by Albert Rodriguez -
SGN A&E Writer
Arizona has become a favorite destination for Northwesterners to flock to during the cold months. Besides the obvious - sunshine, warm temps - it boasts one of the most exciting food scenes in the country, plus national landmarks, premier golf courses, and peaceful resorts. The cities of Phoenix and Tempe, conveniently linked by light-rail service (25 minutes, $1.75), have everything you need for a sunny weekend: an abundance of hotels, restaurants, shopping centers, arts and cultural offerings, and for outdoorsy travelers, very close proximity to the mountains and desert biking trails. And though Arizona is definitely a red state, these two urban areas are known to be LGBT-friendly. Flights from Seattle to Phoenix are just over two hours, and light rail is now accessible from Sky Harbor Airport (look for the shuttle that will take you the 44th St./Washington St. station).
Phoenix is a huge city, spread out like a giant flatbread. Recent developments and new businesses have changed the dynamics of the downtown area, making it a desirable stopping ground for winers, diners, shoppers, and clubgoers. A little exploring into Phoenix's individual neighborhoods might also give way to more authentic eateries and vintage bars. Go to www.visitphoenix.com for trip ideas.
Nearing its first anniversary, Hotel Palomar Phoenix (www.hotelpalomar-phoenix.com) has already welcomed two enormous Gay icons, Madonna and Lady Gaga. Part of the Kimpton Hotels brand, a longtime LGBT ally, it's overwhelmingly favored by Gay travelers. Major sports arenas and playfields, doubling as concert venues, are literally footsteps from the main entrance, as are numerous restaurants, lounges, retail stores, and an extended ASU campus. Of the 242 rooms on 10 floors, some provide incredible views of the cocoa-colored mountains in the distance, and each offers generous space and quality amenities, like an exclusive line of Etro bath products. Arizona native John Randall Nelson helped to create unique art pieces for individual rooms. On the third-floor roof, you'll find an outdoor pool with terrace and the Lustre Bar. The main level is highlighted by the Palomar's 'Living Room,' a cozy nook to relax in between meetings or activities. Blue Hound Kitchen and Cocktails, also on the lobby floor, woos its share of young Gay men for happy hour, and some of them stay for dinner in the polished, high-ceilinged restaurant. From the cocktail menu, I suggest the Thunder Gun Express, an original concoction of crème de cacao, Carpano Antica, Clément Première Canne, coconut chai tea-infused rum, and lime.
DINING AND DRINKING
A 10-minute walk from Hotel Palomar is Angel's Trumpet Ale House (www.angelstrumpetalehouse.com), which features dozens of microbrews on tap and mouthwatering burgers, sandwiches, and personal-size pizzas. Across the street is the aptly named FilmBar (www.thefilmbarphx.com), essentially a mini-movie theater inside a dimly lit, sexy lounge that's also an art gallery. Obscure films are the norm at FilmBar's screenings, but occasionally it presents something familiar, like weekly showings of The Walking Dead. If you can find it, Lux Central (www.luxcoffee.com) is worth the taxi ride. This sought-after coffee shop-turned-lounge is a hit with the skinny-jeans set, indie music peeps, and students deep in their homework. Cocktails are made with fresh ingredients and the vibe is cool and upbeat, while the overhead tunes range from electronica to Americana. Wind down at the Crescent Ballroom (www.crescentphx.com), where patrons can drink at the bar or listen to live entertainment in a small concert space. For a sit-down meal, I recommend Gallo Blanco (www.galloblancocafe.com), a reasonably priced cafe-lounge by noted chef Doug Robson tucked inside the Clarendon Hotel. Hearty portions and flavorful dishes like house-made posole, halibut fish tacos, and all-day breakfast selections make this place a must.
THINGS TO DO
Besides soaking up the sun, you might want to explore the Roosevelt Row Arts District (www.rooseveltrow.org) for good finds. This community of artists, upstart chefs, and boutique owners has revitalized a district that once blended forgettably into downtown. The Phoenix Art Museum (www.phxart.org) has four levels of works stretching from the Baroque and Renaissance periods to colonial America and pieces from Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. It also features a costume exhibit by one of only two museum fashion curators in the entire country. For shoppers, CityScape (www.cityscapephoenix.com) is a downtown multi-block development with stores galore to flex that new credit card, and plenty of eateries and bars to slide into for a pit stop.
Phoenix Pride is scheduled for April 6 and 7 at Steele Indian School Park with parade, festival, and a weekend packed with fun activities. For more information, go to www.phoenixpride.org. Ballet in a garden? That's right. TOPIA is a modern ballet taking place in the great outdoors at the Desert Botanical Garden with a backdrop of the Papago Buttes. Visit www.dbg.org for information. And the Musical Instrument Museum has a number of concerts on its calendar this spring, including Colin Hay on April 2 and 3, Molly Ringwald on April 24, and Bela Fleck on May 15. Check out www.mim.org for a complete event listing.
Home of the largest collegiate student body in the nation - Arizona State University - and headquarters of the soon-to-be merged American Airlines/US Airways, the city of Tempe is not as small or as dormant as you might think. Besides year-round sporting events, including baseball spring training games, it welcomes just as many live theater productions as Seattle and hosts the annual Tempe Festival of the Arts with hundreds of crafts and food stalls along Mill Avenue and several side streets. LGBT visitors can visit www.tempetourism.com/lgbt-travelers for assistance.
Truth be told, the Courtyard by Marriott Tempe Downtown (www.marriott.com) is a dated property with basic amenities and not much else. But, the reason to anchor your stay here is because of its location. The ASU campus is a 10-minute walk, the usually busy Mill Avenue is two blocks away, and the light-rail station is a short five-minute stroll. My standard king-size room on the top floor (3rd) was super-comfy and came with all the essentials and a three-person couch with coffee table, plus the added touch of Neutrogena bath products. A private balcony with deck furnishings became the perfect nest for morning coffee and a good book. Property amenities include a small fitness center, outdoor pool, and on-site bistro. One tiny drawback is late-night noise, mainly on the weekends, from partying students.
DINING AND DRINKING
Casey Moore's Oyster House (caseymoores.com) has been around for a long time - so long that it's rumored to be haunted. The Irish pub, set up in a house a few blocks from the Marriott, is a popular hangout for the locals, who can socialize at its indoor and outdoor bars. Oysters are indeed a star attraction on the vast menu, but you'll also come across traditional Irish favorites (corned beef and cabbage, fish 'n' chips), seafood and meat entrees, pastas, homemade crab cakes, and burgers. An oldie but a goodie, and definitely worth mentioning again, is House of Tricks (www.houseoftricks.com). It too draws a steady flow of locals, Gay and straight, business types and hipster folks, who enjoy consistently great meals - sandwiches, salads, pastas, main entrées - in a casual, pleasant ambiance. Tex-Mex cuisine reigns supreme in these parts and the recently-opened Canteen Modern Tequila Bar (www.canteentequilabar.com) can't be avoided, as it's situated right on Mill Avenue. The food is decent and simple - tacos, tostadas, tortas, enchiladas - but it's a better spot to drink and people-watch. For an afternoon snack, try an all-natural popsicle at Paletas Betty (www.paletasbetty.com). Seasonal flavors include naranja, pure pina, mango con chile, and coco.
THINGS TO DO
The Stray Cat Theatre (straycattheatre.org) is independently owned and presents original, edgy productions, many of them Gay-themed, in an intimate space. Chicks with Dicks, the next project from director Ron May, runs April 19 to May 11. Broadway buffs, or those looking for mainstream fare, can turn their attention to the Frank Gehry-designed ASU Gammage (www.asugammage.com), which brings top plays and musicals to Tempe year-round. Its current season features Memphis, Flashdance: The Musical, and Sister Act. To inhale the desert landscape and a bit of exercise, rent a bike at the Bicycle Cellar (www.thebicyclecellar.com) on the ASU campus. Reasonable rates ($15 for two hours) allows you time to explore urban bike trails, as well as those at Papago Park.
The Cactus League's spring training season has officially ended for 2013, but it's not too early for baseball fans to begin planning for next year. Go to www.mlb.com/springtraining for details. The Marquee Theatre is a small music venue that often welcomes big talent, such as Green Day (March 11, sold out) and Fall Out Boy (June 11, sold out). For upcoming concerts, go to www.luckymanonline.com. Music on Mill happens each Thursday through late June, providing passersby with free entertainment by local street artists. Visit www.millavenue.com for more information.
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