Best Summer Vacation 2008 | Phoenix Sister Cities Youth Ambassador Program | People & Places | Phoenix

Diversity for many Valley teens means going to a mall and watching the world walk by. But some kids are lucky enough to escape town for the summer. Some ambitious adolescents will go far.

In 1972, Phoenix joined the Sister City movement and hooked up with Hermosillo, Mexico. Since then, Phoenix has linked with nine cities from China to the Czech Republic. Here's where your kid comes in: Teens in their sophomore or junior years of high school can apply for a spot in a Sister Cities program that will allow them to live with a host family in a faraway land for three weeks.

In turn, you later host a teenager from another land. Sister Cities pays for half of the travel expenses, though further financial assistance is available. Scottsdale, Mesa, Gilbert, Peoria, Queen Creek, and Tempe have similar and equally successful programs. (Check your city's Web site for details.) Both parent and child will be shouting, 'Free, free at last!' — for at least three weeks.

Phoenix poet, knitter, artist, and yogini hipster Julie Hampton just can't take no for an answer. When a counselor at the Small Business Administration told her she was crazy to think she could buy a rustic medieval house in Italy and turn it into a vacation home/retreat, she ignored his small-mindedness and found a way to do just that. This three-bedroom, two-bath faraway dream turned reality — she calls it the Rosenclaire House — is yours to rent by the week, the month, whatever. It sleeps six and sits atop a tiny northern Tuscan village of Vitiana just waiting for you to prepare regional slow fare in its kitchen (never cooked in a kitchen with a hearth?), write your novel, or perform sun salutes in the upstairs loft with its breathtaking (we know it's cliché, but there's really no better word) view of Vitiana and Tuscany's chestnut-forested Garfagnana region below.

You think you've eaten fresh eggs, real cheese, and tomatoes as Zeus intended them? Here in Phoenix? Yeah, Chris Bianco's good, but he's not the village farmer trudging up the cobblestone path with a bucket of wholesome freshness. We can't figure out just what it is that makes the food so delicious, the sleep so deep, the sun so warm (in a good way), and we sure as hell can't figure out how to get it back here to the Valley. Leave leaning towers and naked statues to the tourists. Vitiana is the real dolce vita.

Friends often accuse us of having our heads in outer space. They don't know the half of it. Since childhood, we've dreamed of becoming astronauts. Alas, our feeble skills in science and math ruled out such a career path. So pending the day when the whole space-tourism thing becomes a more practical (and affordable) reality, the closest we're getting to trekking among the stars is by visiting the Challenger Space Center in Peoria.

This futuristic-looking facility offers a pair of simulated missions, where Neil Armstrong wanna-bes can participate in a pair of interactive two-hour experiences replicating (to a certain degree) a journey through the final frontier and life aboard the International Space Station. (Participants also get a turn at working as a flight crew in the million-dollar mission control facility inspired by the Johnson Space Center in Houston.) After sitting in the Earth Space Transit Module (which "transports" you into the cosmos), you can either help launch interstellar probes to encounter celestial bodies during "Rendezvous with a Comet," or take an excursion to the red planet in "Voyage to Mars."

Don't worry about motion sickness; there's no movement involved. It's more a cerebral adventure involving video screens that's somewhat akin to the old Mission to Mars ride at Disneyland — just without all those creepy-looking animatronic automatons.

We all know how excruciating modern urban life can be. We work like dogs, drive like animals, and shove fast food down our throats between dentist appointments and birthday parties. And in a city of cars, there's hardly an escape from the constant drone of engines flying by on bustling streets. But we stress "hardly" because we've found one of the best escape pods in the Valley.

The permanent installation by James Turrell at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art has provided a Zen space for the Valley for the past seven years. As it's tucked away behind the museum's patio, it's no surprise that visitors often cruise right by, missing their opportunity to put on the brakes and chill. This simple, elliptical room is made of slate-gray concrete with a block bench lining the curvature of the walls. Look up to its tall ceiling and you'll see our crystal blue heavens through its oval skylight. The walls block out the noise, the skylight makes the room glow, and the rounded enclosure feels like a warm embrace. Frantic thoughts and everyday anxieties disappear like magic and you are left to just be. Even in the dead of summer, we've spent chunks of time in the room, hardly noticing the heat. And if you happen to visit at night, a subtle glow achieved by expertly placed lighting will make you feel like you just popped a Vicodin.

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