Trading one desert for another can make for a profoundly relaxing vacation—if you do it right.
The sun rises at Sunset Beach, one of six pools at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. Th is unlikely oasis sits on 9,000 square feet of powdery white sand.
I am fully aware that in a time of stress, most people would choose a vacation destination that gives them some psychological distance from their current landscape. It’s a scenario that has given rise to a classic conceit for a thousand books and movies: An unhappy Manhattanite escapes with his friends for a cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado (City Slickers); a contentious divorce prompts a woman to leave her urban life and move to Italy, India and Indonesia to find herself (Eat, Pray, Love); and so on.
Guests of the Sisley-Paris spa are ushered into this private lounge.
In these kinds of times, I trade in one desert for another desert. To be fair, although I live in the Mojave, I spend most of my days and evenings on the Las Vegas Strip. In other words, as I was searching for a way to downshift, it made perfect sense that I would look for the desert environment I love, only with fewer laser light beams, rowdy bachelor parties and yard-long margarita bongs.
The ancient granite rocks that lend the Boulders Resort & Spa its name.
For this, I planned a retreat with my tween daughter to one of the most serene places I could remember, though I hadn’t visited in years: the Boulders Resort & Spa in Carefree, Ariz., followed by a stay in the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess about 30 minutes south. The rationale: that we would forsake electronics for hiking and solitude in the Sonoran Desert, followed by a gentle reintegration into the resort crowd before returning home.
A Boulders guest room, with decor inspired by the Hohokam culture.
My decision to stay at the Boulders was based on a romantic memory of its remoteness. The last time I was here, I remember being surrounded by towering saguaro cactus sentries under a starry sky, the scent of mesquite smoke in the air. Since that time, urban sprawl has crept north to Carefree, but in many comforting ways, the 1,300 acres of the Boulders haven’t changed. Named for the 2 million-year-old granite boulders into which the resort is built, its beamed adobe casitas and villas are unobtrusively tucked into natural spaces and surround a 36-hole championship golf course. The resort, now part of Hilton Hotels’ Curio Collection, underwent a major renovation just a few years ago, creating big, open-floor plan bathrooms and incorporating elements, such as inlaid wood headboards, inspired by the land’s original residents—the Hohokam culture. The effect is the update luxury hotel guests would want with even greater adherence to the history of the place. We spent our days here exploring craggy rocks and walking the pathways. (It’s a walk to reach your casita from the lodge, or one can easily opt instead to hitch a ride on one of the golf carts parked at the resort’s adobe main lodge for this purpose.) Despite the developments outside its gates, our time was refreshingly free of external stimuli, except for a lone bobcat we encountered on a trail. “Oh, that’s Bob,” said one of the valets when we told him of our discovery. “He’s OK.”
Pollo adobado at Fairmont’s La Hacienda
I didn’t fully understand the magic of the Sonoran Desert landscape, and the Boulders itself, until we booked an early morning desert tour with Brandy Nickles (bookable through the resort), a naturalist who showed us the grinding pans hollowed into cave floors by prehistoric people; taught us how to calculate the age of a saguaro (many are 400-plus years old); introduced us to birds (including the cactus wren, the state bird, who has a penchant for building its nests from recycled garbage near the resort’s VIP parking area); split open a barrel cactus fruit for us to try; and patiently answered approximately 1,000 questions from a captivated 13-yearold. This was the desert experience I had longed for.
Our Sonoran Desert wilderness exploration over, we drove south to the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, a palatial Spanish colonial-style resort spread out over 64 acres and adjacent to the TPC Scottsdale championship course, all set against the drama of the McDowell Mountains. Off came our hiking boots and on went swimsuits so we could spend the next couple of days lying around the resort’s many swimming pools, including one massive and unlikely (but fabulous) white sand beach. Th e resort is an easy base for exploring Old Town Scottsdale, dining around Scottsdale’s white-hot restaurant scene (James Beard Award winner Chris Bianco’s Pizzeria Bianco and Tratto have achieved legend status, and the award-winning modern Italian Fat Ox was a favorite), and taking in a baseball game at Chase Field, all of which we did.
But the beauty of this resort is that, should you really need to relax, you could check in and never leave. The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess has been adding to its glamour, even making substantial changes during a pandemic quiet period. Its Hacienda restaurant, in collaboration with Richard Sandoval, renovated and added a magical new patio lit by twinkling overhead lights (you could make a meal of margaritas and one of five guacamoles made tableside). Its rooms, renovated in 2019 with a clean, modern palette, will be joined by 119 brand-new “Privado Villas,” a new class of completely private villas and suites, that replace its current casitas (construction is underway). But perhaps my best window into this resort’s special skill for administering luxury was entering its new Sisley-Paris spa, the largest in the global Sisley collection— London and St-Tropez included— inside the resort’s massive Well & Being spa. I arrived in the (very Parisian) private check-in lounge where bubbly is poured for guests and was escorted in my special Sisley robe to the private sanctum that is Sisley’s own suite of treatment rooms. A knowledgeable esthetician worked his magic on my face with Sisley’s Black Rose line, massaging out the stress that had somehow manifested on my face, and sent me off to relax on the spa’s rooftop deck. Aft er six days of exploring, climbing, learning, swimming and spa-ing, we returned to our own desert, completely renewed.