Just after Christmas, the Valley's most prestigious Arabian horse farms throw open their gates and let the public see what the fuss is all about. It's an unexpected blend of equine beauty, foreign money, and sophisticated social networking. And for five days (this time around the days are December 29, 2010 through January 2, 2011), the rest of us poor schlubs are invited to join in the fun. The allure of these stunning creatures is undeniable — words like "sensual" and "seductive" are thrown around. In truth, such words are accurate, even to the most cynical observer. The hoofed performers even steal the show from the chic Buenos Aires crowd that mingles on the lawn in Armani and stilettos. And the occasional sight of a prancing foal will stop you in your tracks. In a word: "Whoa."
Express Mie Studio
This place is a little hard to find, tucked in the back of a popular shopping center, but it's totally worth the search. The space offers two pole-dance studios — one large one for group classes, and a smaller space for private, all-female parties. We hear women of all sizes and ages who are "taking pole" asking each other in the hallways, "What level are you at now?" — as if it were any dojo in town. These gals are serious about developing core strength and six-pack abs by wrapping and gyrating around poles and cheering each other on. It's a classy environment (really!) where soccer moms can feel comfortable popping in for a pole class, then picking up some groceries at Trader Joe's. Even though it's an all-female gig, we suspect quite a few husbands and boyfriends out there are appreciating Express MiE about now, too.

Best Place to Drink While Your Kid Plays Hockey

Alltel Ice Den

Ice Den
The ideas of hockey and ice may be a strange concept for many Valley residents, so a drink or two might be in order to get you to warm up to the idea of hanging out in the freezing cold. The Alltel Ice Den understands this, which is probably why they've included a bar in their already excellent facility. The 120,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art ice rink offers youth hockey leagues for all ages and, for the parents, The 18 Degree Neighborhood Grill — a sports bar located in the arena, where the only ice you'll have to stare at while the kiddies are skating is safely floating in your gin and tonic.
Gamer's Inn
If you've ever wondered which magical rock fantasy-gaming addicts are hiding under, look no further than Gamers' Inn. The place is heaven for serious gamers, with 500-plus board games, dollar-an-hour multiplayer LAN stations, and a selection of Magic: The Gathering cards that would rival the One Ring in evil power if placed in the wrong hands. You know those crazy gamers that you hear about, the ones who pee in soda cans and skip sleep so they never have to put their joysticks down? Those people probably train here. Gamers' Inn is open 24/7 and provides everything you need to keep your multiplayer first-person shooter going all night. Don't have a dungeon master for your RPG? You'll find one here. Mom tired of hearing zombie groans when you play House of the Dead in her basement? Head to Gamers' Inn, where you can be alone with your infernal addiction. To survive among this crowd of serious gamers, you'd best come prepared with a killer deck of cards or a kick-ass Warhammer army, a rested mind, and lots of caffeine pills.
Caswells
Caswells beats any other indoor shooting range in the Valley, for a number of reasons. First, Caswells is a firearm retailer, which means visitors can buy or rent a wide variety of guns and ammo. The indoor range at Caswells has awesome air conditioning, so patrons don't have to sweat it out while shooting, and the targets are movable (they operate on an electronic system, so shooters can adjust their distances more precisely). The indoor shooting booths are side-by-side, but each is relatively private — at least, private enough that shooters don't get dinged with brass casings from their neighbors' stall. There are 11 stalls, and the adjustable targets for each reach a maximum of 75 feet. Prices are reasonable, too — $15 per person per lane rental and $7 gun rentals. Add the fact that ladies get free lanes and gun rentals on Tuesdays and Fridays, and there's little doubt that Caswells is the best shot for Valley gun enthusiasts.
Rio Salado Sportsman's Club
The junior marksmen program at Rio Salado Sportsman's Club focuses on small-bore (.22-caliber) rifle shooting, and boasts some of the best junior marksmen in Arizona. Shooters who've gone through the program at Rio Salado include two-time National Junior Olympics competitor Tanya Gorin; Christine Costello, who recently graduated from the University of Nebraska on a full scholarship from the Huskers rifle team; and Joyce Kim, who was named Smallbore Junior of the Year by the Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association in 2008. The program is for marksmen ages 10 through 20, and focuses on safety first: the coaches, who include Ed Roberts and Myles Gorin, are all certified through the National Rifle Association and say they've never had a single accident in the junior program. It's a social activity for almost everybody, too — the kids spend time together away from the firing line, most of the childrens' parents join them for weekly practices, and at the end of the season, there's always a big party.
Ben Avery Shooting Facility
Ben Avery is the largest publicly operated shooting facility in the United States, sprawling over 1,650 acres near Lake Pleasant. It has a proud history among sportsmen and was the site of the World Shooting Championships in 1970. Gun enthusiasts and law enforcement officers regularly practice on the main and specialty ranges, which include an archery range. Ben Avery also has a Clay Target Center for skeet and trap shooting, and a large campground away from the ranges. But the main thing that sets Ben Avery apart is the surrounding landscape — shooters get to take in some great views of the surrounding mountains and desert plains while honing their marksman skills.
Stanfield, Arizona
You wouldn't necessarily know it by reading the local daily newspaper, but tens of thousands of Arizonans go dove hunting every year starting September 1. If you're not a hunter, the only way to tell for sure that dove-hunting season is approaching is if you go to Walmart and spot a 12-foot-high pyramid of shotgun-shell boxes on sale. We know it's a popular activity because we keep getting pushed out of our favorite spots. That's not necessarily because more people are choosing to shoot the world's symbol of peace — hunting is a dying sport, in general, by many accounts. But Arizona's fast growth (before the recession) has either swallowed up many of our old hunting grounds or caused more people to swarm onto the ever-shrinking good spots. In the past few years, though, we've found success (and our birding limit, or nearly so) in fields around Stanfield, just south of Maricopa. We won't tell you exactly where our spot is — duh! — but it's a big area. Just drive along the access roads to the local farms until you find a good place to hang out — far away from any "No Hunting" signs or inhabited buildings, of course. When you're done, you can barbecue the birds in the field — or follow our lead and stop off at Harrah's Ak-Chin casino for a buffet breakfast and a few hands of blackjack.

Best Place to Access the Superstition Mountains If Lost Dutchman Park Closes (Or Even If It Doesn't)

First Water Trailhead

Lovers of the outdoors pooled their money this year to keep Lost Dutchman State Park open after severe budget cuts by the Legislature. After $26,000 was raised from private sources, officials announced the park — a major gateway to the East Valley's Superstition Mountains — would remain open. But there's no assurance the state will fix its financial problems next year. Whether open or closed, however, if you want to hike in the Supes, you can skip the park altogether and drive to the nearby First Water Trailhead. The access road, FS78, is just 0.3 miles past the turnoff for Lost Dutchman off State Route 88; the trailhead is about two miles down the dirt road. From there, you'll find a wide variety of trails to hike — including those that are accessible from Lost Dutchman, like the popular Siphon Draw trail. Best of all, the parking is free, while Lost Dutchman costs $7 per vehicle. Some websites state that a $6 Tonto Pass or other fees are required to park at First Water. The Forest Service assures us that's not the case for day hikers. The catch: Get there early before those free spots fill up.
Goldfield Ghost Town
For years, when hiking on the west flanks of the Superstition Mountains, we wondered where the hell that train-whistle noise was coming from. This year, we found out — it's the whistle above the mine at the Goldfield Ghost Town. And we're happy to know, because the mine turns out to be a slice of Arizona we should have experienced years ago. A grizzled-looking prospector type gave the tour into the mine for our small group of adults and kids. Though we were impressed right away by the authentic mine elevator, which went down 30 or 40 feet (as far as we could tell), the ambiance of the tour was set when the prospector/guide had to jump up and down to make the elevator descend the final two feet. Inside the dim mine shaft, where the ceiling is held up by rickety-looking wooden and metal support beams, we were treated to a history of the place and interesting anecdotes — like how the 19th-century pneumatic jackhammers were called "Widowmakers" because the dust they kicked up had miners dropping like flies. After the relieved feeling of seeing sunlight when you get out, stop by the saloon and Wild West town for a Tombstone-like shoot-out. Don't wait for your Chicago relatives to visit before making a pilgrimage to this historic spot.

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