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Phoenix Phun

March 27, 2008 By:
Aaron Dalton, JE Feature
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On a crisp, clear morning earlier this month, I found myself more than 5,000 feet above the desert outskirts of Phoenix in the basket of a hot-air balloon with nothing but a wooden floor and thick wicker walls separating me from a fatal drop.

But instead of cringing in terror, I felt elation as we soared gently on the breeze, wafting back and forth as our skilled pilot used the gas burners to adjust our altitude and catch the prevailing winds.

From my perch in the sky, I looked down in awe on distant mountains peaking through silvery layers of clouds to see the entire scope of the city spreading through the canyons. Then, as we came over open land, the balloon spooked some free-ranging cattle, sparking a mini-stampede.

After about an hour in the air, our pilot from Hot Air Expeditions (1-800-831-7610, www.Hot AirExpeditions.com) set us gently on the ground. We clambered out to enjoy a picnic breakfast and traditional champagne toast.

"You have flown so well and so high that God has joined you in your laughter and set you gently back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth," he said, in reciting the Balloonist's Prayer and handing us each a certificate d'ascension en machine aerostatique.

And on the Ground ...
As amazing as the Phoenix landscape looks from the air, there's plenty to see and do on terra firma. Nearly 150 years after Phoenix began as a small settlement on the banks of the Salt River, more than 31/2 million people now call the Greater Phoenix area home.

It's no surprise that many transplants and visitors come to Phoenix for the weather -- warm winter temperatures and more than 325 days of sunshine per year. All those sunny days are perfect for lying out by the pool, which may be why the city has some of America's finest resorts.

At the historic Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa (www.arizonabiltmore.com), you can take your pick of eight swimming pools, including the original Catalina Pool that Marilyn Monroe once called her favorite in the world. President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy celebrated their honeymoon here, as did Carole Lombard and Clark Gable. (Gable nearly lost his wedding ring on the golf course!) And Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin wrote "White Christmas" while wintering poolside at the Biltmore in 1939.

Fans of celebrated American architect Frank Lloyd Wright have another reason for staying at the Biltmore -- Wright served as consulting architect during the resort's construction in the late 1920s. Eight years after the Biltmore opened in 1929, Wright began building Taliesin West, his winter home and architectural school in the nearby city of Scottsdale.

Nearly 50 years after Wright's death, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture is still going strong, and visitors are welcome to take tours of Taliesin West and learn of Wright's life and work.

The "snowbirds" have landed -- and many of them have decided to stay for good. Jews who came to Phoenix for a little winter sun and fun have moved to the city in droves.

According to Andrew Schear, communications director at the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center (www.vosjcc. org), the Greater Phoenix Jewish community already numbers approximately 100,000 and is growing rapidly.

Five years ago, the JCC moved into its spacious and modern Ina Levine Campus. There, unaffiliated Jews and members of Greater Phoenix's 20-plus synagogues exercise in the fitness and aquatic center or nosh at the glatt-kosher Levi Catering Café.

If you happen to be in Phoenix on April 6, join the party at the JCC to help celebrate Israel's 60th birthday.

There are many other things to do: Have lunch at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass resort (www. wildhorsepassresort.com) -- owned by the Gila River Indian Community. True to the resort's name, you can gaze out the window at wild horses roaming the 372,000-acre reservation.

Then walk a 2.5-mile interpretive trail along a replica of the Gila River with a Native American guide who can explain the natural landscape and share the history of the welcoming local tribes who once helped pioneers heading west.

What else? Sample the unforgettable Sunday brunch at the Terrace restaurant in the Phoenician (www.thephoenician.com). A hit with locals and visitors alike, the brunch offers numerous treats, including strawberry-and-rhubarb shooters, sushi and an entire room filled with mouth-watering desserts.

Or visit the Phoenix Art Museum (www.phxart.org), which opened a $50 million expansion in 2006. Ask a docent for directions to the interactive Firefly Room for a truly memorable art experience. 

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