When I moved from the upper plains of North Dakota to the desert southwest of Arizona years ago, one of the questions I frequently got from friends back home went something like this: “How do you get into the holiday spirit with no snow?”
True, it took some getting used to. In place of the frigid moonlight toboggan parties I was used to around Christmastime were balmy days at the barbecue grill. And rather than a landscape that was almost guaranteed to feature glistening snowy hills were towering saguaro cacti backlit by golden sunlight.
Of course, living in Northern Arizona, I still occasionally get a white Christmas. But they are few and far between. More likely is a holiday season featuring vivid blue skies, a few fluffy clouds, and mild 50- and 60-degree weather.
After a few decades of Southwestern life, though, I’ll have to say that the desert Christmas has grown on me. In fact, a lit-up palm tree can get me a little misty-eyed. I’ve come to appreciate the joys of wandering through the lit-up plazas, courtyards, and hotel grounds of the Christmas-y towns of Arizona.
Here are a few of my favorite Arizona spots to take in a delightful desert Christmas.
The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess – “Christmas at the Princess”
I’ve visited the “Christmas at the Princess” off and on over the past four or five years, and I have to say, this classic Scottsdale, Arizona, resort really gets the whole “desert Christmas” thing.
Each season, it seems, there is some enchanting new feature. This year, the resort capitalized on the popular campfire treat of roasted marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers by creating an entire S’moresLand – a large carnival-like setting featuring a series of wood-burning fire pits. The pits, which were all burning brightly when we walked into S’moresland, had plenty of comfortable seating, perfect for getting just the right roast on your marshmallow.
As cool as it is, S’moretown is just one of dozens of festive treats at “Christmas at the Princess.” In all, the event, now in its ninth year, boasts four million holiday lights, an ice-skating rink (Desert Ice), train rides, a carousel, Ferris wheel, ice slides, and a huge variety of holiday characters (think: a fishing Santa, the Grinch, and the Little Mermaid). Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks “Christmas at the Princess” is one of the best holiday spots in the state; a quarter-million people visit the event each year.
I think it’s best to let the holiday scenes speak for themselves:
Of course, during the day at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, there’s also this:
Tlaquepaque, Sedona, Arizona
Christmas at Tlaquepaque has a charm all its own – mixing a classic mission feel with the best of the gorgeous Red Rocks. This year, I visited before the lighting of the traditional luminarias, but it was still a pretty setting for an evening stroll.
After walking along the curving alleyways and arches of Tlaquepaque, I stopped for dinner at the popular Oak Creek Brewery and Grill, and loved the street skewer entree, which came with my choice of a grilled bourbon shrimp and chicken skewer served with wehani and basmati-walnut rice pilaf. Delicious!
And who could go to Sedona without sampling a bit of the famous Red-Rock terrain? On this trip, I chose a sunset walk along the Chuckwagon Trail.
Hometown favorite: Arizona’s Christmas City
I’ve seen it more times than I can count over the past 25 years or so, but Prescott, Arizona’s Courthouse Lighting never disappoints. Dubbed “Arizona’s Christmas City” in the 1980s, Prescott takes advantage of its picturesque Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza to create Arizona’s “Christmas Central” each year. Dozens of trees are lit up each year, and the stately courthouse serves as a focal point for the festivities.
The lights extend beyond the Courthouse Plaza to downtown Prescott’s two premier historic hotels, the Hassayampa Inn and the Hotel St. Michael. Always in the background are the lights lining the courthouse.
After a brisk walk around the plaza, there’s nothing better than a stop at Bill’s Pizza, an iconic pizzeria located just across Cortez Street from the courthouse. I’m partial to the spinach-and-artichoke-heart Elton John pizza, and feta-cheese-and-dried-cranberry-salad. A bonus during the Christmas season: A front-row seat to the courthouse lights.
Valley of Lights, Prescott Valley
For the first time this year, I took in the Valley of Lights in neighboring Prescott Valley and loved the sweet display that starts in the town’s Fain Lake Park, and continues through the scenic Lynx Creek valley. The Valley of Lights is somewhat unique because it allows for a beautiful nighttime drive through a series of canopies and tunnels, and past an eclectic variety of decorations. I especially enjoyed driving through the cascade of sparkling snowflakes.
As you can see, each of my favorite Arizona holiday spots has a different character. But each also taps into the wonderful desert-Christmas vibe.