CAREFREE, Ariz. - It's almost too cute -- as if some real estate developer designed it overnight to lure retiring baby boomers to the desert.
At least, that's the impression you get when you see Carefree, Ariz., on the map. With streets named Ho Hum Road and Easy Street, it seems just too planned.
In fact, Carefree was one of the first master-planned communities in Arizona, conceived in the 1950 s. But it has more to offer than just clever street names. Located 33 miles from Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport and northwest of Scottsdale, it's worth a quick trip for the scenery alone.
With Phoenix now a metropolis of 1.5 million people, it's easy to forget that it sits in the middle of the desert. Except for the triple-digit temperatures in the summer and the occasional cactus alongside the freeway, Phoenix is just another city, the fifth largest in the United States.
That's why this short trip outside of town will remind you where you are.
Taking the Scottsdale Road exit off Highway 101, you'll soon escape the sprawling suburban developments and find yourself surrounded by brush and cactus. The beauty of the Sonoran Desert makes it a relaxing drive.
You'll see plenty of vehicles pulling horse trailers or dirt bikes on this road.
Carefree borders the Tonto National Forest, where there are nearly 3 million acres of recreational area to explore.
If you are interested in spending a little more time, there are several companies
The landscape changes as you approach Carefree. Hundreds of saguaro cactuses stand tall against the dark hillsides.
Then it changes again, with massive granite outcroppings suspended precariously from the mountain terrain, giving the area an otherworldly feel. Some of these boulders date back 12 million years. They take on a beauty all their own, with the sun changing the coloring and shading
The famous Boulders Resort and Golden Door Spa is located here, with some of the most outstanding formations as a backdrop.
Adjacent to The Boulders is El Pedregal shopping area (34505 N. Scottsdale Road). With buildings painted in bright colors and pieces of colorful parachute cloth covering the atrium, you find home and apparel shops and eateries here. It's a good place to stop for a cool drink or pick up a gift to take home before proceeding into the center of Carefree.
Don't miss Adelante in this center. It features Day of the Dead sculptures, paintings and jewelry. Even if you buy nothing, it is fun to browse in this store.
Also stop by Southwest Expressions. With home accents and gifts featuring tile work and even hammered tin, they can ship your purchase if it isn't small enough to pack in your luggage.
Carefree boasts the third-largest sundial in the Western Hemisphere. You'll find it in the center of town, near Easy Street and Sundial Circle. Made of steel and anodized copper, it stands 35 feet tall, extends 72 feet and points to the North Star. If you have kids traveling with you, this might be a great way to interest them in the ancient way of telling time.
If they are too young, there's a big slide nearby disguised as a Gila monster to entertain them. If it's hot, dip your fingers in the nearby fountain. Just the sound of falling water will cool you off.
For those who love the landscape, there is a desert botanical garden, labeled so you can appreciate all that grows in the area, including chaparral sage, blue palo verde, prickly pear and many, many others.
These plantings draw the birds and butterflies. You can watch them flit from tree to plant as you sit on the benches along the way. The botanical garden also features garden sculptures, all of this set against a backdrop of Black Mountain in the distance.
Of course, there are more shops in this part of town. Tucked in among dry cleaners and hair salons for the locals, there are more home furnishing, pottery, gift and clothing stores.
And there, right across from the botanical garden, is the English Rose Tea Room, as if someone plucked it out of the center of London -- British flags and all -- and set it down in the middle of the desert. Here you can have lunch outside on the front porch area (cooled by misters, of course) or inside amid the English antiques. A formal tea is served in the late afternoon. If you are not there at the right time, at least go in to visit the gift shop.
English Rose was closed the day we visited, so we headed into Cave Creek, just a short distance north, to find the Cartwright's Sonoran Ranch House. It had come highly recommended for its American ranch cuisine. But we found it was only open for dinner (4:30 to 9 p.m., at 6710 E. Cave Creek Road; for a look at the menu and a virtual tour of the restaurant, go to CartwrightsSonoranRanchHouse.com).
Instead, we found the Tonto Bar & Grill, operated by the same owner but located on the grounds of the Rancho Mañana Dude Ranch. Don't let that prevent you from entering the grounds (5736 E. Rancho Mañana Blvd., Cave Creek). The restaurant sits near the entrance and is well marked. It, too, claims to serve "New American Cuisine With a Taste of Native Arizona."
Although the inside was quaint and relaxed, we chose to sit on the patio overlooking the resort's golf course.
I ordered the pan-roasted grouper fish tacos with homemade corn chips and tomato and corn salsa. My companion chose the Tumbleweed Salad with grilled pork tenderloin. The topper was a dessert we split of grilled peaches stuffed with mascarpone flavored with a touch of almonds and served with vanilla ice cream.
What better way to sample a little bit of what Arizona offers when you only have a short stay in Phoenix? You get the feel of the desert, can do a little shopping, taste the flavors of the Southwest and be back in the airport in just four hours.