Pick up any showbiz biography about the 1930s and '40s, and odds are the actor or playwright or composer escaped to the Arizona desert in search of sun, health or seclusion. You can imagine Moss Hart hobnobbing with Cole Porter at a stylish hacienda or, later, Marilyn Monroe dipping her toe into a sparkling pool.
Some touches of that Phoenix survive, even thrive. As it happens, a few of the city's institutions are celebrating their 75th anniversaries this year. My husband, C.P., and I decided to taste what it must have been like when the town was just blooming, a traveler's discovery along the rail line between Chicago and Los Angeles. It was a different Phoenix from what we had experienced, because our previous trips here were centered on spring training and the Anaheim Angels.
Several resorts opened in 1929. The first, the Arizona Biltmore, became the playground of the rich and famous, among them Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra and Monroe. Another, the Wigwam Resort & Golf Club, is less known. It's also less expensive, so we tried it out. It was built as a lodge for Goodyear executives. (The Arizona soil was ideal for the cotton used in tires.) After 10 years as the company's retreat, the Wigwam opened in '29 as a public resort. Today it offers 331 rooms, two pools, three golf courses and a tennis center, and a major spa is planned for next year.
We visited in low season and reveled in our rate of $103 a night.
After flying into Sky Harbor International Airport one Friday morning, we drove our rental car to tiny Litchfield Park, covering what once had been a tiring horse-and-buggy trip. Today it's a 25-minute drive if the traffic is light. We were thankful it was.
After a $34-million expansion in 1987 and a recent $4.5-million renovation, the Wigwam retains an old-time charm. The lobby has the requisite Southwest style. The cozy fireplace lounge is an original building, and photos on display show that it looks much as it did decades ago.
The rooms are spread across the 463-acre property, mostly in one-story casitas. Ours was at the far end of the resort, so before settling in we decided to have lunch at Arizona Kitchen, the Wigwam's main restaurant.
We split a shrimp cocktail, served with cocktail sauce and pineapple salsa. My husband had the Cobb salad, with a smoked chile buttermilk dressing, and I ordered the wood-oven-fired flatbread, sort of a Southwest pizza with cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes and grilled veggies.
The food was flavorful and imaginative, and the menu had plenty of other choices. That's important, because the neighborhood eating options are limited largely to chain restaurants and drive-throughs. Anyone wanting more for dinner, as we did, should plan on driving into Phoenix. At least the Arizona Kitchen is satisfying, and for variety, the Wigwam has places to eat at the pool and golf course, plus a Starbucks cafe.
After lunch, we parked near our king room in one of the Wigwam's few two-story buildings. Though the resort is part of Starwood's Luxury Collection, it was not quite luxurious. Still, the "deluxe" room (a step up from a standard "superior" unit) was spacious, quiet and comfortable, and it had its own patio.
On vacation, paradise is often sought but proves fleeting.We found it that first afternoon. A friendly towel boy must have read the dissatisfaction on my face as I tried to relax by the main pool with its busy cabanas, deck-side restaurant, kiddie slide and cellphone chatter. He directed me to the secluded courtyard pool, and soon enough, C.P. and I were sitting under an umbrella, surrounded by 23 palm trees and dozens of empty chairs. We were thrilled, though I imagine at peak times both pools are packed.
After hours of solitude, we headed to the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix. The Orpheum opened as a talking-picture house in 1929. After a $14-million restoration, it's now a charming hall for theater, music and dance. This year it's the home of the Phoenix Symphony while Symphony Hall is renovated.
We happened upon a free performance by the symphony, a sampling of the season's offerings to entice the audience into buying tickets. All 1,364 seats were filled with people who gawked at the Spanish Baroque lobby and the auditorium's frescoes of a Spanish courtyard that bring the outdoors in. We sat back and savored the show.
The theater is in what Phoenix calls the Copper Square district, which claims almost 100 places to eat and drink. But keeping with our 75th-anniversary theme, we drove 20 minutes northeast to the Arizona Biltmore for dinner. At night, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired building makes an impressive sight, trimmed in white lights.
We walked through the lobby below the gold-leaf ceiling as a pianist played standards. The Biltmore has four restaurants; we chose Wright's, its signature spot.
With Frank Sinatra drifting from the sound system, we enjoyed the setting. Dinner was satisfying too. Because it was late, we decided on salad and starters. I enjoyed the porcini pasta with shrimp and buffalo mozzarella; C.P. had the seafood and chorizo pot pie. A cheese spiral served with the bread and a glass of wine for each of us topped off a pleasant evening.
Starting the day slowly
The next morning we brought Starbucks muffins and lattes back to the room and enjoyed them with the morning paper on our patio. Then we walked the grounds, and I momentarily wished we were golfers. The courses are clearly a draw at the Wigwam. Two were designed by famed golf-course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. Alas, on this day we were loafers, so we grabbed our books and headed back to the courtyard pool.
For lunch, we tried the main pool's Cabana Grill. It's a pleasant setting where a light mist is sprayed over the tables on hot days. We shared a turkey and bacon sandwich that was adequate. Most people were ordering drinks — fruit, alcoholic or both.
That afternoon we headed back into the city to another 75-year-old, the Heard Museum. The museum is Phoenix's gem, once the mansion where Dwight B. and Maie Bartlett Heard kept their Native American art and artifact collection.
Our first stop was the Sandra Day O'Connor Gallery, named for the Supreme Court justice and former president of the Heard board. It displays a comprehensive history of the museum and of the Heard family.
Tour books invariably mention the museum's amazing "katsina" doll collection. These aren't the kachina dolls you find at airport gift shops; they are the real deal, 250 in all, donated by Sen. Barry M. Goldwater and the Fred Harvey Co.
A must-see exhibit in the East Gallery chronicles "Indian School Days," the horrific practice in the early 20th century of removing Native American children from their homes and placing them in boarding schools so they could be assimilated into white culture.
We didn't have time to hit other 75th-anniversary celebrators, the Pueblo Grande Museum and the Royal Palms Resort and Spa. But we made time to eat at the original Tee Pee on Indian School Road. The Mexican restaurant is an institution of another sort, around since 1958, and a favorite of Anaheim Angels owner Arte Moreno, who hosted President Bush there in the spring.
It's just what you'd expect of Moreno, the low-key, Arizona-born multimillionaire whose first move as Angels owner was to lower beer prices. No pretense, all character. The room looks as if it still has its 1960s décor. The food is exceptionally good and reasonably priced.
For our final evening, we put aside our search for old Phoenix. The Arizona Diamondbacks were playing the San Francisco Giants that night, and there was no way we would miss a chance to see a game at Bank One Ballpark. It took us into the depths of downtown, reborn since the stadium opened in 1998.
I couldn't help but wonder who could have imagined 75 years ago that baseball would be played here in an enclosed, air-conditioned stadium?
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Budget for two
Expenses for this trip:
round trip $227.40
Wigwam Resort, two nights
with tax $253.16
Arizona Kitchen $51.13
Heard Museum $12.00
Pool Cabana Grill $22.22
Tee Pee $30.61
with service charge $69.15
Ballpark, theater parking $12.00
Final tab $767.10
Wigwam Resort & Golf Club, 300 Wigwam Blvd., Litchfield Park, AZ 85340; (800) 327-0396 or (623) 935-3811, http://www.wigwamresort.com .