Arizona’s Desert Rose

Scottsdale, Arizona | BCBusiness
Hiking Camelback Mountain offers clear views of the sprawling desert city and its myriad resorts.

Scottsdale is chic and has great golf. But that’s just the start

It’s just after 6:30 a.m. The mercury has passed 27 degrees Celsius and is climbing steadily when I begin the hike up Camelback Mountain. At 825 metres, it’s a prominent landmark in the flat Phoenix valley, but it’s no match for a British Columbian accustomed to the Grouse Grind. That is, until the last hundred metres or so.

“See that spider? Just don’t put your hand anywhere near it,” says my guide, a 22-year-old sprite, as she scales the crumbling orange rock like Spider Man.

I feign nonchalance and pull myself around a ledge, doing my best to convince myself that the earth beneath my running shoes doesn’t feel like ball bearings and the cactus that will break my fall if I go over the ledge will be soft, not prickly. But I don’t slip and we make it to the top in “good time,” she tells me. Below us, the acres of Scottsdale’s lavish resorts dot the flat landscape and beyond them Phoenix sprawls toward the hazy horizon. I see the valley in a new light.

STAY Luxury abounds at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess and on-site Mexican restaurant La Hacienda (from $127;, but Barack Obama stayed up the road at Montelucia Resort & Spa (from $99 a night;

SAVOUR Serving Arizona wines and locally sourced produce—like the award-winning braised leeks gratin—FnB restaurant in Old Scottsdale offers a true taste of the state (shared plates from $5, entrees from $25;

SEE Frank Lloyd Wright built Taliesin West, his winter home, in 1937. A tour of his architectural salute to the desert is now a national heritage site not to be missed ($32;

SOUVENIR Skip the tourist shops that line the streets of Scottsdale’s Old Town and grab some Arizona Hot Sauce (from $10) or a piece of turquoise costume jewellery (from $40). Population: 221,789 area: 477.7 sq. km Currency: US$ Time: MST (No daylight savings time observed)

It won’t be long after you touch down on the dusty, sunbleached tarmacs of Phoenix’s busy airport that you’ll discover Scottsdale has come a long way since it proclaimed itself the “West’s most western town.” You’ll still find relics of its cowboys and Indians history—like the tourist-trap shops of Old Scottsdale and the Rusty Spur Saloon with its swinging doors and wagon-wheel chandelier—but today’s Scottsdale has a culture that reaches deeper than its copious golf courses, shopping malls and day spas would suggest.

There’s the 30-year-old ArtWalk, where Old Scottsdale’s 100-plus galleries throw open their doors well into the evening for visitors to peruse stunning southwest-inspired artwork. But going back even further, Frank Lloyd Wright certainly deserves some credit. His legacy is ubiquitous some 80 years after he first began spending winters in the area at his seasonal home, Taliesin West. A Wright-designed bright blue and green spire stands distinctively at the Promenade Shopping Center, just off Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard. He was also the mastermind behind the Gammage Auditorium on the Arizona State University campus and consulted on the famous Arizona Biltmore Hotel.

The works of Wright’s protegés continue to leave an indelible mark on Scottsdale’s architectural landscape—the tranquil Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, which has seen its fair share of Hollywood heavyweights over the decades, being one example.

Speaking of celebrities, as I’m strolling through the McDowell Sonoran Reserve on another morning, captivated by the sweet smells and sounds of the desert awakening around me, actress Hilary Swank runs past, leaving me—literally—in her dust. Unlike me, she probably wasn’t out the night before sampling Arizona wines—yes, they do exist and are impressive, as is Scottsdale’s prospering culinary community.

At True Food Kitchen in Scottsdale Quarter, the typical, gargantuan American portions of all things fried are tossed aside for crisp salads, crudités and brown-rice bowls. At Prado restaurant, the perfectly grilled halibut is flown in from B.C., and the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess’s Well & Being at Willow Stream Spa rolls out a seasonally changing menu that nods to both locally grown, organic food and your waistline. The weekend Old Town Farmers’ Market is the one outdoor place I find in Scottsdale that actually bustles in the midday heat, as locals flit between more than 40 vendors to snag fresh tamales, herbs and the biggest artichokes I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Perhaps this shift back to the earth, to farming, is simply history repeating itself. After all, Scottsdale was founded by brothers Winfield and George Scott, who bought up land in the area in the 1880s to cultivate potatoes, fruits and nuts. Nevertheless, Scottsdale is certainly keeping up with the times, as its myriad fashion outlets and vibrant nightlife attest.

If you care to look past Scottsdale’s glossy surface, you’ll discover a soulful, organic community. And since there’s inevitably a luxurious spa close by, you might as well get a massage and hang out by a pool to contemplate it. 

Local Knowledge

Born and raised on Vancouver Island, Ken Singh left a lucrative career in big business to launch a small one in Scottsdale’s Sonoran desert, where he’s created a sustainable vegetable farm—out of compost.

Tell us about your business plan for the farm and market.
It has no principles of business. You could do this as a proper business and make it a good business, and as a business there’s a lot of things I wouldn’t have done because economically you’d be saying, “What the hell are you doing that for? There’s no market there!”

How difficult has it been to cultivate from compost?
The worst dirt I have ever seen is in this field. The calcium carbonate goes down three feet. So I originally wanted to buy compost, but I couldn’t find any of the stuff, so I had to make my own.

Why do you hire people who face employment challenges?
I need a labour force and there’s a lot of community members—some of them, unfortunately, have been incarcerated—who have a lot of problems and need work.

Why do you think the community has rallied behind you?
If your intent is to change the dynamics of what you’re doing, you should leave things better than you found them, and the benefit is you’ll improve your cities. By doing the right thing it’s been a pretty good little business.