Arizona spring training: stops for Cactus fans

Spring training for major league baseball begins in less than a month, and the dozen teams that make up the Cactus League – including the Milwaukee Brewers – are reason enough to head to Arizona.

It’s all about short sleeves, sunshine and ballparks that feel intimate. Seating is a short walk from dugouts and dressing rooms. Fans have excellent chances to get player autographs. Ticket prices are reasonable; go cheapest by taking a lawn seat. See www.cactusleague.com.

We’ve made this a nice winter break three times, heading into the Scottsdale area, and you must have a car to get around. Here are ways to make sure the sport isn’t all consuming.

The Scottsdale Arts Festival, March 10-12, is a mix of big- and small-ticket delights, with vendors stretched over 21 acres in Old Town Scottsdale, a pleasant place to be even without this special event.

The festival ranks as one of the best nationwide. There is far more than silver, turquoise, Southwest colors and desert paintings. See www.scottsdaleartsfestival.org.

Dozens of baseballs, autographed by all the sport’s monumental players, make Don & Charlie’s an interesting, affordable and casual fit for dinner. It looks and feels like a Wisconsin supper club. Portions of steaks, chops and barbecued meats are huge.

There are frog legs, too, named in honor of Bob Uecker, the legendary voice of the Brewers. See www.donandcharlies.com.

To feel even more at home, find Mabel Murphy’s, which Wisconsin retirees Bev and Steve Weckstein have turned into a Green Bay Packer shrine. She was a teacher, from Marinette; he was a labor relations mediator.

There are oodles of Packer merchandise for sale. So what? The choices include bowling balls with the team’s insignia. Food specials are gluttonous: $5.25 for all-you-can-eat chicken on Tuesdays, plus weekly steak nights (free steak, two-drink minimum).

If the name Mabel Murphy’s sounds a little too familiar, it’s likely because of an Oshkosh nightspot. They have the same bar manager. See www.mabelmurphys.com.

Among the finest in dining options: Mosaic, which earns accolades for its desert-mountain setting, use of regional/seasonal ingredients and chef/owner Deborah Knight’s culinary creativity. “The kitchen is her food laboratory, and she has good instincts,” says Matt Rinn, her partner and general manager.

There is fusion of cuisines and flavors — like peach soup with soy sauce, to start. Food & Wine magazine in 2002 named Knight as one of the best new chefs in America. Rinn, as wine director, draws Awards of Excellence from Wine Spectator. See www.mosaic-restaurant.com.

National Festival of the West, March 16-19, is a fun way for families to get better acquainted with Wild West living. This is about yodeling, cowboy poetry, sad and gallant country music, shootin’, ropin’ and square dancin’ the day away. Some people are wearing those 10-gallon hats for real; for sale are western gear and collectibles. Eat from the chuck wagon and witness staged gunfights.

There is enough to amuse for at least an afternoon, even if you’re not smitten by country twang. Celebrity visitors include singing cowboys and shelved TV/movie stars (like June Lockhart and Jon Provost from “Lassie”). See www.festivalofthewest.com.

Taliesin West, the winter work site for Frank Lloyd Wright and his architectural students, is a magnificent tour. This is where he spent 22 winters, until his death when nearly 92.

Yes, the roofs leak here, too, but the structures, setting and furnishings remain incredible. See www.franklloydwright.org.

Just outside of Phoenix/Scottsdale are:

Tortilla Flat, population 6, is near the historic Apache Trail, a rugged road that winds around the Superstition Mountains. Tortilla Flat is a terrific and cheesy tourist stop, a good place to eat prickly pear ice cream, order a pint of salsa or sarsaparilla.

There is a post office, too, and some people get a kick out of mailing a postcard or two. See www.tortillaflataz.com.

If you think ranch work is all about herding cattle and busting broncos, head to the Chandler Ostrich Festival, March 10-12. It is a family event at Tumbleweed Park, where the birds race twice a day, and strut menacingly at people who gawk too long.

There is a parade and a carnival atmosphere, on dusty grounds if the weather is dry. For sale are painted emu and ostrich eggs, ostrich feathers, jerky and burgers. The latter does NOT taste like chicken. See www.ostrichfestival.com.

Hit the road north a bit and get on the Carefree Highway, just to say you’ve been there, then head into the towns of Cave Creek and Carefree.

Merchandise in shops tends to be reasonably priced. Proprietors include Barbara Vander Leest, a Milwaukee native who runs Desert Treasures in Carefree. “A hot summer here is nowhere nearly as bad as a Wisconsin winter,” she contends. “I still do everything that I want to do, like play tennis. It’s just that I don’t do it in the middle of the day.” See www.carefree-cavecreek.com.

Arcosanti, the futuristic community designed by Paolo Soleri, puts a lasso around urban sprawl. Residents each have an 8 square foot space to call their own, just enough for a bed, desk and chair.

Public spaces – for eating, lounging, studying – are full of light and more spacious. This ongoing architectural experimental began in 1970 and can be toured. See www.arcosanti.org.

Sedona, about 120 miles north of Phoenix/Scottsdale, is worth a couple of overnights, especially for hikers and others in need of good energy – which the vortexes are said to provide.

Coconino National Forest has about 50 hiking trails, most with the area’s gorgeous red rock as a backdrop. Warning: “Easy” trails are more challenging than Wisconsin standards.

Go counterclockwise on the Airport Loop, so the most stunning views come last. Notice the stone prayer towers along Oak Creek, a cool respite that is near Cathedral Rock.

There are two dozen bed and breakfast inns in the city. We stayed at A Touch of Sedona, operated since January 2005 by Chuck Deal and Nancy Hutchinson of New Berlin, a former critical care nurse, flight attendant and real estate agent.

Treats include fresh cookies and fine chocolates. One breakfast entrée is Nancy’s clever tortilla egg basket. Rates are $139-$205 for double occupancy. See www.atouchofsedona.com.

Among Chuck’s good advice was to take a quick drive to Oak Creek Canyon, both for the sweeping views of the 16-mile gorge and to consider the wares of the dozen Navajo vendors who sell pottery, jewelry, dream catchers. They patiently explain the meaning behind the etchings and other designs in their handiwork.

Our most recent trip to Arizona was a combination of independent travel and assistance (two meals and nights of lodging) provided by the Sedona and Scottsdale tourism bureaus. See www.visitsedona.com and www.scottsdalecvb.com.