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A Family Vacation in Phoenix

By Lisa McElroy

Kids are lined up shoulder to shoulder, ready to barrel their way down the multi-story water slide at the River Ranch.  A tween-y crowd is playing water volleyball down the way.  I'm kicking back in an inner tube, working my way around the lazy river, taking in the action.  I'm so impressed by the Squaw Peak Hilton in Phoenix, with all its activities for families, that I'm not sure a family would ever have to leave the water slide area to have a perfect Phoenix family vacation.   

But there's so much else to do here, both at the resort (and its sister property, Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs, just up the road) and in the Greater Phoenix area.    For example, at the fun and family-friendly Homewood Suites in Scottsdale, kids can hit the basketball court and stuff themselves with the full, free breakfast.  A huge upside to Homewood Suites?  It's budget friendly (wireless Internet, breakfast, parking, and full apartment-like suites with kitchens and sofa beds are all included in the reasonable room rate), plus it gives families who love togetherness all the bonding opportunities they need, while letting kids sleep and play in a separate room.  A real bonus?  Your dogs can come along – in fact, lots of Phoenix resorts welcome four-legged family members.

Take the Kimpton FireSky Resort, also in Scottsdale, where doggie guests can make a pack of friends.  Not only does the FireSky welcome pets, it has a Director of Pet Relations:  Bosco, a chocolate spaniel who wanders the property, much to kids' delight.  As for human kids, you couldn't ask for more amenities; the pool area is huge, with pretty waterfalls and plenty of lounge chairs (plus canopied beach beds, where I enjoy a mid-afternoon snooze one day); the restaurant menu offers plenty of pasta and chicken options for little ones, even s'mores around a fire pit in the evening; and the rooms are large and comfortable, with cribs and rollaway cots available for the asking.  The helpful staff can arrange babysitters for the kids if parents want to go out on the town, but there's really no need, except maybe to play golf. The resort has it all, even a location near Old Scottsdale, where a Sprinkles cupcake bakery satisfies a red velvet craving, Frank & Lupe's serves authentic style Mexican cuisine, andSauce makes gourmet pizzas to order.  Add in a high-end mall, tons of galleries, and a pretty canal waterfront, and this area makes for a great day of exploring.

Heading down the road a few miles, Phoenix proper is home to two Hilton resorts, ideal for families who want to stay and play – as in stay on the resort grounds, play golf and tennis, and eat some great meals (not to mention hit the lazy river and water park).  Both Squaw Peak and Tapatio Cliffs are all-suite properties, which means that kids once again have their own space, complete with TV and sofa bed.  Especially convenient for parents of young children is the fact that all rooms have a refrigerator, making for easy formula, yogurt, and milk storage.  Even better?  Squaw Peak boasts one of the nicest kids' clubs I've seen in a while:  Coyote Camp, a huge space with natural light, tons of toys and books, and novideo games.  Coyote Camp even offers staff supervision at the pool area, a rarity among kids' facilities.  While Tapatio Cliffs has no kids' club, families can take the resort shuttle seven minutes over to Squaw Peak, drop off the kids, and head back for a day on the golf course.  In fact, guests at both properties can take advantage of the amenities at either; for example, I enjoy an excellent massage and facial at Tocasierra, the spa at Squaw Peak, but head over to Tapatio for a round of golf. 

The Hilton properties especially make their mark with their many varied dining options, from Rico's American Grill (a mining-themed restaurant with a memorable French dip) to Hole-in-the-Wall (a poolside restaurant serving fall-off-your-fork barbecue) to Different Pointe of View (fine dining atop the cliffs at Tapatio, but appropriate for kids – don't miss the diver scallops and lobster ravioli).  Add in a couple of room service breakfasts, and you'll have options to last you several days. 

It's hard to leave the great resorts, but you definitely should do just that.  After all, the zoo here has been rated one of the top five zoos in America, with kid-focused programs like Breakfast with the Animals, Lunch with a Keeper (zookeeper, that is), and Family Twilight Camp (where kids encounter animals and share a late night snack).  At the Arizona Science Center,  the kids check out a sampling of the over 300 hands-on exhibits, see stars in the planetarium, and take in an IMAX movie. At SeaLife Arizona, they shy away from sharks and octopus, but smile at the rays and clownfish.  And the pinnacle of any Phoenix vacation (pun intended)?  A sunrise hot air balloon ride with Rainbow Ryders, 2500 feet above the Arizona desert, with views you'll never forget and a crew that makes the experience safe and fun. 

Don't be surprised if your family vacation in Phoenix comes to an end with the kids asking just how long they have to wait before they can return. Your dogs?  Well, they'll be dying for another game of fetch with Bosco.  And you?  You'll have a memory card full of photos – all the better to remember Phoenix by.

If You Go:

  • Consider spring.  Phoenix is an overlooked spring break destination, but air fares are reasonable, the weather's great, and you don't need a passport.  Temperatures in March are in the 80s, one reason why lots of major league baseball teams play their spring training games here.
  • Pack the sunscreen.  The sun's hot and direct, and I saw lots of little ones with serious sunburns.  Reapply sunscreen often, even when eating outside on a patio.
  • Schedule several days.  While you could certainly spend a great weekend at the FireSky or the Hilton properties, for example, you'll need at least five days to a week to do Phoenix right.
  • Don't miss the authentic Southwestern cuisine.  Mexican food and barbecue abound; the concierge staffs at the FireSky at the Pointe Hilton properties were particularly helpful in pointing me to some great finds. 
  • Dress casual.   Phoenix is not a fancy town. Even at Different Pointe of View, nice slacks or a sundress are fine for adults; kids can come as they are. 
  • Consider a side trip to Tucson.  The charming Arizona outpost is only about two hours away.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.

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