Travel

Phoenix Rising: Not Your Grandfather’s Phoenix

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Design-driven resorts help refine and redefine the city’s identity as a destination.

By Elyse Glickman

Phoenix, like other U.S. destinations, has its points of pride: stellar year-round golf; rich, colorful history; major league baseball spring training; vibrant arts scene; high-end shopping enclaves; and a spa and wellness culture. This embarrassment of riches has drawn visitors to the “Valley of the Sun” for decades.

On the other hand, there are somewhat outdated perceptions that may distract prospective fans from discovering Phoenix’s bounty. People hailing from the East Coast and Midwest, for example, know Phoenix as a haven for “snowbird” seniors looking to escape the deep freezes. There’s also that collegiate party reputation connected to the acclaimed Arizona State University in adjoining Tempe (noted for the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism).

In a sprawling city where spas and upscale hotels abound, The Sanctuary and The Boulders are properties that prove that luxury travel in the city will continue to evolve and inspire. Both resorts are very different expressions, however, of how Phoenix metro’s natural geography, resources, history, and climate continue to make the city worth repeat visits—especially as it is so accessible to Los Angeles by car or air.

While family-oriented properties like the Native American-owned Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse do a brilliant job of integrating indigenous culture and design into the resort experience, The Bouldlers Resort and Spa, managed by Hilton’s “Curio” boutique resort division, did a recent remodeling that imparts an extra edge of sophistication and worldliness. The casita we stayed in not only had decadent beds and bedding, but also a comforting character that made extra time in the room an integral part of the experience.

The Boulder’s décor improves on a familiar Cowboys & Indians-magazine aesthetic by winding Scandinavian touches through the use of modern lighting fixtures, a restrained color palate, and interior architecture. My colleague made the apt observation that there were no sharp edges within the public areas, casitas, rooms and landscaping. Instead, there were a lot of arcs and spirals that provided a lovely frame for the pool areas, desert mountains and plants. Gorgeous stained glass skylights enhance the main lodge by day, while the main pool provides a visually stunning centerpiece between the lodge and the rock formations in the distance.

The Boulders’ exteriors and interiors modernize and internationalize a classic, Old West aesthetic

The dining experience at Palo Verde is a culturally stimulating retreat in its own right. Dinner, weather permitting, is best enjoyed on the patio overlooking the 6th fairway of the resort’s acclaimed South Course, a duck pond, and the Sonoran Desert’s appealing flora and fauna. Under executive chef Brian Archibald (who recently dazzled as the winner of Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay), we expected very high quality comfort food with a Southwestern theme. Instead, we were served thrilling, wholly original dishes with delightfully unexpected Mediterranean and Middle Eastern twists: char-grilled octopus adorned with Harissa, fall-off-the-bone za’atar-rubbed lamb ribs, velvety artichoke soup with a Scotch egg replacing the crouton, and a stellar Tagliatelle pasta dish with fresh crabmeat and a Calabrian pepper spiked sauce impossible to push away. Other gastronomic finds on property include strong, balanced cocktails at the Discovery lobby bar overlooking the main pool, and the Spotted Donkey Cantina, offering exclusive-to-the-property Herradura Double Barrel Reposado.

Not just “Desert”: Palo Verde, The Boulders’ fine dining hub, features colorful and comforting contemporary dishes executed with Mediterranean flair.

How their garden grows: The Boulders’ spa features the hotel’s in-house garden, which provides fresh fare for the property’s restaurants and can be an entertaining space in its own right.

Spiraling nautilus embellishments enhance The Boulders’ expansive spa, from the wet sauna to the outdoor yard, outfitted with a labyrinth, a teepee-enclosed meditation area, and a lovely herb garden which can be rented out for special occasions such as wedding rehearsal dinners. Use of native motifs in the spa is also tasteful and respectful. The signature “Turquoise” and “Desert Rose” treatments offering up just the right amount of local flavor throughout the various phases of the 88-minute experiences.

The entire staff, from the manager of the spa’s café, to the fitness instructors, to the receptionists and waitstaff at the Palo Verde restaurant, transcends attentive. It’s abundantly clear the people we met during our stay genuinely like working there. This enhances the genius design element of the property’s layout that makes one feel like he has the resort to himself, even with every room fully booked. The modus operandi translates perfectly to The Boulders Club, a semi-private country club for guests and local members. The Jay Morrish-designed complex hugs the Sonoran Desert with its 6,811 yard, par 72, championship North Course and 6,726 yard, par 71 championship South Course. Even with all the enchanting natural surroundings, a day at The Boulders Club is no walk in the park, with both courses considered the most demanding in the Southwest.

The North Course features spectacular views of landmark Black Mountain as the course meanders through the Boulders community. Both courses are built right into the desert foothills and offer breathtaking panoramas – including stunning boulder formations, striking Sonoran Desert sunsets and natural desert terrain. There’s even a touch of safari to the experience as players often spot a bobcat, rabbits, coyotes or a javelina while hunting for a wayward shot. The South Course is noted for the way natural desert attributes and the 18 holes almost blur together. Some holes that go right up into the boulder formations. During your round you will encounter the signature “Boulder Pile” and also “Rosie’s Rock”, two of the resort’s most recognizable rock formations.

While The Boulders puts Native American culture into a modern context, The Sanctuary, nestled in the tony Paradise Valley area, stands as a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright’s forward-thinking approach to converging modern lines with natural surroundings. The lodge retains the original character of the mid-20th century tennis academy, but also features contemporary Japanese, Korean, and Chinese accents.

The Sanctuary, situated on a former monarch butterfly sanctuary in the aptly named Paradise Valley, infuses Arizona’s natural attributes into its sleek Mid-Century Modern decor and exteriors.

Spacious guest casitas, suites, and larger private properties in neutral hues neatly fan out from the main lodge. The interiors of private areas and the spa (continuing the Zen/Asian theme) are calming, yet alluringly sleek. Private casita living rooms are offset with a pop of color from the custom-crafted butterfly rugs (as the resort name “Sanctuary” comes from the area’s status as a monarch butterfly sanctuary). The lofty bathrooms feature huge egg-shaped bathtubs and exotically fragrant amenities, while extended outdoor terraces tie together indoors and outdoors.

The Sanctuary’s spa is smaller than The Boulders’ but makes for a complete wellness experience with its airy fitness room, boutique, yoga/classroom, and cozy waiting area dressed in dark woods, citrusy oranges, and fresh lime green color accents. The instructors were well prepared to address the needs of fitness beginners and regulars alike. The resort also remains true to its original roots, with a nice array of tennis courts and respected tennis pros, some of whom date back to the time of the original tennis academy.

Although this urban oasis does not have its own golf course, The Sanctuary will have a reciprocity arrangement with sister design property Mountain Shadows, opening in February 2017. It’s Short Course, conceived by Forrest Richardson, ASGCA, is a delightful par-3 golf course defined by its elegant design and layout challenges propelling experienced golfers to control their distance and swing, and offering beginners the pleasure of bopping along each hole on wide-open greens. The layout is flanked with breathtaking views of Camelback and Mummy Mountains, along with the scenic desert surroundings.

Under the direction of Food Network star/Chef Beau MacMillan, Elements scores brilliantly by trading in the well-treded Southwest American/farm-to-table/locavore/organic vibe with a genre-defying menu that liberally integrates various Asian flavors and textures into dishes in a way that ingeniously parallels The Sanctuary’s visual appeal. Better still, there’s much to delight vegetarians, vegans, and those avoiding gluten. Like The Boulders’ Middle-Eastern approach, the kitchen here is not afraid of heat or spice. While the local favorite escargot pot pie made its return to the menu at press time, we found our culinary bliss with a zesty Thai-influenced calamari appetizer, as well as Szechwan green beans, Korean-seasoned Brussels sprouts, and Shishito peppers. Seasonal main courses of miso-laced salmon and short ribs, as well as the soup of the day (Butternut squash and red pepper soup with shrimp and cream and okra pieces) were also on point, and not excessively sweet or sauced.

XII offers the ultimate restaurant-within-a-restaurant set-up, ensuring an unforgettable corporate or private dining experience with Chef MacMillian and team. The amber and mahogany-hued space has scenic Camelback Mountain views in one direction and a retractable glass wall on the other, opening out to a Food Network-worthy show kitchen. A personalized, interactive journey with the chef can be arranged via concierge. Jade Bar, meanwhile, is a perfect hangout that balances lobby bar coziness with the hipness factor of a free-standing craft cocktail bar. The Asian theme continues with generous, sophisticated cocktails that suit the surroundings and well-travelled clientele.

Jason Asher, who won numerous accolades during his time as a principal bartender at The Sanctuary, along with wife and fellow bar professional Kailee Asher continue to excite the palates of locals and visitors with several new enterprises in Scottsdale worth integrating into even the most relaxation-focused or golf-driven Phoenix outings. Undertow, located in the basement of a former Jiffy Lube that’s now the Sip Coffee bar, proves good things can be found in small packages. The tight but clever little space features some decorative elements that would impress the designers of Disneyland’s original “Pirates of the Caribbean” attraction, including stormy special effects and a bounty of original and classic tiki drinks. Scottsdale restaurants such as Virtu and bars such as Undertow underscore that although there is plenty of fantastic Mexican and American comfort food to be found, chefs are pushing the envelope in terms of what can be created with local ingredients.

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