Mild, Mild West

In Scottsdale, Arizona, a cowboy credo has given way to a population with a hankering for healthy living.

“It’s so simple, it’s ridiculous,” says Ken Singh, holding up a handful of beets, dark soil still clinging to their green and crimson leaves. He is leading me through a literal oasis, a maze of rocky paths, twisting trees and shaded garden plots – a layout so irregular it would drive a city planner mad. Yet all of it is thriving just seconds from Arizona’s Highway 101 and in defiance of the desert sun.

Singh moved to the state from British Columbia in the 1970s to escape the cold, he claims. For the most part, whether he’s discussing anaerobic bacteria or cosmic energy, he’s eager to explain the story of his experimental farm and compost heaps, first set up in 2003 on a plot of seemingly barren land on the edge of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. But every so often he hints at another life, one that had him living in the city with a mansion, maids and little care for his impact on the planet – or his neighbours.

Now Singh is part of a movement taking hold across Scottsdale, a push to turn the city and bordering communities into a healthy, holistic destination through sustainable agriculture, land preservation and every kind of spa service you can imagine. Though its official nickname is “The West’s Most Western Town,” spend time with one of the 200,000-or-so laid-back locals and you’re more likely to talk about kale and reiki than cowboys and rodeos.

Put down roots

“See that? That’s an almond tree, there’s sugar cane,” says Singh. No matter what topic he’s on, he can’t stop himself from pointing out the crops growing all around us (and sometimes popping a sample in his mouth). “Mulberry, mesquite…”

As we pass two mustangs, he reveals that they were orphaned and rescued. “We used to keep them in that pen over there – oh, that’s mint, rosemary – now it’s full of chickens who – pomegranate, celery – lay just the best chocolate-brown eggs. You see, once you have a canopy, you can do lots of neat things.”

As we approach a tiny wooden structure that’s the base camp for the farm’s garden market, we pass a couple sitting side by side on an old, repainted church pew and two little boys inspecting a traditional teepee. Though Singh Farms doesn’t advertise, little by little locals are learning about it from friends and stopping by on Saturdays when it’s open to the public.

The rest of the week, professional chefs from the city’s best restaurants and resorts come to stock their kitchens. Not that this is their only option. Inspect any menu in Scottsdale and you’ll discover dozens of local suppliers growing and raising food you’d never suspect could come from the Sonoran Desert. Or head straight to the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers’ Market for another taste of the city’s sustainable bent.

Inspect any menu and you’ll find suppliers growing food in the Sonoran Desert.

When I pull up to the buzzing market, I have to wait in line to talk with Payton Curry, who later tells me he remembers when it was only six or seven booths. He’s hidden behind a table piled high with purple artichokes – they’re going by the dozen, and he has to stop every few minutes to show someone how to peel them properly. “This is the best job I’ve ever had,” says Curry, who is also a chef and co-owner of a nearby restaurant, Brat Haus. “I used to be a fat kid, 200 pounds, and now when kids come by I tell them, ‘Whatever you want, it’s on the house.’ We need to get them to eat their veggies. Plus, the market gives them something to do, keeps them out of trouble.”

While we are only steps away from Old Town, a cute and kitschy destination full of saloons and souvenir shops stocked with cowboy boots and bolo ties, the market feels remarkably fresh. In fact, between the artisan ice pops, gluten-free cupcakes and free-range beef burritos, this might very well be Arizona’s answer to hipster meccas like Williamsburg, Brooklyn or Toronto’s Queen Street West – though it’s hard to find anyone with an attitude in a city that gets 330 days of sunshine a year.

Grow up green

As much as I love Scottsdale residents’ sunny outlook, I could use a break from the heat itself. So as the temperature threatens to hit 40°C, I’m relieved to find another spot of shade is just a short drive away, in Phoenix: the Desert Botanical Garden. The 75-year-old institution might seem unnecessary after a drive through the saguaro-filled desert, but it proves to be more than a collection of native plants on display for tourists – it’s also a chance for Arizonans to appreciate them anew.

The first reason to stop and stare is, admittedly, not from nature at all, but comes care of artist Dale Chihuly. Interspersed among the agave are the Desert Towers, a series of glittering, blown-glass sculptures meant to mimic the sharp lines and bright bursts of yucca plants. A guide notices me looking a little lost and offers to walk me to the garden’s other biggest draw, a seasonal exhibit of live butterflies. On the way he tells me that before he started volunteering, he and his wife, both from New Jersey, came here for help caring for houseplants in their adopted climate. The garden hosts a desert landscape school as well as classes on photography, painting and even tequila tasting. When I tell him I’m in town to relax, he recommends I hang around until sundown for the garden’s sunset yoga class – or return early the next morning for tai chi.

“But if you can’t come back, there might be one or two other spots in town that offer it…” he says with a chuckle.

Face the future

As I soon discover, this is a serious spa city, and yoga is just the beginning. Scottsdale is home to some of the most stunning, diverse health resorts in the country (and maybe the world), with a dizzying mix of treatments and classes on offer, from acupressure to Zumba. Any spa trying to push a basic Swedish massage and a mud mask just doesn’t stand a chance.

After checking in and strolling past the Miami-worthy pool to the Well & Being at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess’s Willow Stream Spa, I’m offered a new perspective almost immediately. Specifically, a view of the ceiling.

“This is the most relaxed chair pose you’ll ever do,” Sierra Ramm Cantrell assures the class, each of us tucked inside a swath of blue nylon hanging from a wooden beam. This is aerial yoga, an offshoot of Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics – only much slower and, performed inches from the ground, way safer. As an occasional yoga practitioner with a hard time touching her toes, I’m amazed at how flexible I feel in this fabric sling.

“The loop does a lot of the work, lets you decompress,” says Cantrell. While I seem to have found a friend in gravity, she admits that even some lifelong yogis are challenged by their first class.

“How many times have you done a downward dog, or a warrior one pose? You kind of know what they’re going to feel like. But when people come here, some of them get uncomfortable, and to me that’s what yoga is all about – not just meditating in a quiet room, but keeping your cool when there’s chaos around you.”

With my head still in the clouds, I go for a space-age treatment downstairs: a Naturopathica Rejuvenating HydraFacial in what looks like a (very chic) doctor’s office. The aesthetician explains each step as vials are filled, tubes graze my face and LED lights are positioned.

For a final high-tech touch there’s the Bod Pod, an egg-shaped machine that is right out of The Fly or 2001: A Space Odyssey. At about $50,000 per machine, it’s the gold standard of measuring body composition. Resident exercise physiologist Craig Cristello explains that it uses air displacement plethysmography, a process that is more accurate than merely measuring your Body Mass Index (under BMI guidelines, Cristello himself would be considered obese, despite his muscular frame) and miles ahead of primitive-looking fat calipers, whose results are only as consistent as whoever is doing the measuring.

The Bod Pod is the gold standard of measuring body composition.

As with aerial yoga, what at first looks daunting – a gleaming white, airtight chamber with a single seat inside – turns out to be painless, and even a little fun. I put on a bathing suit and a swim cap then I step inside and wait. There’s a slight pop in my ears as the pressure changes, but other than that I don’t feel a thing. After two tests, each under a minute, it’s done. I get back into my robe and am welcomed into a second room to discuss the results.

“This is the part that’s really eye-opening for people,” says Cristello, handing me a chart that assures me my occasional trips to the gym (and maybe an inherited gene or two) have done me some good. “They’ll come to us and say, ‘I lost 12 pounds!’ and we’ll ask, ‘Okay, but what did you lose?’ You want to maintain lean mass.”

Though my results are promising, I have some concerns about where I’m headed, so I’m relieved to find this consultation doesn’t have to mean the end of my healthy journey. There are email and phone follow-ups available, and suggested smartphone apps to keep me on track. And if I need another reason to come back, I find it in a coconut-water cocktail by the spa’s private rooftop pool. If this is Arizona’s version of a cleanse, I’m on board.

“We want to meet people in their path,” says Cristello, explaining the relaxed atmosphere. “It doesn’t have to be a strict regimen. Health can be accessible.”

It’s a sentiment I see echoed across Scottsdale. There are weekend hiking clubs in the Sonoran Preserve, classes at the botanical garden, and every resort I visit is its own ecosystem of golf, gardens, sand and spa. When it comes to healthy living, this city makes it look easy.

Trip Out

  1. Desert by Design

    Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t the first person to seek the Sonoran Desert’s dry heat, but he is among the most famous. (The San Francisco Giants also head here for spring training.) After bouts with pneumonia in the 1930s, the architect chose Scottsdale as his winter home and the site for Taliesin West, one of the most iconic structures of his career. Take a 90-minute tour and you won’t just appreciate its organic beauty, you’ll probably also spot some architecture students at work – the property still functions as a campus.

  2. One Tequila, Two Tequila

    Dine at La Hacienda on the weekend and you’ll be treated to over 200 varieties of tequila – and a “Tequila God or Goddess” to guide you through them. Some quick tips to get you started: Much like wine or cheese, tequila is often tasted in a “flight”. You might try three from the same label, or extra añejo (ultra-aged) across three brands. Also, forget what you learned in college. Sip your tequila as you would a fine brandy, rather than shooting it back in between a lick of salt and a lemon wedge.

  3. Up, Up and Away

    The 5 a.m. wake-up call will be worth it once you’re watching the sunrise from the handcrafted wicker basket of a hot-air balloon. Flying at altitudes between 120 and 900 metres (and at no more than 10 km/h), you’ll be treated to both a bird’s-eye view of the expansive desert and a closer look at the diverse flora and fauna below, including saguaro cacti, deer, quail, coyotes and roadrunners. Back on land, first-timers will be greeted with a special ballooning certificate and a gourmet breakfast, complete with bubbly.

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