How to find culture and relaxation (responsibly) in the Southwest U.S.

Relaxing and recharging on patios, in pools and along heat-beating tram and toffee factory tours

Be sure to read up on each state’s latest COVID safety protocols before beginning your travels.

As travelers gradually stretch their wings once again, there is a pull toward the enchanted, sun-splashed lands of the American Southwest. Here, an abundance of outdoor activities and open-air patios feel appropriate for the times we’re in.

Also, there is nothing quite like a fiery desert sunset – one that stretches beyond the mountain silhouette, finally welcoming a tranquil reprieve from daytime intensity.

Desert sunsets bring beauty plus a much-awaited break from the heatDesert sunsets bring beauty plus a much-awaited break from the heat — Photo courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB @visitgreaterps

An easy four-hour road trip between the Phoenix/Scottsdale area and Palm Desert/Palm Springs reveals similarities between the two desert regions. In both locales, big-eared bunnies scurry across perfectly manicured golf courses, while buzzing hummingbirds dive between cacti and other climate-ready flora. Each evening, purple peaks take on a warm glow as the sun sets, and temps finally dip to more comfortable levels.

Phoenix and Scottsdale

Begin the journey by flying into Phoenix and either settle into a downtown hotel, like Kimpton Hotel Palomar, or head directly to the outer suburbs, where plentiful pampered resorts dot the map. 32 Shea makes for a great welcome lunch spot, if you’re needing quick sustenance straight off the plane.

The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa offers rest and relaxation at a stunning Sonoran Desert propertyThe Westin Kierland Resort & Spa offers rest and relaxation at a stunning Sonoran Desert property — Photo courtesy of The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa

In Scottsdale, The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa provides a relaxing Sonoran Desert oasis with activities for every type of traveler. Those seeking a chilled-out experience post up at the dreamy Relaxation Pool or indulge in spa services at Agave, The Arizona Spa & Salon (think hot stone massages and Craniosacral Energy Therapy sessions, too).

Golfers take advantage of the award-winning course designed by Scottsdale architect Scott Miller, and families enjoy amenities like the lazy river and a flow-board simulator for desert “surfing” opportunities.

Mealtime options abound; in the midst of the buzzing golf scene, grab lunch on the patio of Brittlebush Bar & Grill. In the evening, deseo (translating to “desire” in Spanish) shows off contemporary Latin cuisine, from Ecuadorian-style shrimp ceviche to Peruvian fried chicken, paired with tasty South American wines.

Outdoor dining at Kierland comes with prime ambiance in a dreamy desert settingOutdoor dining at Kierland comes with prime ambiance in a dreamy desert setting — Photo courtesy of The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa proves a prime spot in which to unwind and soak in relaxing desert vibes

Be sure not to miss a favorite tradition at Dreamweaver’s Canyon, when master bagpiper Michael McClanathan or his son fill the property with Scottish sounds during that golden sunset hour. Currently this happens Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.

Take a break from the Arizona sun by wandering the nearby Musical Instrument Museum, an exquisite venue that displays more than 8,000 instruments from more than 200 countries. Founder Bob Ulrich (then CEO of Target Corporation) was inspired to develop a new kind of museum focusing on everyday instruments played by people around the globe, after realizing that most musical museums feature historic, primarily Western classical instruments.

Check out the online schedule for live concerts at the Musical Instrument MuseumCheck out the online schedule for live concerts at the Musical Instrument Museum — Photo courtesy of Musical Instrument Museum

An intro video reminds visitors that “music is the language of the soul,” confirmed by the dozens of fascinating, interactive exhibits (organized by continent and country) that demonstrate how genres and sounds bleed across borders, uniting humans despite differing languages, cultures and ways of life. Region-specific highlights include marquees focusing on some of Arizona’s prominent instrument makers, as well as Indigenous musicians from this rugged Southwest land.

Before or after your cultural outing, enjoy fast casual dining – with a healthy twist – at one of several Flower Child locations. The bright eatery, that uses farm-fresh ingredients and caters to vegan, paleo and gluten-free diners, whips up surprisingly delicious creations, such as the teriyaki shrimp and avocado bowl.

Before pushing off from the Arizona desert, pick up road trip provisions from Wow Wow Lemonade Stand; we highly recommend the açaí and Cold Brew Crave bowls – refreshing takeaway treats topped with fresh fruit.

Palm Desert and Palm Springs

Unwind at The Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa (currently not sharing amenities with the connected Villas) — Photo courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB @visitgreaterps

Once in California, excitement builds as you drive past Coachella, through Indio and toward the mountains and your final destination. It doesn’t take long in this unique region to realize that Greater Palm Springs is about much more than decadent pool and funky art scenes (though those certainly exist, too).

Although summer travel to Palm Springs used to center around sizzling deals, a lot of the current activity seems to be related to pandemic recovery. Yet, as the destination inches toward year-round popularity, there are still summer deals to be found.

Access to a car is recommended to take full advantage of the expansive valley. On active days, you’ll want to beat the heat with early-day hikes around fantastical Joshua Tree or the Indian Canyons.

Or you can choose to rise high above it all – 8,516 feet to be exact – by reserving a ride up on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the world’s largest rotating tram car (currently operating at reduced capacity). The throwback experience takes passengers up one of the world’s three rotating trams to Mountain Station, where you’ll find cooler, fresh mountain air, plus more than 50 miles of hiking trails in Mount San Jacinto State Park.

Cabot's Pueblo MuseumCabot’s Pueblo Museum — Photo courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB @visitgreaterps

If you’re seeking true revitalization, book a service at The Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa, a soothing space in which to enjoy a massage, wrap, facial and more. Afterwards, take time to soak in the al fresco heated tub before returning to reality.

For yet another Zen experience, bask under the colorful umbrellas and cooling misters of Shields Date Garden, where you’ll enjoy stuffed dates and date shakes – a regional specialty – plus dishes like the curried chicken salad with papaya and homemade banana bread.

For almost a century, folks have been visiting this family-run operation to experience date culture; the current owners were able to keep operations going throughout this past year, and they believe strongly in sustainable farming and the organic industry. (You can watch the venue’s film “The Romance & Sex Life of the Date” on their website.)

Culture buffs will want to make a reservation to tour the intriguing Cabot’s Pueblo Museum in Desert Hot Springs. Afterwards, unwind and get pampered at nearby Azure Palm Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa Oasis, a new venue where social distancing safety protocols help guests feel safe in a magic-tinged setting.

A friendly on-site cafe serves up tasty lunch offerings (salads, black bean nut burgers, homemade chili with quinoa, black beans, kabocha squash, sweet corn and yams), plus healthful dinner fare (Thai tuna rice bowls, flatbreads, etc.).

The Living Desert features interactive opportunities like the popular "Feed a Giraffe" offeringThe Living Desert features interactive opportunities like the popular “Feed a Giraffe” offering — Photo courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB @visitgreaterps

Reservations are required to explore The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, home to 500-plus animals representing more than 150 species. Don’t leave before feeding a giraffe or getting up close to Bennett’s wallabies as they bounce around Australian Adventures, the venue’s newest section. Also save some time for the Village WaTuTu, a representation of a traditional African community that features leopards, camels, hyenas, tortoises and birds.

The list of Palm Springs culinary highlights is vast and varied. While some stick to old-school, New York-style outposts like Sherman’s Deli and Bakery – known for its grilled Reuben sandwiches, potato latkes and black-and-white cookies – others test out organic goodies from Luscious Lorraine’s market and cafe (try their smoothies, tarragon chicken salad and vegan date ice cream offerings).

Chef Tanya’s Kitchen, which recently opened a second location, converts even reluctant vegans with persuasive, plant-based adaptations of banh mi sandwiches (with seared garlic chili tofu), “burgers,” BLTAs, and pastrami and grinder sandwiches. Their iced coffee creations are a prime complement to any steamy day.

Chef Tanya's Kitchen recently opened a new location with a few options for outdoors dining at shaded tablesChef Tanya’s Kitchen recently opened a new location with a few options for outdoors dining at shaded tables — Photo courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB @visitgreaterps

Relish an energetic vibe and seasonal dishes on the patio of 1501 Uptown Gastropub, a venue designed by famed architect Chris Pardo. Here, cordial service gets paired with standout dishes like the chilled melon soup, local date and arugula salad, fish and chips and Mary’s “Chicken Under a Brick,” which comes from Pitman Family Farms and is iron skillet-roasted. Top off the night with the flourless chocolate cake with seasonal berry coulis, just as the sun slinks out of sight.

Pacifica Seafood Restaurant, located along upscale El Paseo, elevates any dining experience, thanks to rooftop views ideal for drinking in a pastel mountain sunset, perhaps alongside some celebratory bubbles from Alsace. Dive into items from ceviche and steamed mussels to grass-fed ribeye steak.

While in town, we encourage you to support the community with this Love Local shopping campaign. Looking for unique gifts – for yourself or others – before jetting home? We are hooked on this Palm Springs Spa Collection from The Body Deli, “the pioneer for fresh, raw, organic face, body and hair care.”

We can also guarantee your friends will thank you endlessly when you share your discovery of Brandini Toffee’s decadent, handcrafted creations. Visit the Rancho Mirage factory and store for a peek into the production process, to pick up a toffee-ice cream masterpiece and to perhaps bump into the friendly young owner, Brandon Weimer, who has been slinging toffee and perfecting his recipe since his junior high days. The company has since won countless awards and attracted fans from Martha Stewart to The Food Network, and we clearly understand why.

Before heading to the airport, grab an iced drink from Koffi, where you’ll have a few final moments to people-watch and savor the palm tree-dotted scene, already plotting your next return to the magnificent Southwest desert.