With over 200 golf courses in the area, Phoenix would make for a great sports weekend destination even if it weren't one of just 13 cities that can lay claim to a team in all four major sports. Come to think of it, with a nickname like The Valley of the Sun and an average January high of 66 degrees, the place would be a perfect New Year's destination even without the lure of some of the world's best golf courses.
In addition to the golf, Phoenix offers up a pro sports smorgasbord, the big-time athletics of Arizona State, and a temperate climate, making a wintertime visit just about heaven on earth for a sports fan.
The Valley will improve on its near perfection this year, when it serves as host to the BCS National Championship Game between Ohio State and Florida, which is slated for Monday, Jan. 8, at the futuristic new University of Phoenix Stadium in suburban Glendale.
If you're resolving to start the New Year by living the good life, grab your golf clubs and head to Valley for a power weekend Jan. 5-8.
Phoenix: Plan Trip | Hotel | Flight
FRIDAY, JAN. 5
The Suns are the team that put Phoenix on the big league map back in 1968, so it makes perfect sense to kick off your big-time sports weekend at the downtown US Airways Center (201 East Jefferson St., Web site), where the city's first franchise hosts the defending NBA champion Miami Heat. [Note: the Suns also host the Warriors on Sun., Jan. 7 (6 p.m. MT) in a game that could conceivably get up into the 140s with the way those two teams run.]
Leave yourself enough time before the 8:30 tip-off to make two stops near the arena. First, get a glimpse of Chase Field, home of the Diamondbacks, by stopping in at Friday's Front Row Grill (401 E. Jefferson St., Web site) for a pre-game snack. The restaurant sits high above left field and provides a bird's-eye view of the home of the Diamondbacks, even in the off-season, when it's open nightly until 10:00 p.m.
Next, stop by Majerle's (24 N. 2nd St., Web site), a sports bar located across from the Suns' home court and owned by former Sun Dan Majerle, for better-than-average bar food. Majerle's opened back in 1992, when the namesake restauranteur was putting the Thunder in the Suns. Today, Majerle's is helping to infuse life into the Fry Building, the historic brick building it inhabits, as well as the once-moribund downtown's nightlife.
For a post-game nightcap, Alice Cooper's Town (101 E. Jackson St., Web site), which bills itself as the place "where jocks & rock meet," is located the shadow of US Airways Center. The establishment's proprietor certainly proves that music and sports need not be mutually exclusive: '70s rock star Alice Cooper owns the joint, and is a longtime Valley resident who is every bit as passionate about the PGA Tour as he is about his own rock tours. Cooper, who carries a 5.3 handicap, credits golf with helping him kick his drug habit. At the very least, it gave him an addiction that is more socially acceptable in his adopted hometown.
SATURDAY, JAN. 6
Crepes and Bakes in Scottsdale (7001 N. Scottsdale Rd., (480) 905-8181), is where locals head to start another perfect winter's day in the Valley with a French country breakfast. With its unconventional crepe-filled menu and outdoor patio, Crepes and Bakes is a memorable place to indulge in a long, European-style diet-busting morning feast. The strawberry crepes, with custard and whipped cream, are particularly decadent, as is the Divine stuffed French toast.
There might not be a sports venue anywhere in the world that's more aptly named than Phoenix's horse racing track, Turf Paradise (1501 West Bell Rd., Web site), at least not in the dead of winter, which is actually high season in Arizona. Now 50 years old, Turf Paradise predates even Suns games as a place for local sports aficionados to hang out. Back in the day, Jackie Gleason used to come to see jockeys like Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro ride. Post time is 12:25.
Phoenix is not typically considered a pizza town, but all those snowbirds that leave Chicago and New York for the winter have to get their fix somewhere, and there are two places we love. The first is Oregano's (Web site), an Arizona chain, with eight stores that stretch across the Valley, and reach as far north as Flagstaff, and south to Tucson. The restaurants are always lively and the pies so good, a lengthy wait for a table is part of the experience. Oregano's comes in either thin crust or stuffed, which also describes the way you'll feel on the way out.
While there are almost as many Oregano's locations as there are branches of the University of Phoenix, there is only one Pizzeria Bianco (623 E. Adams, downtown Phoenix, Web site). The place's sublime gourmet pies come out of the wood-fired brick oven loaded with ingredients made from scratch, and show up on Top 10 lists more often than the Buckeyes and Gators combined.
Pizzeria Bianco was immortalized as the nation's best pizza in New York Times food critic Ed Levine's 2005 tome "Pizza: A Slice of Heaven: The Ultimate Pizza Guide and Companion." As the place's namesake owner, and back-of-the-house talent, Brooklyn transplant Chris Bianco, who earned his pizza chops on family visits to Naples, is the restaurant business equivalent of an Owner/Coach/G.M. Pizzeria Bianco, which is dark on Sundays and Mondays, does not serve lunch and is typically packed from the time it opens at 5:00 p.m. until closing at 10:00 p.m., so plan ahead, and be prepared to wait. The payoff is well worth it.
For a college-town vibe, finish your night with a stroll down Arizona State-adjacent Mill Ave. in Tempe, where college students, street performers, and locals converge on the wide array of bars, restaurants, and shops. Spend a little time on Mill Ave., and you'll begin to wonder how it is that the Sun Devils are not a perennial power in every sport, every year. A few bars later, of course, Mill Ave. becomes the obvious answer to the very question it inspired.
SUNDAY, JAN. 7
For one of the best brunches in town, make your way to the Top of the Rock, located in The Buttes, A Marriott Resort (2000 Westcourt Way, Web site) in Tempe. The contemporary space, which is nestled in the hills beyond Tempe Diablo Stadium, the spring home of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, resembles a spaceship, and provides a great panorama of the Valley.
Fred Couples and Tom Lehman are among the many PGA golfers who call The Valley home, and there are over 200 courses to practice on including 44 that are listed in Zagat's "America's Top Courses" (check out our Golf Course Viewer for reviews and maps). We recommend TPC Scottsdale (17020 N. Hayden Rd., Web site) for the simple reason that its stadium course is home to the FBR Open (formerly the Phoenix Open), and offers a chance to play where the pros play. Phil Mickelson, an Arizona State alum, is a two-time winner (1996, 2005), and Tiger Woods had a hole in one during the 1998 tourney on hole No. 16. Golf Digest named the course, with its mountain and Sonoran Desert views, "One of the Best Places to Play in America."
At $239 (twilight fees are $170.50, and begin officially at 2:30, although times are subject to change), a round here during the peak season (Jan. 1-April 1) is not cheap, but it does go a long way toward explaining why the National Golf Foundation calls Phoenix "The Golf Capital of the World." The FBR Open, also known as the biggest party in golf, goes off Super Bowl weekend (Feb. 1-4, 2007, Web site), rendering pro football's ultimate weekend -- as well as the golf tournament itself -- an afterthought to the fun-loving Valley residents who turn out.
For the 19th hole, head to the quaint walking village of Old Town Scottsdale, and have drinks and appetizers at The Old Town Tortilla Factory (6910 E. Main St., Scottsdale, Web site). Amidst a setting of light strings and fountains, the restaurant's festive courtyard patio feels a little like a laid-back, Southwestern version of New Orleans' famous Pat O'Brien's, with tequila drinks substituting for Hurricanes. There are 80 premium tequilas behind the bar, and, true to its name, the Tortilla Factory serves up terrific tortillas that are made on the premises, and also offers a nice tortilla soup.
While the food at The Old Town Tortilla Factory is adequate (to quote Lindsay Lohan, referencing Robert Altman), for your dinner entree, we recommend a trip to the nearby Don and Charlie's (7501 E. Camelback, Web site), where you'll get some of the best ribs west of Chicago, along with one of the most extensive displays of baseball memorabilia this side of Cooperstown (the one in upstate New York, not to be confused with the aforementioned Alice's). The place, which becomes the de facto training table for players and media types alike when the Cactus League descends upon Phoenix in March, will leave you counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report to Arizona.
Dessert warrants a visit to The Sugar Bowl (4005 N. Scottsdale Rd., (602) 946-0051), an aptly named destination on weekend when college football's national champion will be decided in The Valley. This Sugar Bowl is a '50s era ice cream parlor that was frequently used as the setting for the comic strip The Family Circus, and many of cartoonist Bil Keane's vintage panels are displayed on the walls within. The Sugar Bowl's decor is old-timey, but its malts and sodas are timeless, and served until 11:00 p.m. weeknight, and midnight on weekends.
There are almost as many casinos within driving distance of Phoenix as there are on the Las Vegas strip, and one of the most famous is Harrah's Ak-Chin in Maricopa (15406 Maricopa Road, Web site). Harrah's is an easy 50-minute drive from Tempe, and, just like the casinos in Vegas, is open 24/7, 365 days a year.
MONDAY, JAN. 8
On your way to the BCS National Championship Game, swing by the Peoria Sports Complex for a peek at the spring home of Padres and Mariners. The facility is located nine miles north of the University of Phoenix Stadium on the 101 Loop at the Bell Rd. exit (Exit 14). In addition to the ballpark, the immediate vicinity serves up a chain restaurant sampler, with everything from The Cheesecake Factory (16134 N. 83rd Ave.), to Buca di Beppo (16091 N. Arrowhead Fountain Ctr. Dr.), to P.F. Chang's (16170 N. Arrowhead Fountain Dr.) located in the Arrowhead Fountain Center's restaurant row. Consider this an advance scouting trip, because after a weekend in Phoenix, you'll be planning a return visit for spring training. There are also a variety of hotel chains in the area, making Peoria a great place to make your spring training headquarters.
McDuffy's (15814 N. 83rd Ave., Web site), a local sports bar that recently closed its original Tempe branch, is also located adjacent to the Peoria Sports Complex, and is the perfect place to watch the pre-game hype, while downing the restaurant's award-winning Buffalo Wings.
With a 5:15 p.m. kickoff, head to the University of Phoenix Stadium (1 Cardinals Dr., Glendale, Web site) early for a look at the future of facilities. The gleaming new stadium, which opened with a Cardinals-Steelers preseason game Aug. 12, will complete its first football season with the BCS National Championship Game ( Check for tickets via StubHub). University of Phoenix Stadium is stunning, both visually and conceptually. It's exterior is a cross between a flying saucer and a Frank Gehry-designed museum.
Inside, teams play under a retractable roof when necessary, and on an innovative retractable natural grass surface that spends its non-game days out of doors, on the south side of the stadium, where optimal conditions for maintaining the field exist. Sportsman's Park provides acres of grassy tailgating space, with the eight-acre "Great Lawn" as its centerpiece.
The stadium sits next to the Jobing.com Arena, home of the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes, and the Westgate City Center, a still-in-progress entertainment/retail/housing project. Eventually, Westgate will bring 6.5 million square feet of restaurants, retail, residential, and offices, which will attract 22 million visitors annually, to a site that was once home to cotton fields.
Doug Ward is a Southern California-based freelance writer.