Greater Phoenix, Ariz., boasts world-class resorts, golf, shopping and high performance drivingDesert Oasis Gila monsters and cacti aren’t the only ones to enjoy the desert

By Jack Macaleavy

Surrounded by the lush green colors of Florida and several months of rainy days, it often is hard to imagine living in the desert. You conjure up a world of browns with sparse plant life and dry riverbeds where the heat is so intense you can cook an egg on the pavement. But like all environments, you have to take the good with the bad. Head out west to Arizona and you can easily find a lot of good in the Phoenix and Scottsdale areas.

It’s a place where you can indulge in world-class spa facilities, five-star accommodations and food, and shopping options that leave little to be desired. For the avid sports fanatic, fulfillment can be found playing the desert course of the PGA Championship or participating in one of the country’s most respected and challenging high-performance driving schools.

And for the epitome of sports fans, Phoenix is the home of the 2008 Super Bowl and the PGA Championship – all to be played on the same weekend in January. Unless you have some serious connections, the town is sold out for this mega-week of sports.

Phoenix is one of the world’s premier destinations, with more than 200 golf courses; resort hotels boasting names known for luxury, such as The Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton, Fairmont and Westin; and many other boutique brands. There is little you might want that is not available.

The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Hotel hosts the PGA Championship each winter and offers more than 700 rooms and suites. Its most remarkable asset is the 44,000-square-foot Willow Stream spa, which opened in 2001 and represents a $16-million upgrade investment. With a private, adults-only rooftop pool and 27 treatment rooms, the Willow Stream’s ambiance will take you away to a level of relaxation and serenity matched by few. Programs are customized for the individual or couples and offer many exotic treatments.

Shopping: It’s paradise. There’s everything from indoor swap meets to upscale shopping destinations, including the Old World style of The Borgata; the one-of-a-kind boutiques at Bella Dimora or Kierland Commons; and an open-air collection of “you-can’t-get-that-in-Tallahassee” high-end retailers such as Anthropologie, Restoration Hardware and BCBG Max Azaria.

Does that whet your shopping appetite? If not, then head to the Olympian-sized Scottsdale Fashion Square, anchored by Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, with the luxe (Tiffany & Co., Burberry, Gucci) and the fashionable (Juicy Couture, Kate Spade, Lucky Jeans) in between.

Anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue, the Biltmore Fashion Park includes the world’s top luxury brands, including Cartier, Escada and Ralph Lauren.

If keeping on the move is your idea of a perfect vacation, consider testing your skills with the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. Internationally known driving star Bob Bondurant has operated this school since 1968 and can be seen most any day at the track, working with his team of professional drivers to help the more than 100,000 students learn the fine techniques of performance driving. They have taught them all – from Hollywood actors such as Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Paul Newman, Tom Cruise and many more who trained for their films – to the many stars of NASCAR who check in on a regular basis to tune up their skills for race season.

Today, the school features a fleet of more than 200 GM factory cars, such as the Corvette, Cadillac CTS and Pontiac GTO. Courses range from a single day to a four-day graduated program that puts you in a formula car on the last day for some all-out real road racing. It’s safe, it’s educational, and it’s some of the most fun any car lover ever could experience.

Now, if you want some desert experience, the AOA Adventure Company will tailor an off-road experience that will put your outdoor skills to the test. It may be a half-day hike and climb in the Boulder Mountain area by guides who know the terrain and the desert ecosystem of flora and fauna.

There are custom mountain bike tours for all skill levels. Rookies will enjoy travel across flat, beautiful terrain with vistas straight off of a postcard, while seasoned bikers can consider more challenging courses. The guide will pack all you will need for desert survival and work with each customer to ensure an exciting and safe experience.

Guides also will put together multi-day adventures down the Grand Canyon or overnight in the remote Arizona deserts.

So get in touch with your mountain and desert genes in Phoenix/Scottsdale. There are a plethora of indoor and outdoor activities, but remember that Arizona’s dry heat is very unlike the humid environment of North Florida. Hydrate and pace yourself, and you will find plenty to enjoy when you visit again … and again.

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