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Weekend Escape: Arizona : Southwest Quick Fix : Whirlwind tour of a fast-rising Phoenix

March 31, 1996|ELLEN MELINKOFF | Melinkoff is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

PHOENIX — This is a city in ascendency, and it knows it. There's a sense of great things to come at every turn. Like the San Fernando Valley in the 1950s, and Orange County 20 years ago. Phoenix's airport seems three times larger than it needs to be. The Phoenix Art Museum is doubling its space. Everything's a size too large, with room to grow.

The question was, could a couple of non-golfers (non-tennis players too) find other things to do in this go-go, airline-hub city? Lured by Southwest's super-low fares ($19 each way; it's now $29), my friend, Maria, and I set off on a Friday afternoon to find out.

Free from having to worry about greens fees and court times, we decided to stay downtown at the San Carlos, a recently restored 1927 hotel. The lobby is lavishly done over in baroque, Victorian style, and there's a nice sense of pride about the place; the rooms and upper floor hallways are more modestly redone. As we got off the elevator on the sixth floor, we saw a photo of Humphrey Bogart, who, a plaque noted, stayed at the San Carlos many times in the '40s and '50s. Later, we learned that the third floor was dedicated to Mae West, the fourth to Clark Gable--they, too, had been frequent guests.

Phoenix has its own Wolfgang Puck--Christopher Gross, who had appeared on top-chefs-in-America lists with enough regularity to intrigue us. On Friday night, we tried his newest restaurant, the Arizona Cafe and Grill in Paradise Valley, a suburb north of Phoenix. We sat on the patio, a roaring, pinon-scented fire in front of us and the valley lights beyond. Orion was overhead. The menu: inventive Southwest, every item paired with microbrewed beer suggestions. The Caesar salad came with a super-thin Parmesan cre^pe on top instead of shavings. Barley risotto. Perfectly grilled salmon. Chunky gazpacho.

Saturday morning we headed for the museums. The Heard, downtown, world-famous for its Southwest collections, had few customers. I expected a huge place, and it was--inside. But the Spanish-Revival exterior had that lovely, small-scale Santa Barbara sense. We were bowled over by the kachina collection (spirit figures of the Hopis): In one small gallery, more than 400 lined the walls--and in another temporary exhibit, at least 400 more. The museum's current special exhibit (running through 1996) is "Inventing the Southwest: The Fred Harvey Company and Native American Art," a lively look at how entrepreneur Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe Railroad created an exotic-but-accessible Southwest that, beginning in the '20s, lured Easterners to Harvey's shops and restaurants at train stops, including Santa Fe and the Grand Canyon. It was a nice contrast to the relentlessly just-built Phoenix we had driven through, and we both would rather have been one of those early adventure-seekers. They got all the good jewelry.

The Phoenix Art Museum's razzle-dazzle, too-large-by-half facility doesn't really open until the fall. For now, some of the permanent collection is on exhibit in a finished wing, enough to make a visit worthwhile, and admission is free. They've got a huge abstract by Helen Frankenthaler that knocked our socks off. The paintings on the second floor romanticized the Old West and, again, gave us that years-too-late feeling.

Maria insisted on treating us to drinks at the Arizona Biltmore in north Phoenix. With room rates of $315 a night in high season, we couldn't afford much more. We took a slow stroll through the Frank Lloyd

Wright-designed hotel, oohing and aahing at every divinely inspired touch.

We drove on to Cosanti, the in-town, smaller version of architectural visionary Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti. Soleri and his followers have been building their ecologically pure city of the future south of Prescott since 1970 (aren't you glad he's not your contractor?). Cosanti has a few buildings, including a foundry where the famous Soleri brass bells are made and sold.

We decided to get up early Sunday morning and head for the Desert Botanic Garden in Papago Park. Arriving at 8 a.m., we had the walkways to ourselves. This is a souped-up version of desert flora, every cactus and paloverde (the state tree, we discovered) manicured to perfection. The fauna was great too: purple-throated hummingbirds, plump quail, roadrunners.

*

Although desperately in need of brunch, we put it off so we could hit Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's Western headquarters, in time for their on-the-hour tours. It's mainly a walk around, rather than through, the buildings. Taliesin was Wright's winter home and is the site of his archives and school of architecture, which accepts about 35 students at a time. Despite the dreary subdivisions that now reach the property's edge a mile from the complex, Wright's location for the stone and concrete structures remains sublime--if you face the foothills beyond and don't look at the valley below.

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