Over recent years I’ve twice endured kicks from horses, been bitten three times and thrown from the saddle once. I’ve come to the sad conclusion that these beautiful beasts hate me, and as an animal lover (who is generally loved back by animals) I find it all a wee bit insulting. OK, I may be only an amateur rider, but how can such a noble beast possibly hate moi?
Imagine, then, my nerves as I embark on an intensive two-and-a-half hour trek through the heart of Arizona that an experienced rider among us later describes as “downright hard”.
Even so, off I go on a guided trail through the Tonto National Forest. At 600,000 acres, Tonto (no, not the Lone Ranger’s sidekick) is one of the US’s top ten largest national parks — bleakly beautiful too, in a biscuit-toned way. And, thankfully, relatively flat along the broad cacti-freckled arroyo, a dry stream bed.
The Sonoran Desert
A red-tailed hawk careens across a navy-blue sky. The dry desert sun smoulders and dust hazes the disconcertingly named Superstition Mountains. Yet when Kamani, my sleek but safe-feeling steed, begins to trot, it’s not nerves that kick in but unanticipated joy. This scene — above all, this warmth after seemingly endless British rain — is so unutterably lovely that I can’t resist a little yelp.
Arizona is not somewhere you’d normally think of for winter sun. Yes, if you’re into golf, perhaps, but there are plenty of sun-drenched destinations offering premium courses. Instead, my time around the surroundings of Scottsdale — a region set beneath the scenic McDowell Mountains and bordered by Phoenix to the west — uncovers a surprisingly different outdoorsy vibe.
Over five days I try not only horse trekking but various desert hikes. There’s sublime kayaking along the Salt River, a sadly aborted hot-air balloon ride (damn those winds), and an unexpectedly excellent food scene. In fact, our down time is less about parasol flopping and more on Sonoran-themed wellness: desert bathing, outdoor yoga, sound baths and meditative stargazing.
Phew, you might say — and yes, it is super-active — but you can opt to do little, because Scottsdale’s hotels are gorgeously flop-worthy. Add to that the reliably rain-free winters, with temperatures averaging 22C, and it’s small wonder that celebs choose to vacation and indeed live here.
At FnB, Charleen Badman presides over a highly intimate restaurant
I’m staying at the Four Seasons Scottsdale (room-only doubles from £1,000; fourseasons.com), which is discreet — although we are told that Boris Johnson has just left — and has a complex of adobe-style casitas that overlook jagged Pinnacle Peak. It’s certainly luxe, but it’s appealingly homely, and the casitas have gas log fires and fabulous balconies with views of receding pale blue hills.
Later I move on to Mountain Shadows (room-only doubles from £305; mountainshadows.com) in the foothills of Camelback Mountain. Built in the Fifties and the former playground of the Rat Pack, it’s a mid-century modern boutique hotel, and former poolside loungers included John Wayne, Bob Hope and Elizabeth Taylor. Mountain Shadows has since expanded, but its buzzy vibe and pared-back glamour remains. I’ve a lovely cool-toned bedroom here, with an enormous glass-walled shower plonked centre stage. I do an evening “yoga flow”, and beneath the shadow of the mountain, with Orion’s Belt twinkling above, we release muscles fatigued from daytime hikes.
Views of receding pale blue hills from the Four Seasons Scottsdale
CHRISTIAN HORAN PHOTOGRAPHY
Next door, Sanctuary Camelback Mountain (room-only doubles from £580; gurneysresorts.com) is a spa resort where Jay-Z and Beyoncé honeymooned. Alicia Keys, Steven Spielberg and Stevie Nicks have had homes in the area, attracted, a resident tells me, not just by the sun but by the cheaper cost of living and the one-hour hop to Los Angeles. Aside from those glamorous celebrity-owned villas, shielded by enormous saguaro cacti, old-town Scottsdale is pretty low-key. One-storey stores selling Native American trinkets, dream catchers and cowboy boots mix with unassuming-looking yet seriously cool restaurants and bars.
At FnB (mains from £10, fnbrestaurant.com), the award-winning chef Charleen Badman presides over a highly intimate restaurant where locally sourced vegetables are given an inventive twist — and, wow, they’re delicious. Avocado squash with whipped goat’s cheese, dates and spiced pecans, or meltingly good kale falafel and carrots served with tahini, lemon and shawarma-spiced crispy quinoa. Pavle Milic, Badman’s sommelier, helped FnB to gain national recognition by championing Arizona winemakers — yes, vines really do grow here — and with dinner we’ve an impressive Dos Cabezas white blend from southern Arizona that has zingy alberiño top notes. A lip-puckering cider too, from one of two cider-making regions in the state.
Arizonans love a good scoff. Bryan Dooley, a white-haired, obsessively carnivore chef, presides over Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbecue (mains from £9.50, bryansbarbecue.com) in Cave Creek. Lunchtime, and plastic baskets of beef brisket, pork ribs, beans cooked in a six-pack of beer and cornbread roasted in beef fat land on our table in quick succession. Delicious, but wasted on my mimsy appetite. Mind you, we’ve adrenaline-pumping stuff to offset any chance of indigestion, and the stand-out activity is a three-hour kayak along the lower Salt River, 30 miles east of Scottsdale.
It’s gorgeous. Led by Heather, a tattooed, wiry young woman with a fine line in what she describes as dad jokes, we paddle inflatable kayaks towards the Verde River. Gentle rapids make the going initially easy, allowing time for us to drink in the mesmerising scenery: moss-green waters fringed by rushes, snowy egrets perched on overhanging branches and, always, the clarity of that blue desert sky. Halfway along, the rapids calm and we must paddle furiously or face a backward drift. A dozen chestnut-brown horses clamber down to the river to drink. A violet and green swallow flits through the air and a heron twists its elegant neck to watch us, then resumes close scrutiny of the river.
Occasionally there’s an angler, scenically defined against a backdrop of the Red Mountain. At one point we spot an eagle’s nest. “That’s easily the length of a 6ft man,” Heather tells us. Ducks crest the river’s calm surface, and from the banks a Gila woodpecker taps at a prickly saguaro in a daredevil attempt at nest-building. Oh, those cacti. I’ll admit, I’d always dismissed them as boring, but Arizona has changed my mind. I learn all about the compass barrel cactus, which always faces south, then the teddy bear cholla, a sweet-looking plant with nasty barbed thorns that have earned it the nickname “Velcro of the desert”. King of the cacti, however, is the giant saguaro. Growing up to 50ft over hundreds of years, they punctuate the landscape, relieving those dusty mountain tones with flashes of olive green.
Later, at Frank Lloyd Wright’s wonderful winter home Taliesin West (tours from £32, franklloydwright.org/taliesin-west), I’m told that the architect was captivated by saguaros, and indeed Arizona’s rugged beauty, describing the empty, cacti-strewn plains as like “the ocean floor; the coral at the bottom of the sea”. Taliesin West is the highlight of my dip into Arizona. Framed by the McDowell Mountains, it is timeless, organic, full of free-flowing breezy spaces rather than rooms — a building truly ahead of its time.
Among the visitors on this hot dusty day is a five-year-old boy, hunkered in a seat before a vast panoramic window. “Mum?” he calls. “Do we have to leave? Can’t this be our new home?” I completely understand how he feels.
Louise Roddon was a guest of Experience Scottsdale (experiencescottsdale.com). Seven nights’ room only from £2,649pp, including flights to Phoenix and car hire (premierholidays.co.uk)
Six more cool winter-sun trips in the US
1. Texas dream
Americana doesn’t come any more concentrated than in Galveston, Texas — the country legend Glen Campbell even wrote a song about the place (“I still hear your sea winds blowing”). It’s a cute as heck seaside town 50 miles from Houston that plays hard on its history, which means pristine 19th-century mansions, restored trams and a wooden pier (with requisite rollercoaster and cotton-candy stalls), all of which are accessible by rental bicycles or horse and carriage. The 1911 Grand Galvez is the only seafront place to stay and is on the Historic Hotels of America register. If you can’t get a room there, book its legendary brunch, with cheddar grits, crab cakes and Lone Star pancakes with maple syrup, bacon and chocolate chips.
Details Room-only doubles at the Grand Galvez from £141 (grandgalvez.com). Fly to Houston
The Overseas Highway
2. Stay cool in the Florida Keys
Key West is closer to Havana, Cuba, than it is to Miami, so you’ll be unsurprised to learn that it’s the steamiest of these six sunny spots, with an average December high of 25C. And, wow, what a place to show off your winter tan, with stylish streetside cafés, hip hotel pools and a year-round party atmosphere — do you know anywhere else in the world where they celebrate sunset every night with circus performers, live music and £4 margaritas? (Head to Mallory Square.) The Hemingway Home is a lovely place to kill time before your first cocktail of the day — the writer’s 1938 house, tropical gardens and astonishing solid-coral swimming pool are open to the public (£14, hemingwayhome.com).
Details Seven nights from £1,185pp, including flights and car hire (americaasyoulikeit.com)
The Pineapple Fountain in Charleston Waterfront Park
3. Do the Charleston coast, South Carolina
They call it the “Lowcountry” — great swathes of salt marshland mark the point where South Carolina’s epic blue skies end and its endless coastal waterways begin. These are phenomenally photogenic landscapes, but hard to access, so consider a tour. Tideline sails a small boat through the creeks, spotting wild marsh dolphins and native birds, then stopping at Morris Island for its beautiful shells and old lighthouse (from $50pp, tidelinetours.com). Or enjoy the T-shirt weather on a historic Charleston town carriage tour — you never know what you’ll see, because the drivers use a lottery system, ensuring that one route is never overworked (from $50pp, palmettocarriage.com).
Details Eight nights’ room only Historic Deep South holiday, from £1,989pp, including one night each in Atlanta, St Augustine and Tallahassee, three in Charleston, two in Savannah and flights (americaasyoulikeit.com)
A jazz band on Bourbon Street, French Quarter, New Orleans
4. Party in New Orleans, Louisiana
There’s nowhere more magical on a sunny winter’s afternoon than the French Quarter, the New Orleans district of 18th-century balconied houses and courtyard gardens (one of the prettiest being Napoleon House, where Pimm’s Cup cocktails are served out on the veranda). It’s not the hottest destination here in terms of temperature, but this city isn’t about the beach. It’s about spending the morning by a heated rooftop pool (the Roosevelt, Ace, Four Seasons and Virgin hotels have some of the best), then glamming up for a dusk-till-dawn night of jazz, jambalaya and more jugs of Pimm’s Cup.
Details Five nights’ room only at Virgin Hotels New Orleans from £1,053pp, including flights (virginholidays.co.uk)
5. Desert time in Palm Springs, California
On the fringes of the Mojave Desert, a 45-minute drive from the enticingly arid Joshua Tree National Park, Palm Springs is best visited in winter — if you were to holiday here in summer it’d be a sweltering 42C. This glam oasis town was once an escape for classic movie stars — it’s two hours’ drive from Hollywood — and it makes the most of the sunshine, with alfresco dining, pool parties and outdoor wellness (try the trendy spa Two Bunch Palms; twobunchpalms.com). It embraces its 1940s heyday, mid-century homes turned into B&Bs and a map of the best modernist homes to ogle on a self-guided tour, available at the tourist office. See it as part of a motorhome tour, picking up in Las Vegas and dropping off in San Diego.
Details 19-night tour from £1,164pp, including motorhome rental, five nights’ room only in hotels and a helicopter flight over Las Vegas (trailfinders.com)
Tybee Island, Georgia
6. Explore Savannah and the islands of Georgia
Look at the Georgia coast on a map and it’s like a frayed hem, an in-and-out squiggle of inlets and barrier islands along the Atlantic, accessed by a network of causeways. What names they have too — Jekyll, Tybee, Blackbeard, Sea Island and more — inviting you to leave the real world behind. Jekyll Island is an enchanting land of empty beaches strewn with driftwood and trees growing from the sand (not to mention a brilliant sea turtle refuge). Tybee pulls you in with rowdy crab shacks and old-school street parades, while Blackbeard is a tranquil nature reserve. Then there’s Sea Island — wild yet well-heeled, with its population of untamed horses and an eponymous five-star hotel that hosted the G8 Summit. Today’s weather? 23C and sunny.
Details Five nights’ room only at the Andaz Savannah from £1,439pp, including flights (travelbag.co.uk)