Published: May 2009
By Stephen Drucker
Phoenix has always been about getting away from it all. With a host of new resorts, refreshed classics, and spas that really deliver, it's never been better. <b>Stephen Drucker</b> uncovers the best places to feel the heat
Everyone in Phoenix is either trying to relax, or in the middle of relaxing, or reflecting on some recent attempt to relax. You hear the word constantly: in lobbies, in spas, waiting in line for coffee. Oh, it was so...relaxing. Oh, I hear that's very...relaxing. Exactly what we are all so tired from I couldn't say, but this city has long been regarded as the cure.
Relaxation has always meant golf here, but in the past year Phoenix has become much more interesting. Many of the classic resorts have been fluffing madly, growing more contemporary and piling on the indulgences. There's a younger vibe at the newer properties, including the city's first boutique hotel and three mega-resorts where the emphasis is on action. Hotel restaurants have retreated from the old country-club menus and begun fusing in every direction. The biggest change: Phoenix is now spa land. Where there used to be a few treatment rooms and a check-in desk, today you'll find the category-killers of relaxation.
If anything, there's almost too much choice. So many resorts, so many spas—and such subtle distinctions among them. Here, for the exhausted among you, our guide to the latest developments.
Sanctuary Camelback Mountain The Sanctuary definitely has buzz. At other resorts in town, you see guests breezing in with trollies of matched Hartmann luggage; at the Sanctuary, everybody glides in trailing one world-weary black roller bag and whips out a Prada wallet. The hotel is hot, the restaurant is hot, the spa is hot. How often does that happen?
Perhaps you remember the Sanctuary in its former life as John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch, a quiet little spot on a hillside in residential Paradise Valley where people played tennis all day and into the night and went to bed early. It closed in 2000 and was relaunched a year ago, with the 74 original "mountain casitas" as well as 24 new "spa casitas," the infinity pool of your dreams, and a spa (see "The Superspas," below).
Here's the novel way you book: first you choose a size (a room or a one-bedroom suite), then you choose a style. While the mountain casitas are low-key and traditional, the spa casitas are pretty jiggy even for a boutique hotel, with lots of crushed velvet and polished concrete and bright colors; each spa suite also has a big white soaking tub outdoors. The Sanctuary is proudest of its spa rooms, but I much preferred the mountain casitas, especially the suites. Erno Laszlo has done his first spa line exclusively for the Sanctuary, so bring a huge cosmetics bag for all the toiletries in your bathroom, many of which are based on neroli, an orange oil. The mini-bar has been expanded into a "beauty bar," and it's hard to ignore the Italian toothpaste, the tooth whitener, and the Kama Sutra Kit.
The restaurant, Elements, is a magnet for everybody who wears black in the desert. The staff can't mix the martinis fast enough, and they can't turn over the tables fast enough. You'll find American food with an Asian spin: pot stickers, glazed fish, jasmine rice, Korean barbecue sauce. The view is sensational, and the young crowd is quite a change for Phoenix.
The Sanctuary isn't flawless. It has the usual boutique-hotel blind spots for service, the kitchen hasn't quite caught its stride, and in those new spa casitas, the views can be disappointing, the noise from the pool equipment intrusive. Still, half the battle of being on vacation is feeling you've landed in the right place, and if you're here, you've done that.
The Phoenician Let your mind wander back to the eighties, to the Reagan china, to the pouf dress, to big money that never stopped flowing.
And God created the Phoenician. Wasn't it fabulous?
There's still plenty of marble after last year's major redecoration, but the lobby and rooms have taken on a different kind of glamour. What impresses you now is the glowing bronze fabric and leather-topped furniture—a hyper-luxury look that recalls the great French decorator Jean-Michel Frank. Even the glitzy crystal chandeliers have been replaced with much more poetic Venetian glass, though word is that the old crystal fixtures—the bubbles in this champagne, some insist—may be brought back.
My favorite thing about the Phoenician is that the 581 standard guest rooms are huge and virtually identical, so you never get a bad one; you simply get the view you pay for. (They're surprisingly quietly decorated, too.) I also like that every square inch of the place is driven by service; if you so much as look in the direction of the spa, somebody offers to take you there.
The Centre for Well-Being, the first spa in Phoenix that really thought
big, keeps changing and growing in keeping with its time-tested style of Pampering the Girls. The nine pools, especially the oval one surrounded by Napoleon-yellow cabanas, are still the most dazzling in town. Wear your pool jewelry. Wear all of it. The Phoenician experience reaches its dizzying peak at Mary Elaine's, where there's a new chef, Bradford Thompson. This is the Event Restaurant to end them all, still tossing salads tableside and setting things aflame and serving truffle degustation menus to women in red sequins and men who cap the night with a $600 shot of Cognac.
Gosh, it's fun. The Phoenician is that rare hotel where the prices are breathtaking but you feel no pain because you're never disappointed. Last winter some luxury hotels were dropping their rates and letting themselves go a bit, but not the Phoenician. Pricing is positioning, a very delicate art that the Phoenician uses to your advantage.
Boulders Resort & Golden Door Spa The Boulders has always meant golf, golf, and more golf. Now, with the addition of the extraordinary Golden Door Spa, it is also a first-rate spa hotel. It's nice to have one more reason to come here. There has never been a better place to feel so completely enveloped by the desert. Walking to your casita in the chill of the night, past the boulders and the cacti, across wood bridges over dry arroyos, the air scented with piñon drifting from the fireplaces—it's as romantic a desert moment as you can hope for.
The Boulders has always had the location, where the wilderness merges with the city, and the layout too, with 160 large casitas scattered across its two famous golf courses and the fringes of the desert. No two rooms have the same view, and it's impossible for the front desk to guess which one will please you, so just keep trying until you find the right fit. Ever since the property was acquired by Wyndham, there have been murmurs about a decline in service, but I thought the place was humming nicely, no different from my last visit five years ago. No marble in the bathrooms here, yet, but the recently redecorated rooms are looking sleeker, more contemporary; you don't feel obliged to wear turquoise and hammered silver anymore. It's all very cozy. What you really want to do is just build a fire in the kiva and climb into a leather club chair.
You'll emerge to play golf, to sun by the pool at the base of a boulder-strewn hill, and to dine at the restaurant, the Latilla, which is built into the boulders themselves. The Latilla is a Phoenix classic, with lots of space around the tables and an inventive American menu that doesn't try too hard. It's the sort of place where you order the duck. The Latilla produced the best all-around meal I had in a week, without the hype and theatricality.
But it comes down to those boulders, some defying gravity, some seemingly frozen in free fall—they're the only decoration any resort needs. The Boulders is still the great country-club hotel of Phoenix.
Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North The Four Seasons, which opened in 1999, sits among the gated communities at the northern edge of Scottsdale, where red-rubble peaks and saguaros and big views shape the landscape for retired CEO's. It's a little tricky to find, but worth the trip. Heading up the driveway, you won't feel as if you're arriving at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oscar night; it's more like coming home.
There's a living room-scaled lobby, and a restaurant comfortable enough to visit every day, and a concierge who watches over you and your needs like a good doorman on Park Avenue. Nearby Troon North will keep golfers happy, but you're not living on the course. There are wonderful desert walks to take, and a pleasant spa where you will get a massage rather than an "experience." The 210 rooms are spread across casitas on 40 acres, and the best of them have views of Pinnacle Peak. Southwestern loosely describes the style—gas kivas, beige palette—but it's not heavy-handed. You can always count on a Four Seasons for cool elegance: luxury without opulence, good service without a lot of fussing. It's the Bill Blass of the hotel world.
Royal Palms Resort & Spa Every city has a Royal Palms: a house-hotel from another era that keeps getting better with age. If the Hotel Bel-Air is your idea of heaven, the Royal Palms will be, too. It began life in 1929 as a residence, and has grown over the years in a higgledy-piggledy way. And what a location it has, at the foot of Camelback Mountain. The Royal Palms is far more lush than the desert is supposed to be. These towering palms weren't trucked in yesterday, and you might walk through a fine old orange orchard on the way to your room.
The 116 rooms are more Spanish than Southwestern—a little more luxurious, a little more European. My favorites were the Valencia Casitas, away from Camelback Road and in view of the orange trees. T. Cook's, the hotel's well-regarded restaurant, serves a Mediterranean menu in the atmospheric old house; hold your nose and have a drink in the smoker, the most charming room of them all. The major news here, however, is a lovely new spa called Alvadora, which is pretty and large enough to offer the works, but not so big that it doesn't feel private. I can imagine few things more restorative than checking into the Royal Palms, taking it easy by the pool, having a treatment daily, generally hiding out, and emerging only to head to the airport.
Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spas The Arizona Biltmore was here before all the others, in 1929. Its distinction has always been that the great, if slightly weird, Frank Lloyd Wright had an unmistakable hand in its design. Never an easy property to manage, it felt betwixt and between on my recent visit. The rooms were being redecorated, but with no particular inspiration, and mine was noticeably underfurnished. The spa, lavish when opened in 1998, now has some catching up to do. And although there was rather good food in the dining room, Wright's, what you remember is the general dreariness and the spotlight in your eyes. Families and conventioneers seem to settle in nicely here, but as the expansion marches on—a new five-story garage, 100,000 square feet of "newly refined" meeting space—the classic hotel underneath it all is becoming harder and harder to find.
A LITTLE SMALLER, PLEASE...
CopperWynd Resort & Club If CopperWynd were 15 minutes in a different direction, everybody would be calling it a gem and flocking there. As it is, this three-year-old resort sits on a scenic ridge at the edge of far-suburban Fountain Hills, doing what it does quietly and wonderfully. There are 32 rooms and eight villas with a European feel, fireplaces, and killer views; a restaurant called Alchemy with a hip menu, a hip look, and more views; a spa, golf, and lots of tennis. It's not the place for a first-time visitor, but for someone who knows his way around, has family nearby, or has tried the big resorts and wants a relaxed getaway. A lot of people seemed to have this idea. And wasn't that Billie Jean King on the tennis courts?
Hermosa Inn Bed-and-breakfast types will want to check into the Hermosa Inn, a classic hacienda that has been here since 1930. It's hidden among the houses of Paradise Valley, where zoning laws preserve the magnificent darkness of the vast night sky. The 35 rooms are all different and decorated in high Georgia O'Keeffe style, with baskets and antlers and straw hats and other charming touches, so you'd better like charm. And quiet, since you won't find the cruise-ship frenzy of a resort here. The inn does wake up at night, however. The restaurant, Lon's, is a favorite of locals and was expanded considerably this past winter. If you're looking for value and don't need the facilities of a resort, you won't do better: Hermosa isn't cheap, but then nothing is during high season in Phoenix.
Three chains brought a bit of Las Vegas to the city this year with shiny new mega-resorts. While not in the same category as the city's most luxurious properties, they deliver the Big Lobby, the Big Spa, and the Big Bed in a less starchy atmosphere. They were built for conferences, and badges predominate.
JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa The largest resort in Arizona—950 rooms!—is the latest in Marriott's series of rock 'em, sock 'em properties, which have worked so well in Oahu and Palm Springs. Desert Ridge is huge and pulsing, like the Love Boat, with an enthusiastic, college-age staff that brings the cavernous place to life. There are pools in every conceivable shape, two golf courses, a spa, and two terrific celebrity-chef restaurants, developed by Roy Yamaguchi of Hawaii and Mark Miller of Santa Fe. The Mediterranean-inspired decoration can be garish, but many of the rooms have exhilarating views, especially if you face north. Unlike at the Phoenician, however, you're welcome to drink beer out of a bottle in the lobby, and there's a Starbucks that takes room charges, so you won't start each day cursing the $25 continental breakfast. Everything about the place is meant to make you comfortable or make you smile, and it does.
Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa Twenty minutes south of the airport, the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass stands all by itself, shimmering on the flat, dusty land of the Gila River Indian community. A casino has long been the draw here, so the community added this hotel, with a Southwestern-style lobby to make each new arrival gasp and a bar ensconced in man-made boulders. The location won't work for everybody—you might as well be on the moon—but those who crave casino action will find some pleasant surprises: the rooms are attractive and luxurious, much more so than you probably expect from Sheraton; the golf course is buzzing; and the Aji Spa is one of the biggest and most beautiful in the city.
Westin Kierland Resort & Spa Handsome is the word for the Westin, the best-looking of the Big Three, its atmosphere mixing the boutique-hotel energy of its sister chain W with a Western look of leather, Mission furniture, and Arizona photography. If you shop at Restoration Hardware, you'll like it here. It's more vertical than horizontal, more a hotel than a resort, and sometimes its feng shui feels out of tune. But you can play golf; have a treatment at the spa; walk to the shops at Kierland Commons; and, best of all, eat at Deseo, developed by Douglas Rodriguez of New York's Chicama. The Nuevo Latino food is excellent; the ceviche menu is alone worth a visit.
Spa life in Phoenix has changed completely. Your visit used to be over in an hour. Now you make an afternoon of it. New spas are everywhere, but
the following are the ones you'll most want to try.
Sanctuary Spa The spa at the Sanctuary gazes up toward Camelback Mountain and seems to exist in its own weird energy vortex. Checking in, you want to sign "Obi-Wan Kenobi." There are 11 treatment rooms, and for a little more money you can have a spiraling, outdoor room, the Sanctum, where the Force is even more likely to be with you.
The spa recommended its specialty, a 90-minute Table Thai Massage ($170). Signature treatments usually involve a lot of patting and soaking, though this rather serious therapy involves nothing but stretching. The therapist knew her stuff; the room glowed with natural light, something you almost never find in a spa; and the effects of the treatment did not wash off with my first shower, or even my second.
The spa is the focus of this hotel, so it's attracting couples looking for a romantic spa getaway, friends fleeing the suburbs, bonding mothers and daughters. Everything imaginable is on the menu for them: facials, acupuncture, fortune-telling. Settle in for a weekend and create a classic spa program for yourself—but with as little exercise and as many calories as you like.
Golden Door Spa at the Boulders It won't make you feel like Barbie on a Day of Beauty, but the Golden Door delivers like nowhere else. It's attractive, in the soul-cleansing Zen style of the original Golden Door in California. It's also busy, and once you adjust to sitting around in a robe among so many strangers, you realize that all those people in so many shapes, sizes, and ages are a good sign.
A wrap is the real test of any spa, and the Turquoise Wrap here, an 80-minute, $175 treatment involving Hopi blue cornmeal, clay, and honey, was best of breed. My therapist had a feather-light touch, and with a hydrotherapy
tub and Vichy shower in the room, I didn't have to make one unnecessary move. Nor was I abandoned during the inevitable wrap moment of hot, confined panic. Quite the opposite: the therapist began jingling a Native American rain stick around me, and I became so pleasantly disconnected, I felt I was beginning to levitate.
The Golden Door gets the details right, down to the jasmine green tea in its waiting room. There's an unmistakable confidence here, and it's relaxing just to know you're in such good hands.
Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess A local landmark, the Princess is known for its loyal clientele; its Willow Stream Spa, the largest and most luxurious of them all, captures the hotel's spirit. This is a classic ladies' spa of the Georgette Klinger-Elizabeth Arden school. Everything is the most-est: it has the most marble, the most breathtaking Jacuzzis, the most extravagant Swiss showers, the most beautiful rooftop pool.
The spa recommended its signature treatment, the Willow Stream Body Experience,
a 90-minute romp ($199) that includes a mud wrap, a shower, a bubble bath, and a massage. I wouldn't recommend it. The wrap was clumsily handled; I could feel the therapist going through the motions and watching the clock. All I could think about was the generous gratuity I was asked to sign for in advance—not the usual practice.
This is a magnificent facility, though, so keep it simple here, with a beauty service or a massage, and then make a day of it.
HOW TO SPEAK SCOTTSDALE
Resortland has its own language. The words sound Orwellian, but people here really do know what they mean.
CASITA Desertspeak for bungalow. Beware: it's sometimes a long walk from the main building.
FINE-DINING RESTAURANT A resort's most ambitious option. Expect a dusky ambience, a choice of waters, and persistent offers of cheese and pepper. You won't get out in less than two hours.
FITNESS POOL Code for adult pool. Most hotels have several pools. If you're with children, you belong at the water slide.
RESORT FEE A daily surcharge on a room, usually about $15, which covers some gratuities, local phone calls, a newspaper. Irritating but increasingly common.
RELAXATION ROOM A meditation room at a spa, where you decompress before and after a treatment. Take advantage of it.
SWISS SHOWER A multi-headed shower that bombards you from many sides. One of the free spa treats, but unless someone points it out, you might miss it. Don't.
VICHY ROOM A treatment room with showerheads over the massage table. Makes a wrap much more enjoyable: there's no need to hop to the shower in a plastic bag to wash off the mud.
Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa DOUBLES FROM $375. 2400 E. MISSOURI AVE., PHOENIX; 800/950-0086 OR 602/955-6600; www.arizonabiltmore.com
Boulders Resort & Golden Door Spa DOUBLES FROM $495. 34631 N. TOM DARLINGTON DR., CAREFREE; 800/553-1717 OR 480/488-9009; www.wyndham.com
CopperWynd Resort & Club DOUBLES FROM $289. 13225 N. EAGLE RIDGE DR., FOUNTAIN HILLS; 877/707-7760 OR 480/333-1900; www.copperwynd.com
Fairmont Scottsdale Princess DOUBLES FROM $379. 7575 E. PRINCESS DR., SCOTTSDALE; 800/251-7544 OR 480/585-4848; www.fairmont.com
Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North DOUBLES FROM $425. 10600 E. CRESCENT MOON DR., SCOTTSDALE; 800/545-4000 OR 480/515-5700; www.fourseasons.com
Hermosa Inn DOUBLES FROM $285. 5532 N. PALO CRISTI RD., SCOTTSDALE; 800/241-1210 OR 602/955-8614; www.hermosainn.com
JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa DOUBLES FROM $369. 5350 E. MARRIOTT DR., PHOENIX; 800/835-6206 OR 480/293-5000; www.jwdesertridgeresort.com
The Phoenician DOUBLES FROM $625. 6000 E. CAMELBACK RD., SCOTTSDALE; 800/888-8234 OR 480/941-8200; www.thephoenician.com
Royal Palms Resort & Spa DOUBLES FROM $375. 5200 E. CAMELBACK RD., PHOENIX; 800/672-6011 OR 602/840-3610; www.royalpalmsresortandspa.com
Sanctuary Camelback Mountain DOUBLES FROM $380. 5700 E. MCDONALD DR., PARADISE VALLEY; 800/245-2051 OR 480/948-2100; www.sanctuaryoncamelback.com
Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa DOUBLES FROM $279. 5594 W. WILD HORSE PASS BLVD., CHANDLER; 800/325-3535 OR 602/225-0100; www.sheraton.com
Westin Kierland Resort & Spa DOUBLES FROM $299. 6902 E. GREENWAY PKWY., SCOTTSDALE; 888/625-5144 OR 480/624-1000; www.westin.com