Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
Not that we would ever condone making use of the facilities of a hotel when not a guest, because we would never do that, but should you happen to have the opportunity to take in the backyards of the more chi-chi resorts in this little resort town of ours, you'll soon find out what we did: Gainey Ranch has the best pool facilities we've ever seen.
Sitting on just under three acres, with several divided pools, a "beach" surrounded by tiki torches, a whirlpool spa, and a three-story water slide, the "water playground" is like a water park with a full bar. Sections of the pool are adults only, so you can drop off the kids in the water-slide area and sneak off to one of the many swim-up or walk-up bars. The setting is beautiful, and guests can enjoy the full-service spa. Lie back on one of the upholstered poolside couches, swim around the waterfalls, or snooze on the Arizona fake beach -- it's the perfect mini vacation without leaving the city.
Speed freaks with qualms about breaking the law -- hey, they could exist -- best cruise up to the northwest Valley, where Speedworld Motorplex, nine miles north of Bell on Grand Avenue, holds weekly Street Legal Drags. The gates open at 6:30 p.m. every Wednesday in September for five hours of straight racing (gate time moves to 5:30 p.m. in November). Instigated at the request of local street racers, the casual event follows no set program; drivers wanting to test the prowess of their street-driven cars can get in 'tons of runs' without the hassle of tickets or formalities -- $15 to race, $10 to watch. If your beloved Buick doesn't have what it takes, get your kicks via virtual drag racing at www.speedworldmotorplex.com.
Located in southwest Phoenix at Cesar Chávez Park, this fishing hole gets a hook, line and sinker rating. With 25 acres of water, this is the largest of Arizona's designated urban fishing lakes. Be sure to get out there early because the space along the shore fills up quickly. There aren't any boats allowed, so you don't have to worry about the fish being jumpy or your line getting pushed around by the wake. Although there is a limit on the number of bass, trout and catfish you can take home, all others are fair game and limitless. The lake is stocked every two weeks, so there are always some hungry fish out there. Make a family outing out of it and teach the kids how to fish. Enjoy a picnic. Anglers, get angling.
Thanks to the Arizona Department of Transportation, it's only a short hop these days from downtown Phoenix to this nice little executive course, perfect for a late game even in 110-degree heat. The short (3,766 yards for the entire 18, or almost half as long as a regular-size links) par 60 doesn't lend itself to the use of big clubs -- not that we know how to use them anyway. Actually, it was the tricky, undulating greens that proved to be our undoing, as three-putts became a constant, if unwanted, companion. Though many of the fairways are narrow, nobody minds if you hit from wherever you land, as long as you keep an eye on the other groups. The 18th hole is a 340-yard beauty where water comes into play on both the tee shot and approach to the green. The whole thing takes just more than two hours, less than half what it usually takes to play a full-size course. That's a big plus in our busy books. And it's generally easy to get a tee time at Continental, except for those months when the temperature finally drops below 100. The price is right, too: $18 including a cart. Fore!
Readers' Choice for Best Golf Course: Troon North
Way ahead of the curve, Sidewalk Surfer has been flinging skate gear for 26 years. Owner Sandie Hamilton started her first shop near the Scottsdale Civic Center because her kids and their friends were way into skateboarding, but couldn't find the stuff they needed in area stores.
"If these kids were doing it, I figured there were a lot more doing it as well," says Hamilton.
Besides the wide array of decks ($25 for blanks), bearings, wheels, trucks, helmets and pads, Sidewalk Surfer also sells inline skates (rentals available), mopeds, snowboards, boogie boards and skim boards. For those who prefer to walk, SS has every Frisbee golf disk needed for the hard-core master.
And while equipment is fine, the proper image is equally important. SS has a wide selection of hip sunglasses, flip-flops, swimsuits, tee shirts, pants and hats. For those downtimes, check out the skating videos under the counter, along with stickers galore for marking your turf.
When we want to experience a real celestial celebration, we head for Starlab, where the Challenger Space Center hosts totally cool interactive stargazing programs using high-powered telescopes. Our night consists of a slide presentation on the constellations and planets, with news on upcoming sky events, and stories of the night sky featuring folklore and mythology from different cultures. If we're as hungry for food as we are for knowledge, we can snack on hot dogs, chips and soda while we wonder about our place in the universe. Often, too, we stop in for special traveling shows, like the NASA Space Weather Exhibit; the Kalusa Miniature Aircraft Exhibit; the Space Toys Exhibit; and the Hubble Telescope Exhibit. Baby, we're going to the moon!
This Chandler public skate park, established in 1998, is one of the finest concrete parks in the western United States. Its seamless flow makes for a smooth ride, and its rails and ledges all line you up for a good run. Every transition in the place is perfect, and the coping is smooth as hell. The street area is great with a pyramid in the middle that's got a real good rail on it, and good corners. A couple humps help you maintain some speed, and there's a bank to ledge with a lot of possibilities. Ledges of all different sizes surround the entire street course, and there's a long kinked handrail-type thing. The park also has three great bowls, including a gnarly bowl with a spine, a volcano and a vert section, which is great to carve around in.
The park is free and no pads are required. There's never any BMXers to worry about, and the annoying little blader kids are easy to avoid because this is a 32,000-square-foot facility. The park, near Alma School and Ocotillo, is open from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily.
The boss just yelled at us. Again. We've got too much work, and don't want to do any of it anyway. When we're in this mood, instead of pulling out an Uzi, we go to Steele Indian School Park. There, nestled on one of the city's busiest intersections, is peace and calm. We can wander by the Circle of Life monument in the heart of the park, linger by its centerpiece water cistern, and read poetry etched into its side that explains the history of Native Americans in Arizona. We decompress as we cross the Arbor Bridge, strolling into the 15-acre Entry Garden with its spiraling walkway that gradually descends down into a trail of contemplation and meditation. We soften as we read Native American poems etched into the concrete, and absorb the beauty of native desert plants adorning the path. Around us are historic buildings, currently under renovation, dating from 1901; a 15-acre Neighborhood Park with a playground, basketball courts and volleyball courts; a full-symphony amphitheater; and a 2.5-acre bird-shaped lake. It's quiet -- the park is so new that nobody really goes here yet. That's fine. We've discovered it. And with that, we've discovered serenity.
If we were an animal, we'd like to be pampered by the gentle folk at Wildlife World Zoo, which since 1984 has seen its collection grow to some 1,300 animals (that's Arizona's largest family of exotic creatures). We're proud that the place is honored by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association as one of the two nationally accredited privately owned zoos in the United States. WWZ doesn't just put its panthers on display, it educates us about what makes each animal unique, and what we must do to preserve them. There are no concrete sidewalks, just natural caging, like a modern-day Noah's Ark of penguins, giraffes, zebras, tigers, oryxes, lions, deer, kangaroos, gibbon apes, monkeys, camels, white rhinos, white tigers, African lions, African wild dogs, maned wolves, lemurs and so much more. To WWZ, we say, you go, grrr!
Let us loose in this store, then jet us to Iraq. Two days later, we'll have Saddam's weapons of mass destruction . . . and Waldo. With more than one million maps, books and geographical items, this place can help you find anything, anywhere. It's got every corner of the world covered: U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps of Arizona, hiking trail maps, digital maps, GPS products and good old Inflate-A-Globes.
Indeed, customers can get map-happy on numerous levels: local (county road guides), state (topographic maps for all 50) and mile-high (World Aeronautical Charts). Considering the company's Phoenix Mapping Service publishes street atlases for Phoenix and Tucson and produces custom maps for government and businesses, surely this place can help you find your measly way to San Jose.
Just to the east of Tempe Town Lake, beyond a small rubber dam, a spectacular wetland is sprouting willows, cottonwoods and sycamores -- the mainstay of Southwest riparian areas. Effluent from Mesa's wastewater treatment plant flowing into the arid Salt River bed is being impounded by the Town Lake's east dam and fueling the fabulous resurgence of streamside life.
Drivers and passengers can catch glimpses of the emerging habitat from the sweeping ramps at the interchange of highways 101 and 202. The swath of greenery fuels the imagination of "what if" we restored the Salt River to even a fraction of its glorious past.
Among the birds assembling in the area are Great Egrets, which 100 years ago were close to extinction. Now the emblem of the National Audubon Society, the return of the graceful bird is a positive sign that, given a little money, water and time left alone, nature will provide all that is needed for wildlife to return to the Salt River Valley.
Just the location warrants major bike-shop cachet. Three blocks from Mill Avenue and ASU, Tempe Bicycle sits in the midst of the Valley's only bike-friendly and bike-conscious neighborhood.
Add to that owners Bud and Yvonne Morrison's 27 years in the bike business, and their longtime commitment to providing the widest selection of killer bikes and accessories, and you have what is easily the Valley's top bike store.
Beyond mere stuff, Tempe Bicycle also provides that perfect bike-shop atmosphere. It's dark, it smells of grease and just about every employee has some very bizarre, very cool tic in their personality. This is an organic cool, smart, eccentric, grassroots, which means this is a place to hang out if you love biking.
Readers' Choice: Tempe Bicycle