Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
We've really taken to the desert lifestyle, soaking up plenty of sun, reveling in the gorgeous Sonoran scenery, and (of course) making the most of our glorious, spring-like winters. But sometimes we still long for some green, leafy trees and the sound of flowing water, the kinds of calming natural elements that are all too rare in this sprawling desert. Luckily, there's a peaceful, plant-filled oasis right in the middle of downtown: The Japanese Friendship Garden. Also known as Ro Ho En, the garden's name combines the character for "heron" (the symbolic bird of Himeji, Phoenix's sister city) with the character for "phoenix," our city's mythical namesake. Discreetly located on Third Avenue, fenced off from the south end of Hance Park, the garden is three and a half acres of traditional Japanese landscape design, with shrubs, flowers, and sculpturally shaped trees, a flowing stream filled with handpicked rocks from all over Arizona, a rustic teahouse surrounded by a lush tea garden, and a tranquil pond filled with colorful koi. It's the perfect place to recharge and relax amid the hubbub of the city and it sure beats the long flight to Japan.
The City of Phoenix's ongoing renovation of Tovrea Castle, one of the Valley's premier oddball landmarks, has given us hope that Phoenix has finally learned to spell "p-r-e-s-e-r-v-a-t-i-o-n." The estate which looks like a royal wedding cake defended by a swarm of palace-guard saguaros was built by Italian entrepreneur Alessio Carraro and named after meat-packing magnate Edward Tovrea, who bought the baronial digs for his wife, Della, in 1931. The sentinel saguaros are part of the Castle's spectacular Carraro Cactus Garden, which was designed and planted by Alessio and his sons in 1928. Until recently, it was a secret garden, opened to the public only once, in 1984, for one lousy weekend. But the city introduced regular public tours in early '07, and guided walks through our arid little Eden which is packed to the gills with both common and exotic samples of high- and low-Sonoran Desert flora are now scheduled each January through May.
Why do kids (and the parents who pay for them) love Amazing Jake's Food and Fun, the indoor amusement extravaganza in Mesa?
Ask Anna, age 9: "They have brownies, which are so good. And chocolate chip cookies, and ice cream vanilla, chocolate and swirl. They have all different choices of desserts, too. Last time I went there, it was lemon meringue squares. I think they had oatmeal cookies. I didn't have any of those. I had the brownies and the chocolate chip cookies and the ice cream. And they're all really good. Some cookies are really hard and crunchy. I hate those kind. But these, like, they have crisp outsides, not crunchy, but just crisp and the inside is really soft and the chocolate chips are kind of melted, and the brownies are, like, so soft that if you tear it apart, some of it will stick together. They have an old-fashioned carousel, which you don't really see very often. They have a train ride where you can sit in the front and ring the bell. I like the Hopper because you go up up up up up and then down and up and down and up and down and as many of those as you want to. And such cool prizes. They have bicycles. It's all-you-can-eat and the pizza is delicious like, I am not a girl who likes the curly macaroni, but I have got to say I have never had this good of pasta. It's just right. It has the perfect sauce, it has olives, and they have vegetarian stuff like salads, corn, which my friend Rocky says is disgusting don't put that because she was trying to see if she could have all healthy and she took one bite and I don't know how you write this, but she went like this [makes a face like the guy from Munch's The Scream] after too many rides on the Hopper. The only way to explain Amazing Jake's is that it's amazing. No, that's an exclamation mark."
It only makes sense that things might get a little wild in Phoenix. After all, we're living in a land settled by outcasts, criminals, and whores. That restlessness still exists in the desert air and has certainly been huffed by Phoenix's very own Dirty Darlins of Debauchery, the first and only female pudding-wrestling league in Arizona. These hot mamas, clad in fishnets, tattoos, piercings, and rainbow-colored hair, love to fulfill many a man's fantasy by viciously body-slamming each other in a kiddy pool full of pudding. It gets pretty brutal they put on a show that has the kinkiness of Larry Flynt, the moves of WWE, and a marketing ploy for pudding that rivals Bill Cosby. The slippery sex kittens compete frequently at clubs around the Valley that don't mind being a little sticky. Careful with these gorgeous girls, however, because they are tough broads whom we wouldn't want to cross. Their MySpace quote says, "Fear our Snack Pack Skillz." And we certainly do.
It's not the biggest pool in town, and it's not even the flashiest (you won't find any fountains or water slides at this serene spot), but there are still three good reasons why the pool at Sanctuary on Camelback is our favorite place for a swim: location, location, location. Nestled amidst an oasis of lush palm trees and palo verdes that lazily wave in the breeze, it looks like a placid turquoise lagoon under the big, blue Arizona sky, with a sweet view of Camelback Mountain and the Praying Monk rock formation practically hovering over us. Sanctuary also claims its pool has the biggest infinity edge in the state we love to swim right up to it, listening to the soothing sound of water splashing over glossy mosaic tiles. After we've turned into prunes, the surrounding flagstone patio is the perfect place to chill on a sleek white lounge chair and sip a cold piña colada from a curvy lime-green cup (which happens to be the same exact shade as the beach towels here). People come from all over the country to stay at this stylish Paradise Valley enclave, but we're thrilled that we can go there anytime we want when we can scrounge up the cash, that is.
We hate to sound like a broken record, but once again, this year's honor for Best Spa must go to our all-time favorite, the Spa at Camelback Inn. As a friend recently waxed (heh heh, get it?), "You feel so close to the desert, it's like you can actually reach up and touch the cactus." And it's true snuggled in your thick white robe, stretched out on an impossibly comfortable chaise next to a clear blue swimming pool, beneath Mummy Mountain, you do feel as if you could reach up and grab a prickly handful.
Instead, head indoors for a Sonoran Rose facial, Native Hot Stone massage, Desert Rain loofah or Desert Nectar honey wrap. Or what the heck get all four. You only live once, and what better place to blow your spending money than this lovely spa, featuring a sauna, hot tub and private spaces for all-out sunbathing, if you know what we mean. Rent a cabana, take some exercise classes and grab a mani-pedi. We're relaxed just writing about it.
We remember when $20 was all it took for a fun night on the town. Dinner, movies, drinks heck, even dancing were all within reach. These days, $20 won't cover our weekly designer coffee habit. That all changed with the Summer Spaaah Series. This is one beauty of a benefit, raising money for the Jewell McFarland Lewis-Fresh Start Women's Resource Center. Each summer, six local luxury spas join in for a full Sunday of pampering, for a mere 20 bucks a person. From mini-manis at the Boulders to partial pedis at the Biltmore or even mini-facials at Aji, attendees can select one scaled-down (read: shorter) treatment from a menu of spa services. There's no scrimping on the eats, which include a chocolate buffet complete with chocolate fountain, and other lunchables. There's even a parting gift: a goodie bag stuffed full of beauty products.
And all for a good cause. Spa-tacular! Sign us up for next year.
Imagine your P.E. class back in the '80s, minus the embarrassing, random boxer-short tents you pitched in the locker room. Think tube socks, push-ups and jumping jacks. But this time, replace your high school gym with the Al Moro Dance Studio on Camelback and the sounds of '80s pop and lock thumping out of the speakers. If you're willing to pay for Daniel Wayne's Old School Sunday morning workout, your prize is a free Spanish-style breakfast at Lola restaurant next door, whipped up by his fabulous wife, Felicia. The couple own Lola Tapas and the Al Moro Dance Studio. They wanted a way to give back to the community, while whipping the town into shape, physically and philanthropically. It's sweating for a cause because all the class fees go to a charity picked by the students. You pay what you want to donate. Since the workout started about nine months ago, the group has raised $2,000 for causes including Free Arts of Arizona, the Music Conservatory of Phoenix, and the family of slain Phoenix Police Officer George E. Cortez. Feel good inside and out with a camarón in your mouth and sweat on your brow!
Want to raise your kid to like Beethoven and Brahms, not just Beyoncé? In Phoenix, at least, you don't have a financial excuse not to instill a love of classical music early, thanks to the fine people at Target. With their assistance, the Phoenix Symphony is able to offer a series of six kid-friendly concerts. Next season's bill of fare, which starts in October, features everything from Tchaikovsky to Bernstein with some local favorites, including the Grand Canyon Orchestra, thrown in for good measure. Tickets start at just $10. And for every adult subscription you buy, a child can attend free. Don't have a kid? With a deal this good, you may want to start looking for a long-lost nephew.
Tired of evenings out that always seem to feature those Valley standbys: flip-flops and cheap margaritas? There's no better cure than a trip to an Arizona Opera performance. It's the one of few things in town that people really do get dressed up for. And while the good seats aren't cheap the opera wants a $2,500 donation plus $121 a show just to sit in certain areas you can be frugal, with back-row tickets starting at $34 on weekdays. Even there, though, you're going to feel like a million dollars. Just leave the plastic sandals at home.
If you really want to bond with that special someone and you and your date collectively weigh less than 300 pounds a glider ride at Lake Pleasant is the adventure for you.Our spies who've tried the experience say it's a great way to get a little bit closer and check out the beauty of mountains, the lake, and clear blue Arizona skies. For $135, you can take the controls. Not quite so confident? There are plenty of options in which you can let the staff do the work and you and your honey can sit back and enjoy the beauty.
Instead of the usual dinner, movie, and awkward conversation, we suggest something a little more creative. Get off your butt and get moving. Not quickly; a meandering pace will do. Don't worry, we'll give you something to look at, even if your date's not super-viewable.
Scottsdale is home to some impressive public art, a large deal of it near the Civic Center and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. An early-evening self-guided tour is the perfect way to get to know your date (like whether she's ever been inside a museum).
Start with Knight Rise, one of only three sky spaces by the famed artist James Turrell open to the public in the United States. The space is breathtaking at sunset, when you can sit inside the sky chamber and watch the light change through the skylight at the top. It's quiet and a good place to actually get to know the person you're with.
After that, where you move to depends on your taste. There are more than 20 works of art throughout the Civic Center area to look for. We're partial to Robert Indiana's famous Love sculpture and the Hummingbird Sanctuary Garden a few blocks south.
Scottsdale's public art Web site gives a detailed description of each piece available along the tour so you can choose to plan your route, or just wander around and see what you find.
Afterwards, there are plenty of places nearby to feed your date. We like AZ88 and Orange Table, both located just a short hand-holding walk from the museum.