From Nevada to Arizona – a road trip through the desert


Otherworldly rock formations. Enormous craggy canyons. Blazing sunsets that saturate orange-red landscapes like an all-too-powerful Instagram filter. You see it all while road tripping southwestern America.

Indeed, each sun-drenched state is a treasure chest of natural wonders: the cartoon-like giant boulders of California’s Joshua Tree National Park; Arizona’s iconic 4,926 square km Grand Canyon; Nevada’s Mojave Desert – the driest in North America – and within it, Death Valley, which in 2013 recorded the hottest temperature on Earth (134F).

If such curiosities are rough-cut diamonds, then the remote cities that dot these arid lands are their polished companions. Many offer cultural explosions at odds with the dusty scenes around them.

I recently drove 311 miles from buzzy Las Vegas, Nevada to scorching Scottsdale, Arizona (with a brief stop in its next-door big brother city, Phoenix). Then, I cruised a further 268 miles to the tiny desert oasis Palm Springs and, finally, 106 miles to Los Angeles.

So picture this: cloudless skies and inky black infinities teeming with crystal clear constellations as backdrops; proud, spiky Saguaro cacti as supporting players, not to mention a surprising abundance of self-assured desert wildlife (bobcats, black bears, coyotes, cougars), as I present the story of each dramatic stop on a road trip of a lifetime…


What begins in Vegas…

I started with a bang in the obscenely fun Sin City. Home to 620,000, Nevada’s largest settlement boasts tourism and gaming as its top industries; thus everyone, locals and visitors alike, are down for fun.

My first stop was lunch at Spago by Wolfgang Puck at Bellagio resort. It was the epitome of statement dining: an extensive menu containing everything from impossibly fresh seafood to artisan pasta and pizza, which I enjoyed al fresco on a balcony, overlooking a glassy 8.5-acre lake. Therein, a true emblem of Las Vegas resides: the Bellagio Fountains. Costing a reported $40 million to build and combining some 1,200 jets of water with music and light, this is a truly dazzling show, with some of the streams reaching heights of 460 feet.

Neon Museum

Then, to an attraction you’re only going to find in Vegas: the Neon Museum, a collection of some of the city’s most arresting glowing signs and advertisements. A stroll around the three-acre grounds, whether during the daytime or nighttime, is to look back through Vegas’s colorful history. A current exhibit even showcases the artwork of Batman and Dumbo director Tim Burton!

Even flashier is the nightlife: two enduring, delightfully trashy gay bars, as known for their raucous drag shows and karaoke nights as for their more laid-back pool-and-darts vibe, include the Phoenix Bar & Lounge and The Garage.

What’s more, the showgirl capital that birthed RuPaul’s Drag Race favourite Farrah Moan is soon to get decidedly queerer and more rhinestone-studded, with RuPaul’s recent revelation that a ‘sickening’ RPDR Vegas residency – named RuPaul’s Drag Race Live! – is coming to the 3-star Flamingo Las Vegas in early 2020. You can expect a rotating cast of iconic names, like former winners Yvie Oddly and Aquaria.

Meanwhile, bonfire gay icon Lady Gaga continues her critically acclaimed Vegas residency into 2020 with her Enigma extravaganza. She performs at the 5,200-seat Park Theatre, part of the gargantuan, 2,992-room-and-suite Park MGM. Located within the MGM complex is the fabulous NoMad Las Vegas, offering a more personal alternative to the standard Strip casino-hotel behemoths elsewhere.

With a comparatively tiny 293 rooms and suites, it’s box-fresh after a 2018 opening. Stylistically, it has the tasteful Parisian echoes of its New York sister property, and I adored the plush presidential suite, covering 2,000 square feet and sleeping six. It boasts unrivalled views of the Strip, and unforgettable features like Carrara marble mosaic tiles in the walk-in shower, luxurious Bellino linens and a tasteful apartment feel, complete with bespoke furniture and billiards table.

Equally plush was the NoMad Bar: head here for relaxing live jazz during Sunday brunch; the Moroccan-feeling pool is also a hit, as is the glittering casino with Tiffany ceiling.

A note on Pride: like many cities in the region, it takes place in Vegas late in the year, owing to searing summer temperatures. Las Vegas Pride Parade 2019 is from 12-13 October.


Rise like a Phoenix

Is it an absurdly luxurious desert mirage? No, it’s the 1.6-million-person city of Phoenix, and right next to it, within the Greater Phoenix Area, the 246,645-town of Scottsdale.

Here, your perfect base is the four-star, 23-acre/185-room-and-suite ANdAZ Scottsdale Resort & Bungalows, which enjoyed a $75 million renovation completed in 2017.

A love letter to throwback midcentury modern, everything is on one level, characterised by low, flat roofs and neat, straight lines – plus a clean, white colour scheme finished with the odd splash of earthy colour. As such, the stark design offsets the wild, rugged natural beauty of the cacti gardens and Sonoran Desert beyond. In fact, it practically underlines nearby Camelback Mountain.

Andaz Scotsdale

The rooms are similarly minimalist, save for the resort’s extensive local art collection. (It even has ‘Artist in Residence’ workshop, if you want to flex your creative muscles.)

I loved the inviting turquoise pool, the splendid Palo Verde Spa & Apothecary – complete with desert element-infused products, steam rooms, Jacuzzi and salon – and the Weft & Warp Art Bar + Kitchen, featuring a fresh, light menu heavy on local ingredients. Scallop pasta anyone?

Elsewhere in art and design haven Scottsdale, be sure to check out the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, another minimalist building known for its James Turrell-designed skyspace. Another must-see is the spiritual home of America’s most beloved architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. His winter home/architectural school Taliesin West effortlessly blends with the surrounding landscape.

I furthermore loved the 125-acre Phoenix Zoo – home to local characters like bighorn sheep and vultures plus the likes of African lions and Galapagos Tortoises – and the opulent Wrigley Mansion, owned by the late chewing gum businessman William Wrigley Jr.

To rub shoulders with local LGBTs, head to the unique space that is Stacy’s at Melrose, housed within an old cathedral and as such decked out with faux stain glassed windows and candelabras. Phoenix Pride, by the way, occurs in the spring: next year, it takes place from 6-7 April.

Obviously I have to mention the Grand Canyon National Park, a 3.5 hour drive from Scottsdale, but just as beautiful is the strange, curved geology of Antelope Canyon. (Britney Spears filmed her iconic I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman video at both!). Alternatively, survey the scenery from an easily arranged hot air balloon.


Palms outstretched

Then, east to Palm Springs, California, which stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of New York City, Berlin and London as one of the world’s premiere gay playgrounds. And with only 48,000 residents, it’s certainly more accessible in size than its peers!

Its queer credentials are strong. An all-LGBT city council, LGBT-owned businesses like the Wabi Sabi Japan Living homeware store and bear supermarket Bear Wear Etc, a one-of-a-kind ‘straight-friendly’ assisted living retirement facility in the form of Stonewall Gardens, and one of the latest Prides in the country – this year’s Greater Palm Springs Pride takes place from 1-3 November. Then, of course, there are the countless flashy gay bars: my favourites included the informal Spurline the Video Bar and Hunters Nightclub.

I opted for the one-level masterpiece Villa Royale for my stay in Palm Springs: a luxurious, adults-only Spanish-feeling stopover, characterised by charming terracotta roofs and grounds dashed with palm trees and striking desert flora.

An intimate boutique bolthole of only 38 spacious villas, its glamorous storied history – opening in 1947, it was frequented by stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age escaping LA – lingers in the air despite a grand renovation and reopening in 2018.

Enjoy humbling views of the San Jacinto Mountains while sipping elaborate cocktails from besides one of two pools, or perhaps from the chic and moody Del Rey restaurant, serving inventive Spanish fare. Other highlights include a hot tub, the fleet of Electra bikes for guests and the location. Downtown, home to the Palm Springs Art Museum, is only a five-minute drive away.

Don’t miss the rotating Palm Springs Aerial Tramway – the world’s largest, dating back to 1963 – for a scenic ride to the 8,516-elevation Mountain Station in Mount San Jacinto State Park. It’s 30-40 degrees cooler here than the desert floor, so you might be greeted with snow!


Angel city

Finally, to the City of Angels, and of course, Hollywood. From the Walk of Fame to Universal Studios, city highlights for film lovers are well-documented.

For a movie-inspired itinerary, why not visit the setting of several iconic films, that’s an amazing attractions in its own right? Namely, the Griffith Observatory – famously featured in Rebel Without a Cause and La La Land – where you can ponder infinity and beyond. Alternatively, a glam crowdpleaser is a tour of the Kodak Theatre, home of the annual Oscars ceremony.

West Hollywood is LA’s main gaybourhood, and home to the world’s most famous gay bar The Abbey, frequented by Adam Lambert, Gaga and even the late, great Elizabeth Taylor! Stylish, gay-friendly hotels in the area include The London West Hollywood at Beverly Hills and The Standard, Hollywood.

The 2020 LA Pride Festival & Parade, by the way, takes West Hollywood from 12-14 June 2020; outside of WeHo, head Downtown to explore your history at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries: the oldest and largest collection of LGBTQ materials in the world.

OUE Skyspace

One of LA’s hottest attractions is the OUE Skyspace, opened 2016. It’s California’s tallest observation deck, offering 360-degree views and standing almost 1,000 tall. Spread across floors 69 and 70 of the U.S. Bank Tower, it’s best-known for its trailblazing glass slide that snaked around the edge of the building – not for the faint of heart!

That’s all from this little US road trip. Till next time!




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