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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A gem in the desert: Scottsdale offers destination dining and the great outdoors

A mission is an important assignment carried out for political, religious or commercial purposes, typically involving travel. Well, I had a religious experience at Scottsdale’s the Mission, which involved travel. During a long weekend two months ago, I experienced fine Southwestern dining at the Mission, which served a duck empanada I fantasize about as if it were Scarlett Johansson.

The inventive appetizer, a sublime mix of duck confit, foie gras, orange habanero glaze, oregano, mushroom and queso Oaxaca, isn’t the only reason to visit the desert, but it’s a good starter in more ways than one. After grinding through an endless winter relatively sequestered, it was time for a trip. Direct flights from Spokane to Phoenix are affordable ($183 round trip via Expedia) and manageable (2 hours, 40 minutes).

Even though it’s warming up, the terrain and the experience Scottsdale offer is completely different and welcome. Scottsdale has quietly become a dining destination. It makes sense since it’s an affordable option for adventurous chefs who dot the Scottsdale landscape.

The Mission (themissionaz.com) impressed with its roasted pork shoulder, which is smoked and slow braised for 12 hours with pineapple habanero glaze and handmade corn tortillas. The pork is tender and succulent. Also, a big thumbs up for the grilled street corn, skewered corn, butter chile, aji rocato, cilantro and cotija and the Guatemalen Chocolate Pasilla, which is comprised of XO tequila, fig and guajillo glaze, spicy cocoa nibs and Villa Dolce vanilla ice cream.

It was the perfect way to cap a memorable dinner. I didn’t expect such a delightful meal, but chef Matt Carter, a Scottsdale native, does it his way. When in the Southwest, it’s difficult to stray too far from Mexican fare. The modern Mex at Diego Pops (diegopops.com) includes habanero BBQ wings, which pack a delicious kick, and coconut shrimp, with lemongrass, red onion and cilantro – they make for a terrific combination.

There are plenty of ways to burn off calories in Scottsdale. While staying at the Boulders Resort and Spa (theboulders.com), I rock climbed a 75-foot wall that’s about 12 million years old on the property. The crystalline granite and metamorphic rock was a breeze thanks to my guide, Rico Riley. Prior rock climbing experiences were plagued by guides who insisted on insanely tight shoes. I understand the need for a fit that is confined, but I’ve climbed walls in agony.

Riley understood where I was coming from and cut me some slack, and I enjoyed a breathtaking climb in sensible climbing shoes. Riley, who is adept at building trust, provided insight that I will use on future climbs. For more relaxed exercise, hit Saguaro Lake (saguarolakeranch.com) for kayaking. I floated along the pristine Salt River and kayaked below thousand-foot cliffs while staring at majestic cacti in the Sonoran Desert.

Bald eagles, herons and osprey took flight as I paddled across the relatively still waters. It’s a peaceful place to tune out. If you would like to expend a bit more energy, hit a trail on horseback at the nearby Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch (saguarolakeranch.com).

The guided tour runs through the Sonoran Desert into the scenic Goldfield mountain range. The trail takes riders on saguaro cactus-studded ridges along the Lower Salt River into dry arroyos. The views are magnificent, and the horses are easygoing on an hourlong tour, which zips by quickly.

There are an array of options for accommodations. For a total escape, there’s the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (fairmont.com/scottsdale/), which is centrally located on a beautiful property and features spacious, comfortable rooms. The grounds are filled with fountains, fire pits and colorful desert plants. The breakfast at the Princess’s Ironwood American Kitchen (scottsdaleprincess.com/dining/ironwood-american-kitchen) was bountiful.

The local omelet, which includes chorizo, poblano pepper, caramelized onion, pico de gallo, cheddar cheese, cilantro chimichurri and crispy Yukon potato, is delicious. The apple-smoked pork burrito is another fine choice. The jalapeno hot sauce and aged gouda make such a difference.

If you would like to stay on property for dinner, check out Toro Latin Restaurant and Rum Bar (scottsdaleprincess.com/dining/toro-latin-restaurant-and-rum-bar). The name is a bit misleading, as it fuses Latin and Asian. A suviche bar (sushi and ceviche) and a raw bar combines Asian and Latin. The mix of Brazilian steak and sushi works really well.

Boulders Resort and Spa presents the image I’ve always had of Arizona: wide open spaces, an array of mountains and endless cacti. The surprise I had was how green it is on the outer limits of Scottsdale. The property is tranquil and pristine, and the skies are so clear, particularly in the evening, which is perfect for star-gazing. There are four pools out along the Sonoran Desert foothills. The rooms, which include a fireplace, offer majestic views of the mountains.

The Grill Kitchen & Bar, one of the Boulders’ restaurants (theboulders.com/restaurants-and-dining/the-grill-restaurant-and-bar.html), knocked it out of the park with its small plates, shrimp and grits and Southwest crab cakes. It’s a nice atmosphere overlooking the golf course. A tour of the property, which focuses on the ethnobotanical aspects of the region, was edifying. It was fascinating to learn how animals live in the desert and which cacti one can drink in order to survive.

There was one last culinary treat before departing. Breakfast at the Hash Kitchen (hashkitchen.com/), a local chain with an extensive breakfast menu, hit the spot. I’ve never had anything like the huevos ranchero hash with five-hour braised short ribs and avocado sauce that I almost miss as much as the duck empanadas. I also indulged in the Nutella lobster tails, which are warm croissants stuffed with Nutella and covered in powdered sugar. Who says Nutella is just for kids?

There’s much fun to be had in the Arizona sun, but I was so taken aback by the food scene in Scottsdale. It’s fairly priced and delicious. Speaking of prices, hikes are free. I embarked on a pair of amazing jaunts, the Pinnacle Peak Summit Trail (arizonahikersguide.com/all-hikes/ficki1hm3zntdxumdgftam8hmxctf2) and the Gateway Loop Trail (alltrails.com/trail/us/arizona/gateway-loop-trail). Both are scenic, well-maintained and not as well traveled as I imagined.

The Scottsdale experience was just what I needed after being off the road for six months. And those duck empanadas are worth another trip to the Valley of the Sun.

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