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May 11, 2011 By:
Andrew Marcione, Jewish Exponent Feature
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Located in a valley with a thousand-year history, Phoenix's prime location in the Sonoran Desert has been luring visitors for centuries.

Boasting countless days of sunshine and an active lifestyle, Phoenix has risen from a small desert town in the 1880s to become a capital city with 1.6 million people today. Phoenix residents love and live in the great outdoors, and recreational activities abound beyond their doorsteps, with plenty of them scheduled to celebrate the centennial this year of Arizona's statehood.

Hiking one of the city's three main mountains is a local favorite pastime. Rising some 2,704 feet from the desert floor, Camelback Mountain is Phoenix's iconic symbol. It is no wonder that, a millennia ago, the Hohokam Indians revered this example of one of nature's beautiful gifts.

Piestewa Peak (aka Squaw Peak) is the city's second-highest mountain, and hikers will certainly find breathtaking views over the sprawling metropolis. South Mountain is 11 miles across and set in the world's largest city park. It is a perfect spot not only for hiking, but for biking, picnicking and scenic drives.

Furthermore, visitors will discover Native American petroglyphs on many of the rock faces throughout the area. To enhance the Wild West adventure, horseback-riding companies offer one- to three-hour rides through the park.

To learn more about the Southwest's unusual and precious ecosystem, the Desert Botanical Gardens is an open-air exhibition with approximately 50,000 plants. Stroll down five various paths that traverse the park and admire the Sonoran Desert's flora at their best.

The "Garden Flashlight Tour" will be a hit with kids, as this nocturnal experience takes a look into the active nightlife of the region's desert animals.

Whether it's greeting the first rays of the morning sun or relishing the pastel colors splashed across a canvas sky at sunset, soaring above the rugged desert terrain in a hot-air balloon is an amazing experience.

Once you're back to earth, celebrate with a traditional Champagne toast and a continental breakfast for dawn departures.

Art and History 
For a taste of art, culture and history, step inside and discover where Phoenix showcases its many masterpieces.

The Heard Museum is an outstanding history book on the chronicles of Native American cultures. Founded in 1929, the museum features 40,000 objects throughout 10 galleries and exhibits: artifacts, jewelry and contemporary art.

"First Friday" is a fantastic way to delve into the Phoenix art scene. The city's extremely popular Art Walk is free, and takes place on the first Friday of every month from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. To peruse the collections by national and international artists, art lovers can use the hop-on/hop-off shuttle service to reach the 70 different venues along the route.

A similar program operates in Old Town Scottsdale every Thursday, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Established in 1959, the Phoenix Art Museum has made quite a name for itself in the Southwest. Along with special exhibitions, the museum houses 18,000 works, from Western American and Latin American art, to photography, to displays in fashion from the 18th through 20th centuries.

While visiting the Southwest, don't forget to say "Shalom" to Phoenix's Jewish community.

For an evening of humor or drama, purchase tickets for a production at the Arizona Jewish Theater Company. Under the direction of founder Janet Arnold, the AJTC is operating in its 23rd season.

Cultural performances take place at the John Paul Theater at Phoenix College.

Originally the city's first synagogue, today's renovated building in central Phoenix served the community from 1922 to 1949; thereafter, it functioned as the home of the Baptist churches for Chinese and Mexican congregations.

The Arizona Jewish Historical Society reclaimed the neglected structure in 2001, and has since restored it to become the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center.

To commemorate Arizona's centennial as a state, the center is presenting a series of photographs and lectures about Arizona's Jewish history from the pre-statehood era up to the 1920s.

Along with a replica of the Western Wall and alternating exhibitions throughout the year, the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum at Congregation Beth Israel displays an array of Jewish heritage items from around the world. Visitors can also wander through the adjacent Evanne Copeland Kofman Biblical Garden.

For more information, see: www.visitphoenix.com.

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