Sizzling hot Scottsdale

Scottsdale, Ariz.

Late morning is mojito time inside the gold-striped cabanas surrounding the pools at the Phoenician, the mega-classy Scottsdale-area resort.

A few miles north, on the grassy islands separating the pools at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge, the Dirty Worm, an Oreo cookie milkshake topped with gummy worms, is the afternoon drink of choice for kids. For grown-ups, it's Cabana Colada, a mix of five types of rum.

And in downtown Scottsdale, on the oh-so-hip double chaises reclining poolside at the Hotel Valley Ho, anytime is martini time. That drink is a natural choice because the Oh Pool was designed to resemble a martini in a glass.

In this sizzling desert town, all hotels are not created equal, I discovered late last month when I sampled the top pools in Scottsdale and environs. The region is home to some of the nation's finest resorts, where the nightly room rate often tops $450 in high season. But when summer temperatures soar, room rates fall by as much as two-thirds.

Yes, it's hot. It was 102 degrees during my May visit — a full month before the official start of summer. But Scottsdale's pools are very cool. And the low-season prices let thrifty travelers spend a few nights enjoying the luxuries that help put these hotels in a class of their own: fine linens and bedding, expensive bath soaps and lotions, the seeming acres of pools.

During my three-day visit, I zipped down slides, floated on lazy river tube rides, stood under waterfalls and sank my toes into faux sandy beaches.

Summer is one of the busiest times of the year for many of these hotels. "We get a lot of driving-distance locals, including Southern Californians, this time of year," said Stephanie Dowling of Westin Kierland Resort & Spa. "If you live nearby, you can have an inexpensive first-class vacation."

The larger resorts abandon the conventioneer crowd — their bread-and-butter the rest of the year — in favor of the family fun set, offering such activities as watermelon-eating contests, pool sports and dive-in movies.

Maricopa County, home to both Scottsdale and Phoenix, offers fun and games on a grand scale, including nearly 200 golf courses. Of course, some activities, such as golf and hiking, require pre-sunrise wake-up calls to avoid the midday heat. But there are ice skating, tubing on the Salt River and first-class shopping at scores of boutiques and luxury department stores.

For those who want to see the desert up close, there are rollicking Segway tours, tranquil balloon rides or backcountry trips by Jeep or Hummer.

Scottsdale — long known for its Western-style Old Town full of cowboy art, Native American gift shops and midcentury modern motels — is revitalizing itself. More than $2 billion in development is underway, and some projects, such as a new retail and restaurant complex, are already completed.

Much of the development is along Scottsdale's waterfront.

Scottsdale has a waterfront? It seems a contradiction in terms.

It's actually the Arizona Canal, I learned, originally engineered by the Hohokam people for irrigation more than 500 years ago. City officials and developers hope it will become an epicenter for new retail, dining and entertainment venues, much like the River Walk in San Antonio.

Several restaurants and shops have opened along the canal, including a P.F. Chang's and an Urban Outfitters, and others are scheduled to debut in the next few months. A new W Scottsdale hotel is scheduled to open in December.

I strolled through one of the new projects on a Friday night, dining at the Olive & Ivy Restaurant & Marketplace, a blend of Mediterranean and California elements with a giant patio facing the water. A lively crowd of well-dressed young professionals was sipping cosmos and sangria — a house specialty — and dining on olive oil-poached salmon and roasted duck breast.

A quarter-mile away, Scottsdale's evolving entertainment district now has more than 50 lounges and nightclubs, all within walking distance. On many nights, the hottest clubs have long lines snaking down the street. Can't get in at popular Axis, which pumps house music, or its sister club Radius, which caters to the hip-hop crowd? Try Suede, the dining room and lounge across the street, or Myst, a techno club a block away.

Might be an entertaining way to spend the evening after a lazy day drinking mojitos by the hotel pool.