Fairmont Scottsdale Princess
This large spread manages to be an astounding desert resort without screaming, "Aren't we an astounding desert resort?"
Take the spa, called Willow Stream. Remarkable. Inspired by the Grand Canyon and its Havasu Falls, cascades tumble down its multiple levels. "Just the power they have, in the middle of nowhere -- it's breathtaking," spa director Jill Eisenhut says of the originals. "We tried to depict that feeling." There's more. Briefly: If Troon North is heaven for serious golfers, Willow Stream Spa is no less for serious spa-sters. (Both those suppositions are, naturally, open to debate -- but not in this paragraph.) The resort's La Hacienda regularly appears with Chicago's Topolobampo at the top among upscale Mexican restaurants in the U.S. Just added: Bourbon Steak, from award-winning chef Michael Mina.
Kids? Here's a clue: Across from the adult check-in area is one for kids -- yes, for kids -- with a mini-staircase to ease communication with the desk clerk. The big people tell the little ones about such diversions as a covered sandbox, four-story water slides and catch-and-release fishing lagoon.
Bigger kids? The TPC Stadium club, one of two on-site 18-hole courses, is home to the FBR Open, renowned among PGA tour events for its unique tolerance for, um, fan participation (that is, noise).
Five pools. A "fragrance garden" (fragrance seasonal). There's a resident desert tortoise . . . but explorers will find ungroomed desert "within five minutes of leaving the parking lot," notes a spokeswoman.
The rooms? Really, really nice.
Downside: It's a little away from the action. Minor.
Favorite spa treatment: Desert Moonlight Massage, $179.
7575 E. Princess Dr.; 800-344-4758;http://www.fairmont.com/Scottsdale . 651 rooms, including suites 25 suites and 125 casitas; rates from $459.
Westin Kierland Resort & Spa
There's nothing wrong with this hotel other than it feels like it got lost on its way to downtown Phoenix. Or downtown Dallas. Or suburban Kansas City.
This is an 11-story, 732-room (plus suites, plus casitas) godzilla of a hotel in low-rise country that, try as it does (and it really tries), can't escape the sense it's a convention hotel with privileges, not the resuscitative "resort & spa" the name suggests.
Businesspeople who haul the spouse and kids along will make the family happy. The requisites are in place: pools, water slides, a "lazy river," Kids Club, Teen Lounge, spa. But.
The overwhelmingly marble lobby feels about as leisurely as the Sears Tower concourse. Yes, you can see golf though the lobby glass -- lots of bunkers glare menacingly on the finishing hole of the Acacia nine. But.
There's even a designated "director of fun": cannonball contests, watermelon-eating contests.
Of course, adjacent to the hotel is Kierland Commons: 70 "high-end" retailers, along with restaurants everyone comes to Scottsdale to enjoy: Morton's, the Cheesecake Factory, Tommy Bahama's Tropical Cafe and Emporium . . .
The three nines of golf are here. Also here: air-conditioned golf carts. Explains a spokeswoman: "Keeps you cool on the back of the neck when you're dripping sweat."
There are hints of Arizona -- a narrow Grand Canyon mural over a lobby bar, that sort of thing -- but no real sense of place.
The signature restaurant is the much-praised Deseo (nuevo Latino). The creative Agave spa offers such treatments as a Gingerbread Massage: "When you're all through, you get a gingerbread cookie." A bagpiper pipes in the sunset.
A first-rate hotel. Plenty of parking. Pet friendly. If you're stuck in a meeting, the spouse and kids won't complain. If you're on expense account, treat 'em all to steaks at Morton's. There it is.
Favorite spa treatment: Ice Cream Pedicure (you pick the flavor), from $95.
6902 E. Greenway Pkwy.; 800-354-5892;http://www.kierlandresort.com . 732 rooms, plus 55 suites and 32 casitas; rates from $369.
FireSky Resort & Spa
Most convenient of this collection to downtown Scottsdale, the former SunBurst (opened in 1961 as the Executive House) was sold and in 2005 became the Caleo Resort & Spa; Kimpton Hotels, noted for breathing style into other people's dowdy properties, took it over later that year and in spring 2007 re-introduced it as FireSky.
So it's evolved, from a classic (then faded) throwback Southwest property (desk clerks in cowboy hats?) to a classically Kimpton Southwest property with emphatic dashes of non-terra cotta color, a little healthy quirkiness (lightweight cheetah-pattern lounging robes instead of white terry) and an attitude Kimpton fans recognize.
"We're not out to be the most expensive hotels," says a rep, quoting the company mantra. "We want to be the most loved."
That includes lovable touches like free shuttles into town and back, free afternoon wine-tastings, free other things.
They're also extremely pet friendly. If you don't bring your own animal, your room's work desk will get a live goldfish. Dogs and cats are offered facials. True. The goldfish are not.
"If you bring an elephant . . ."
The changeover renovations are largely complete; the rooms already have their flat-screen TVs and other contemporary touches. The main pool is just fine; a second pool has a sand (though surfless) beach. Firepits (a Scottsdale standard) are all over the place here but not all merely decorative: Guests, on request, are provided the makings of s'mores. Lovable.
The spa (products by Jurlique) is small but interesting; treatment rooms are more Victorian than health-clubby. Golf? Not here.
What is here? A nice place to sleep and relax and spend a little downtime between bursts of busy-ness -- but for most guests and unlike many other properties in this list, Scottsdale is the destination and FireSky is the base.
Favorite spa treatment: Fabulous Furry Facial/Pooch Smooch (for your dog), $70.
4925 N. Scottsdale Rd.; 480-945-7666;http://www.fireskyresort.com . 204 rooms, including eight suites; rates from $379.
Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North
It's technically in "Scottsdale" but a good 20 miles from urbanity, so if you're coming to Arizona for baseball and rowdy fun you might want to consider something not quite this close to Utah.
For others, of course, that's a strength.
"If you want the desert," says a spokeswoman, "you're going to get it here."
In many ways, this is the un-Phoenician: We're talking intimate and luxurious, not in-your-face opulent. (Both Travel+Leisure and Zagat call this Arizona's best hotel.) Instead of crystal in the lobby, the light fixtures look like wagon wheels, sort of.
All rooms, recently renovated (flat-screen TVs, of course), have working fireplaces. Pinnacle Peak is less than a mile away; a trail leads from the resort, through the desert, to the base, and hiking the hike (escorted or not) is encouraged. This place doesn't try to deny the desert; it embraces it. Suites have telescopes so guests can scan the clear desert night-time sky.
Two sizable pools, one of them for adults only. Best kids' game room (air hockey, foosball, big-screen video-game wall) of the group.
This is a prime golf destination: The two Troon North golf courses, reconfigured last fall (to rave reviews), are legendary; though separate from the resort (it's a "partnership"), tee times are set aside for guests and all but guaranteed.
The spa is smallish but sweet; the essentials are here. Opening in time for spring training: a new featured restaurant (Talavera) and bar. In sum: This is prime Four Seasons, with the comforts and service Four Seasons loyalists expect.
Favorite spa treatment: Golfers Massage (kneading of tight muscles with warm golf balls), $155.
10600 E. Crescent Moon Dr.; 480-515-5700;http://www.fourseasons.com . 210 rooms and suites; rates from $555.
You're greeted in the lobby by crystal chandeliers. The intent is to impress, and the Phoenician succeeds -- even before the concierge offers the self-guided audio tour of the property's $25 million (their estimate) art collection.
The resort has nine pools and 12 tennis courts, one of the courts regulation Wimbledon-worthy grass. Opened in 1988 and now one of Starwood's Luxury Collection, a complete renovation of rooms and suites (all now have at least one 42-inch flat-screen TV, plus tweaked decor) has attempted to reinforce its sense of place (the desert, after all) as well as the property's position among the nation's finest spa-resorts.
Marie Elaine's, its featured restaurant (modern French, not cheap), is a knockout, including the view. The Phoenician has the near-standard three nines of golf, on-site, to mix and match. The spa (at 22,000 square feet) is complete, though less a showplace than some others in this group.
In its Canyon Suites, an exquisite boutique hotel within the hotel, you can get a "therapeutic turndown." Which is: "We'll come in at night," explains a spokeswoman, "and offer a pitcher of chilled water and then draw your bath with a variety of soothing salts . . . "
Nice feature: an expansive cactus garden featuring 350 varieties from around the world. Another: a 165-foot water slide and other kiddie concessions -- but this is primarily a place for grown-ups intent on dazzling (and/or seducing) other grown-ups.
Favorite spa treatment: Myoxy Caviar Facial, $250.
6000 E. Camelback Rd.; 800-888-8234;http://www.thephoenician.com . 647 rooms and suites; rates from $750.
Camelback Inn: A JW Marriott Resort & Spa
Part of the fun of staying here is imagining what Scottsdale was like when the resort opened in 1936. For a generation and more, this was a prime hangout for movie stars and others of means.
It's grown under Bill Marriott from 118 rooms to today's 453 -- yet the basic concept is unchanged: adobe-style casitas scattered about the irregular desert terrain between Camelback and Mummy Mountains. "You're integrating the Southwest, the desert," says a spokesman.
And, oh yeah, they're integrating significant construction. It will be April or May before a new main building (including restaurants, one the latest in the BLT Steakhouse group), ballroom and other elements are ready to go. Guests in most casitas will be oblivious to what's going on -- hilly terrain can do wonders to deflect visual nuisance -- but still. Watch for discounted rates.
The spa -- revolutionary when it opened in the 1980s, updated four years ago -- remains best known for its lap pool (with mountain views) and the attached Sprouts healthy-foods restaurant. Its facilities are low on frills but competitive.
There's one other pool in operation, and at this writing one other restaurant, a casual one (burgers, etc.) alongside that pool; compensating is the relative nearness to downtown Scottsdale eateries.
Guests have access to the nearby Camelback Golf Club.
Regulars who love this place will deal with the construction the way good parents unconditionally love their sometimes-wayward teens. Newcomers will have to adjust. The management is certain that will be easy.
"This was a quality five-diamond resort from Day 1," says the spokesman, "and it continues to be."
Favorite spa treatment: Adobe Clay Purification Wrap, $135.
5402 E. Lincoln Dr.; 800-24-CAMEL;http://www.camelbackinn.com . 453 casitas, including 27 suites; rates from $359.
Hyatt Regency at Gainey Ranch
Maybe this is what the Westin Kierland wanted to be but couldn't quite pull off.
The Hyatt Regency dates to 1986, which makes it a pioneer of sorts here in pioneer country. The feeling may be country club with strong hints of corporate and convention business, but that formality eases with a walk through its gardens, the layout and lighting fixtures recalling Frank Lloyd Wright during his Japanese period, the sounds of falling water everywhere.
Like the Westin, golf (three nines, again) is visible through the lobby's glass wall -- but here the emotion is more liberating than decorative. Can't explain why. Ask an architect. It just is.
Above the lobby is a Native American and Environmental Learning Center, where, on this day, a young non-native guest is being taught how to lace moccasins by a Hopi expert. "We provide the venue," says a spokeswoman, "and they are able to tell the story."
In Camp Hyatt, a concept born here at Gainey Ranch 20 years ago and widely emulated, kids fiddle with crafts steps away from a local tarantula ("We're all about learning and discovery.") in a glass case.
Spa Avania, 2 years old, is big and dreamy: Everything is time-pegged (energetic in the morning, increasingly mellow toward evening), from the background music (guests can select their own during treatments) to the vigorousness of the massages to the beverages provided.
New hotel rooms are on the way; that project begins in April. (No more bathtubs. "People don't use them anymore.") Two restaurants opened in October: SWB (for Southwest Bistro) and the Italian Alto Ristorante, which throws in a free gondola ride for dessert.
At night -- and this is true of most of the resorts in this package -- the mix of lights, from lanterns, from firepits, creates its own world . . .
Favorite spa treatment: Anti-Age Performance Facial (for men): $160.
7500 E. Doubletree Ranch Rd. ; 480-444-1234;http://www.scottsdale.hyatt.com . 490 rooms, plus 25 suites and eight casitas; rates from $439.
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Best if you love the desert: Four Seasons at Troon North
Best if you love spas: Fairmont Scottsdale Princess
Best if golf is why you're here: Four Seasons, Fairmont
Best honeymoon spot: The Phoenician
Best for families with little kids: Hyatt at Gainey Ranch
Best for families with tweens: Four Seasons
Best for families with teens: Westin Kierland
Best if you collect classic hotels: Camelback Inn
Best spring training base: FireSky, Camelback Inn, Hyatt
Best fun vibe: Hyatt, FireSky
Best for a quiet escape for two: Four Seasons
Best destination with other couples: Fairmont
Best if you must bring your dog: FireSky, Westin
Best for dining on-site: Phoenician, Fairmont
-- Alan Solomon