Catherine Sweeney

Apr 102017

Favorite Phoenix and Scottsdale things to do

Next in our series of interviews with Valley of the Sun locals, Mike Shubic shares some of this favorite Phoenix and Scottsdale things to do. I can’t wait to try out a few of his suggestions.

Night lights at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix

Night lights at the Desert Botanical Garden

About Mike Shubic

Mike Shubic has lived in Scottsdale on and off for most of his life. He is an award-winning travel writer and seasoned road trip travel video blogger. Mike has been publishing Mikes Road Trip for over seven years and has worked with the Travel Channel, USA Today, Yahoo Travel and is currently a Gnomad for Travelocity. Mike also has his own ROKU channel and later this year his content will appear on DirecTV as they roll out a new streaming technology.

Mike’s picks for Phoenix and Scottsdale area favorites


Citizen Public House is where comfort meets class. Fantastic food, creative cocktails, tremendous service and overall great vibe!

Cocktail hour at the Citizen Public House

Cocktail hour at the Citizen Public House

Outdoor activity

Camelback Mountain has always been a favorite, but it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a strenuous hike but offers a fantastic reward at the top…360 degree views of the city below.

Camelback Mountain

Camelback Mountain

Cultural Venue

Fairly new on the scene is the MIM (Musical Instrument Museum). It’s not just a museum for music lovers; they also have a top-notch venue for intimate concerts.

Special Event

Scottsdale Culinary Festival. Scottsdale has become one of the best culinary cities in the country and this festival allows attendees to sample food from some of the top local chefs.

Great getaway

Located in the southern part of the state is Tubac, which has received a lot of national recognition over the past few years for its world-class lodging, charming downtown and historical significance.

Mission de Tumacácori in Tubac, Arizona

Mission de Tumacácori in Tubac

Place for romance

Everything just tastes better outside. Ensconced within the Desert Botanical Garden is Gertrude’s, a fabulous restaurant that allows diners to eat al fresco on one of the best patios in the city. After dinner couples can take a romantic stroll through the gardens, perhaps even take in a concert or special exhibit.

Gertrude's at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix

Gertrude’s at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix

Mike’s insider tips

  • Scottsdale has long been known for its world-class resorts. If you don’t mind the heat, summer is an opportunity to stay at some of these resorts for a third to one half the price of peak season from January through April.
  • During the summer months the McCormick Railroad Park offers outdoor concerts. It’s a lot of fun to take a picnic meal with your loved one and/or family to enjoy some free live music.
  • Scottsdale was once an artist colony, but eventually the real estate got too expensive and they were pushed out in favor of art galleries, which is known as the famed “5th Avenue Shops.”
  • Scottsdale has been a retreat for celebrities since 1940, when Elizabeth Arden opened Maine Chance Spa, welcoming society mavens, celebrities and royalty.

Mike, thanks for sharing your Phoenix/Scottsdale favorites and insights!

Follow Mike Shubic on social media

Twitter: @MikesRoadTrip
Facebook: Mike’s Road Trip
Instagram: @mikesroadtrip

Apr 072017

Great Hiking in Scottsdale

So many trails, so little time

Outdoors enthusiasts can find many options in and around Scottsdale. With 330 days of annual sunshine, Scottsdale is perfect for outdoor activities. Many people know about the world-class golf courses and resorts of the area, but there’s so much more. There is an incredible array of hiking and biking trails, from very easy to extremely difficult, that include amazing scenery, flora, and fauna. There are more than 400 miles of trails in the Scottsdale area for hiking, biking, climbing, horseback riding and nature appreciation. This was a big part of what made our decision to relocate to Scottsdale very easy.

Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve

McDowell Sonoran Preserve Trails

182 miles of Scottsdale’s trails are in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, the largest urban preserve in the Americas. We have a lot more of them to explore, but here’s what we’ve tried so far.

Granite Mountain Trailhead (31402 N. 136th Street)

Bootlegger Trail – Moderate (Hiking, Biking, Horseback Riding)

Bootlegger Trail accessed from the Granite Mountain Trailhead in northeastern Scottsdale

Distant mountain views from the Bootlegger Trail

We just took part of this trail for the first time over the past weekend and fell in love with it. It’s well worth the drive north to far northeastern Scottsdale even for a short hike here. There’s gorgeous scenery and blooming flora in the springtime to admire as you travel along the narrow sandy paths with giant boulders and rocky hillsides in view. We stopped several times to take in the great views from high points overlooking the desert where we had just been walking toward the eastern mountains.

As we started out, we stopped to look at an old fallen saguaro that showed its woody interior and bark base. There we spoke to a fellow hiker who warned us that the rattlers were out and he had seen two along the way. We didn’t personally see any on our 3-mile walk, but kept our eyes peeled and ears open for rattlers and other desert critters. Further along the trail than we went, it’s said that you might run across a desert tortoise. Hope to see one of those on the next hike.

Bootlegger Trail at the Granite Mountain Trailhead in northeastern Scottsdale, Arizona

Bootlegger Trail at the Granite Mountain Trailhead

Fun tip: It was also kind of fun driving the very wavy section of 136th Street between Rio Verde and the trailhead. You’ll be tempted to drive faster than the 25 mph limit to make the ups and downs more exciting, but don’t!

Lost Dog Wash Trailhead (12601 N. 124th Street)

Lost Dog Wash Trail connecting with Ringtail Trail – Easy (Hiking, Biking, Horseback Riding)

We accessed the 2.2-mile Ringtail Trail from the Lost Dog Wash Trail, but it can be directly accessed at the Ringtail Trailhead (12300 block of N. 128th Street). It’s perfect for an easy one-hour hike with interesting twists and turns. There are a few spots where you want to watch out for slippery sand or rocks as you walk. Pay attention when you see signs warning you stay on the path to keep the natural environment intact and they make it easy to differentiate the washes from the paths. There are some nice views of the valley to the south and west from points on the trail, so take a few minutes to enjoy the vistas.

Blooming cactus flowers can be seen throughout the Sonoran Desert in spring

The beauty of blooming cactus flowers in spring

Bonus trail tip: The Kovach Family Nature Trail is a fun and educational ADA accessible trail ideal for families with young children. It is located just beyond the trailhead building.

Gateway Trailhead (18333 N. Thompson Peak Parkway)

Gateway Loop Trail – Moderate (Hiking, Biking, Horseback Riding)

The Gateway Trailhead is the largest in the Sonoran Preserve. We chose the Gateway Loop Trail hike of 4.5 miles. It has a lot of ups and downs over rocky terrain and there are significant elevation changes. We loved it! Because of the rugged terrain, occasional uphill climbs, and inclinations to stop to see the view, the 4.5 miles might take a little longer than if you were out for a power walk. Views of the valley to the north and east are expansive. Families and individuals of all ages, sizes and conditions were on this trail — some taking it more slowly than others.

Quartz Trailhead (10215 E. McDowell Mountain Ranch Road)

Quartz Trail — Easy (Hiking, Biking, Horseback Riding)

Quartz Trail with the McDowell Mountains in the background

Quartz Trail with the McDowell Mountains in the background

The entire Quartz Trail runs for 4.9 miles, but we were on just a short section that cut through washes adjacent to McDowell Mountain Ranch residential areas. Although homes in the vicinity are often visible and nearby in many parts of the trail you’ll find that the trees, saguaro, and deep washes provide plenty of the desert experience. The trail is very popular with mountain bikers.

Sunrise Trailhead (12101 N. 145th Way)

Sunrise Trail –Difficult (Hiking, Biking, Horseback Riding)

Mr. TWS heading uphill on the Sunrise Trail in Scottsdale

Mr. TWS heading uphill on the Sunrise Trail

We took about half of this 5.8-mile trail. Gorgeous views and narrow, winding paths with steady climbs make this a fun trail. Accessed from Sunrise Trail, it begins running adjacent to a residential area, but quickly leads deeper into the desert and up the mountainside. The portion of the path we took was a good workout, but I’ve heard it gets more challenging as you move along and over the mountain ridges to connect with trails leading to the Lost Dog Trailhead (mentioned above).

Stay tuned for more about our Scottsdale area hikes.

For important tips about having safe and happy experiences on the Scottsdale hiking trails, Experience Scottsdale has a  Hiking and Trail Guide that you can download for great information and tips about hiking in the desert.

Mar 212017

Mr. TWS and I are loving getting to know our new community in the Valley of the Sun. There is so much for residents and visitors to see and do in Phoenix Metro, Scottsdale, and many other nearby places. I’ve always believed that the best way to get to know a place is by asking the locals and that’s what we’re doing in this series of posts.

Check out these favorite Phoenix and Scottsdale things to do!

Julie Cohn is a food and travel lifestyle writer and blogger. In addition to her own site A Cork, Fork, & Passport, she is also a feature hotel writer for the Telegraph. She has lived in the Phoenix area for 17 years. I asked her to share her area favorites.

Julie’s picks for Phoenix and Scottsdale area favorites

Nature and outdoor activities

Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix has activities year round, from spring wildflowers to summer garden classes to Los Noches de la Luminarias during the Christmas holiday season.

Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix -- Photo by Julie Cohn

Desert Botanical Garden — Photo by Julie Cohn

I love to go hiking in the White Tank Mountain Regional Park. The trails are safe and less difficult than some of the other Phoenix-area hikes. There are also interesting Indian petroglyphs. I also like to picnic at The Farm at South Mountain. The many pecan trees offer a cool, shady refuge from the hot desert sun with beautiful wildflowers and herb gardens to stroll through.

The Farm at South Mountain -- Photo by Julie Cohn

The Farm at South Mountain — Photo by Julie Cohn


We love cars, so enjoy the Barrett-Jackson Car Show & Auction in Scottsdale every January. Some of the most unique luxury and classic cars can be found at the show and the auction is fascinating to watch live.


Sedona -- Photo by Julie Cohn

Sedona — Photo by Julie Cohn

Sedona for hiking, art, and dining. Breathtaking views, quiet hiking trails, fun family activities (such as Slide Rock), unique art galleries, and wonderful dining make Sedona the ultimate weekend getaway.

Coronado, California is the place to get out of Phoenix to escape the heat. Thousands of Phoenicians flock to the San Diego area in the summertime, but the best place to stay and dine in the San Diego area is Coronado.


Dinner at Talavera at Four Seasons Troon North in Scottsdale, Arizona -- Photo by Julie Cohn

Dinner at Talavera at Four Seasons Troon North — Photo by Julie Cohn

For gourmet, Talavera at Four Seasons Troon North in Scottsdale. It has an incredible menu with unique flavor combinations and a spectacular view of the city at night. For casual, Chelsea’s Kitchen, just off Camelback and 40th. It is a fun casual place to go with friends, and they have the best white sangria cocktails in Phoenix.

Place for romance or nightlife

Dinner in the wine cellar at Lon’s at The Hermosa Inn. Candlelit dinner for up to 12, with gourmet food, a selection of outstanding wines, and maybe even a few ghostly guests make dinner in the wine cellar a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Insider tips

  • Four and five star hotels and resorts in the Phoenix area lower their rates to 60%+ off during the summer months, so if you can stand the heat, it is a great time to visit or have a staycation.
  • A great cultural day trip is to Montezuma’s Castle National Monument in Camp Verde, Arizona.
  • Rock Springs Cafe in Black Canyon City has the best pies in the United States!
  • The new restaurants at Phoenix International Airport are branches of some of the best restaurants in Phoenix, including Barrio Cafe, Chelsea’s Kitchen, and Matt’s Big Breakfast. It is worth getting to the airport early to grab a bite.
  • Many visitors do not understand the heat index in Arizona. Arizona has a “dry heat” with low humidity, so people do not feel as hot as they actually are. It is easy to overheat and become dehydrated, especially while hiking, jogging, etc. Keep water with you at all times and drink twice as much as you normally would, plus watch the local weather reports, as our local news will post warnings when it is too dangerous to do outside activities.

Personal anecdote

The Phoenix area has a weird weather phenomenon that happens every summer during monsoon season, the haboob. A haboob is a dust storm that comes up suddenly and sweeps across the city. Our first summer in Phoenix, we lived in Gilbert in the East Valley, which seems to get its fair share of summer storms. I was driving home from Phoenix when a haboob started and the visibility was so bad I had to pull off the highway. It is actually a wall of dust in front of you and was frightening to witness the first time. If you are caught in a haboob while driving, pull off as quickly as you can to a safe area and wait out the storm, as they usually pass through in 10-15 minutes. I-10 is an especially dangerous place to be during a haboob, as much of the surrounding area is dry desert. If the weather reports advise a dust storm or haboob, wait until it is over to continue your travels. Haboobs usually occur late in the afternoons when monsoon storms pass through the area.

Julie, thanks for sharing your Phoenix/Scottsdale favorites and insights!

Follow Julie Cohn on social media

Twitter: @CorkForkPassport
Facebook: A Cork, Fork & Passport
Instagram: @acorkforkpassport

Mar 182017

Sweeney in the Valley of the Sun

As new residents of the Valley of the Sun with a home in Scottsdale, Arizona we are eager to learn about the great places and activities in our new community and surrounding area. We’ve been pleasantly surprised that there is so much to see and do!

A luxury sanctuary for relaxation and recreation

Recently, we got a glimpse of the beautiful Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa in nearby Paradise Valley. Take a look.

On the terrace of elements restaurant for lunch (Camelback Mountain in the background)

On the terrace of elements restaurant for lunch (Camelback Mountain in the background)

Great views, super-friendly staff, delicious and inspired cuisine — we enjoyed it all during a brief visit and lunch at the Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa, situated against the north slope of Camelback Mountain. A tour of the property and lunch at its acclaimed restaurant provided a brief introduction to its accommodations, amenities, cuisine, and ambiance.

Property Highlights

Sanctuary evokes a warm, welcoming, and unpretentious luxury. The resort is updated and upscale but it still retains a sense of the days when the resort was the Paradise Valley Racquet Club which opened in 1957 and then in 1965 became John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch, where movie stars and other celebrities hung out and played tennis. The resort opened as the Sanctuary in March 2001.

Bell sculpture by Paolo Soleri at Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa entrance

Bell sculpture by Paolo Soleri at resort entrance

There are lovely touches of art throughout the resort that blend with the architecture and landscape, such as the large sculpture of bells by the late artist and architect Paolo Soleri (once an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright) outside of the entrance to the lobby.

Casitas and suites

Sanctuary has a total of 109 casitas and suites. The Spa Casitas and Suites were refreshed in a renovation of decor and furnishings in 2016. The Mountain Casitas and Suites, including eight Camelback Casitas and Suites (perched high on the mountainside with panoramic views) went through a full-scale renovation that was completed in 2015.

Artistic touches and interior of Onyx ("O") Spa Casita at Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa in Paradise Valley, Arizona

Artistic touches and interior of Onyx (“O”) Spa Casita

We got a look at one of the 24 Spa Casitas and Suites, aptly named for their proximity to the resort’s spa amenities and identified by gems, rather than numbers. The one we viewed is called Onyx. They are situated along walkways bordered by palms, cacti, and foliage in bloom. This time of year (mid-March), the flora was in “superbloom”, and we breathed in the fragrances as we walked about the property.

Consistent with other resort decor, art pieces are also found in the casitas. The butterfly art we saw in Onyx is a nice reflection of the resort’s status as a certified Butterfly Garden due to its landscaping which is conducive to increasing the butterfly population.

Dining with a view

elements (yes, it’s a small “e”), Sanctuary’s on-site restaurant, presents inspired dishes with a focus on freshness under the direction of Food Network star and Executive Chef Beau MacMillan. We dined al fresco on the terrace of elements enjoying close up views of Camelback Mountain and Mummy Mountain across the valley. When I heard that a pork belly sandwich was the day’s featured entree, I knew immediately that’s what I wanted. The Pork Banh Mi made with tender sliced pork belly, slivers of cucumber, and five spices was served on a Buddha Bun (one of the softest, most flavorful buns I’ve ever had).

Lunch entrees at element restaurant at Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa: Citrus shrimp salad, Pork Belly Sandwich, Pumpkin cheesecake

Lunch entrees: Citrus shrimp salad, Pork Banh Mi sandwich, Pumpkin cheesecake

Mr. TWS kept it light and fresh with the Citrus Grilled Shrimp salad with spinach, snap peas, avocado water chestnuts and cabbage and he really enjoyed it. Each entree had distinctly Asian flavors.

Our waiter Bryan was friendly and helpful and talked about how much he loves his job at elements where he started as a dishwasher three years earlier.

Exquisite jade onyx decor in jade bar

Exquisite jade onyx decor in jade bar

Wood slats in the ceiling of jade bar are original from the days of the former Paradise Valley Racquet Club. I was really taken by the bar that is made of authentic jade onyx. The vistas from both elements and the adjacent jade bar are beautiful during the day, but they must be spectacular at night with the lights of Paradise Valley’s hillside homes and resorts (shown in a photo below). A good place to catch the stunning sunsets would be at jade bar or outside on the terrace. During the cooler seasons, casual ceremonies toasting the sunsets with champagne are held on the terrace.

Spa and recreation

The resort’s spa includes indoor and outdoor treatment rooms offering Asian-inspired spa therapies, a meditation garden, vitality and tranquility pools, fitness center, and a variety of classes. We spoke for a few minutes with Spa Director LaRae Verros and enjoyed her engaging personality, a trait that seems consistent other staff we met.

Infinity-edge pool (the largest in Phoenix/Scottsdale) of Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa in Paradise Valley, Arizona

Infinity-edge pool with vistas of Mummy Mountain and mountainside homes of Paradise Valley

There are three pools on the property including a lap pool and the infinity-edge pool (the largest in Phoenix/Scottsdale) which is designated as adults-only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and is one of the cell phone-free areas of the resort. It’s a place for health, wellness, and relaxation, after all.

Photographs of celebrity guests; tennis pro Horst Falger at Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa

Photographs of celebrity guests; tennis pro Horst Falger

Five of the 21 original John Gardiner courts remain. We had a nice chat with the charming and amusing Horst Falger, the resort’s Austrian-born tennis pro. He has been a key figure at the resort for over 30 years. The pro shop walls are covered with many photos of celebrity guests who played on the courts of the John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch, including Clint Eastwood, Elton John, Eva Gabor, Merv Griffin, John Forsythe, and General Alexander Haig. There is also a display of drawings from the original 1955 membership brochure of the Paradise Valley Racquet Club (below).

Drawings from the 1955 membership brochure for the Paradise Valley Racquet Club in Paradise Valley, Arizona

Drawings from the 1955 membership brochure for the Paradise Valley Racquet Club

Mr. TWS and I appreciated the hospitality of Sanctuary on Camelback Resort and Spa staff during our tour and delicious lunch. Sanctuary’s accommodations and facilities seem to make it a lovely destination resort for leisure, business, and special occasions. It’s also appealing for locals to enjoy the spa, restaurant, and bar. I’m sure that we’ll be making return visits.


Mar 072017

Spring is a great time to visit Venice, a magical city

I have to admit to a bit of jealousy as I’ve recently seen photos and read posts of friends who were visiting or living in Venice during Carnevale di Venezia (Carnival of Venice) during February 2017. Now that Carnevale has come to a close for the year, I’ve been reflecting upon the few days that Mr. TWS and I had to spend in this magical and romantic city last spring.

Although our stay last April was short, I felt that we experienced a lot of what makes Venice so special – enough to know that we’ll make it a point to come back sometime — sooner rather than later, I hope.

Sunset in Venice --- view of Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute from the Accademia Bridge

Sunset in Venice — view of Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute from the Accademia Bridge

On a spring trip to Venice you might experience some rain (as we did upon arrival and for a bit the next day), but it shouldn’t diminish the enjoyment of the city and all it has to offer. So just remember to pack a light rain jacket.

Of course, you’ve probably heard that Venice can be very crowded with tourists in any season, but a visit in the spring will beat the summer throngs. We scheduled our time in Venice to work with a previously set itinerary for visiting other destinations in the Veneto region. That meant that we were visiting during one of the busiest times of the year — the weekend of Liberation Day, a national holiday bringing people from all over Italy to Venice to mark the occasion. But we found that although major sites such as the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco were crowded, there were better times to visit those sites (in the morning or late evening), and by veering off the main tourist areas there were many interesting and less-crowded places to stroll and enjoy.

Our favorite things

Arriving by boat

On our cruise to Venice from Portegrandi on the Silis, a tour boat operated by Navigazione Stefanato, we cruised the lagoon admiring the colorful buildings on the island of Burano and stopped on Murano Island to see a glass blowing demonstration at the famous Murano Glass Factory.

Murano Island in the Venetian Lagoon, Italy

Murano Island in the Venetian Lagoon

As we left Murano to head toward Venice, the sky became grayer and the rain picked up which added to the excitement and feeling of intrigue during our slow approach. The conditions also gave a surreal look to the city. I think that the photos we took (shown below) have a look much like Medieval frescoes or scenes in old-fashioned painted postcards.

Approaching Venice in the rain --- springtime in Venice

Approaching Venice in the rain

St. Mark's bell tower and the Doge's Palace seen from the boat as we approached Venice

St. Mark’s bell tower and the Doge’s Palace seen from the boat as we approached

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute seen upon approach to Venice by boat

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute seen upon approach to Venice by boat

Once in Venice, the main way of getting around on the waterways is by vaporetto (water buses) and water taxi (for getting to/from Marco Polo airport). Gondolas are seen everywhere but are mainly for sightseeing and having a quintessential Venice experience, not so much for getting from place to place.

Enjoying sights and sounds of Piazza San Marco

Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), one of the largest and most beautiful squares in Europe, is awe-inspiring. It seemed to always be bustling with people the numerous times we crossed the square during the visit. Its famous attractions are St. Mark’s Basilica, the adjacent clock tower and the Doge’s Palace, but there are also many shops, restaurants, and cafes. The piazza was beautiful on an overcast day, in the bright sunlight, and especially at night with the lights on all of the buildings.

Venetian flags flying in St. Mark's Square on Liberation Day

Venetian flags flying in St. Mark’s Square on Liberation Day

We felt fortunate to be there on April 25th, Liberation Day, which celebrates the end of Nazi occupation in World War II and also the end of the Italian Civil War. It was exhilarating to watch the planned festivities as well groups and individuals waving red Venetian flags promoting Venetian independence from Italy.

Touring St. Mark’s Basilica

St. Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy

St. Mark’s Basilica

St. Mark’s Basilica is named for the patron saint of Venice, St. Mark the Evangelist. It is one of Venice’s most recognizable landmarks beneath its iconic bell tower and adjacent to the Doge’s Palace. We took a Walks of Italy VIP night tour of the basilica tour to beat the crowds and we got so much interesting and entertaining background. April 25th is the Feast of St. Mark so there were special flower arrangements on the altar and the panels in the railing were removed so that worshippers on Saint Mark’s Day could fully see the altar where Saint Mark’s remains are said to reside.

Eating like a Venetian

From top left: Fresh seafood market, Prosecco, cicchetti, squid ink pasta

Enjoyment of food and wine accompanied with conversation is part of Venetian culture. We found a wonderful way to be introduced to eating like a Venetian and get tastes of cicchetti (small bites, snacks) and wines of the Veneto region on the Walks of Italy Venice Food Tour, The walking tour allowed us to experience two bacari (cicchetti and wine bars); squid ink pasta for lunch; and the local fish, meat, and produce markets. In late April, we were there in time to enjoy the amazing white asparagus of the Veneto region.

Many of the city’s senior residents slowly make a daily routine of making their their way from one bacaro to the next for food, wine, and meeting friends.

Walking around and getting lost

It’s very easy to get lost in Venice’s maze of narrow alleys, bridges, and squares and those times were some of the highlight of our time there. Just steps away from the main attractions, you can escape the crowds to feel that you’re alone.

Quiet canal scene off the tourist track in Venice

The pretty and serene places you can find strolling through Venice

While taking in the intriguing canals, bridges, gondolas and gondoliers, we came across captivating views.

Classic Venetian scene -- a gondola on the Grand Canal

Classic Venetian scene — a gondola on the Grand Canal

Birds along the Grand Canal in Venice

I appreciate that these birds posed for me in this pretty setting

One of my favorite scenes was the one below of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute from the Accademia Bridge over the Grand Canal at sunset (also the location of the photo at the top of the post).

View from the Accademia Bridge, Venice

View from the Accademia Bridge

Listening to the music

I highly recommend attending a concert to further enhance the visit and immerse yourself in the music that beautifully reflects the history and romance of the city. Interpreti Veneziani holds string concerts in several venues in Venice.

Interpreti Veneziani concert at Chiesa San Vidal in Venice

Interpreti Veneziani concert at Chiesa San Vidal

We attended an extraordinary concerto at the beautiful Church of San Vidal featuring the works of Antonio Vivaldi who was born in Venice in 1678. The musicians and acoustics were excellent.

On my Venice wish list:

Carnevale di Venezia!

Gorgeous carnevale mask seen in a specialty shop in Venice, Italy

Gorgeous carnival mask seen in a specialty shop

Perhaps we’ll get back to Venice for Carnevale sometime. I would love to wear this mask that we saw in a specialty costume shop. Wouldn’t you?

Feb 132017

Scenes of Scottsdale on Instagram

Mr. TWS and I are finally settled in at our new home and loving it here in Scottsdale.

We’ve been enjoying the sights, activities, and places of our new hometown and have much more exploration to do. It’s easy for us to see why Scottsdale is a desirable destination for travelers as well as being a great place to live. In our first Sweeneys in Scottsdale post in December, I shared a few photos from our Instagram gallery to introduce you to our new little corner of the world. Here is a follow up with a further glimpse of Scottsdale from our Instagram galleries where I post as @travelingwithsweeney and @scottsdaleblogger. If you’re on Instagram, give us a follow!

Our new neighborhood views

Oh, how I love the desert and the dramatic skies above it. This is a scene from a walk through our McDowell Mountain ranch neighborhood looking towards Camelback Mountain.

We were quite spoiled with bay and city views from our home in California, so we were focused on finding a great view in Scottsdale, too. We found it!

Desert flora and faux fauna

There are quite a few of these wildlife sculptures on the desert landscape throughout the McDowell Mountain Ranch community. Pretty cool, don’t you think?

When we took our nephew on a short trip to San Diego last year, he was in awe of the cacti at Old Town San Diego. Just wait until he visits us here in Scottsdale.

Holiday spirit

There was plenty of holiday spirit in Scottsdale at Christmas. Families had a blast taking in the lights and festivities at McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park.

Native American Culture

The annual Native Trails festival celebrates Native American culture through dance, song, and storytelling. This year’s festival theme is “unity”. The free performances are held at Scottsdale Civic Center Mall.

So many trails… so little time

We are looking forward to exploring all of the great hiking and biking trails in and around Scottsdale — there are many! This is Mr. TWS getting some exercise and sunshine on the Sunrise Trail.

One of my favorite outdoor activities is bike riding and there are so many awesome trails in and around Scottsdale for cyclists of all levels. This photo comes from the Indian Bend Wash Path.

Happy hour

There isn’t a shortage of great places for happy hour and dining in the Scottsdale area. At AZ88, friendly bartender Shaun smiles beneath the bar’s current installation of a beating heart — always cool art and great drinks at this bar/restaurant at Scottsdale Civic Center Mall.

It doesn’t just look mouth-watering, it’s totally delicious. This is (currently) my favorite main dish at The Herb Box restaurant on Market Street at DC Ranch in Scottsdale — short rib enchiladas.

I hope you enjoyed this taste of Scottsdale from our Instagram galleries. Stay tuned on the blog and in social media for more from Scottsdale and beyond.

Feb 062017

Cultural Traditions at the 15th Anniversary Native Trails Festival

I remember butterflies. A snake coiled up in the desert. Birds surround you.

— Derrick Suwaima Davis

The simple words of Derrick Suwaima Davis of the Hopi and Choctaw Nations describe inspirations from his youth that were his calling to dance. Today, he is the artistic director of the annual Native Trails festival in Scottsdale, and he is also the only adult seven-time World Champion Hoop Dancer. Each year, he and the other festival performers bring their talents and cultural expressions to the festival, sharing their passion and pride in their movements and voices with people of all cultures. This year’s festival focuses on the concept of unity among people of diverse cultures — dispelling stereotypes, finding commonalities, and encouraging cooperation.

Native Trails Festival -- Photo courtesy Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

Native Trails Festival — Photo courtesy Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

Last week, at performance under clear blue skies at Scottsdale Civic Center Mall, I eagerly took in the Native American cultural traditions and was impressed with its deep meaning and symbolism. Expressing these traditions through song, dance, and storytelling, Native Trails is now in its 15th year. It is sponsored by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and produced by the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

With Derrick Suwaima Davis, artistic director of Native Trails, at Scottsdale Civic Center Mall

With Derrick Suwaima Davis, artistic director of Native Trails

The early part of a new year is a perfect time for the festival as it is in keeping with the Hopi tradition of putting away musical instruments in December as the animals are asleep. After the new year in January, the instruments are sounded again.

Expressions of cultural unity in song and dance at Native Trails in Scottsdale, Arizona

Expressions of cultural unity in song and dance at Native Trails

For one hour, we enjoyed vibrant dances that are a combination of specific symbolic movements and inspired improvisation. Each act was introduced with enlightening and entertaining explanations. Many audience members listened and watched from their lawn chairs and picnic blankets. Others stood at the back or just stopped for a few numbers as they strolled the mall. It was clear that they really enjoyed and were immersed in the music and dance. The many young children attending happily moved with the rhythms and enthusiastically applauded with the adults as each song finished.

Eldred Matt of the San Carlos Apache Nation performing at Native Trails Festival in Scottsdale -- Photo courtesy of Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

Eldred Matt of San Carlos Apache Nation — Photo courtesy of Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

A few of the very popular dances we watched were the “Eagle Dance”, “Men’s Lance and Shield Dance”, “Fancy Dance”, “Women’s Jingle Dress”, and “Fancy Shawl”. A lovely song called “Bluebird” was a highlight for me as well. I also thoroughly enjoyed both the colorful clothing, in many cases specially made for this festival, and learning about the significant amount of symbolism in the dances.

The finale was a great way to end the show and emphasize the theme of unity. The interactive “Round Dance” enabled all of us to join in. As the musicians formed in the center on the lawn, we (the audience) held hands and moved in a circle around them.

Native Trails Festival Round Dance -- Photo courtesy Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

Round Dance — Photo courtesy Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

After the performances, audience members are invited to mingle and talk with cast members whose passion for their traditions and pride in their culture is evident in their eagerness to spend time with the audience sharing their knowledge and stories.

Native Trails dancers talking to audience after the performances -- -- Photo courtesy of Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

Dancers talking to audience after the performances — Photo courtesy of Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau

If you go, be sure to take advantage of the opportunity to speak to the cast. I loved listening to Derrick’s thoughts about the importance of music to the people of Native American nations. He described music being all around and part of their lives starting from the time they are in the womb. The music they make with their instruments establishes and maintains a balance with nature while asking the questions of creation and life that have been asked for thousands of years.

And there are lessons for all, such as the importance of respecting nature and other people and cultures. The young learn from the old and the old can learn from the young. We can all benefit by taking to heart messages instilled in the tribes and represented in the Native Trails festival.

Although we may come from different cultural backgrounds, as part of the same human family, we hold many common values. There is more that unifies us than divides us.

— Derrick Suwaima Davis


Scottsdale Civic Center Park
3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd.
Scottsdale, AZ 85251


This season’s festival began on January 12, 2017 and runs through March 30, 2017 with performances on Thursdays and Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. — rain or shine! The performances are moved inside in case of inclement weather.

Special Performances: 

There will be two special Native Trails events incorporating different cultures on February 16th and 18th that will include African and Japanese drumming.



For more information:

Scottsdale Native Trails

Dec 252016

Merry Christmas 2016 from the TWS duo

By Mr. TWS

Sweeney and Mr. TWS in front of the Christmas tree at Bryant Park -- New York City at Christmas

Sweeney and Mr. TWS in front of the Christmas tree at Bryant Park

Sweeney and I kicked off our Christmas season a little differently this year because our relocation to Scottsdale, Arizona from the San Francisco Bay Area was still in progress. Instead of getting our Christmas tree and decorating just after Thanksgiving before heading off to Europe for a holiday trip in early December, it seemed getting to New York City for a few days was the perfect plan. We had commented several times recently that it had been too long since we had been to New York and the visit relieved our itch for seeing the city again but also got us in the Christmas spirit. So this brief sharing of our few days there is also our Merry Christmas greeting to you all.

New York City at Christmas

Red and green of the Empire State Building and Macy's on 34th Street epitomize Christmas in New York City

Empire State Building towering above Macy’s on 34th Street

For me, the Empire State Building epitomizes New York at Christmastime, particularly with its red and green lights (though the colors schemes varied while we were there). The iconic New York site was in view just outside our Murray Hill hotel. On 34th street between 3rd Avenue and Lexington Avenue, the hotel was a great central location for experiencing Christmastime in New York City.

We arrived at the hotel just after dark and after checking in walked a few blocks to another icon of New York City at Christmas — Macy’s. If its Christmas window displays, eagerly-anticipated by most New Yorkers and visitors, aren’t enough to warrant that distinction, its particular prominence as a setting in Miracle on 34th Street, one of the all-time Christmas movie favorites surely does. The displays, a few pictured below, were impressive but not quite as Christmas-y as ones we’d seen before. It was a good start to our visit as was the walk in the brisk air, which seemed especially cold to us as temperatures in Arizona had been in the 80s and 90s (F) during October and much of November.

Beautiful window displays of Macy's

Beautiful window displays of Macy’s

The next morning, we began the day with brunch at Penelope on Lexington Avenue, a popular nearby restaurant with delicious breakfast comfort food. It was well worth the wait of just under an hour.

From there we headed to nearby Madison Square Park to see a real life-sized gingerbread house (this time we didn’t wait in the line — about a block and a half long — to see what was inside.) While there, we also enjoyed the other festive decorations and appreciated the sheer beauty of the park and surrounding skyscrapers.

Gingerbread House in Madison Square Park -- New York City at Christmas

Gingerbread House in Madison Square Park

It was across the street from the park near the landmark Flatiron Building that we got our first glimpse of revelers dressed in Santa gear gathering for SantaCon, the annual pub crawl with frivolity and imbibing continuing from morning to late night. At about noon, we were amazed to see the line for 230 Fifth, a rooftop bar on 5th Avenue. The line stretched at least a block and a half (we couldn’t see around the next corner to see how long but guessed another block) with Santas.

Ho Ho Ho! It's SantaCon! -- Revelers line up to get into 230 Fifth, a rooftop bar in New York City at Christmas

Ho Ho Ho! It’s SantaCon! Revelers line up to get into the 230 Fifth rooftop bar

Throughout the day we encountered clusters of the party-seeking Santas as we walked around the city. We learned that many locals aren’t particularly fond of SantaCon, but we didn’t personally witness any of the predictable downsides of a day-long drinking event.

Winter fun at the Bryant Park ice rink and Christmas market -- Christmas in New York City

Winter fun at the Bryant Park ice rink and Christmas market

Heading north to Bryant Park, one of our favorite places in New York, we enjoyed the walk, Christmas scenes along the way, and energy of city. Bryant Park has a great skating rink and a Christmas market in a wonderful setting next to the New York Public Library surrounded by fabulous architecture.

A walk through Central Park with blogger friends, Aaron Heflich Shapiro and Jeff Dobbins, New York City 2016

A walk through Central Park with blogger friends, Aaron Heflich Shapiro and Jeff Dobbins

On our second morning, we headed back to one of our old haunts for breakfast (it was one of our favorite breakfast spots just blocks from where we had an extended stay in Midtown East several years ago. After a hearty breakfast that was just like those we remembered, we met two blogger friends, Aaron Heflich Shapiro and Jeff Dobbins with whom we enjoyed a nice walk in Central Park. Our friends pointed out spots we’d never noticed before in the park, like the plaques in the sidewalk that commemorate donors who adopted trees in Central Park. In particular, we came across one that was dedicated to Natasha Richardson, the late actress who we’ve always admired.

Wine, cheese, and lively conversation at a cozy Upper West Side cafe topped off a great New York City afternoon.

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree -- New York City at Christmas

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

From there we headed to another iconic NYC area, one especially associated with Christmas — Rockefeller Center with its enormous Christmas tree and inviting skating rink. The lights of Radio City Music Hall were dazzling as well.

Christmas lights of Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall, New York City at Christmas

Christmas lights of Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall

Also along Fifth Avenue, many extravagantly decorated hotels and department stores drew huge crowds. The light show on the facade of Saks Fifth Avenue accompanied by Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Carol of the Bells was mesmerizing. Don’t miss the performance and displays at Saks Fifth Avenue at Christmastime.

Christmas light show at Saks Fifth Avenue -- Christmas in New York City

Christmas light show at Saks Fifth Avenue

Wending our way back to our hotel at the end of a full day, we appreciated the beauty of the gorgeous red Christmas ball decorations at the pool on Sixth Avenue and the giant Christmas lights decoration a block south.

Giant red ornaments adorn a fountain on Sixth Avenue -- New York City at Christmastime

Giant red ornaments adorn a fountain on Sixth Avenue

It all added to the magic of the day and the trip.

Giant Christmas lights decoration on Sixth Avenue -- New York City at Christmas

Giant Christmas lights decoration on Sixth Avenue

We enjoyed many other New York sights, but I hope these few highlights of kicking off the holidays in New York capture a bit of our enjoyment.

Merry Christmas to you all and our best wishes for a year filled with peace, health, happiness, laughter, and travel!



Dec 092016

A preface to the next chapter of our lives

Mr. TWS and I have been pretty quiet on the blog recently, but our personal lives have been bustling with activity and new adventures. For the past few months, we’ve been immersed in preparing for and beginning a new chapter in our lives by relocating to Scottsdale, Arizona from the San Francisco Bay Area.

I hope to get a chance to tell you more about some of our experiences along the way, both serendipitous and planned. Warm and wonderful visits with friends and families complemented exciting excursions into new territories.

Change can be a wonderful thing

Scottsdale sunset, brunch al fresco, hiking and biking

Scottsdale sunset, brunch al fresco, hiking and biking

And now, we call Scottsdale home. Although we’re not yet in our new house, while renting a condo at McCormick Ranch we’ve been enjoying the desert climate, fantastic restaurants, extensive shopping, amazing views, numerous events, and close proximity to family members. We’ve been impressed by the friendly people, locals and the seasonal “snowbirds”, that we’ve happened to meet. We’ve been surprised by fireworks at the nearby country club as we sat on our patio enjoying the night breezes. And every day, we’ve looked forward to what the future holds for us in our new hometown. So stay tuned. We’ve got more tell about our transitional journey as well as journeys yet to come. In the meantime, here are a few snapshots from our Instagram gallery to set the scene of relocating to Scottsdale.

Peaks and palms

The beginning of a new day in Scottsdale, #Arizona. Camelback Mountain is looking gorgeous this morning.

A photo posted by Catherine Sweeney (@travelingwithsweeney) on


Tee time! Peaceful reflections — Scottsdale #Arizona golf course scene captured on an afternoon bike ride.

A photo posted by Catherine Sweeney (@travelingwithsweeney) on

On the waterfront

Butterflies are free

Nov 082016

Highlights of Palazzo Te in Mantua

A palace built for love

In a city full of prestigious art and architecture, deep culture, and Renaissance majesty, Palazzo Te embodies all of that plus surprising elements of daring sensuality and secret love that spark the imagination.

Chamber of Cupid and Psyche at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

Chamber of Cupid and Psyche

I can’t imagine a more erotic historic palace than Palazzo Te in Mantua, the 2016 (and first ever) Italian Capital of Culture. In 1525 Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, commissioned Giulio Romano, a student of Raphael and also an architect, to create his special palace to indulge his romantic inclinations. Romano let his imagination and creative spirits go wild as he experimented with artistic and design techniques depicting a diversity of subjects such as mythology, astrology, love, war, horses, and fairy tales. At Palazzo Te Federico entertained his lover Isabella Boschetti and entertained noble visitors such as Charles I. Many paintings of Romano and his apprentices throughout the palace reflect the duke’s burning love for his mistress.

With the wide range of subjects and given the mischievous imaginations of Federico and Giulio Romano, the best way to appreciate the beauty and significance of Palazzo Te is on a guided tour. Mr. TWS and I were fortunate to have a private tour of the nearly 20 major rooms and spaces of Palazzo Te with Mantua guide Giuliana Varini. Giuliana’s rich detail of the rule of the Gonzaga family and many stories behind the amazing frescoes, architecture, and designs added a deep dimension to the experience and our enjoyment of this must-do activity.

We’ll give you just a sample of what’s inside Palazzo Te and highly recommend that you put a visit to the palace on your itinerary when visiting Mantua.

Chamber of the Giants

It’s not all about love and romance at Palazzo Te.

Though we visited this room last, I start with it because it was one of my favorite of Romano’s masterpieces and one for which the palace is best known. As we entered the empty Chamber of the Giants I had an immediate emotional reaction. With a domed ceiling and rounded corners and with some of the large grotesque figures and scenes of destruction, I felt engulfed in the dramatic story painted above and around me. Adding to the intense effect, the shape of the room echoes every sound we made no matter where we stood.

Chamber of the Giants at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

Chamber of the Giants

The somewhat disturbing paintings encompassing the ceiling and walls of the chamber portray the Fall of the Giants from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Charles Dickens, who traveled extensively in Italy, in his Pictures from Italy described “the unaccountable nightmares with which its interior has been decorated” and the giants “so inconceivably ugly and grotesque that it is marvelous how any man can have imagined such creatures.” The scene in the center of the room’s domed ceiling (pictured above) features Jupiter as he punishes the giants who planned to overthrow the gods. The size of the giants, the reality of the depiction, and the unique aspects of the room and art punctuated an already fascinating tour.

Chamber of Cupid and Psyche

The room that best presents the sensuality of the palace and the intent of the duke and Romano, this chamber in its art depicts the myth of Cupid and Psyche and their forbidden love (which may have been chosen because of the forbidden love of Federico and Isabella). The ceiling is particularly noteworthy divided into mostly octagonal frames encompassing scenes from the story, one of which is in the leading photo of this post (above). With its overtly erotic scenes and being the most ornate room of Palazzo Te, it was used to host the most prominent guests.

The wedding feast of Cupid and Psyche depicted in the Chamber of Cupid and Psyche at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

The wedding feast portrayed in the Chamber of Cupid and Psyche

Chamber of the Devices

Devices is an interesting term that makes one expect a display of mechanical gadgets but “devices” here refers to the heraldic emblems of the Gonzaga family presented in the chamber. Each is a symbolic emblem consisting of an image and a motto that together reflect key traits such as virtues, moral principles, and important personal events in figurative and idealistic ways.

Chamber of the Devices at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

Chamber of the Devices

Chamber of the Winds

At the heart of the Chamber of the Winds is astrology and the influence of the stars on destiny. The name comes from the masks on the wall representing the faces of the winds but mainly the room has an astrology theme particularly with the signs of the zodiac represented on the walls.

Chamber of the Winds at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

Chamber of the Winds

Chamber of the Stuccoes

In this chamber, the walls and ceiling are decorated with ornate stucco reliefs. The scenes at the top of the walls depict a procession of about five hundred Roman soldiers emerging through an arch and marching. The detail of soldiers, women, children, horses, supply wagons, musicians and the emperor is amazing.

Chamber of the Stuccoes at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

Chamber of the Stuccoes

Chamber of the Sun and the Moon

This room is named for the fresco (pictured below) in the center of the chamber’s vaulted ceiling. The fresco depicts the chariot of the sun at sunset and the chariot of the moon as the moon rises, a scene representing the passing of time. With the rather graphic depiction of the charioteer for the sun, Mr. TWS said he wasn’t sure if that wasn’t part of the source of the room’s name.

Looking up in the Chamber of the Sun and the Moon at Palazzo Te

Looking up in the Chamber of the Sun and the Moon

Loggia of the Muses

The Loggia of the Muses, a hallway dedicated to the goddesses of art and science, was the entrance for the duke’s guests coming into the state rooms.

Loggia of the Muses at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

Loggia of the Muses

Hall of the Horses

One of the first rooms we visited, the Hall of Horses, introduced us to the many tricks on the eye prevalent throughout the Palazzo, such as the 3D effect that made the actual-size horses look almost real. The room’s main function was to receive guests and host special ceremonies. The Gonzaga family bred horses and considered them the finest gift that could be given to a friend or guest.

Hall of the Horses at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

Hall of the Horses

The Apartment of the Secret Garden

Our tour ended outside the main palace at the adjacent Apartment of the Secret Garden.

The loggia of the Apartment of the Secret Garden of Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy

The loggia of the Apartment of the Secret Garden

The apartment, overlooking a secret garden from which it takes its name, was created by Federico as an intimate and secluded place. It is said that he used the room for solitude and even sometimes to escape his lover.

Stunning ceiling of the grotto at Palazzo Te

Stunning ceiling of the Apartment of the Secret Garden

I hope this has given you a good introduction to Palazzo Te, but there’s much more to see and experience at the palace and in the city of Mantua when you visit.

Catherine Sweeney (Traveling with Sweeney) with Giuliana Varina and Luisa Castiglioni at Palazzo Te in Mantua

With Giuliana Varini and Luisa Castiglioni at Palazzo Te in Mantua

Thanks to our guide Giuliana Varini (left) and our Mantua host Luisa Castiglioni (right) for our tour of Palazzo Te.