Little more than an Arizona desert frontier settlement just a century ago, Phoenix has grown rapidly into one of the Western USA's most dynamic and exciting getaways. The city sits low in an arid valley surrounded by mountains and high desert - its once-rugged terrain having been replaced to a large degree by massive blocks of residential subdivisions, strip retail and office developments, and oasis-like golf and tennis resorts. The many slick and trendy dining, shopping, and gay nightclub options - coupled with the sunny dry climate and abundance of outdoors diversions - make this an increasingly popular lesbian and gay travel destination though little known here in the UK.
This sprawling city has an amazingly dry climate - only the Sahara Desert is less humid than Phoenix's Sonoran Desert. If you're planning a trip here it's important to consider how the different seasons can affect your stay - outdoorsy types should avoid the deathly hot summers, although May through September can be great months to score hotel bargains. And because virtually every interior cubic inch of Phoenix is cooled by air-conditioning, it's seldom oppressively unpleasant here but for the humid rainy season in late July and August. Personality-wise, while the population exceeds 1.3 million and now ranks the city among the nation's largest, Phoenix retains a surprisingly easy pace and a laid-back personality. People move here for the job opportunities - the metro area is the third-largest U.S. high-tech centre - but also to escape the fast pace and rudeness of other big cities.

GAY COMMUNITY LIFE

Phoenix tends to be deeply conservative. The city has never been especially sympathetic to the plight of minorities, sexual or racial, though one historically important Phoenix Republican politician - the late U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater - espoused a live-and-let-live philosophy. In his later years a defender of the gay community, Goldwater was unable to sway popular opinion in favour of gay-rights initiatives. On one encouraging note, however, openly gay Republican state lawmaker Steve May has enjoyed widespread political support and is thought to have a decent shot at winning a U.S. congressional election should he pursue it. The city has a highly visible gay and lesbian community regardless of the political climate and a huge number of social organizations.

ATTRACTIONS

Though it has a bounty of shops and good restaurants, Phoenix has relatively few attractions. Cultural highlights include provocative examples of 20th-century architecture, a handful of highly regarded performing-arts venues, and some excellent museums and galleries. Also, while it's an enormous and rapidly growing metro area, greater Phoenix hasn't quite paved over paradise: just a short drive from downtown you can reach hundreds of hiking areas, from scenic Pima Canyon to craggy Squaw Peak. The region has prestigious golf courses, plus lavish tennis centers, spas, and athletic clubs - swanky Scottsdale is particularly rife with such facilities.

CULTURE

Over the past decade Phoenix has revitalized its once barren downtown, renovating historic buildings and erecting innovative postmodern structures. The East End, which has become one of the region's few walkable neighbourhoods, is home to cultural venues like: the restored Spanish Revival Orpheum Theater, which hosts film festivals and theatre productions; the multi-use Herberger Theater Center, which presents dance and theater; and Symphony Hall, home of the Phoenix Symphony and the Arizona Opera.

History and preservation buffs could easily spend a day wandering around Heritage Square. Among the century-old homes you can tour here is the Victorian Rosson House. West of the square is the impressive Arizona Science Center, whose touch-friendly exhibits are a hit with kids and yet sophisticated enough to amuse even most adults - also check out the center's state-of-the-art Dorrance Planetarium. A block below Heritage Square is the Phoenix Museum of History, an eye-catching steel-and-glass structure with critically acclaimed exhibits that change regularly. In the same neighborhood, the vibrant Museo Chicano is a major showcase for contemporary Latin-American art. North of these museums is the Arizona Center, whose 60 shops, 24-screen multiplex, and restaurants make for a happily mindless break from all those stimulating museums.

The area just north of the mall on and around Central Avenue has become a repository of some of the most thought-provoking large-scale contemporary architecture in the country. You'll see buildings shaped like King Tut's tomb and in the form of an inverted pyramid (appropriate styles given the city name's connection to ancient Egypt). Of particular note is the Phoenix Burton Barr Central Library, a curvaceous copper-sheathed wonder meant to evoke the region's red-rock terrain. Here the superb Phoenix Art Museum, a green-quartz structure, houses an impressive number of 19th-century European paintings, a delightful American West collection (heavy on O'Keeffe, Frederic Remington, and Albert Bierstadt), and a spacious contemporary wing representing some of the world's abstract geniuses.

The lovely Art Museum Cafe overlooks the sculpture garden. Two blocks north of the art museum is the free Heard Museum, a 1928 Spanish Colonial Revival house that recently doubled in size; it contains the nation's top collection of Native American art and artifacts.

RETAIL THERAPY

In central Phoenix, especially along Camelback Road, you will find plenty of excuses to spend money. Park Central Mall, less snazzy than some of its newer competitors, is the gayest shopping center in Phoenix. Some of the city's gay- and lesbian-owned businesses have been pushing for the past few years to get this large rectangle area - bounded by 7th Avenue, Indian School Road, 7th Street, and Bethany Home Road - to be known at least conversationally as the Rainbow Zone. The scene in Phoenix may be too spread out and eclectic ever to fully embrace the designation of any one gay district, but within this area you will find the bulk of the city's gay bars, plus such favourite retail stores as Obelisk Books (a well-stocked lesbian-gay bookstore) and Unique on Central, where you'll find magazines, pride gifts, and club fashions.

Many a diva whiles away her Saturday afternoon at the Biltmore Fashion, strolling through Cartier, Gucci, and other high-end boutiques - it's also a source of several outstanding restaurants. You can also take a break here at the trendy Coffee Plantation cafe, right by the Ralph Lauren store. Or for an exceptional lunch break, consider driving 10 minutes southwest of the mall or just east of downtown to reach the gay-friendly Coronado Cafe. Set in a charming old house, the kitchen serves creative sandwiches, soups, and salads - from curried pumpkin soup to Southwestern lasagna with black beans, sweet corn, and chipotle sauce.

Beyond Phoenix itself, you'll find ample opportunities for further exploring in some of the neighbouring communities, in particular the border city of Scottsdale. A cross between Beverly Hills and Santa Fe, this ritzy haven of socialites, celebrities, and resort-goers has hundreds of high-end arts and crafts galleries, and specialty shops.

The Scottsdale Fashion Square, with some 240 shops, is an enormous, fancy mall, but the place to be seen is definitely the Borgata, a swank Renaissance-style compound that supposedly resembles an Italian village. Just south of the Fashion Square, 5th Avenue curves northeast from Indian School Road up to Scottsdale Road, lined with clothiers, jewelers, and boutiques. More touristy but still brimming with great shopping is the Old Town Scottsdale district, which thrives along Main Street between Brown Avenue and 70th Street. The one non-shopping must-see here is Taliesin West, 1937 winter home of Frank Lloyd Wright, where the master of architecture and design kept a studio and his school in the desert. Tours of the grounds are available daily.

THE LITTLE BLACK BOOK

Arizona Center (3rd and Van Buren Sts., 602-271-4000). Arizona Science Center (600 E. Washington St., 602-716-2000).
Biltmore Fashion Park (24th St. and E. Camelback Rd., 602-955-8401).
Borgata (6166 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-998-1822).
Coffee Plantation (2468 E. Camelback Rd., 602-553-0203). Coronado Cafe (2201 N. 7th St., 602-258-5149).
Gay and Lesbian Community Center and Switchboard (8617 N. Black Canyon Hwy., 602-234-2752, Website).
Heard Museum (2301 N. Central Ave., 602-252-8840). Herberger Theater Center (222 E. Monroe St., 602-254-7399).
Heritage Square (Adams and 7th Sts.).
Museo Chicano (147 E. Adams St., 602-257-5536).
Obelisk Books (24 W. Camelback Rd., Unit A, 602-266-2665).
Orpheum Theatre (203 W. Adams St., 602-252-9678).
Park Central Mall (Central Ave. and Earll Dr., 602-264-5575).
Phoenix and Valley of the Sun Convention and Visitors Bureau (602-254-6500 or 877-CALL-PHX, Website ).
Phoenix Art Museum (1625 N. Central Ave., 602-257-2222).
Phoenix Burton Barr Central Library (1221 N. Central Ave., 602-262-4636).
Phoenix Museum of History (105 N. 5th St., 602-253-2734).
Rosson House (6th and Monroe Sts., 602-262-5029).
Scottsdale Fashion Square (Scottsdale and Camelback Rds., Scottsdale, 480-990-7800).
Symphony Hall (225 E. Adams St., 602-262-7272).
Taliesin West (114th St. and Cactus Rd., Scottsdale, 480-860-8810).
Unique on Central (4700 N. Central Ave., Suite 105, 602-279-9691).

Andrew Collins authored Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA, the Connecticut Handbook, and six regional gay guides for Fodor's. He can be reached here at OutUK or direct at GayFodors@aol.com.

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