It`s easy to understand why the setting of Phoenix, the nation`s eighth-largest city, is called the Valley of the Sun. At this tip of the great Sonoran Desert, which stretches from central Arizona deep into northwestern Mexico, it rains fewer than 30 days a year on average, and summer temperatures often climb above 100 degrees F for weeks at a time. That it`s "a dry heat" isn`t much consolation. But in spring, the dry desert soil responds magically to the touch of rain, and wildflowers display their brilliance.
As the Hohokam, who were the first settlers here more than 2,300 years ago, discovered, this miracle of spring can be enhanced by human hands. They cultivated cotton, corn, and beans, and established more than 300 mi of canals with very limited technology. No one knows why they disappeared 600 years ago, but it`s thought that drought and famine simply took their toll. Until the U.S. army established Fort McDowell in the mountains to the east in 1865, the once fertile Salt River valley was forgotten. To feed the men and horses stationed in the area, the long dormant Hohokam canals were reopened in 1867, and a town, then called Punkinsville, grew up around the newly blooming region.
But by 1870, when the town site was plotted, the 300 inhabitants had decided that their new city would rise "like a phoenix" from the ashes of a vanished civilization. The new image---and the new name---stuck. Before the end of the 19th century, Phoenix wrested the title of territorial capital from Prescott. Its rise was assured in 1911, when the Roosevelt Dam cut off the Salt River 60 mi to the east. The artificial lakes created by the dam---13,000 square mi all told, an area larger than Belgium---ensured that Phoenix would remain verdant. The initial idea was to ensure the agricultural development of the area, but a huge network of canals served not only crops but a lush urban landscape. Yet, while then having a reliable water supply, Phoenix still didn`t enter its real growth spurt for another 40 years, when air-conditioning made the desperately hot summers bearable.
In the 1950s and 1960s the growth of the city`s manufacturing base furthered the growth in population. Between 1945 and 1960, more than 300 new industries moved into the Phoenix Valley. And the city has experienced the ups and downs of unbridled growth ever since. With so many changes, and so quickly, even long-term residents have trouble keeping up. Yet what has been good for the city`s entrepreneurial zeal hasn`t always been good for the residents.
Modern Phoenix is a city that`s struggling to deal with the effects of increasing population and a lack of civic foresight. Once a place recommended to sufferers of asthma and other respiratory ailments, this is now a city where allergies are rampant (because of the importation of nonnative plants from the east, as well as pollution). And only now are civic leaders beginning to deal with ways to control automobile traffic and urban sprawl, and to maintain a reliable supply of drinking water for future generations. Though in truth, many cities in the American west must come to grips with these problems, and Phoenix is hardly the worst example.
For visitors, especially from November to April, when the weather is nicest, it isn`t difficult to understand the lure of the desert. Residents, seldom clad in more than a light jacket, drive convertibles with the top down, eat lunch outside, and devote their spare time to outdoor pursuits. Golfers love it here, and there are more than 100 courses, several of them world-class, throughout the valley. Other recreational opportunities include hiking in the nearby mountains and swimming (up to six months out of the year). South Mountain Park is a must-see. The world`s largest city park (at 17,000 acres) offers hiking and biking trails and horseback riding, an amazingly serene experience just outside this major metropolis.
However, the city`s greatest allure is a way of life that keeps its own pace. Phoenix---indeed, all of central Arizona---is a low-key place where people take things easy and dress informally. And if things get a little hot in the middle of a summer day, well, at least life also slows down to an enjoyable speed. Its rapid growth in the 1980s and 1990s has also brought a revitalized downtown, a rapidly emerging culinary scene, and professional sports teams, all of which give visitors more reason to come and, perhaps, to stay. One might say that Phoenix is behaving like a city with a future.
At the very tip of the Keys, Key West is the southernmost city in the continental United States. Originally called Cayo Hueso, Island of Bones, it is thought that the island was once a burial ground for the Caloosa Indians. The famous, including writers Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Robert Frost, as well as presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, found the same beauty and allure here that its hordes of residents and visitors find today.
It wasn`t always so. From the time the U.S. acquired Florida from Spain in 1821, the big business in Key West was wrecking---rescuing people and salvaging cargo from ships that foundered on nearby reefs---until the government began building lighthouses in 1849, at least. Fishing, shrimping, sponge-gathering, and pineapple canning where important in the latter half of the 19th century, along with the military, which constructed Fort Taylor in 1845. But by 1929 the local government had begun to unravel, and when the Depression hit, the military moved out, leaving Key West hard hit. That`s when it started promoting itself as a tourist destination, but a 1935 hurricane that wiped out the railroad also wiped out the tourist trade.
The resurgence of Key West started in the 1960s, when hippies flocked to the island for its lazy lifestyle and laissez-faire attitudes. Many of the restored Victorian "gingerbread" houses that now serve as accommodations for tourists were originally turned into gay guest houses during the mid-1970s, and about a fifth of locals are gay. But Key West has quite a diverse population, with large percentages of black Bahamians, Hispanics (primarily Cubans), recent refugees from the urban sprawl of mainland Florida, and long-time Key Westers, who can trace their ancestry back several decades. Overall, the island is very tolerant, and even somewhat flamboyant.
All kinds of people can be found down at Mallory Square for the evening revelry kicked off by the sunset over the Gulf. Musicians, jugglers, lovers, and vendors gather for the illustrious sunset and spend the next several hours strolling, shopping, dining, and carousing. Good restaurants are numerous, particularly along Duval Street, which is sadly losing a bit of charm with flashy new stores and T-shirt shops. Key West clubs are legendary, and the action goes on until sun-up.
St. Petersburg was founded in 1875, when John C. Williams, an early pioneer snowbird from Detroit, came down and decided to buy some land to call home. Working in conjunction with exiled Russian nobleman Pietr Dementieff, who helped build a railroad into the area and named the town after his own home in Russia, the two slowly turned this peaceful coastal area into a mecca for ailing Northerners.
Today St. Petersburg is a bustling city of 266,000 with a lively feel and an up-tempo development scheme. There are two distinct parts of St. Petersburg: its downtown area with six major museums and popular sports arenas; and the beaches ringing it, including separate communities such as Treasure Island and Madeira Beach.
Residents appreciate the outdoors, and the town boasts 102 parks and 7 mi of waterfront. The 47-mi Pinellas hiking/biking trail and five public beaches provide plenty of opportunities to get outdoors.