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Oases of Luxury in the Desert

The terrain surrounding Phoenix may be rugged, but a stay at one of the area's premier resorts is quite the opposite

October 06, 2002|JAMES T. YENCKEL

PHOENIX — When you check into a luxury resort, you don't expect to find a notice in your room cautioning you about rattlesnake encounters. As a guest with my wife, Sandy, at the new Four Seasons Resort in the desert just north of Phoenix, I watched where I stepped.

In this part of the country, the good life comes with a drawback or two.

I never did see a snake--although lots of rabbits hopped just beyond my feet as I strolled to the pool each morning. But I did suffer a bad scrape when I inattentively brushed too close to a tall cactus. And that's how I learned how far some luxury resorts here will go to pamper a guest.

I thought nothing of my wound, which I sustained while entering the Crescent Moon cafe for breakfast. But a waitress, noting a bit of blood on my arm, called security. And, lo, as my melon was served, along came a medic toting his black bag. As the whole room looked on, my arm was cleansed with antiseptic and soothed with medicinal lotion.

Ain't the rich life grand?

Not that this is the life I customarily lead. But fate has smiled on me sporadically in recent years, allowing me to stay at four of the finest resorts in the greater Phoenix area--which means, by most preference polls, among the finest anywhere in the country. Besides the Four Seasons, they are the Boulders, the Phoenician and the Royal Palms.

Each of the resorts I've stayed in is very different, but happily, each delivers on its promise of elegance and indulgence: attentive service (I never waited for a valet to park my car or return it), fine dining, spacious rooms, marble baths, glorious views, soothing spa treatments. If you have the wherewithal--a lot of wherewithal--or are splurging on a special occasion, go for it.

Graced with a near-perfect climate from fall to spring, the Phoenix area has emerged as a major resort capital. Vacationers fleeing the chill of winter come here to swim, golf, play tennis, hike, horseback ride or just relax under a usually warm, sunny sky.

To be honest, I'm normally a budget-conscious traveler. Resorts cater mostly to golfers and tennis players, and I'm neither. But when my wife's employer dispatched her to each of these places, I was happy to tag along. Even with free lodging, though, I still managed to spend a bundle on meals and recreation.

We stayed first at the Boulders, and after that trip I was hooked. But would I spend my own money? I ponder this each time I return to Phoenix. And my best answer is, "Yes, I would be tempted." I like living rich, if only for a few days.

So here is a peek into Phoenix's finest vacation retreats.

The Boulders

Families of quail paraded among the desert cactus, and bushy cottontail rabbits scampered everywhere. Lucky them. They live year-round at the Boulders, a posh resort that rates at the top of nearly every list of best places to stay in America.

On these trips, my wife worked and I idled. At the Boulders I was up at dawn each day. I stepped from our adobe casita onto our private patio. Within minutes the first quail or rabbit would appear, darting among the cactus. The Boulders fits as gracefully into its rugged but lovely setting as my early-morning visitors did.

The resort covers 1,300 acres of Sonoran Desert foothills in the suburb of Carefree, about 33 miles north of the Phoenix airport, and much of the land is untouched. Our patio faced a natural desert-scape of cactus, mesquite, odd-looking paloverde trees and waxy jojoba bushes. The fragrance of the desert filled our room.

Lodging is in 160 spacious and cozy Southwestern-style casitas scattered among the soaring granite boulders that give the resort its name. The buildings, painted in the same pinkish color as the rocks, are all but hidden in the natural shrubbery. Southwestern is the theme throughout; a giant terra-cotta pot stood above our room's wood-burning fireplace, and rough log beams called vigas crossed the ceiling. The room was more than big enough for two overstuffed leather chairs, a wet bar, a desk and two six-drawer dressers. A walk-in closet held two fluffy robes. The Boulders justly calls its tiled bathrooms "oversize." Ours was larger than many hotel rooms I've stayed in, and abundantly supplied with amenities.

The Boulders has two 18-hole golf courses and six tennis courts, but I found plenty of other things to do. I jogged one morning to explore the grounds and exited through the guarded gate into the community of Carefree. Enviable homes dot the steep, winding streets, which have names like Languid, Meander and Leisure. The resort boasts separate pools for loungers and lap swimmers; I often had the lap pool to myself.

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