The flowrider looks a little like a miniature ski hill with water flowing up it at high soeed

A desert oasis for families

There are things you expect to see in Arizona and things you don’t. You expect to see saguaro cacti; you don’t envisage surfers. But there we were, standing in front of the FlowRider at the Westin Kierland Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., watching a 15-year-old boy from Kelowna performing surf tricks on a giant wave. He made it look so easy.

There are things you expect to see in Arizona and things you don’t. You expect to see saguaro cacti; you don’t envisage surfers.

But there we were, standing in front of the FlowRider at the Westin Kierland Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., watching a 15-year-old boy from Kelowna performing surf tricks on a giant wave. He made it look so easy.

The FlowRider looks a little like a miniature ski hill with water rushing up it at high speed to create a massive surfing wave ideal for boogie boarding or wakeboarding. They say that even the desperately unco-ordinated can be taught to surf on a FlowRider, so I decided to put that promise to the test and my teenage daughter and her friend decided to join me.

A small crowd had gathered near the FlowRider to watch the action.

“I think it would be wise for you girls to wear a T-shirt over top of your swimsuits,” advised my husband as we got in line to give FlowRider a try.

Thinking he was being overly protective about their modesty, the teenagers completely ignored the well-meant advice. Fortunately, I decided to let them go first.

Things were going well until the first big wipeout. As the would-be surfer fell backwards, the powerful wave began pushing the top half of her bathing suit to a position it was not designed to accommodate. If not for her speedy hands, the crowd of onlookers might have gotten more of a show than they had bargained for.

Back on the boards (with T-shirts over our suits), we each took turns practising our surfing skills on the giant wave. After multiple attempts, each member of the family did indeed manage to stand up on a wakeboard and surf.

It was a thrilling experience and one that we never would have expected to find in the middle of the Arizona desert.

There was a time when visitors to the Scottsdale area of Arizona were pretty much limited to the 50-plus set, but things have been changing in recent years as the city has come into its own as a family-friendly travel destination. With a host of great family activities and attractions, the city was voted by Sunset Magazine as the best place to raise kids and by Travel and Leisure Magazine as one of the best warm weather family travel destinations.

Those who imagine Scottsdale to be the exclusive travel domain of snowbirds are often surprised to see the number families enjoying the destination. It just goes to show that the Arizona desert is always a place to expect the unexpected.

Top four family-friendly activities near Scottsdale and Phoenix

Hang 10 at the FlowRider: Surfing in the desert is a new feature of the Westin Kierland Resort’s adventure water park. Riding the FlowRider’s simulated wave uses a combination of the skills of surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding. At the moment, it is only open to resort guests. (

Musical Instrument Museum: The largest museum of its type in the world, the MIM contains more than 15,000 musical instruments from countries all over the world. The museum is interactive and wireless headsets allow guests to listen to recorded performances from many famous artists. There’s also a special room where they can try playing some of the unique instruments. (

Desert Botanical Garden night tour: The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix will celebrate its 75th birthday in 2014 and to mark the occasion, the garden will be having after-dark Luminaria tours for 31 nights in November and December. The gardens will be lit up each evening with more than 8,000 hand-lit Luminaria bags and thousands of white twinkle lights. There will also be Chihuly’s artwork on display. Hand bells, cider and carolers will bring out the holiday spirit. If you aren’t visiting during the holidays, there are other after-dark events hosted at the gardens throughout the year. (

Butterfly Wonderland: Home to America’s largest butterfly atrium, Butterfly wonderland in Scottsdale has a 3-D theatre, a butterfly emergence gallery, honeybee displays, an ant colony and large freshwater aquariums and touch pools. (

Scottsdale’s top four family-friendly resorts

Westin Kierland: A large waterpark with a 274-metre lazy river, a huge waterslide, multiple pools and the FlowRider surf machine are the highlight of this resort. There’s also a great onsite kids program with daily activities organized by age group. Eight restaurants, a spa, tennis courts, two nearby shopping malls and an excellent onsite golf course ensure there is something for every family member. (

Fairmont Scottsdale Princess: The Sonoran Splash recreation area at this resort features two large waterslide towers. The resort has five pools in total, tennis courts, a kids’ fishing pond, an onsite golf course and one of the best spas in the country. Kids’ activities and great onsite restaurants make this resort popular with families. (

Four Seasons Scottsdale: Sitting in the shadows of Pinnacle Peak, this resort has large casita-style rooms — some with outdoor wood-burning fireplaces great for making s’mores, patios and telescopes with star charts. There is also a complimentary kids program and activity area for children ages five to 12 with activities ranging from cooking classes to scavenger hunts. An onsite spa, tennis courts and two excellent golf courses keep adults busy while their kids play. (

Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch: Hyatt’s 2.5-acre water playground has 10 swimming pools, 45 waterfalls and a three-storey-high-speed waterslide. The resort also has a host of other activities to enjoy, including tennis, golf, running and biking trails, gondola boat rides, horseback riding and a daily kids camp for children ages five to 12. (

More info:

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. Follow Debbie’s travels at If you have an interesting travel story you would like to share, please email: or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.

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