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The airplane begins its descent into Phoenix as the guy to my right folds a newspaper into his lap, leans in close, and asks, "What brings you to town?" "Taking a little getaway," I say.
Now. That would be the middle of August. During a heat wave. A week when the only cities on the planet hotter than Phoenix are Baghdad and Riyadh. Maybe I misunderstood my fellow traveler. Maybe he meant, Get away. Now!
After all, most people are fleeing Phoenix this time of year. Sure, a desert vacation makes sense in winter, when you’re waterlogged and flu-worn, but in the summer even die-hard sun worshipers keep their distance. How does this play out for all those swanky resorts, spas, and golf courses in the tourism powerhouse of Phoenix-Scottsdale? It’s simple economics, really. Fewer visitors equals more vacancies and therefore cheaper rates. Resorts drop their prices by as much as two-thirds in July and August, and with rooms at the ultraluxury properties hovering around $600 a night in winter, this means one thing: Five Diamond living at Two Diamond prices.
Thoreau said luxury hinders the elevation of mankind. Clearly, they didn’t serve mojitos like these at Walden Pond. Rum, mint, sugar, lime, and ice—that’s all it was. Yet sipping a midday mojito in my private poolside cabana at Phoenix’s Royal Palms Resort and Spa was an important first step for me, a rite of passage. I surveyed my surroundings: antique Tuscan fountains, colonnaded courtyards, wall-to-wall Spanish tile, fragrant citrus groves, and stone walkways that led to terra-cotta villas like the one the president stays in when he comes to town. Here I was, a Two Diamond guy reveling in the playground of the elite—and doing it within my budget. I could actually afford this. I’d never felt more elevated in my life.
But all that pampering can take some getting used to. For starters, I was addressed as "Mr. Padova" so many times in five days that I began to feel like a wildly popular fourth-grade teacher. And your luggage—don’t touch it. At one resort I made the mistake of reaching for my suitcase before the valet stopped me in my tracks. "Mr. Padova, please step away from the bags." Lastly, never ask what time the pool closes. When you’re paying $600 a night (or in my case, $200), it never closes.
Good thing, too. Because the moment you leave the cool conditioned air of your
1,200-square-foot suite, you’ll be slapped in the face with 100-plus degrees of Sonoran Desert sizzle that will send you cannonballing into the nearest glass of Evian. Make no mistake about it, submerging your body in water is the most popular activity for summer resortgoers.
"This time of year, it’s all about the pool," says Joe Miller, a man with one of the coolest job titles in hospitality. As director of water features at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa, Miller oversees a two-acre water playground that includes 10 interconnected pools, more than three dozen waterfalls, a sandy beach, two aqua volleyball courts, and a threestory corkscrew waterslide.
"When it’s this hot, the pool’s not just an activity center but the focal point of the resort," Miller says. "I’ve seen families eat all three meals out here. There’s no reason to leave." On Saturdays during the summer, the beach pool hosts dive-in movie night. Resort guests recline on rafts and loll beneath a jumbo movie screen that plays family-friendly flicks.
The martini glass–shaped Oh pool in downtown Scottsdale’s Hotel Valley Ho stirs up a different kind of movie magic. The midcentury motor lodge has been revamped (to the tune of $80 million) in an effort to return it to its Hollywood heyday when Bing Crosby, Janet Leigh, Cary Grant, and Natalie Wood stayed here. (It must be working: Apparently Jamie Foxx is known to drop by.) Even in 107-degree heat, everyone looks cool, calm, and composed.
In fact, you can learn a lot about a hotel by dipping your toes into its pool. The Mondrian’s Play Pool, with its underwater sound system, smacks of new urban chic: sleek, sophisticated, yet not afraid to take the party from the nightclub to the hot tub. The infinity pool at the Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa is contemporary and discreet, a place where people speak in whispers and anyone hidden underneath those oversize hats and sunglasses could be a celebrity. The pool at the Four Seasons Resort in North Scottsdale regales guests with fruit kebabs, chilled mintscented towels, and the services of a sunglass butler whose sole task is to remove smudges from your Ray-Bans.
Then there’s the Phoenician. It has nine pools, but that’s just the beginning. Spread out over 250 acres at the south- eastern base of Camelback Mountain, the Scottsdale megaresort oozes with an unsubtle opulence that would make Thoreau flip over in his grave: 650 rooms, 12 restaurants, a $25 million art collection, a two-acre cactus garden, a
koi-stocked lagoon, a worldclass spa, a dozen tennis courts, three golf courses, an ice cream parlor, a bakery, 45,000 bottles of wine, 11 Steinway grand pianos, Egyptian cotton towels and choice Italian linens in every room, and enough polished Carrara marble to fill two quarries the size of Camelback Mountain.
But it’s the service that floored me. I got a taste of it when I checked into the Phoenician’s new 60-room Canyon Suites for 48 hours of supreme pampering.
The fawning begins days before you arrive when your personal "ambassador" contacts you. Tee times, dinner reservations, spa appointments, chauffeur service, a hot air balloon ride—whatever you could possibly want—your ambassador will arrange it. Then you get there. Your wake-up call? A gentle knock at the door and a cup of coffee poured from a sterling silver pot. Turndown service? Belgian chocolates and a bath drawn with eucalyptus-and-grapefruit- infused salts. Directions to the museum? Printed on heavy stock paper and placed on your driver’s seat, along with two bottles of spring water. One night I asked my ambassador where I could find a sewing kit. Minutes later a seamstress appeared at the door.
Pick any weekend in February or March and this royal treatment comes with a price tag of $850 a night. I paid a fraction of that. Which isn’t pocket change, I realize, but when you’re on your balcony watching the last flashes of daylight cling to crimson canyon walls and the desert sky come alive with more stars than you’ve ever seen—it feels like a bargain.
Until my last day in Arizona I hadn’t paid much attention to the "Spa" portion of "Resort and Spa." I noticed it tacked onto the names of Phoenix-Scottsdale’s glitziest properties but thought, I’m already relaxed to the point of anesthesia. Wouldn’t having a stranger douse me in tangerine oil and roll warm river stones over my back to a sound track of trickling water be—I don’t know—overkill?
I pondered this as I floated in the Watsu pool at the Sanctuary Spa, a wellness center tucked away on the northern slope of Camelback Mountain. "Weightlessness," the receptionist had said. "There’s nothing like it." She was right.
The terry cloth robe and matching slippers I changed into made me look like one of those people in the travel brochures, the ones with smiles seared to their bronzed, ageless faces. The ones who, up until a few days ago, I thought didn’t really exist. I remembered something else Thoreau said: "The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling."
Then a door opened.
"Mr. Padova, we’re ready for you now."
The price is right* HIGH SEASON HOT SEASON
Four Seasons Resort
Scottsdale at Troon North
(888) 207-9696 $565 $149
Royal Palms Resort and Spa
(800) 672-6011 $459 $169
Hyatt Regency Spa and Resort at Gainey Ranch
(480) 444-1234 $539 $175
(800) 888-8234 $759 $219
Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa
(800) 245-2051 $520 $235
Canyon Suites at the Phoenician
(800) 888-8234 $850 $349
Pick up the Arizona & New Mexico TourBook and Phoenix East map. The AAA Travel Agency can help you book your vacation to these and other resorts: Go to AAA.com. For more information, contact the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors
Bureau: (800) 782-1117, scottsdalecvb.com, and the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau: (877) 225-5749, visitphoenix.com.