by Lee Foster
Why is Phoenix-Scottsdale so dominant in the development of four and five star destination resorts?
The comparative judgment of dispassionate observers, such as AAA and Mobil, ranks more destination resorts from here in the higher categories than from any other region.
Competing for the traveler’s attention in this league are the grand resorts of Orlando, Hawaii, Palm Springs, the Caribbean, and the Mexico coastline.
I pondered this Arizona prominence while immersing myself in one of the newest examples of these resorts, known as the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort. Built on Gila River Indian land, the resort has all the amenities one would expect, with pool, golf course, spa, a fine dining restaurant, attractive desert landscaping, and a view of the Estrella Mountains, so gorgeous at sunset.
A special emphasis on the resort’s Pima and Maricopa Native American traditions is evident in décor and style. All the art work in the complex, from oil on canvas to murals, from basketry to ornate flutes, is done by the local Indians. Native American chef Sandy Garcia, from the Santa Clara pueblo, does cutting edge creations at the Kai restaurant. His watermelon soup suggests in a gustatory manner the visual joy of the watermelon peaks, the Sandias, in adjacent New Mexico. His lobster on fry bread, the traditional bread of the pueblos, shows both a bow to the traditional bread and an eagerness to enhance it with a new food component, the lobster, from the outside world. Throughout the resort, one senses this healthy respect for the Native American sensibility, which would make this a vacation place with an aesthetic edge, and a willingness to import all the components from the outside world, including a sophisticated spa, that a traveler is likely to ask for. It is helpful, for integrity of concept, that the Cultural Theme Manager of the resort is named Sara Bird-In-Ground. Every international traveler on the worldwide scene longs for a place that exists nowhere else. Wildhorse Pass Resort in Phoenix is one of those places. A visitor can even go, as I did, on an evening horse-drawn ride out to a remote location, enjoy a festive barbecue, and actually see wild horses on the open range.
Some answers to the question of Arizona supremacy in five-star resorts gradually appeared as I soaked up the scene:
*Phoenix-Scottsdale has a dependable, warm-winter climate, as do the other contenders. I use the word winter advisedly, because the downside of the local warmth is that the three summer months are torrid, though the air is dry. Air conditioning enables life to continue here.
But in the long winter season, October-May, the Valley of the Sun, as the area is aptly called, is a warm, dry-air antidote to any wind-chill factor that bedevils other regions. The sun shines here for 320 days a year.
*The area boasts the beauty of the desert, though it lacks the appeal of the sea. A desert jeep tour, almost a must here, can acquaint a traveler with Sonora desert cacti (saguaro, cholla, and ocotillo), some desert wildlife (perhaps pack rats and deer), and the mountainscapes (including a view of the Superstition Mountains and the inevitable story of the Lost Dutchman Mine, a tale of buried gold). All the resorts of the Phoenix/Scottsdale area benefit from the brilliant desert sunsets, which metamorphose in a beguiling range of pinks, reds, and oranges before expiring.
What some competing regions, such as Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Mexico’s coast, offer is the alluring presence of the sea.
*Several practical considerations have been decisive in favor of Phoenix-Scottsdale resort development.
The region got started early (in 1929 with the lavish Biltmore Hotel, designed by students of Frank Lloyd Wright). This hotel is an historic treasure to peruse. The delicate detail work in the buildings remains a standard against which the newer lodgings must define themselves.
The cities enjoy a strong transportation location, served by most major airlines, and hub for America West airline.
A density of great resorts now creates competition, with each entity striving to outdo the others. This translates into more distinguished-looking properties, better service, and stronger value for consumers.
The resorts have ample space to develop horizontally in this land-rich desert. Few places on the tourism earth are so blessed with ample horizontal opportunities at relatively affordable prices.
The Valley of the Sun offers plentiful sport facilities, including golf courses and tennis courts, plus specialty sports, from ballooning to river rafting.
Because these resort destinations are in the U.S., yet closer than Hawaii, they attract travelers who would rather not choose a foreign (meaning Mexican) resort, where the purity of the water, chanciness of medical delivery, and vagaries of the legal system might cause concern. People who don’t like to fly can also drive to Arizona.
BEYOND THE RESORTS: THE DESERT AND THE HEARD MUSEUM
Phoenix/Scottsdale is one of the most spread-out urban regions in the country. You can drive for miles, sometimes passing raw land, right in the heart of the urban area. Clusters of development occur at unpredictable places. Because the area is so spread out, you need a rental car to explore extensively on your own.
For the traveler with only finite time, two experiences should rank at the top of the list–a scenic desert excursion and a look at the celebrated Heard Museum.
The scenic desert excursions, organized by about 15 companies with trained guides driving their own jeeps, can offer you a quick immersion in the pleasures of the Sonora Desert. (You could also do an in-city desert introduction on your own at the Desert Botanical Garden.)
I rode into the desert with one such provider, only one among many. He pointed out the pale green bark of the palo verde tree, the huge saguaro cactus that is the signature plant of the area, and two rare Harris hawks that we happened upon. We also target shot with his pistols. Part conservationist and part cowboy-sportsman, with the motto “Sometimes out West it gets Western,” my guide said he had twice made citizen arrests of defacers who blast the protected saguaro cactus with their shotguns.
The Heard Museum should be seen by every traveler who has a serious interest in Southwest Indians. The museum shows the developing pageant of Southwest Native American cultures in all their diversity. Beyond excellent explanatory skills, the museum boasts the Southwest’s strongest collection of pottery, jewelry, and kachina dolls (the spirit dolls of the Hopi). All the ancient and modern artifacts, such as Navajo wool blankets, are seen in the context of the tribal development. Some of the museum’s collections may not be on display, due to renovation. This will allow a traveler sufficient excuse to return to the Phoenix-Scottsdale region.
Both for its great resorts, and for its non-resort attractions, Phoenix-Scottsdale enjoys an assured place on present and future tourism maps.
PHOENIX-SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA: IF YOU GO
The overall Arizona state tourism information address is: Arizona Office of Tourism, 1110 West Washington, Suite 155, Phoenix, AZ 85007, 866/275-5835, www.arizonaguide.com.
Some other useful addresses for the visitor are:
Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau, One Arizona Center, 400 E. Van Buren, Suite 600, Phoenix, AZ 85004, 602/254-6500, www.visitphoenix.com.
Getting to Phoenix-Scottsdale by air is relatively easy, with most of the major carriers serving the city and America West airline using it as a hub.
One new resort in the region is the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass, 5594 West Wild Horse Pass Boulevard, Phoenix, AZ 85070, 602/225-0100, www.wildhorsepassresort.com.
Personalized tours in the region out to the Apache Trail or off the beaten path can be organized by Detours, 480/633-9013, www.detoursaz.com.