PHOENIX (Dec. 19, 2008) - It's no secret that the Texas Longhorns would rather be spending the first week of January in South Beach instead of the Southwest.
But there's a substantial silver lining to the Longhorns getting nudged out of the BCS Championship Game and accepting a bid to the Fiesta Bowl in Greater Phoenix: Texas fans can now get to their bowl-game destination much more affordably and have even more fun under the sun when they arrive.
An online search of airfare between Austin and Phoenix reveals that round-trip tickets are a low as $202 - that's more than $130 cheaper than the best fare from Austin to Miami (the Longhorns' would-be destination had they qualified for the BCS Championship). Accommodations in Greater Phoenix are comparatively easier on the budget, too; the typical nightly rate for a hotel room in Greater Phoenix in January is about $40 lower than that of its South Florida counterpart.
For a pair of Texas fans staying four nights during bowl week, that represents more than $300 savings on transportation and lodging alone. For a family of four in need of two rooms, the savings translate to $848.
Of course, the real measure of bowl-vacation value is how much fun fans have while they're in town. Greater Phoenix scores unbeatable marks on that scale, too. Temperate winter days in America's sunniest metropolis lend themselves to patio dining, day hikes, golf outings, and side trips to Sedona and the Grand Canyon.
It all starts with Greater Phoenix's sunny weather. The temperature at kickoff has been 60 degrees or warmer for 10 of the past 11 Fiesta Bowl games, and rain hasn't dampened a January bowl game in the Sonoran Desert in a quarter century.
So what's a Texas fan to do in this perfect postseason setting? Well, in honor of the Longhorns winning at least 10 games for the eighth consecutive season (a school record), the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau has put together a list of 10 activities that are sure-fire winners:
10. Eat out (literally).
When picking a restaurant in Greater Phoenix, consider a dining room with a view. Many restaurants feature open-air patios where you can watch a postcard-perfect sunset or dine beneath desert stars. Among the restaurants with the best winter patios (and creative cuisine) are Bourbon Steak, Café Bink, Elements, Kai, Lon's and Talavera.
9. Relish a resort experience.
More than 40 luxury resorts adorn Greater Phoenix's desert landscape and staying at one is a vacation in itself. Expect gorgeous grounds, kingly service, fine food, and access to world-class golf courses and spas. Many of Greater Phoenix's resorts are located in or near Scottsdale, where the Old West meets the New West on pedestrian-friendly streets famous for Western art galleries, trendy restaurants, Cowboy bars and the best club scene between L.A. and New York.
8. Succumb to a spa treatment.
Thanks to all those resorts, the spa scene in the Greater Phoenix is different than anything the average spa-goer has ever experienced. Nestled within mountain folds, on tribal lands and in the shadow of monolithic boulders you'll find one of the most impressive collections of resort spas in North America. Put your body and spirit in the hands of a Native American medicine healer; awaken your skin with creosote oil, gold dust or turquoise-hued Azulene mud; partake in an ancient Hammam bathing ritual; or let Quantum Biofeedback technology melt away your stress from the inside out. And hot-stone massages? They were invented in Greater Phoenix.
7. Ride the rail.
Insight Bowl fans will be among the first Phoenix visitors to ride the city's new public transportation system: METRO Light Rail. This 20-mile network links downtown Phoenix to nearby restaurants, nightlife and museums, and provides a speedy route to and from the airport. The light-rail line also connects Phoenix to Tempe, so if you book accommodations in downtown Phoenix, it's possible to take the train to Sun Devil Stadium and the Mill Avenue District, avoiding New Year's Eve traffic. An added bonus: Those fans who arrive Dec. 27-28, light rail's debut weekend, can ride the line for free.
6. Learn something.
Football fans who like a dash of culture with their blitzes and smash routes will not be disappointed by the wealth and quality of museums located in Greater Phoenix. A sampling:
Heard Museum provides fascinating insights into the culture and history of Arizona's 22 Native American tribes. It features both traditional and contemporary works, including what is perhaps the world's greatest collection of Kachina dolls. And here's a tip for visitors in search of meaningful souvenirs: The Heard Museum Shop is one of best places in Phoenix to buy authentic American Indian jewelry and art.
Desert Botanical Garden is fun for the whole family - even the guys. This 50-acre outdoor museum showcases endangered desert species from around the world, including Dali-esque trees from North Africa and sprawling cactuses from Mesopotamia. And this winter the garden's splendor is enhanced even further thanks to an exhibit by world-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. His organic and colorful creations are ingeniously integrated among the flora, and each is spectacularly illuminated after nightfall.
If kids designed a museum, it would look like Children's Museum of Phoenix. The city's newest museum experience features a hanging forest made of foam swimming noodles, a miniature grocery store with scanners and box-filled aisles, and a wooden racecar track that would tickle the fancy of M.C. Esher. And you can touch everything. This museum doesn't focus on art or science, nor does it contain paintings or bones; instead, the exhibits are designed to stimulate and entertain kids under 10. The museum also is a short stroll from the likewise-kid-friendly Arizona Science Center, which houses more than 300 interactive exhibits, a planetarium and an IMAX theater.
5. Cheer for another team.
Greater Phoenix is one of only a half-dozen U.S. cities with eight professional sports franchises, and one of the locals' favorites is the Phoenix Suns. Led by two-time league MVP Steve Nash, explosive All-Star Amare Stoudemire and veteran big man Shaquille O'Neal, the Phoenix Suns have brought the NBA playoffs to Phoenix 18 times in the past 20 seasons. The Suns play their home games at US Airways Center, and the Los Angeles Clippers will be in town Jan. 2.
4. Shop with abandon.
Shopping is a serious sport in America's fifth-largest city. From fashionable malls to chic boutiques to charming antique shops, Greater Phoenix harbors a spectrum of retail experiences few destinations in North America can match. Take advantage of the pleasant weather to stroll the garden-park setting at Biltmore Fashion Park, the outdoor promenade at Keirland Commons or the sidewalk shops of Old Town Scottsdale. Peruse high-fashion couture at Scottsdale Fashion Center, or search for bargains at have-it-all malls such as Chandler Fashion Center, Westgate City Center and Tempe Marketplace.
3. Take a hike.
Wherever you stay in Greater Phoenix, you're not far from a park or preserve. On the city's southern frontier is South Mountain Park and Preserve, the largest municipal park in the nation. The park occupies 16,000 acres just a few miles south of downtown (by comparison, Central Park encompasses 843 acres of Manhattan real estate) and is adorned by native flora and ancient petroglyphs. Its 50 miles of trails are popular among hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders, and there's also a paved road to South Mountain's summit so cyclists and motorists can enjoy the bird's-eye view.
Other easily accessible spots for outdoors pursuits are Phoenix Mountains Park and Camelback Mountain. The former is home to Piestewa Peak, which is reached via a 1.2-mile summit trail that's a favorite of active families and trail runners. Camelback Mountain, meanwhile, is Phoenix's most famous natural landmark. The mountain's silhouette resembles a dromedary camel in repose, and it challenges hikers with a rugged trek to its 2,700-foot "hump".
2. Play 18 ... or 36.
The Scottish invented golf, but Phoenicians might have perfected it. Greater Phoenix is home to more than 200 golf courses, many designed by legends of the game such as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf and Pete Dye. This is desert golf at its best, with emerald-green fairways set against a panorama of rugged mountains and towering cactuses. Some courses occupy canyons where civilization feels a world away, while others are part of opulent resorts where you can relish a "warm golf ball massage" after your round.
1. See one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
Phoenix is the gateway to America's most iconic natural landmark: the Grand Canyon. It's a 3½ to 4-hour drive to the canyon's South Rim, depending on how many stops you make (and there are plenty, with the red rocks of Sedona being a favorite). Those who seek a quicker and more dramatic route to the Grand Canyon can book an aerial tour that will take them sweeping over the 277-mile geologic marvel in an airplane. Keep in mind, true wintry weather awaits at the Grand Canyon's higher elevation, and you might even be lucky enough to see it dusted in snow.
For more details about the above attractions, plus information about where to stay and dine in Greater Phoenix, travelers can log on to www.visitphoenix.com.