Run to the Sun. As the snow flies, Alaskans…uh…fly

In Alaska Travelgram by scott

The pool at the Hyatt Regency in Phoenix. Photos by Katie Pesznecker

SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Katie Pesznecker opts for a weekend in Phoenix to relax and recharge as snowflakes fly in Anchorage.

This time of year, Alaskans are short on destinations that are both legitimately warm and also serviceable by a direct flight. Honolulu and Maui are reinstating directs soon – mahalo, Alaska Airlines. Anchorage-Honolulu nonstops return Nov. 16, while Anchorage-Kona/Maui nonstops return on Dec. 16.

A West Coast layover en route to Hawaii spoils the  “quick getaway” idea. So I recently spent a long autumn weekend in Phoenix. 

A preserved brick Victorian mansion in Phoenix’s Heritage Square district.

Arizona was never high on my list, or even necessarily on the list. But suddenly Phoenix checked the boxes. There are direct flights daily between Phoenix and Anchorage on Alaska Air. Plus,  preliminary research showed average October temps of 90 degrees with just one day of rainfall (spoiler: alas this did not hold true, read on for details). Phoenix offers multiple pro sports franchises, a commendable cuisine scene, and an endless number of hotels decked out with pools, spas, and more. 

A downtown church in Phoenix.

For lodging, I used Chase Rewards points for a sweet, spacious room at the Hyatt Regency Downtown. Note that Phoenix has a multitude of boutique hotel options in its trendy outskirts like Old Town Scottsdale and Camelback. But I was prioritizing logistics: I didn’t want to rent a car, and I wanted to be able to walk to lots of things. The Hyatt did the trick. 

ABOUT CHASE ULTIMATE REWARDS. Chase allows you to accrue points with a  hefty sign-up bonus and gobs of extra-point categories like dining, gas, groceries and advertising. Chase’s superpower is the ability to move points to one of dozens of partners, including Hyatt, IHG (Intercontinental Hotel Group, including Holiday Inn) and a variety of airlines. American Express and Capital One have similar schemes.

Phoenix Convention Center

Up against the Arizona State University campus, the Hyatt is directly across from the Phoenix Convention Center, near major sports arenas, and walking distance to tons of shops, pubs and restaurants. Their third-floor courtyard pool and hot tub area was restful and sun-soaked at the perfect peak daytime hours with on-brand country music pumping from perimeter speakers. 

Up against the Arizona State University campus, the Hyatt is directly across from the Phoenix Convention Center, near major sports arenas, and walking distance to tons of shops, pubs and restaurants. Their third-floor courtyard pool and hot tub area was restful and sun-soaked at the perfect peak daytime hours with on-brand country music pumping from perimeter speakers. 

PHOTO: The pool at the Hyatt. 

The pool at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Phoenix.

This solo trip was intended to be a sun-fueled recharge, with pool time, nice meals, long walks, and escapist reading on the agenda. So I booked the hotel starting on a Thursday even though I didn’t arrive in Phoenix until Friday morning. In fact, Thursday night, while that lovely desert hotel awaited, I nibbled dishes at the 10 Chefs For 10 Causes charity event at Anchorage’s Dena’ina Center. From there, it was straight to the airport, boarding the Alaska Airlines’ 11:55 p.m. direct to Phoenix.

A downtown high-rise in Phoenix.

I landed in Arizona at about 6 a.m. After the short cab ride to the hotel, I sank into a luxurious king-sized bed with huge fluffy pillows and enjoyed a clutch three-hour nap. It’s an extravagance to book a room the day before you arrive, and not always tenable. But it’s sometimes worth the extra cost (or points!) after an overnight flight or when facing a short trip with less time to recover from fatigue. That early-morning nap got me squared away, energy-wise, for the next few days. 

The Southwest omelet at Morning Squeeze

And killing a few days in Phoenix ended up being an easy task, especially from my central location. I read local food bloggers’ reviews of downtown dining options to zero in on several stand-out, starting with my very first experience, breakfast at Morning Squeeze

I devoured the Southwest omelet, packed with black beans, hatch chili, crisp corn, melty cheese, and topped with smoky ranchero sauce and perfectly ripe avocado slices. The vibe at this lunch-and-breakfast spot is airy and hip. Interior walls were striped with bright colors and cactus patterns. Morning Squeeze also offered patio seating, and a bar with both indoor and outdoor stools. After a parade of rainy weeks in Anchorage, and even an early appearance of snow, it was lovely to be someplace with many al fresco dining and drinking options. 

Neon wall art at Morning Squeeze.

Next on my list — and a place that should be on any Phoenix visitor’s list: Pizzaria Bianco, a restaurant that boasts the audacious claim from many credible sources as being the best pizza in America. Yes. In America. Challenge accepted! 

The restaurant’s original location, circa 1987, was less than 10 minutes walking from my hotel, on the edge of the ASU campus, in a charming brick building with an awning-covered courtyard, an adjacent garden, and a next-door free-standing brick building that serves as a bar at night. I figured going in the middle of the afternoon on a Friday was a safe bet to securing a seat at this tiny foodie favorite. 

The exterior of Pizzeria Bianco. 

How wrong I was. Approaching at 3:15 p.m. on a Friday, I learned the kitchen closes at 3:30 p.m. and there were no seatings until later that night. I asked for advice on scoring next-day dining. The lean, pony-tailed hostess offered frank guidance: “Get here at 10 a.m and you’ll get a seat when we open at 11 a.m. Otherwise there are no guarantees.” Noted! 

The delicious brown rice bowl at Ingo’s. 

Since famous pizza was quite literally off the table until the next day, I headed back into the downtown core and scarfed down a scrumptious, healthy brown rice pesto bowl at Ingo’s Tasty Food. This chill, fast-casual restaurant emphasizes locally-sourced, simple, delicious food, and a 3-6 p.m. happy hour deal on house cocktails and local wines.   

Later that night, I made my way to Chico Malo, a trendy Mexican joint – again, a short walk from my hotel. I was able to secure a single-seat reservation a week in advance with no problem, benefitted from an attentive waiter, and found the interior atmosphere ideal for a Friday night, with moody, dim lighting, and a DJ spinning upbeat and energetic music.  

Trios of tequila and dips at Chico Malo.

I ordered a flight of tequilas – yes, there is such a thing! The trio of tequila tasters were served with a palette-cleansing ginger fruit juice. I also tried a trio of dips, which included salsa and a guacamole that won first place at the Arizona Taco Festival (again, there is such a thing! May 5, 2023, taco fans). 

For my entrée, I went with the relleno, a plump deep-fried pepper packed with zucchini, squash, rice, melting cheese, poppy corn kernels, and more. It was divine. This restaurant also reportedly has an excellent brunch that popped up on most of the local best-of food reviews I read leading into my trip. 

The spiedini appetizer at Pizzeria Bianco. 

Day two of the trip began with my triumphant return to Pizzaria Bianco, bound and determined to get a seat at this mecca. I walked through Phoenix’s picturesque Heritage Square area, where preserved red-brick buildings are prettily pronounced against blue skies. I was the first to arrive at Pizzaria Bianco that day.

Funny story: I showed up, and while I could see people milling inside, it was … crickets. Shortly thereafter a Toronto family of four showed up, fresh off a hike in the Arizona hills. Next came a retired couple who live nearby; they sat at the first picnic table near the door. The patio area was soon a low-simmering scene of tension and accusatory and restless side-eying tourists as, by 10:40 a.m., nearly 40 people were on site, and there was no discernible line or order to the pecking order to get a seat – and we were all super peckish for that famous pizza. 

The epic margarita pizza. 

Shortly before opening, the wife of the aforementioned retired couple – the third arrivals, if you’ll recall – approached me: “You were here first right?” I confirmed yes and she said, “Come sit with us. We come every Saturday. We’ll make sure you get seated first.”

Turns out they’re year-round Phoenicians who indeed dine at Pizzaria Bianco weekly and say they drive past its second location to the original spot because they insist it’s better. But ever since Pizzeria Bianco was featured this summer on Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” where previously they could arrive 15 minutes before a Saturday opening for a seat, they now have to arrive about an hour in advance.  

“We’ve been cursing Netflix,” she confided. 

The interior of Pizzeria Bianco.

Happily the pilgrimage and stakeout was worth the wait. Seated at the small bar, enjoying the brick and wood-beamed interior, I ordered with guidance from my new Phoenix friends. First, I ordered the spiedini appetizer – gooey fontina cheese wrapped in crispy, salty prosciutto di parma over dressed greens. 

For my main, I went with the classic margarita pizza, a majestic disc of fire-blistered thin artisan crust with smears of house-made rustic marinara and soft melty discs of authentic mozzarella. On the side, I enjoyed buttery mushrooms seasoned with savory rosemary.  

Long story short: it was a trek (twice!) and a long-wait game to dine at Pizzaria Bianco. But I made friends, ate delicious food, had a real Phoenix experience, and walked away with a fun story, and leftovers too.


Phoenix weather took a wacky turn. 

Saturday took a turn when a massive weather system moved in, darkening the landscape and dumping water across Phoenix as the sky cracked open with impressive thunder and lightning. Luckily the system lifted by my 7 p.m. dinner reservation at The Arrogant Butcher.

This is a bustling and iconic Phoenix establishment with an expansive menu that prides itself on house-made ingredients. I enjoyed a perfectly-cooked medium rare filet in a red wine demi glace with crispy shallots, and creamy mashed potatoes with bacon, chives, and Prairie Breeze aged cheddar. It was the perfect end-of-day meal. 

The Arrogant Butcher filet.

And then it was Sunday, the last day of the trip. Torrential rainfalls and ratting thunderstorms had lifted to unveil soft warm air and blue skies barely streaked with whiffs of clouds. That final day in Phoenix, I had a long walk to an enjoyable breakfast, worked on my laptop in the sprawling and comfortable Hyatt lobby, hit up the healthy and tasty Ingo’s Tasty Food one last time, and before the airport, sipped a final cocktail at the Kettle Black Pub, an Irish-influenced downtown bar.

The lobby at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Phoenix.

All told, Phoenix delivered. With direct flights, delicious food, a warm climate (thunderstorm notwithstanding), and friendly locals and notable hospitality, this should make Alaskans’ lists for consideration when seeking a quick weekend getaway in pursuit of accessible summery climates and indulgent experiences. 

Phoenix murals in the Arizona State University area. 

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