I hear “Lemon Pecan Pancakes” suggested by the waitress at Flapjacks, a breakfast place in Fountain Hills, Arizona. But I’m distracted by a chalkboard display offering a quiche-of-the-day (made fresh) and an oven-baked pancake, Apple Cranberry. Oven-baked? I decide to order a similar version off the menu: Banana Nut.
My baked pancake arrives the size of a two-layer cake. At first glance, I’m sure I’ll need a few partners in crime to take this baby down. But as it cools, I watch my pancake—topped with butter and sugar-cinnamon glaze—slowly deflate into a manageable size. Turns out, it’s filled with hot air from the oven. The waitress jokes, “It’s part of the presentation.” When I taste the warm doughy texture, I realize I don’t even need syrup because it’s perfectly sweet on its own.
I’m in Fountain Hills to find some respite and escape the over-scheduled hustle of the city. I’m always looking for new places to eat, and I heard the culinary scene—as well as the scenery alone—is worth the hour’s drive from Phoenix. So when the weekend came, I drove northeast to see for myself.
I ask the waitress in between bites, “Where should I go after this?”
She replies, “Did you see the fountain?”
“The fountain” is a clear point-of-pride in this enclave of beauty and small-town charm. Before I even reach it, though, I’m in awe of the man-made lake that partly defines this town in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains. Surrounded by a lush park, it’s a desert oasis like nothing else you’ll find in the Valley. The epic water feature rises out of a water lily sculpture. Its geyser-like eruption of water shoots up to 560 feet into the air, providing a 15-minute show every hour on the hour each day. The fountain is the focal point for annual festivals, and on St. Patrick’s Day, they even dye the water a festive emerald green.
I find a place to park and walk toward the landmark. Almost on cue, the fountain in the lake’s center surges skyward. I’m mesmerized by its height. Its loud whooshing sound is background music to the entire scene: playful mallards and a flock of coots in the lake, a Great Blue Heron on the water’s edge, grackles and woodpeckers in the trees, killdeer scurrying in the grass. I follow the path around the lake, which cuts through hills of grass and leads to dozens of sculptures (part of the town’s 150-piece public art collection). Along the way, the outdoor musical instrument area, where kids of all ages can make random melodies, catches my attention. I bang on the bongos for a bit then see a sign for the Overlook. I enter the south trailhead to hike up the well-maintained path lined with rocks along the desert floor. At the top, I’m rewarded with a bench to relax and enjoy the fountain spray from a bird’s eye view.
The hike burns off my breakfast, so I lunch at Euro Pizza Café, which fronts the park. The menu includes a mix of Mediterranean- and European-style dishes. I order an iced tea and a flatbread veggie and chicken appetizer with zesty citrus dressing on the side. The bar-goer next to me chooses beer from the tap and pizza. Like my dish, his single slice of cheese could feed two. We both agree, “Delicious.”
With a full belly, I venture on my second hike: Botanical Garden Trail. The path meanders for about a half-mile in and out of a wash. On display are about 30 species (identified) of desert vegetation, including a saguaro with twirled ribs, and a lovely view of the Four Peaks—another local landmark.
“As the evening light begins to glow behind the layered mountain range, I’m offered a better view for dessert and accept.”
It’s soon time for another cool-down. Sofrita’s tropical thatched umbrellas and wrought iron tables and chairs on a two-tier patio beckon. It’s a little taste of Old San Juan with Caribbean-style tapas, mojitos, and sangrias. Roman arches, wooden beams, roosters, the Virgin Mary, and tables with votive prayer candles make the decor folksy but fun. Since I’m too early for the tapas, which are served at 4 p.m., I order the happy hour street tacos for $1 each. Served on wooden platters, they’re filled with whatever the cook decides to make that day. Today, it’s beef and bean. I also order a pineapple sangria. Not too sweet, it’s refreshing on this sunny day.
I end the day with dinner at Flourish, the hilltop restaurant at CopperWynd Resort. I’m seated at a table on the main patio and left alone with a basket of French bread, olive oil for dipping, and iced tea. I take my time to savor blackened salmon and a succotash-style side. As the evening light begins to glow behind the layered mountain range, I’m offered a better view for dessert and accept. Just as I’m biting into my salted caramel ice cream-topped pastry, I get one final glimpse of that fountain down below. It shoots up in the distance as the sun behind it sinks, and I realize this town is exactly what I’ve been looking for—a true escape where I can take the day at my own pace.