We know. You know. Everyone knows. Summer's here. And rather than bemoan the season that brings record-breaking weather and rolling dust storms to the Valley of the Sun, we're of the opinion that summer — yes, we mean summer in Phoenix — is more fun than most people realize. To make sure you don't miss out on the good times to be had, we combed through our most recent Best of Phoenix issue and found plenty of ways to make this summer the best ever, whether you spend it lounging poolside, reading something highbrow, relaxing at the spa, or, hey, maybe even surfing.
Lounge by the Arizona Biltmore Pool
The Biltmore is the epitome of the Arizona dream. The entire campus is an idyllic getaway; the architecture is designed so ingeniously that you forget you're in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the country the instant you step in the door. It makes relaxing at one of the hotel's three pools nothing but a relaxing getaway from the smog and the endless sprawl and the hustle of Phoenix. The fabulous Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired vistas will make you happy to drop $15 on a martini as you dip your toe into the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
Try landlocked surfing
At 13, we rode our 10-speed to Big Surf in Tempe with a friend on one of the hottest days of the year and suffered from a small bout of heat exhaustion, vomiting what little breakfast we'd had on the side of McClintock Drive. With only enough money to get in, we quenched our thirst from the water fountain and ate ketchup from our fingers, pretending we had fries to go along with it. It was one of the best days ever. We took our pilfered rafts to near the wall where the waves start, riding them across the backs of other swimmers waiting for the surge to take them, too. When we grew bored of the rafts, we gave them to some little kids and tried to body-surf among the crowds of bikini-clad women, muscled dudes, and children who hopefully held their pee until the bathroom. Decades later, amazingly, we can have the exact same experience — only better, because not only do we drive and have the money to pay for lunch, but because Big Surf is better than it used to be. Featured in a 1960s National Geographic issue, Big Surf has changed dramatically over the years to include an array of water slides (some not for the timid) and a play area for smaller kids. The sand that nearly produced third-degree burns in the summer has been long replaced by cooler Astroturf. The staff is more professional than ever, keeping an eye out for mischievous 13-year-olds. We try not to cause too much trouble for the sake of our kids.
Spend some quality time with a slot machine
Let's be honest, there's no substitute for Las Vegas. But if you've got money to burn and no time (or urge) to travel, Talking Stick Resort will be happy to accommodate. Talking Stick is bright and noisy in all the right ways, with more than 50 table games, over 800 slot machines, and the state's largest poker room. Looking for a break? Check out cuisine with themes ranging from Creole to Southwestern, along with plenty of bars and lounges at which to regroup, refresh, and count your winnings.
Relive the joy(sticks) of your childhood
Steve Thomas and Mike Lovato are what you'd call old-school gamers. The two grew up during the golden age of arcades (read: the 1980s) when said establishments were dimly lit dens filled with blaring rock music, the glow of pixelated graphics, and dozens of games powered by quarters instead of cash cards. And both have cherished memories of spending countless hours at such spots, battling hordes of invading aliens, maneuvering through mazes while munching dots, or rescuing princesses from dastardly villains. So when Thomas and Lovato, who have become collectors of vintage coin-op games in the ensuing years, wanted to open an arcade of their own, they drew inspiration from some their favorite gaming haunts of the past.
The result is StarFighters Arcade, a 4,000-square-foot joystick joint situated in a Mesa office park near Falcon Field. It features a treasure trove of more than 100 classic titles, including many culled from Thomas and Lovato's collections. As a neon Pac-Man hanging from one wall looks on, gamers of every age gather on weekend nights to get their hands on such old-school favorites as Paperboy, Omega Race, Ghosts 'n' Goblins, Spy Hunter, RoadBlasters, and Tempest. There are also clusters of games grouped together by manufacturer, such as a row dedicated to Williams classics like Sinistar and Moon Patrol, as well as such hard-to-find gems as the 1976 submarine game Sea Wolf or sit-down version of the old Atari dogfight game Red Baron. The arcade, which is open only on Friday and Saturday nights, requires the purchase of a membership, ranging from $14 for a single evening or $30 for a month to $120 for an entire year. It's a small price to pay for a chance to take a trip through a warp zone to gaming's yesteryear.
Strike out with indie bowling
Plenty of Phoenicians still shake their heads in disbelief when it's said, but it's true: Sunnyslope is pretty cool. Don't believe us? Look no further than Let It Roll Bowl. The independently owned bowling alley has everything you need when you're rolling, with league meetups and cosmic bowling nights, but its charm goes even deeper. The plush bar is sleek and modern but custom-fitted to the building's original 1962 roots. There's a reason the Somewhat Annual Local First Arizona Independent's Bowl tournament is held at Let It Roll: Its funky vibe fits the groovy event like a perfectly selected pair of bowling shoes.
Pick up the new bestseller
In the past 40-plus years, Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe has become a cultural institution. And it didn't take long for CHB's sister store in Phoenix to join its ranks. It's been there just a few years, and now we don't know what we did without the Central Phoenix spot for book-buying, author-signing, class-taking, and coffee/beer/wine drinking. Recently, Changing Hands brought in such authors as Jimmy Carter and Diane Keaton, expanded its workshop offerings, and hosted events such as the Arizona Republic's super-popular book club and New Times' panel in search of the great Arizona novel. Customer service at both stores is high, and if they don't have the book you're looking for, they're happy to order it. Don't ever change, Changing Hands. You've got us booked, er, hooked.
Bask in the air conditioning at AMC Esplanade
The concept still seems unreal: Drinking a glass of beer or a cocktail while watching a tasty flick on the big screen was something only Europeans could do for most of our lives. Americans were stuck with soda, candy, and popcorn until someone came up with the simple idea to offer quality seats, quality food, and — of course — quality booze. Several luxury theaters have been open in the Valley for a few years now, but we keep returning to the AMC Dine-In Theatres Esplanade 14 for that upscale moviegoing comfort. Tucked in the Esplanade development's citified compact strip mall with a parking garage, it's a far more peaceful experience to see a movie there than, say, Arizona Mills Mall. The recliners alone make the higher ticket price worth it. If the movie's boring, watch out — it's easy to fall into a deep sleep as you lay nearly prone, legs stretched out just like at home. Good or bad movie, we love using the call button between the seats at least a couple of times during the flick to summon our next drink. We can get used to this.
Cool off with a spa day
Whether you're driving cross-country or across town, the Camelback Inn is a fine destination. With wonderful rooms, a lovely ballroom, top-notch dining, and an incredible desert setting, this Marriott is a cut above. Our favorite reason to drive over for a visit is the spa, a longtime favorite. From the fluffy white robes and clean locker room to the gorgeous pool and delicious but healthy menu (don't skip the gazpacho — or the "detox" margarita), this is the place to be even before you've set foot in a treatment room. Splurge on a 90-minute Swedish massage or a signature wrap, a facial, manicure/pedicure — or spend the day and do it all.
Cheer on the Arizona Diamondbacks
Sure, there are swanky sports bars in Scottsdale, and there are quite a few places to catch a game in Phoenix and Glendale, but few of them combine the spirit, flexibility, and pricing that Devil's Advocate maintains. If you're there to watch a game, the ASU-themed landmark has you covered with TVs in every possible direction. You want to hang out with some of Tempe's finest or spend the evening doing bar trivia or an open mic? It's got that, too, depending on which nights you go. As for drink specials, every night brings a different option, and Devil's Advocate's Thursday night two-for-one special is the kind of deal that even the brokest college students can take advantage of on a weekly basis.
Buy a cactus
You may think that getting a cactus in Phoenix is an easy feat. They're everywhere, right? This may be true, but don't you even think about touching that saguaro down the block. For one, it's illegal to move a saguaro without a permit and, two, messing with those spines is risky, at best. Instead, leave the dirty work to the professionals at Phoenix Desert Nursery. Besides saguaros in various stages of growth, this nursery has almost every cactus you could think of. Looking around the property is like gazing over a vast ocean of terrifyingly spiny beauty. You'll find everything from chollas to organ pipes, aloes to prickly pears. Hoping to add some hip succulents to your windowsill and Instagram account? Yep, Phoenix Desert Nursery's got your back.
See Lisa Sette's latest and greatest
Lisa Sette and her eponymous gallery are nothing short of institutions in Phoenix's art world. Over 30 years, the gallery has earned a reputation both locally and nationally as a serious exhibition space that features seriously talented artists. Housed in a partially subterranean Al Beadle building in Central Phoenix, Lisa Sette Gallery's current artist roster reads a bit like a who's who of Arizona's most notable contemporary artists, including Carrie Marill and James Turrell. For art collectors and appreciators alike, Lisa Sette Gallery is in a class all its own.
Get outdoorsy (without going outside)
Phoenix Rock Gym was the first rock-climbing gym in the Valley, and it's retained a strong sense of community over the years. Starting in 1992 on South Roosevelt Street in Tempe, the gym moved after a couple of years to its present location, where it's outlived many other businesses in the Aztec Plaza strip mall. If you used to work out there 10, 15, even 20 years ago, you'll remember some of the same faces. We mean the customers, mainly, but co-founder Paul Diefenderfer, a.k.a. "Dief," still puts in hours there — his short beard perhaps a little grayer.
As old school as this gym is, Dief and the rest have done a good job keeping the place fresh. Taped climbing routes are replaced and rerouted often, and one wall always seems to be under renovation, which is a good thing. The gym hosts several 30-foot top-roping walls, one wing dedicated to lead climbing with an awesome roof section, and two first-rate bouldering rooms. If you have grand outdoor climbing ambitions, this is also a good place to meet an experienced belay partner. Hand strength and forearm muscles may fade, but you can always count on the Phoenix Rock Gym to be there for reconditioning.
Study up on the desert's flora and fauna
It would be easy to lose a few hours inside Arizona State University's Natural History Collections. The collection is home to one of the largest acquisitions of plants and animals from the Sonoran Desert and the world. There are taxidermy turtles, deer, and owls. In one room, there's a wall of rattlesnakes and lizards coiled up in jars. In another, there are 2,600 drawers filled with nearly a million insects, each one carefully preserved, mounted, and classified.
For decades, the collection was hidden away in the basement at ASU, where even researchers had a difficult time accessing it. But in October, officials moved all the fossils, plants, birds, fish, reptiles, mammals, and insects to its own building in Tempe with the goal of making it more available to the public. The front half is much like a museum, with skeletons and skins on display. In the back, visitors can observe scientists at work. Call ahead to plan a visit.
Watch the sunrise from a bird's eye view
We asked a hardcore hiker for his favorite early-morning hike — the one offering the best view of the sunrise. He laughed and replied, "The sun is the last thing I want to see on an early-morning hike!"
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Buzzkill. But, hey, we get it. In Phoenix, it's a race against the heat. So instead of a mountaintop, we have a different suggestion for getting a bird's-eye view of the desert sunrise: a ride in a hot air balloon. There are several companies that offer rides at all times of the day — some even include a champagne brunch! — in different parts of the Valley, so we'll leave the Googling to you. Enjoy the view and hold on tight.
Catch that blockbuster you keep meaning to see
The weird thing about Pollack Tempe Cinemas is that it's better than most theaters — so why is it "discount?" The answer, of course, is in its last-chance movie selection. If you just have to see it on the big screen but missed it, then realize it's playing at Pollack, that's serendipity. Three bucks for the flick ($2 on Tuesdays), plus a visit to a museum-like theater that shows how it cares about film and the people who watch it. What's not to love about a place with a cabinet full of life-size presidents? Other mannequins, standees, and various Hollywood-related items that owner Michael Pollack's collected over the years decorate shelves above the lobby. It's got a hometown feel and several old-school video games to go along with its 1980s prices. The comfy seats and good sound system make for a two-thumbs-up experience — depending on the movie, of course. But then, if it sucks, you didn't waste much cash. If possible, we'll wait till it gets to Pollack.