Mesa, Arizona, offers more than just spring baseball training

As one of Major League Baseball’s winter locations, Mesa, Arizona is a popular warm-weather destination for sports fans. What I learned on my recent visit is that Mesa, a growing city located a half-hour drive east of Phoenix, has a growing food and cultural scene that rivals the larger enclaves of nearby Tempe and Scottsdale. The city is home to visitors.

Playing football

Baseball fans already know that MLB’s 15-team Cactus League makes its winter home in Arizona and that Mesa is the home base (pun intended) for the Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics. Baseball spring training, which occurs in February and March, is an opportunity for fans to watch teams practice, interact with players, and enjoy preseason games in a relaxed, almost festival-like atmosphere.

Autism Friendly Certificate

The most unique feature of Mesa is that it is the first certified autism-friendly city in the world. This certification, conducted by IBCCES, provides training and modifications at a variety of Mesa businesses for families with children on the autism spectrum.

Visitors can find all kinds of autism-friendly activities, restaurants, and lodging throughout Mesa. Learn more by searching Visit Mesa online and guests can also book certified autism-friendly hotels directly on the website.

Vineyards in Mesa. Photography by Carrie Dow
Vineyards in Mesa. Photography by Carrie Dow

Down on the farm

Arizona’s largest agricultural area is located near Mesa, so the area is full of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other produce. The nearby city of Gilbert is bridging the rural-urban divide with Agritopia, a mixed-use neighborhood anchored by a 12-acre organic commercial farm. It is surrounded by a residential community along with community parks, restaurants, shops, and walking trails.

On a visit to Agritopia, we walked along the path past the fenced community gardens and watched people tending to their plants next to a large chicken coop. Near the middle, we walked under an arch covered in vines. As the late afternoon walk dried our throats and small beads of sweat formed on our brows, we looked for a place to quench our thirst.

A few minutes later, while we were thinking about what to drink at Garage–East Winery, our server suggested a breakfast wine. A mixture of white wine and fruit juice on site, we learned that the breakfast wine was not sangria. Carbonated and light orange, it was unlike any wine we had seen before. It’s light and effervescent, yet still tastes like wine, not some sugary soft drink.

All of the wines at Garage–East are made from grapes from the Wilcox and Elgin wine regions of Arizona and are available by bottle or at the winery/restaurant. Breakfast wine comes in cans which makes the drinks very portable.

Garage–East is just one of many businesses that make up Barnone, a large metal barn rising next to Agritopia Gardens. It is a place that brings together the best craftsmen in the region. Along with the winemakers at Garage–East, there are wood carvers at Lettercraft and a hairstylist at Wander. Everyone has found a creative community in Gilbert.

After the wine and meat happy hour, we walked the block to Agritopia’s Epicenter building for dinner at Belly Kitchen and Bar, a restaurant that fuses Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese cuisine under one roof. Belly’s menu encouraged sharing, so we chose a variety of dishes. Items like pork satay skewers, green papaya salad, and pho ga are a hit, along with house-made cocktails with names like Spicy Hydra and Slay le Vie.

Gathering for the night in Mesa. Photography by Carrie Dow
Gathering for the night in Mesa. Photography by Carrie Dow

Downtown Gilbert

When the server placed the “giant cinnamon roll” on our table, the conversation stopped. The giant cinnamon roll – that’s how it was listed on the menu – was about the size of the dinner plate it was sitting on, and there was an oversized knife sticking out of it so we could cut it into pieces. Welcome to Liberty Market in downtown Gilbert.

The historic Liberty Market also takes advantage of the area’s freshest produce, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a retro setting. Housed in a 1933 building that was originally the city’s grocery store, Liberty Market underwent a massive renovation in 2022, but the food that locals have enjoyed for years remains intact. Along with cinnamon rolls, the breakfast menu features classic Arizona breakfast dishes like chili and scrambled breakfast burritos.

Rose Garden in Mesa. Photography by Carrie Dow
Rose Garden in Mesa. Photography by Carrie Dow

The famous rose garden in Mesa

Landscape architect Leroy Brady points out a beautiful pink rose called Fair Lady. The beautiful rose was part of one of more than 8,000 rose bushes planted in the Rose Garden at Mesa Community College making it one of the largest public gardens in the Desert Southwest.

Not only did Brady know his roses, he was the landscape architect who designed the garden when it was created 25 years ago. Getting a tour of the Rose Garden from Brady was like getting a tour of the Eiffel Tower from Gustave Eiffel himself. “The Rose Garden is designed to entice people to walk through it,” he said.

The Rose Garden is located on West Southern Avenue, at the north end of the MCC campus, and is also used by the All-American Rose Selection as a testing laboratory for new rose varieties. The stroll through the grounds features not only gorgeous flowers in all colors but also outdoor sculptures, shade trees, benches, and a gazebo, along with a Military Garden of Honor with flags and memorials to veterans.

Art in Mesa. Photography by Carrie Dow
Art in Mesa. Photography by Carrie Dow

Mesa Center for the Arts

I have always found pleasant surprises in art galleries. At the Mesa Museum of Contemporary Art, that surprise was the sound of falling water. In the middle of the main hallway was a beautiful blue ceramic bowl with a T-shaped tube on top with water flowing from both sides.

Then I noticed small ceramic buildings on small islands in the bowl under the flowing water. The waterfall sculpture, which artist Zach Gordon called “The Flood,” was the artist’s way of commenting on environmental disasters in a strikingly beautiful way.

The art museum is part of the Mesa Arts Center complex and is a great place for visitors looking for air-conditioned relief from the Arizona heat. Home to both the performing and visual arts, visitors can watch a theatrical show or peruse the museum.

As part of Mesa’s commitment to inclusivity, the art museum has an EnChroma Color Accessibility program where visitors with red-green color blindness can use special EnChroma glasses to see art in its full scope. Entrance to the museum is free, but theatrical performances require ticket purchases.

Sip at Cider Corps

What started as a hobby to help a military veteran cope with injuries in Afghanistan, Cider Corps is now a full-fledged business that uses profits from its delicious cider to help other military veterans in the Mesa community. For us, a flight of cider was a thirst quencher after our busy day.

Infused with ginger, the CaMULEflage was the apple juice incarnation of the Moscow Mule. The Blueberry Grenade made it easy on the palate with sweet berries up front, then hit us on the finish with warm spices. The Mango Foxtrot was also light with a tropical fruit finish. All samples arrived at the site on a warm spring day.

The cider restaurant building called The Bunker, was also home to Myke’s Pizza, so we ordered a margherita pizza topped with crushed tomatoes, mozzarella, aged Gouda, basil, and drizzled with olive oil. After filling our bellies with apple juice and pizza, all we had to do next was wait for the sun to set to begin our next adventure.

Blazer in Mesa. Photography by Carrie Dow
Blazer in Mesa. Photography by Carrie Dow

Ride in style

Our joy was visible and audible as we exited the hotel to see Brian of Stellar Adventures and his monster M1009 (M ten-oh-nine) Chevy Blazer painted in dark military green with a tarp-covered rear end waiting for us. Brian smiled as we took photo after photo of his car.

“If you like the look of it, you’ll like the ride,” he laughed. We climbed into the back of the Blazer which had bench seats all around. There was enough room for 10 people so the six of us were quite comfortable. Since the desert got cold at night, Brian had a pile of blankets ready for us.

The back of the Blazer was covered with a beige tarp pulled tight everywhere, except for a clear strip of tarp at eye level so we could see the scenery as we drove. When we turned onto the highway, the V8 got louder and the wind was hitting the tarp hard, but we loved it. The sun was starting to dip behind the hills as we headed into the Four Peaks Wilderness Area within the Tonto National Forest.

We were on the Dark Sky tour at Stellar Adventures. Stellar Adventures is an Arizona ATV-UTV company that takes people on off-road rides in the Arizona desert during the day and astronomy tours at night. At the end of our hour-long ride, we reached the trailhead where we met Aaron Boyd, a research analyst at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. Boyd had already set up a telescope.

“Who knows where the North Star is?” Asked. I thought I knew, but in the pitch darkness of the desert, there were so many twinkling stars above, that we couldn’t find them. Boyd circled it and the Ursa Major constellation with a laser pointer.

Over the next two hours, he pointed out other stars such as Sirius, a binary star that is the brightest star in the night sky, and the constellation Orion with its bright star Betelgeuse. He also showed us nebulae (large, bright clouds of gas and stars) and Saturn’s rings in the telescope and answered questions about the Moon because he does lunar research at Arizona State University. He said that with modern telescopes at Arizona State University, they can still see the remains of what the Apollo mission left on the moon in the 1970s.

After a cold evening in the desert, it was nice to return to the warmth of the Residence Inn Phoenix Mesa East. Residence Inn has large studio apartment-style rooms with a kitchen, living room, separate bed area, and huge bathrooms. Sipping my steeped tea in my own kitchen not only warmed me up, but was also a great way to relax after seeing, doing, and eating all the things Mesa has to offer.

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