BEST OUTDOOR HOLIDAY EXPERIENCE 2004 | Desert Botanical Garden | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix
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.

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.

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.
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 . . .

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!

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

Thanks to the sweetly surrealistic tiny town structures that make up Castles N' Coasters, our favorite local mini golf course, you can take a cheap date around the world in 72 holes. From the spooky Old West mine shaft to the jaunty New Orleans riverfront hotel, past the African jungle huts, the hillbilly outhouse, Islamic temple, Franciscan mission, Hopi tepees and the ever-popular Candy House and Hippy House (a psychedelic favorite among boomer parents), the Castles N' Coasters courses take putters on a miniaturized international trek -- complete with location-specific sound effects and music blaring from tinny hidden speakers -- that make for the best small world tour this side of Disney.

Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain.

Readers' Choice: Golfland/Sunsplash

Serious paintballers rank their favorite splatter spots according to their own peculiar rating systems. Some consider the atmosphere between players and referees the key. Others look for fields with a variety of bunkers, barrels, ditches and cool places to commandeer. For many, it's which place is cheapest: A full day of play can run between $60 and $100, depending on the cost of paint, air, field fees and snacks. Still others simply pick the field that's closest to their house: For players on the young side still dependent on mom's minivan, the best paintball park is often the desert area behind their best friend's house.

Lately, the pick of many Valley teams and tournament players has been Game-On, a sprawling assortment of fields (including one fashioned like a castle and another like a marketplace) located near 67th Avenue and Southern. For the strapped splatter junkie, Game-On's prices are hard to beat: The noob-friendly park offers trial games for five bucks, including all equipment, and allows a BYO paint policy for experienced players. For the best team speedball action, say those in the know, show up Sunday afternoons -- and prepare to leave looking like a bruised bag of Skittles.

Tempe Bicycle is the best bike shop in town for a few simple reasons -- selection, prices, service, and above-the-call extras like its free weekly bicycle clinics. Just blocks from ASU's campus, its location doesn't hurt, either. Inside the cavernous warehouse, there's an unkempt grease-monkey feel to the place, which is crammed with every sort of accessory possible alongside rows and rows of two-wheelers. There's really no competition, so don't be surprised if we continue to call Tempe Bicycle the best.

Tie one on at Don's Sport Shop, where free Saturday-morning casting classes let fly with fly-fishing basics. Lacking the proper equipment? No worries: Don's crew will hook you up with a loaner -- and even let you try out the shop's demo rods at the pond that sits next to the shop. Also on the agenda: an annual fly-fishing fair; "Fly Tying 101," "Tying Bass Flies" and "Intermediate Fly Tying" classes; and private and group lessons. For hard-core anglers, the state's "premier shooting sports and fly fishing outfitter and dealer" guides trips to fishing holes in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. And if you want to experience the reel world without a chaperone, Don's staff is happy to help plan and book your adventure -- free of charge.

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