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Gems of the Sonoran Desert
Spas, Restaurants and Attractions in Greater Phoenix

The lovable comedian, Jimmy "The Schnozzola" Durante, used to say, "Everyone wants to get into the act.” Suddenly hotels worth their five diamonds are opening spas. A treadmill and stationary bike in a basement room and a masseur on call just doesn"t cut it anymore. Why all the action on the resort spa front? Resort spas represent choice for vacationers who want to add a spa element to a traditional hotel stay. In addition to pursuing conventional forms of leisure like swimming, tennis, skiing, and golf, guests can schedule several hours a day of treatments and classes. And if they don"t feel like eating diet-style, nobody gives them grief for nibbling from the bread basket and ordering a cocktail, steak, fries, a bottle of wine and a rich dessert at the property"s premier dining room.

Male guests often seem to be more comfortable in the relatively private atmosphere of a hotel rather than at a stand-alone health and wellness center. Visitors at destination spas usually feel tied into spending entire days on location where community is an essential part of the experience. On this trip to Arizona we, like so many travelers, stayed at resorts, used the spa facilities and ventured out for meals and to see local attractions.

Every popular passion has its spiritual center. Spa fans have their Meccas, too. Both resort and destination spas have been heavily identified with the outdoor California lifestyle and lots of sunshine. But when the 2005 Mobil Travel Guide to America"s Best Resort & Hotel Spas scored its 71 selections with three, four or five stars, 11 of the remarkably fine ones in land-locked Arizona made the list.

Actually the tally in the Copper State is much higher. The Greater Phoenix area is home to 29 resort properties. Older Phoenix is the nucleus of the city and newer Scottsdale is where most of the big resorts are. To the visitor driving the roads, the cities seem like one vast indistinguishable sprawl. But as you approach each property to claim your reservation you become aware that the distinctions among them are not subtle. There wasn"t a resort, restaurant, day spa or attraction, which we visited, that didn"t have its own mark of individuality.

Four Seasons Resort, Scottsdale at Troon North

Four Seasons Resort

Here"s a sophisticated watering hole that epitomizes the best of the new breed of hideaways. Perched just above Scottsdale at Troon North beside the red rubble peaks of the High Sonoran Desert, the pueblo-style complex could be a mirage. It"s what the architect may have intended. Four Seasons Resort has carved an opulent oasis in the desert topography dominated by giant cacti and august views. Every accommodation features a spacious living/bedroom with a corner gas-burning fireplace, private outdoor space in the form of a terrace or patio, large dressing and bath areas and regional artifacts. Décor in other parts of the property is meant to remind you that you are in the Southwest without overstating the case. The outdoor seating area of Acacia restaurant overlooks an arbor decked with pink azaleas and is lit with amber glass and wrought iron sconces. Light fixtures in the main dining room are designed like street gas lamps. Ponderosa pine covers the ceiling. Some of the room dividers are made from pine and one is constructed from etched glass. A carved Mexican credenza makes a statement about the locale. Photos of cactus plants decorate the halls.

Because the housing is in casitas there is a disconnect from the main building and a sense of solitude when you are at your accommodation. You"d never know whether the property is full or whether you are one of the few guests in residence. The indoor and al fresco restaurants, lobby with its grand porte-cochere, spa, sun-bathing areas and heated 6,000 square-foot free-form lagoon style pool are Arizona-sized.

Among the many recent awards for its food, service and, spa Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale was named "Best for a Golfers" Getaway and Best for Family Vacations.” Troon North is synonymous with happy golfing. Guests have priority privileges at two golf club courses located just five minutes away by resort shuttle.

Mindful of the many golfers whose bodies need special attention, the spa features an 80-minute golf specialty massage incorporating stretching of the hips, arms, and shoulders, areas of the body where stress most occurs during a game. Golf balls are heated in the same way as stones and rolled down the back of the neck, the shoulders, and the spine to alleviate tension. Although I"m not a golfer the techniques used during this treatment were as therapeutic as a regular massage.

Other signature treatments include "Four Seasons in One,” an 80-minute body care session designed to allow the guest to experience winter, spring, summer and fall; and "The Pinnacle,” a healing facial, named for the nearby peak. "We strive to maintain a sense of place and to incorporate indigenous ingredients and Native-American practices,” said Director Lia Rowland. Treatments using local tribal practices and indigenous natural resources are green tea mud masque, willow herbal wrap, earth clay purifying body masque, stone facial and massage, Sonoran honey body polish, and chamomile aromatherapy wrap.

Hiking at Pinnacle Peak

The activities roster is a full one and duplicates the classes you might find at a destination spa. A one-week schedule includes fitness hikes to Pinnacle Peak, yogalates, aqua aerobics, yoga, fit ball, spinning, mat and golf pilates, stretch and tone, cardio kickboxing, power stretch, and healthy abs and back. Wine tasting, Southwestern cooking, canyoneering, rock climbing, horseback riding and star gazing are also offered. Telescopes and custom star charts for the Arizona sky have been placed in all suites and on the lobby lounge terrace.

Up to four activities a day, such as plays, baseball games, museums, hot-air ballooning, and local tours, are scheduled off-property.

Executive Chef Simon Purvis oversees the resort"s three restaurants and will also prepare spa food for health-conscious diners. Acacia is the star dining room and in season is open only for dinner. Among the appetizers the signature selection is chilled seafood pinnacle. The Alaskan king crab legs, jumbo shrimp, oysters, Maine lobster and ahi tuna served with a trio of sauces was more delicious and fresher than most we"ve sampled near the coast. The Maitre ‘D explained that the kitchen uses a very fine purveyor who ships choice seafood inland. Not a bite that reached our mouths was less than spectacular--an heirloom tomato salad, espresso roasted buffalo tenderloin with wild mushrooms and Rainer cherries, and the signature brandy-flamed rib-eye in cracked-pepper sauce. The creations that are whipped up by the pastry chef, like his warm chocolate soufflé, also send a wallop to the taste buds.

Four Seasons will appeal to all who appreciate nature and seek an activity-filled and luxurious vacation.

Four Seasons Resort, Scottsdale at Troon North, 10600E. Crescent Moon Drive, Scottsdale, AZ 85262. Tel. 480-513-5145. http://www.fourseasons.com/scottsdale

Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmount Scottsdale Princess

Willow Stream Spa at Fairmount Princess Resort

Along with Four Seasons, Willow Stream, The Spa at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, received a mention in Mobil"s Guide. The 44,000 square foot stand-alone spa building, constructed with materials from Havasu Canyon is the most recent addition to the 18-year old property. A waterfall linking three levels originates in the Canyon. Water is the unifying theme at all seven signature Willow Stream spas. The Havasupai Body Oasis Experience administered by a therapist begins beneath the waterfalls on the Oasis level. On their own guests use the warm falls for shoulder massages.

The building where two classes take place each day houses 25 treatment rooms, meditation gardens, a fitness facility, and a roof-top pool. Treatments fall into the categories of body, kur (cure), exfoliation, bath, massage, and golf experiences. Central to the experiences is the use of a variety products from several sources containing different essences. The fragrance from rosemary, one of the spa"s essential herbs, wafts through the building.

My nine-step, 90-minute, anti-aging marine energy facial was designed to "draw energy from the sea and to firm, tone, refine, and deeply hydrate the skin.” But beginning in the lounge area with a warm foot bath infused with eucalyptus, pine, and seawood salt whose scent clears the sinuses, the treatment is more than a facial. While your feet soak, you are served a flavored herbal tea. You move to a private area where lavender foot balm compresses are applied and exfoliation takes places. Applications of myrrh nail oil, satin arm lotion and warm hand mitts followed. Next came facial cleansing, toning, enzyme peel exfoliation, and pressure point and contouring massages with anti-stress oil. The procedure continued with a matrix masque in which the face was covered with the contents of a Willow Stream energy ampoule and a hot towel. Lastly caviar products from Kerstin Florian and lip balm were applied. The results—a natural healthy glow.

Unique to Willow Stream are some special and separate programs for women and men. "Learn to Spa” provides groups of girl friends with the opportunity to learn through an interactive hands-on approach how to do pedicures, manicures, hair care, baths and scrubs, facials, and make-up at home. For the guys, the spa launched an MVP Room where all services—pedicure, manicure and massage—are administered on a new multi-tasking Verona Royale massage bed. A men"s" treatment, the post game facial, includes cleansing, toning, a skin analysis, exfoliation, a warm barber towel wrap, a sports massage of the head, neck, shoulders, legs, hands, and feet. The men"s spa uniform at Willow Stream is shorts and a tee-shirt (yours to keep) rather than a robe.

Along with the Willow Stream Spa, which we used for a day visit, the Fairmount Scottsdale Princess with its many facilities and activities—croquet, lagoon fishing, and water volleyball--is ideal for a resort vacation.

The Fairmount Scottsdale Princess, 7575 E. Princess Drive, Scottsdale, AZ 85255. Tel 480-585-4848. http://www.fairmount.com

Sheraton Wild Pass Resort & Spa

Aji Spa

The fulfillment of the American dream by native tribes who built and manage casinos is an example of a Horatio Alger-type story gone wild. These entrepreneurs are making inroads in a business that meshes well with gaming, hospitality. The Apaches and Pueblos of New Mexico and the Seminoles of Florida all use Indian artwork in hotel design, inform their guests about their peoples" lore, history, music, ceremonies, crafts, and cooking, and provide interactive experiences.

In Phoenix, the Pimas and Maricopas of the Gila River Indian Community used the proceeds from their casino to open Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort, a 500-room resort. The reservation also houses the Whirlwind Golf Club with twin courses, the Koli Equestrian Center, and the Aji Spa. True to its name, wild horses—there are 1,500 of them—roam freely on the land. Guests are ferried to the casino and golf courses on a two and one-half mile man-made extension of the Gila River. For those who want to dig further into the history of the reservation, there is a museum, the Huhugam Heritage Center, with a replica of the nearby ruins of Casa Grande.

The duties of Ginger Sunbird Martin, the resort"s cultural concierge, are unique to hoteland. She leads tours of the property and explains the meaning of the many pieces of pottery, murals, straw baskets, and Native American words that are scattered throughout. Authenticity is crucial to the resort"s image. The magnificent porte cochere faces east as decreed by the forebears. When the property was in the planning stages a committee of tribal members oversaw issues such as décor, architectural elements, and menus. It continued to do so when the resort became fully operational. The most commanding feature in the entire premises is a domed atrium shaped like a traditional roundhouse whose ceiling is encircled with murals that tell the story of the history of the tribes.

Our pleasant suite reflected American Indian accents, such as brightly woven fabrics, clay pottery, and paintings of local images. From our terrace we could see children splashing down the curved waterslide.

J. Scott Seffern-Hartune, CFO of Saguaro Maintenance in Scottsdale, and his brother spent a summer afternoon at Aji Spa. Seffern-Hartune drove to Phoenix because the spa "had always been recommended to him.” Of his Watsu (pool-based shiatsu) he commented, "It took me to a place I didn"t know existed.” He had had a facial once before and decided to try it again, saying, "It made me smile a lot.”

Melissa Kremp, spa director, said that 40 % of the guests are men. Aji means sanctuary in the Pima language, she explained, as she toured the round building with a visitor. The shape represents the circle of life. Another symbol from Pima culture is the traditional arrowed home, Olas Ki, adjacent to the main spa building. It is used for meditation. In an irregular pool formed like the Gila River water flows repeatedly. Vanilla oil perfumes the air in the resting lounge and for ambiance there is a fire in the hearth. The sketches on the walls depict Pima legends and creation stories. Many of the body therapies, facials, and massages are derived from Native American healing methods and use local materials.

The signature treatment is the Blue Coyote Wrap based on a legend about a bluebird and a coyote. The body is covered with blue Azulene and then enclosed in a steam capsule. After 15 minutes the mud is rinsed off and the guest is massaged with cedar-sage oil on a heated table.

Two fitness classes are held each day.

Native farmers from the Gila River Indian Community working closely with consulting chef and chef de cuisine, Janos Wilder and Sandy Garcia, produce crops for the dishes that are served in the resort"s casual restaurant, Ko"Sin (kitchen)and its more formal one, Kai (seed). Familiar mainstays such as rack of lamb and buffalo tenderloin are prepared with a nod to both contemporary French and American Indian culinary traditions and incorporate native ingredients, such as smoked corn coulis, saguaro blossom syrup, cholla buds, and barbecue scarlet runner beans. A dinner at Ko"sin included a classic Caesar salad with heirloom tomato chutney whose greens, herbs and tomatoes came from farm to table with a quick detour through the kitchen. Some dishes are infused with Southwestern or Mexican flavors. A mole dusted veal chop with cornbread stuffing nods to spicy south-of-the-border cooking.

Sheraton Wild Horse Pass hosts many large conventions and meetings. During those periods it might be difficult to make restaurant reservations, check in and out lines are long, and other facilities may be crowded. For a tranquil stay, inquire in advance as to whether the resort expects a capacity crowd.

Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, 5594 West Wild Horse pass Blvd., Phoenix, AZ 85070. Tel. 520-796-8416. http://www.wildhorsepassresort.com

Phoenix-Scottsdale Restaurants

The Greater Phoenix area is crowded with talented, award-winning, and well-known chefs. American Indian, Southwestern, and Mexican flavors heavily influence the town"s menus. But you can also dine on outstanding food that draws on traditions from other parts of the world. Popular and highly-rated restaurants can be found in the area"s many hotels and resorts and in privately-owned settings.

Fiamma Trattoria

James Beard nominee and Esquire Chef of the Year Michael White received five stars from the Arizona Republic"s dining critic for his stewardship of the kitchen at Fiamma Trattoria. The newspaper cited Fiamma as Arizona"s best restaurant. Located at JAMES, Scottsdale"s newest boutique hotel and urban resort, which Travel + Leisuire called "America"s sexiest resort,” you enter the dining room by passing through the lobby lounge, JlBar, and down a set of broad shallow stairs. A young and hip local crowd makes merry each evening while drinking foaming mojitos and signature JAMES martinis spiked with elderberry syrup.

Architect Deborah Burke aimed for a "swank big city look” in the heart of Old Town Scottsdale and achieved it by using red and neutral tones. Her choice of materials was clever. Who would have guessed that the shaded dividers providing both a sense of spaciousness in the room and privacy for diners were not made from Plexiglas giving the illusion of glass, but from paper mache constructed with hardened brown paper bags. Lit from behind, the paper mache in varying thicknesses throws off several colors.

Fiamma, meaning "flame” in Italian is recognized for its house-made pastas and wood-oven pizzas featuring the freshest ingredients. But we found that the vegetable preparations—we could have created an entire dinner by ordering them-- were just as noteworthy. A trio of appetizers whose main components arrived straight from the farm was all prepared with imagination—artichoke hearts with caponata sauce; roasted beets, skinny grilled asparagus, and baby tomatoes tossed ricotta salata; and mushrooms dressed with sage, balsamico and parmigiano. Delicious foccacio wasn"t paired with ubiquitous olive oil for dunking, but with a novel spread, whipped ricotta cheese with olive oil and cracked pepper.

One mouthful of gemelli reveals why it is the most popular pasta on the menu. Corkscrew shaped noodles are topped with peas, and chopped San Daniele prosciutto and treviso radicchio and bathed in heavenly truffle butter. A special primero plati, frigola, whole grain Sardinian pasta that is like Israeli pearl couscous was blended with sundried tomato slivers, olives, cheese, and olive oil. Order to share, if you want to proceed further than the starter courses. If you make it to the secondo plati you"ll have several choices of pesci and carni.

In conversation with Michael White I complimented him on his outstanding sorbetto. Blackberry thyme was medicinal tasting, but the red berry, lemon, mango passion, and especially the cantaloupe were impossibly satisfying. Michael"s secret: use fruits with a very high sugar content. Pastry chef Elizabeth Katz"s crochette, powdered sugar-dusted amaretti beignets (donut holes) served with chocolate, raspberry and butterscotch dipping sauces get our raves, too.

Fiamma Trattoria, JAMES Hotel, 7353 East Indian School Road at Drinkwater Blvd., Scottsdale, AZ 85251. Tel. 480-308-1100. http://jameshotels.com


Sassi Restaurant

Sassi, an Italian restaurant on the outskirts of Scottsdale, seems like an illusion. The foothills of the McDowell Mountains are an unlikely setting for a Tuscan-style villa. Nevertheless, there it is surrounded by six scenic acres of Sonoran desert and under the shadow of Pinnacle Peak, one of the most prominent elevations in the range. From the restaurant, whose name in Italian means stone or rock, the views of the peak and of the Valley of the Sun are memorable. A $10 million renovation transformed the original structure, an old farmhouse, into a country estate. A tile roof, gurgling fountains, wrought iron chandeliers, massive fireplaces, stone walls, and brick floors give an accurate impression of a luxurious home in Southern Italy.

Choose the decor from casual to elegant and the space from intimate to grand that suits your mood and Sassi has a room with the appropriate ambiance. You can dine in the kitchen, on the garden terrace, in the library, wine cellar and main room, which is styled like a dining room.
Named best new restaurant of the year by Scottsdale magazine in 2004, the award proves that an establishment serving fine Italian cuisine is always a welcome addition to any area.

In the summertime menus are rotated every two weeks so that four-course meals from Lazio, Campagnia, Puglia, Calabria, Sardinia, and Sicily can be showcased. If you begin your evening in the bar with a pre-dinner drink, you can nibble on lovely spuntini—little bar snacks, such as chick pea fritters, mashed beans, and chicken liver bruschetta. But don"t oversnack and, if possible, assemble a group just as we did to eat family-style. From the fish, meat, and vegetable antipasti selections we chose artichoke caponata, which blended crispy baby artichokes with red peppers, capers, and onions. For a marinated eggplant dish the eggplant was grilled before being combined with pepperencino and mint. A frigola salad included goat cheese, sundried tomatoes, olives, citrus, and fresh herbs. All three were dressed extra virgin olive oil. Among the pastas, which are made in-house, spaghetti carbonara (coal miner"s style) with eggs and pancetta and orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe stood out. Wood grilled lamb chops over olive and artichoke ragu was tasty as was spit-roasted young hens accompanied by a summer vegetable torte. The must-order dessert is tartufo, a sphere of chocolate amaretto swirl gelato covered with Vahrhona chocolate and nestled in a puddle of Vahrhona sauce.

Sassi, 10455 East Pinnacle Peak Parkway, Scottsdale, AZ 85255. Tel 480-502-9095. http://www.sassi.biz


Desert Botanical Garden

Desert Botanical Gardens
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

The Arapaho Indians felt that "all plants are our brothers and sisters. They talk to us and if we listen, we can hear them.” Their belief is something to ponder while walking the trails of the Desert Botanical Garden. With a garden for a floor and the Arizona sky for a roof the open-air museum bristles with the life of the Sonoran Dessert. Home to one of the world"s most diverse and largest collections of desert flora, the Garden features more than 50,000 plants. Most of the displays are of cacti and succulents. Five thematic trails illustrate topics like people and plants of the Desert, desert living and conservation, wildflowers, and animals. Birds, squirrels, rabbits, lizards, and tortoises inhabit the gardens, too.

Desert Botanical Garden, 1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix AZ 85008. Tel. 580-941-1225. http://dbg.org

Other places worth visiting in Greater Phoenix are the zoo; Pueblo Grand, Heard, Phoenix Art, Scottsdale Contemporary Art and Scottsdale Historical Museums; and Frank Lloyd Wright"s Taliesin West.

Fall, 2005