When you’re the kind of couple that used to thrive on outdoor adventures back in the BC era (that’s Before Children), it’s a beautiful thing when you finally get back to it. We’d been creeping towards that with our two kids over the last few years with a hike in the woods here, a cross-country ski session or camping trip there. But we had a real moment in the desert on a recent fall getaway to Arizona’s Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North.
The four of us—Sabrina, nine, Duncan, eight, James and I—were zipping up and down sandy washes in the Sonoran Desert, spotting jet contrails in the azure sky and little cottontails hiding behind prickly pear. Though we were just a 20-minute drive from the resort, it felt like we were laying single-track in the middle of nowhere. And while it was threatening to drop below freezing back home on Bowen Island, BC, Canada, we were whizzing past giant Saguaro cactus, warmed like lizards in the hot sun.
At last! I couldn’t get the perma-smile off my face. Sabrina, who’d been somewhat of a shaky mountain biker up til then, really came into her own, locking into new-found confidence. “Eeeek!” she squealed in delight, taking a dip at a decent clip. “Look at me, daddy! This is SO fun!”
We’d started the weekend trip with an easygoing sunset scramble up Pinnacle Peak (a ¾-mile walk right from Four Seasons), a 1,300-feet elevation gain, just in time for the valley—dotted with giant boulders, pointy hills and Frank Lloyd Wright-esque villas—to be bathed in a crimson glow. The trail was wide and sandy, with local flora and fauna described on markers. Exuberant, the kids were fascinated by all the exotics: a Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus, a green-trunked Palo Verde tree, a real live rattlesnake housed in a glass case at the visitor center. They skipped up the trail, hollered at the viewpoints and galloped down. We finished the night with dips in the pool, which delighted with mood lights changing from purple to blue to green, and our in-casita patio plunge pool/Jacuzzi.
But this was our Big Adventure day. And we didn’t even have to spend six hours packing gear. Our guide Denny Brua of Arizona Outback Adventures (AOA) picked us up at the resort after breakfast, shuttled us to the trail head in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and led us on an ambitious switchback climb up the McDowell Mountains to Tom’s Thumb. He had everything dialed: the chilled waters, the granola bars, the right spots to stop for a quick edu-chat.
We learned what a Jojoba bush looks like and that it’s the main ingredient in most shampoos. We learned about the Jumping Cholla, or Teddy Bear Cactus (looks cute, but isn’t—the kids loved that part), and that it takes like 80 years for a Saguaro cactus to grow to full height. Did you know that you have to have a license to relocate one? Did you know that if you look closely, some Saguaros are actually cleverly painted telephone poles? Gosh, it was fun. We also learned that the citizens of Scottsdale tax themselves in order to buy up the land in this area; eventually one-third of the city’s land will be part of the preserve.
We moved on to the mountain biking portion of our program and felt like we’d won the lottery when Denny pulled out pristine Giant Anthem X2 mountain bikes, the Porsches of the single-track world, plus helmets and gloves (AOA’s fleet includes the gamut, all the way up to full-suspension for serious riders). This guy has been leading tours for like 100 years (just kidding, Denny!), and was always ready with the right tips, in the right tone, including “Good job, Duncan!” when our little guy started running out of gas. Where can I tap into that Yoda-like patience?
We wished we were visiting for longer and could’ve sampled an AOA outbound-trip. The company can customize, for any type of family, a few hours, a full day or multi-day adventures in the area to places like the Sonoran Desert, Havasupai and Havasu Falls (watch the video here, the Salt River, Sedona and Grand Canyon National Park. The excursions include kayaking, rafting, hiking, cycling (the Tour de Scottsdale), mountain biking and fly-and-hike helicopter tours.
As it was, while scarfing our tasty Four Seasons picnic lunch, we happened upon a wildlife fair at the park trailhead. We ended up scrapping the last part of our itinerary for an hour of observing scorpions, rattlers and king snakes. Duncan drilled the experts about predators, habitat and eating habits (crickets and frozen mice). The biggest hit was a collection of rescued raptors, especially the owls. Our kids were mesmerized by the little one who seemed to be winking at us.
We earned that fancy dinner at Talavera Restaurant, Four Seasons’ upscale take on a traditional steak house—a sultry gem set above the sparkling city lights, accented by a fire element that resembles a flickering row of flames. The mountains darkened to silhouettes and the moon treated us by rising to a half sliver, showing the rest in shadow. The spot is pure magic; think Dale Chihuly channels Alhambra. Next time, best to use an on-site sitter and make it a date.
Duded up in a tie and dress shirt, party dress and Mary Janes, the kids noted every fancy detail: the warm buns, delivered fresh from the oven in a mini cast iron pan; the butter terrine sprinkled in Hawaiian sea salt; the special coffee roaster-food pairing menu from Chef Mel Mecinas—one creation in the form of mushroom-cappuccino soup made to look like the foamy coffee beverage with a dipping biscuit (a peppered bacon chip) on the side. “I think they really do like kids,” Sabrina confided, after the waiter took her high-maintenance order in unflappable form. “He said, ‘You want pasta with butter and just cheddar on that? Sure, fine.’”
As Duncan drifted off in his comfy chair before dessert, the poor guy, I daydreamed a bit, feeling happily full and slightly crisped from a day in the sun and dust. I was picturing James at the end of our ride. Sabrina had sprinted ahead, and he’d decided to catch up while the rest of us paused for a water break. He took off on that Giant Anthem X2 at a fast pedal, getting tinier in the distance; down, up and over the dips, getting air off the railroad ties, whooping and eyes watering in the warm wind. Just like the old days.
Read more on Scottsdale in Four Seasons Magazine.
Read about Four Seasons Scottsdale at Christmas time in Four Seasons Magazine.
Michelle Pentz Glave is the Have Family Will Travel editor. Before diving into communications/PR, she was a journalist for 25 years in the US and Germany including stints with The Wall Street Journal Europe, Gruner+Jahr (Bertelsman) and the Albuquerque Journal. Her work has appeared in Outside, Wired, Travel + Leisure, Sunset and Fortune. She has a Bachelor's in English from Yale and a Master's in Journalism from Columbia University. Michelle is passionate about family, food, farmers, her garden and taekwondo. She lives on Bowen Island, near Vancouver, Canada, with her husband and two kids: Sabrina, 11, and Duncan, nine.
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