here, getting high enough up a mountain to get a panoramic view tends to involve hiking for miles, purchasing a $12 cocktail, or even finding a sugar daddy. (How else are you going to buy that manse in Paradise Valley, real estate being what it is?) But this perfect little spot alongside Camelback Mountain does the trick for free. If you can walk a quarter-mile, you're at the summit. And what a vista! The only catch: You're not the only one who can't find a sugar daddy, and so parking is limited. On weekends, expect to find a line of cars waiting for a space.
The palm trees that stand dramatically at attention along the entrance to this posh resort should give you some clue: Nothing about this place is going to be subtle. Or even quietly luxurious (except perhaps in the meditation room of the spa). The Phoenician is shiny and rich, a paean to the joys of having money. Its premier restaurant, the elegant Mary Elaine's, even boasts murals hand-painted in 24K gold.
You can't deny that the place is striking, the food is good, and the service is excellent. And even if you just stop by for a $12 cocktail (we recommend the Phoenix -- Grey Goose L'Orange, grenadine and lime juice), we can guarantee that you'll find flaunting it is much more fun than saving it for a rainy day.
With an $8 million overhaul, the main tower of the Francisco Grande Resort has been returned to its swingin' modernist splendor, circa 1961. Once the haunt of the likes of John Wayne and Willie Mays, Francisco Grande, about 40 miles south of Phoenix, went through several decades of slow decay before its recent restoration.
It was a structure worth saving. There are few places in the West where you can so thoroughly dive into the architecture and decor and high-flying resort sensibilities of the swanky '60s. Heck, get a penthouse suite and drive down with a group of friends and a trunk full of martini fixings, cocktail wear and '60s hipster albums. It will be the party of a lifetime. One caveat: Make sure you get a room in the renovated tower. The courtyard rooms have not been updated. Rooms, even with a round of golf, can be had for less than $100.