Located in south central Arizona, less than 20 miles east of Phoenix, Mesa has all the diversions a traveler would want from the Southwest. You'll find everything from outdoor playgrounds to fine dining to an "agrihood." Standing guard nearby, Superstition Mountains provide plenty of natural adventures, too, with jagged peaks separated by rock-filled canyons and covered with saguaro cacti that reach tree-like heights. But perhaps the most compelling reason to make this destination your base is that a visit to Mesa costs just a fraction of a visit to its big-city neighbors. Lodging rates here, for starters, are 60 percent lower here than in Scottsdale.
Here's what else you need to know about a great Mesa escape:Where to Eat
Looking for an afternoon break? The fresh O.J. at Mesa's The Orange Patch is the tastiest you’ll find for miles. A variety of citrus fruits, grown there, are squeezed and blended into a refreshing, thirst-quenching drink to combat the hot temps. Just a few miles out in Queen Creek, you can also find reprieve at the farm of Queen Creek Olive Mill. They offer free tours and $5 tours -- and there's an Italian-inspired restaurant if you decide to linger.
To end the day on a sweet note, cap your evening off with a glass of vino and Chocolate Bouchon, affogato, or a classic crème brulee at Postino East Wine Café.
What to Do
The free Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in nearby Gilbert attracts nature lovers of all ages. Nearly 200 species reside in the 110-acre wildlife sanctuary, including peregrine falcons, American kestrels, and red-tailed hawks. Leashed dogs are welcome here, but if you travel with a canine friend, he'll really thank you a thousand times over for taking him to Cosmo Dog Park (free). The park boasts four fenced acres -- with separate areas for brave and timid dogs -- plus a lake, washing stations, and pet drinking fountains for furry creatures. For humans, there are also a wealth of benches, ramadas with barbecue grills, and a restroom for humans.
Another Gilbert attraction is Agritopia, one of the original “agrihoods” of Arizona. It's not so much a farm as it is an entire neighborhood in itself, as the name suggests, with 450 single-family homes. But the free-to-visit acreage features fruit trees, heritage grains, and vegetables -- think: Tuscan kale, arugula, and romanesco. Visitors pick fruit in season, stroll the expansive and vibrant grounds, and dine at Joe’s Farm Grill (which was featured on the Food Channel’s "Diner’s Drive-Ins and Dives"). Insider tip: Grape vines wind their way around fence posts throughout the property, and, when they bear grapes, you can pick them at no cost.
Of course, a stay in the Southwest isn't complete without some time in the saddle. That’s where Fort McDowell Adventures, as seen on "The Amazing Race," enters the picture. Here, ride alongside the Verde River and keep an eye out for eagles, javelinas, and mustangs, for $60 per person for 90 minutes. If you crave more excitement than an easy-trot trail ride, try the Fort McDowell City Slicker Cattle Drive.
Where to Stay
If you love a spanking new hotel, the Sheraton Mesa at Wrigleyville West opened this spring. Pay just $169 per night and get an entire 767-square-foot suite -- or around $151 for a junior suite on the Club level. For even lower rates, the Hyatt Place Phoenix/Mesa, located in the Riverview District of Mesa, starts at $99 per night for a room with two queen beds. You’ll be close to Sky Harbor Airport and the Mesa Arts Center, with access to a resort-style pool and a 9-hole executive putting green.
There are a few independent properties for those who prefer a more boutique experience, too. Less than 45 minutes from the city center, Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch provides a cabin experience for just $150, including breakfast, based on double occupancy. Additional adults are $35 each, or it's $125 for solo travelers. There's limited WiFi onsite -- but here, it's all about the hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, and tubing in or around Saguaro Lake and Salt River.