The stark design here makes for an Asian-inspired retreat with a streak of rocker rebellion, a sort of desert Zen-meets-Led Zeppelin ambience. The crowd is equally eclectic, a few older couples peacefully coexisting with a steady stream of young guests in their best slacker-wear. Nothing like watching a couple in ripped jeans and thrift-store T-shirts check into a $330-a-night room.
Hollywood celebrities have long been part of the scene in Paradise Valley, a town of 14,000 sandwiched between Phoenix and Scottsdale. Sydney Chaplin, Charlie's son, was one of the property's original investors in the 1950s. The resort, known as John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch until the 1990s, changed owners and fully reopened last year as an uber-modern oasis of cool.
Some guests are drawn by the bar, Jade, and the 12,000-square-foot spa. They're small but smartly designed, with an intimacy and exclusivity that one might expect at a high-end retreat.
Despite the buzz about Sanctuary's trendiness, most guests still prefer traditional decor, a resort spokeswoman told me after I checked out. For these folks the resort offers 74 less expensive "mountain casitas," older concrete-block buildings refurbished in Southwestern motifs.
My mountain casita had a dynamite view, but its Asian accents felt contrived. The black Frette bathrobe and complimentary bamboo slippers made me look like a wayward Buddhist monk.
Others come for the 24 "spa casitas" best described as bomb-shelter chic. With their clean lines and smooth surfaces, the rooms have an artful, industrial look. Polished concrete floors and counters are offset by eye-popping fabrics -- cobalt blue and sunflower yellow in the unit I saw. Sheer drapery hangs like lingerie.
For all the emphasis on style, the spa casitas have substance too: generous space (650 to 850 square feet), floor-to-ceiling windows, fireplaces and outdoor Philippe Starck-designed bathtubs.
What sets Sanctuary apart most, though, is the setting, below the red-rock humps of Camelback Mountain. The nighttime view from Elements, the resort's window-wrapped restaurant, was a stunner. The lighted infinity pool below glittered baby blue, and in the distance, the sky glowed pink over Paradise Valley.
Resort and Spa
Forget a thrill ride in a sexy sports car. The Westin Kierland, opened last November, is the Volvo station wagon of this group -- a safe choice tailored to upscale, mainstream tastes.
The emphasis here is functionality over fun. My room, one of 735, had the comfortable, contemporary styling typical of the Westin chain.
Quality bed? Check.
Plush towels? Check.
Style? Nothing as ostentatious as Desert Ridge or as imaginative as Sanctuary -- which is a good thing to some.
The most noteworthy detail of my room was the carpeting, cleverly patterned to mimic golden ridges of wind-swept sand. It was a modest nod to nature in a room where all the furniture was oriented around the TV rather than the landscape beyond the balcony door.
Builders of this Westin, though, wanted the hotel to impart a sense of Arizona's land and people, so in the public spaces you'll find Western bronzes, landscape paintings and 19th century photographs of Geronimo and other historic figures.
Much of the year, business travelers and groups account for about three-fourths of the hotel's clientele, so it's not surprising the place can feel like a sterile corporate lobby. But leisure travelers predominate in summer. Many are families that take advantage of two large pools, a 110-foot waterslide and 900-foot lazy river, 27 holes of golf, a volleyball court, a full-service spa and a nearby shopping center.
The much-hyped nuevo Latino restaurant Deseo, developed by James Beard-honored chef Douglas Rodriguez, delivered a fine (if expensive) combination plate: beef churrasco paired with delicate Cuban pork tenderloin in a black bean sauce and avocado chutney.
There wasn't anything particularly objectionable about the place. It just didn't stand out among the others. Desert Ridge had a better pool complex, Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain boasted a more interesting design and better views, and the last hotel in the group -- an unassuming Sheraton -- had the most soul.
Sheraton Wild Horse Pass
Resort and Spa
This year-old hotel was the surprise of the trip, more akin to the Little Engine That Could than to any automobile. The rough-around-the-edges setting on the 600-square-mile Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix make it the kind of place that not everyone will love, but I was won over even before I arrived.
One week before my trip, a hotel representative -- unaware I work for The Times -- called me at home to double-check my date of arrival, nightly rate and room preferences (nonsmoking, king bed, high floor).
Upon my arrival, a valet politely asked for my name, sped my suitcase to the reception desk and got my check-in started. By the time I caught up, a clerk had room keys ready -- no waiting.