Mesa, Ariz., is best-known to die-hard Chicago fans as the home of the Cubs' spring training camp. But the team isn't the only game in town.
The third largest city in Arizona, located 15 miles east of Phoenix, Mesa and the neighboring communities of Gilbert and Queen Creek offer everything from spectacular desert scenery to countless urban amenities. Visitors may still want to go into Phoenix to see such world-class treasures as the Heard Museum, the Arizona Biltmore Resort and the Desert Botancial Garden, but they also can amuse themselves closer to the Cubs' ballpark.
Mesa and moreMesa Convention and Visitors Bureau: (480) 827-4700, visitmesa.com
Usery Mountain Regional Park: (480) 984-0032, maricopa.gov/parks/usery/
Mesa Contemporary Arts: (480) 644-6460, mesaartscenter.com
Arizona Museum of Natural History: (480) 644-4040, azmnh.org
Arizona Wing Commemorative Air Force Aviation Museum: (480) 924-1940, azcaf.org/
Schnepf Farms: (480) 987-3100, schnepffarms.com
Superstition Farm: (602) 432-5600, superstitionfarm.com
Queen Creek Olive Mill: (480) 544-1030, queencreekolivemill.com
Rancho de Tia Rosa: (480) 659-8787 Mesa, (480) 396-8787 Gilbert, ranchodetiarosa.com/
Tqla Southwestern Kitchen and Agave Bar: (480) 813-8752, tqla.com
Postino East Wine Café: (480) 632-6363, postinowinecafe.com
Liberty Market: (480) 892-1900, libertymarket.com
Joe's Farm Grill: (480) 563-4745, joesfarmgrill.com
There are more than 63 hotels in Mesa alone, so Cubs fans can sleep fairly close by. Spring is peak season here, so visitors are advised to book well in advance.
Incidentally, starting with next season, the Cubs will move to a new larger 15,000-seat stadium, known as Riverview Park, now under construction, a few miles away. The ballpark will resemble Chicago's Wrigley Field, complete with party decks similar to the rooftops around the Friendly Confines.
The Phoenix area's usually idyllic spring weather is one of the main attractions for the many "snowbirds" who flock here seasonally. In March, temperatures average 75 degrees during the day and 45 degrees at night.
Seeing the Sonoran Desert, with a chance that spring cactus flowers will be in bloom, is a must. The tall saguaro cactus is just one of some 2,500 plant species in this vast and scenic desert.
Taking a hike, whether long or short, is the best way to see the cactuses up close, as well as a chance to enjoy overall views of the desert from higher elevations.
Maricopa County's Usery Mountain Regional Park, in the center of Mesa, is a popular destination for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding or more serene pastimes such as outdoor yoga classes. Programs from guided morning fitness hikes to evening stargazing are offered.
Golfers will be in their element with more than 40 courses to choose from within a half-mile drive of Mesa. There are courses for all abilities, and some offer lessons for novices.
Mesa is also a cultural center with museums such as the Mesa Contemporary Arts, Arizona Museum of Natural History and the Commemorative Air Force Aviation Museum. The downtown itself is an outdoor gallery of sorts with many whimsical permanent metal sculptures displayed on the sidewalks.
Juried shows are offered at Mesa Contemporary Arts, and works are often for sale. Classes for everyone from toddlers on up are available for short-time visitors.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, visitors can experience life on some of the few remaining family farms, including Schnepf Farms (peaches), Superstition Farm (dairy) and Queen Creek Olive Mill.
Peaches are the primary crop grown at fourth-generation Schnepf Farms, but weekend festivals have become a popular side business that gives the public a sneak peek at how peaches are grown. The spring peach blossom festival, usually occurring through the end of March, attracts some 3,700 visitors, said Carrie Schnepf, co-owner and festival organizer.
Dairy farmer Casey Strechnij enjoys conducting tours of his Superstition Farm and welcomes guests to do a "hands-on" tour to learn what real farming entails. He'll even supervise children who want to feed some of the animals.
Strechnij also runs an ice cream shop called Udder Delights with ever-changing all-natural flavors, such as chocolate mint, blood orange and peanut butter at the SanTan Village lifestyle center in Gilbert. The original ice cream parlor is on the farm.
Olives trees, originally brought to the area by Spanish missionaries, thrive in the hot, dry climate and have no natural pests. With the help of an irrigation system, Queen Creek Olive Mill produces extra-virgin olive oil. Its on-site restaurant, Trattoria Del Piero, features Mediterranean cuisine with made-from-scratch entrees. The choicest seating is at picnic tables under the olive trees.
Additional dining options abound in the area, offering all types of food. Fans of Mexican fare will not be disappointed at Rancho de Tia Rosa with its hacienda motif. Recommended signature dishes include chicken mole and nuevo chile relleno, roasted instead of deep-fried.
Tqla Southwestern Kitchen and Agave Bar in Dana Park mall in Mesa is a contemporary Mexican/Southwestern restaurant with an original location in Houston that is especially proud of dishes like its Baja ceviche, crawfish and spinach enchiladas, and fajitas. The bar features many tequilas, including four on tap that are chilled to 5 degrees F.
Two exceptional locally owned restaurants are located on downtown Gilbert's picturesque main street -- Postino East Wine Café and Liberty Market. Postino is modeled after an Italian enoteca, or wine bar, especially featuring platters of bruschetta, panini, antipasto and artisan cheeses for sharing.
Across the street, the fast-casual Liberty Market bistro is known for its wood-fired, thin-crust pizza, entree salads and half-pound burgers. Owner Joe Johnston also owns Joe's Real BBQ in Gilbert and Joe's Farm Grill on his 15-acre Agritopia urban vegetable farm nearby.
Joe's Farm Grill, which was featured on an episode of the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," has re-purposed the family's original farmhouse into a midcentury modern burger stand. Meats are hormone-free and antibiotic-free, and vegetables are organic and locally grown. The fresh beet salad with toasted pecans and blue cheese is a standout.
The already large number of area restaurants will soon increase in the near future when a new retail/entertainment center, Wrigleyville West, opens adjacent to the new Cubs' spring training ballpark. Landlords are recruiting Chicago-based restaurants and retailers to join their team so visitors can enjoy a taste of home in the Arizona desert.