I realize the Arizona desert isn't everyone's cup of tea. But to me--a real desert rat from way back--there's something soul-stirring about its wide-open spaces, cobalt-blue sky, and jagged mountain peaks. I find myself reminiscing about my home state often, especially during a long, cold New Hampshire winter like this one has been. So no one had to twist my arm to get me on an airplane to Phoenix this past January. Even if the temperature never made it out of the 60s while I was there, I at least had the chance to lose the heavy jacket and boots for a while.
In the early 1980s, Scottsdale's resort growth was spreading north like a desert wildfire. One golf-course resort after another opened in the shadow of Pinnacle Peak, including one of Hideaways' perennial favorites, The Boulders--now The Boulders Resort & Golden Door Spa. In the past few years, however, downtown Scottsdale has been enjoying a renaissance of sorts, with some of the decades-old, faded-looking hotels getting new owners and dramatic facelifts to match. For instance, there's lots of buzz about the new W Scottsdale opening downtown this May, and InterContinental Hotels Group recently opened its branded boutique property, the 126-room Hotel Indigo. Some downtown mainstays from the '50s and '60s--like the way-hip Hotel Valley Ho, with its popular Café Zuzu and retro decor--have become so cool that they're now magnets for celebrity sightings.
The best time to visit Arizona is early spring and late fall. The heat takes hold in earnest by late May and doesn't give up its grip until late October, sometimes into November. I know, it's a dry heat, but stepping outside in July still feels like walking into a blast furnace. On the other hand, December and January can be cool and rainy, and it's not unheard of to see a dusting of snow on nearby mountains during winter months.
Hiding Away in the Valley of the Sun
If you haven't been to Arizona in a while--or ever--it's time for a visit. Whether you want a fresh, trendy experience in downtown Scottsdale or a more traditional resort stay with all the "extras" of golf, tennis, and wide-open desert, you'll be amazed at how much is new these days in the Valley of the Sun.
The Fairmont ScottsdaleTHC, North Scottsdale: This expansive resort on 450 acres embraces its desert setting with an eye toward eco-education and sustaining the environment. Yet, at the same time, there's nothing spartan about it. You'll find two golf courses, seven tennis courts, multiple heated pools, five restaurants, a complimentary Kids Club, 651 spacious guest rooms, 125 very private casitas with fireplaces, and the knock-your-socks-off Willow Stream Spa. And the staff is wonderful, ever alert and attentive. If I had so much as a questioning look in my eye, someone stopped to ask if they could help. Did I need a lift? Within minutes a golf cart appeared--electric, of course--to whisk me off to my destination. At breakfast I commented that I loved the juice glasses, and asked my waitress if they sold them in any of the resort shops (they don't). By the time I got back to my room, the restaurant manager had left an email giving me the style name and manufacturer's website.
The Fairmont prides itself on presenting an authentic Arizona experience. Even the air smelled like a desert campfire from the aromatic juniper wood burning in several outdoor fireplaces. If I'd had the time, I'd have loved to walk the property's self-guided Sonoran Trail that points out native plants and wildlife. The Fairmont is a great place for families; it has its own kid-friendly pool with two waterslides, and I even saw kids fishing (the resort provides gear) in the meandering lagoon system. At the same time, couples looking for quiet time alone will find it here as well. Outdoor fireplaces had cozy seating areas, and apparently the Princess's romantic, gourmet Mexican restaurant, La Hacienda, has been the chosen venue for more than one marriage proposal.
The new Fairmont Gold level of accommodations--a sort of "hotel within a hotel" set in a very private enclave--is great for bridal parties, newlyweds, or couples looking for peace and quiet and a stepped-up level of concierge service. Of course, the resort also is huge with golfers; its golf concierge staff will plan your entire stay, get you year-out tee times, even tell you how the fairways are playing that day--and it's all complimentary. Take it from me--once you settle into The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, you won't want to leave. Rates start at $179.
Mondrian, downtown Scottsdale: I got lost trying to find Mondrian Scottsdale, but only because it's sequestered down a driveway with no visible signage from the road. I guess that's part of its attraction to those hoping to lose themselves in this oasis of pool gardens and outdoor dining/lounge areas. Mondrian is high style with an over-the-top Garden of Eden theme that includes a mainly black-and-white color scheme and a shiny red apple (for temptation!) placed in each of the 194 guest rooms and suites. I thought the pool-front rooms had a slightly musty odor to them; I'd opt for an upper-level room with a private balcony overlooking the pool.
The resort's all-white lobby is absolute eye candy, with its long serpentine bench, suspended "cloud" lighting, and nude cherubs; a pink reception alcove is tucked away behind white drapes. Off the lobby is the Red Bar (and I mean red), with its seductive bowl of red glass apples, and beyond that is the white-and-black Skybar which is meant to symbolize the descent into hell; it has some Adams-Family-like black furnishings, candelabras, and black-feathered light fixtures. All this is very trendy and hip, and I'm sure the place is hopping with Beautiful Young Things well into the night. Mondrian's Asia de Cuba restaurant, which just opened in January, has gotten rave reviews for its innovative Cuban cuisine; a huge draw is the restaurant's Havana Tuesdays, when they play Latin music and offer up mojito specials. Rates start at $135.
FireSky Resort & Spa, downtown Scottsdale: This was the Caleo Resort & Spa until major renovations transformed it into FireSky Resort & Spa about a year ago. All I can say is, "Wow!" An elegant Kimpton, FireSky is a riveting piece of design whose story (every Kimpton tells a story) is that of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Guests are greeted by three stone columns topped with bowls of fire, while transparent curtains move in the breeze, waterfalls and pools splash invitingly, and the "earth" is nicely landscaped with lush plantings. It's fun, and it all works together to create a soothing atmosphere in the middle of bustling Scottsdale.
There are lots of nice nooks and seating areas inside the dramatic lobby and outside around the pools and lagoons, where couples and small groups can gather for cocktails. One of the heated pools has an actual sandy "beach" with about 20 feet of "shoreline" that extends into the pool. After dark, the staff lights candles in the lobby, and dozens of candles are placed around the pool areas--quite spectacular.
With 204 guest rooms and suites, FireSky is larger than the average Kimpton hotel. Rooms are fairly spacious and nicely furnished in a kind of art-deco-meets-Western style; some have a private balcony or patio overlooking the tropical gardens and pools. Don't miss the highly acclaimed Taggia restaurant, with its coastal Italian cuisine. Save something in a doggie bag; in keeping with Kimpton's pet-friendly policy, FireSky invites you to bring along a furry friend. You and your pet both can have a spa treatment through the resort's elegant Jurlique Spa. Though I didn't meet him, FireSky has a canine VP of Pet Operations named Bosco; he greets all four-legged guests with a tail wag and lives on site. Rates start at $129 and include an evening wine reception.
Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, Phoenix: Known as "The Jewel of the Desert," this is the grande dame of the Arizona resort scene, a sprawling property that adjoins two 18-hole golf courses and a community of palatial private residences. Now part of the Waldorf-Astoria Collection, the Biltmore has a classic Frank Lloyd Wright design and a sweeping lobby that is monumental in scale. In fact, everything about this historic hotel is larger than life. Since its grand opening in 1929, the Biltmore has hosted so many celebrities that it might be easier to list the ones who haven't stayed there. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard honeymooned there, Marilyn Monroe lounged by her favorite Catalina Pool, and Irving Berlin wrote the words, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" during a stay.
I loved feeling that sense of history as I walked the perfectly manicured grounds and visited the same glamorous pool where Marilyn once cavorted. The resort even offers a History Package with a private history tour and accommodations in one of the original cottages, which are clustered in their own garden setting. While hardly a hideaway with 739 guest rooms and suites, the Biltmore has plenty of places to retreat to, including eight swimming pools, a 22,000-square-foot spa offering all the goodies (try the amazing Dream Catcher Aromatherapy Massage--I thought I'd died and gone to heaven), the Lobby Tea Court for afternoon tea, and a huge terrace where I saw groups of guys gathered apres-golf, laughing and smoking cigars. In fact, the hotel has something of a cigar-and-bourbon-aficionado following, hosting cigar dinners and sessions on cigar rolling. The Biltmore also is a favorite for elegant, stylish weddings. Rates start at $189.
The Hermosa Inn, Paradise Valley: With its unimpeded view of the Praying Monk rock formation on Camelback Mountain, this stylish hacienda-turned-hotel has always been one of my favorites for its delicious Sunday brunch served on the sunny, flower-and-fountain-bedecked patio of Lon's restaurant. At night, this same patio is transformed into a romantic outdoor dining venue with candlelight and an aromatic wood-burning fireplace.
The original residence was hand-built by cowboy artist Lon Megargee in the 1930s; you can still see the original exposed beams from Casa Hermosa in the main reception and indoor dining areas. On a lower level is the wine cellar with an atmospheric private dining area, and just off the library is a cozy, walled-in patio with a fireplace and comfortable seating. The Hermosa Inn currently has 35 large guest rooms and suites finished in a striking, cowboy-chic decor; all have beehive fireplaces, private patios, and tiled baths, and many have vaulted ceilings and skylights. Plans are to raze an entire section of older standard-level rooms this summer, making way for a section of larger, more luxurious casitas. The Inn also plans to add a full-service spa. Rates start at $309.
Sedona: Land Before Time
No trip to Arizona is complete without a side trip to Sedona. Just a scenic two-hour drive north of Phoenix, you'll encounter Sedona's towering red-rock formations that have been chiseled through eons of flooding, wind, and sand storms--an awe-inspiring sight! I've been coming here for 35 years, and I still feel a thrill every time I catch my first glimpse of red rock.
I don't buy into the whole mysticism, crystal brouhaha that's surrounded Sedona for the past few decades, but I'll be the first to acknowledge that this area has "feel-good" vibes that come from being in such close proximity to these awe-inspiring, ancient, dignified rock formations. Until you see them, you almost can't imagine cliffs and table-top mesas so amazingly red, or a sky so incredibly blue in contrast. Even the traffic jam we encountered heading into Sedona--caused by road construction on Hwy. 179--was a plus as far as I was concerned; I could absorb the view more completely at a slower speed. And believe me, this is a view you just can't get enough of.
Plan to spend at least two days in Sedona soaking up the amazing panoramas and basking in the warm sunshine. Day hikes are a huge activity here, and just about anyone you ask will recommend a favorite. I've always loved the West Fork trail in Oak Creek Canyon, which follows the cool waters of a side creek. Other popular choices are the Airport Loop, Sugarloaf/Coffee Pot trails, and Broken Arrow. On this visit, I chose a new way (for me, at least) to see the far reaches of the Broken Arrow trail--strapped into a Pink Jeep! The Pink Jeep Tour has become a Sedona icon and is a fun, soft-adventure way to see some of the back canyons you might otherwise miss. I appreciated the skill of our driver as we bounced over washed-out streambeds and down precariously steep, narrow gaps wedged between huge rocks. Great fun! The two-hour Broken Arrow tour costs $75; other tours start at $45 (www.pinkjeep.com). If Jeeps aren't your thing, you can also horseback ride, golf, visit art galleries, and attend wine tastings featuring local varietals.
Hiding Away in Sedona
L'Auberge de Sedona: As you ease down the steep driveway to this hidden retreat on the banks of Oak Creek, you feel as though you're leaving the world behind. What looks from the outside like a group of summer-camp log cabins with a main lodge building is actually a very elegant resort with lovely country French interior decor. The main lodge houses reception, a group of 21 guest rooms, and two massive stone fireplaces that soar two stories high. Complimentary wine receptions are held each evening by these back-to-back fireplaces.
Along the creek is where the resort's 35 nicely private cottages and award-winning restaurant (voted most romantic in Arizona) are located. Some of the cottages have garden views, but the best have right-there creek-side locations, so you can sit on your Adirondack chairs on the front deck and see nothing but cottonwoods and tumbling water. All cottages have wood-burning fireplaces; plans are to add Jacuzzi® tubs and possibly outdoor showers. The bright and inviting Spa at L'Auberge opened just over a year ago; it offers six treatment rooms, or guests can take their pampering creek side in the open-air spa cabana. If you're into astronomy, you'll love the fact that a visiting astronomer comes and sets up telescopes every Friday night for viewings, free to guests. Rates start at $195.
Sedona Rouge Hotel & Spa: It seemed a little incongruous to find this upscale hotel right across the street from a shopping plaza with a Safeway grocery store. But once I was ensconced in my spacious room, with its super-comfy bed, gas fireplace, and nice red-rock view from the (tiny) balcony, I couldn't have been happier. The decor at Sedona Rouge is a totally unique and unexpected blend--at least for this area--of Andalusian and North African elements like carved sandstone columns, huge olive oil urns, scrolled iron gates, and punches of red in the 77 rooms and suites.
I loved the walk-in shower with its rain showerhead; a huge floor basket filled with fluffy towels stood nearby, and the floating granite countertop was another nice touch. The only thing I didn't like was the noising heating unit that clanked every time it kicked on. Families with young kids will like the ground-level Deluxe Sedona rooms that offer direct pool access from their private gated patios.
You also can choose from a selection of large spa suites located in the adjacent Spa at Sedona Rouge; these have dedicated treatment areas, double Jacuzzi® tubs, and spectacular views directly onto the red rocks. When I visited the spa, my massage therapist spent time talking with me beforehand so she could deliver a very personalized treatment, which I appreciated. Be sure to visit the upper-level Observation Deck for cocktails at sunset; they light the outdoor fireplace just as the waning sunlight sets the distant red rocks aglow. And don't miss the hotel's signature restaurant, Red's, where I enjoyed a delicious goat-cheese and sun-dried-tomato frittata the next morning--yum! Rates start at $179.
The Lodge at Sedona:
Located down a short side road off the main drag, among stands of pi&btilde;on pine and juniper, this luxury B&B inn with Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired decor is one of the most delightful and relaxing places I've ever visited. I stayed in the Red Rock Crossing Suite, the Lodge's top offering. It was love at first sight from the moment I walked in and was greeted by a massive red-rock fireplace, fire blazing, that occupied one entire wall. Mood lighting, an in-room spa tub for two, a four-poster king bed, twin massage showerheads, and a private outdoor hot tub completed the whole seduction scene.
The beautifully landscaped grounds are lovely and whimsical, with splashing fountains and pieces of sculpture tucked here and there. Each of the 14 rooms and suites is cleverly and thoughtfully designed; many of the upstairs rooms have sunny upholstered window seats, while downstairs suites have fireplaces and private cedar decks. Hors d'oeuvres and beverages were served that evening in the glass-walled Celebration sunroom, and I enjoyed a delicious made-to-order gourmet breakfast the next morning. Rates start at $189.
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