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ARIZONA: Four Resorts Flaunt Liquid Assets : Awash in Pools, Lakes and Waterfalls, Four Top Desert Resorts Count Their Liquid Assets

TIMES TRAVEL COLUMNIST

Is there a dude out there who recalls Scottsdale when wranglers rode herd on the tourists, boardwalks lined Main Street and Lulu Belle’s was the only watering hole in town?

The locals held barn dances on Saturday night, drank their booze from a bottle and rode off into a sunset that dissolved into infinity. That’s how Scottsdale used to be. Low-key, friendly, folksy.

It goes without saying that this was before they hung up the harnesses and struck the set. What we have today are empty saddles in the old corral, ghost riders in the sky. Instead of cowboy boots, vacationers wear Gucci sandals and designer jeans and lose themselves in a Never Never Land of waterfalls, swimming pools, lakes and lagoons.

In the shuffle, Scottsdale has attracted those who prefer snorkeling and swimming to saddling up old Paint and disappearing into a sunset.

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Some argue that with all these man-made waterworks, Scottsdale could drown in its own prosperity. Take the $275-million Phoenician resort at Camelback Mountain, built two years ago by developer Charles H. Keating Jr., the indicted wheeler-dealer of failed Lincoln Savings & Loan of Irvine. The 130-acre complex features a 1,000-foot lake called The Necklace, seven swimming pools and a lagoon with waterfalls that spill with the fury of a Rocky Mountain cataract.

With all the water, you wonder: Is this really the Sonoran Desert?

The water theme extends to other resorts in nearby Phoenix, Carefree and Litchfield Park--the upshot being that the Sonoran Desert is beginning to take on the appearance of the West’s biggest beach. One resort went so far as to introduce gondolas.

At the Phoenician--known also as Keating’s Folly--the lake called The Necklace contains more than 1 million gallons of water. The fact is, the entire resort is waterlogged. Guests whoosh down a 165-foot water slide to soak in the seven interconnecting pools while being showered by a series of waterfalls.

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If not the most opulent resort in Arizona, the Phoenician comes close. After Keating’s company declared bankruptcy in 1989, veteran hotelier Hans Turnovszky was installed as general manager under the aegis of a Delaware holding company. The hotel continued to operate, business as usual.

Few structures this side of the Parthenon display more marble. Guest rooms at the Phoenician feature berber carpeting, queen-sized beds, wall safes, mini bars, baths sheathed in Italian marble and lanai decks for observing Arizona’s famous sunsets.

In addition to the 437-room hotel, 107 casitas containing another 130 rooms are scattered among gardens, a dozen with hand-carved travertine fireplaces.

With art valued in the millions of dollars, one wag refers to the Phoenician as The Louvre. Chandeliers lend their light to paintings and tapestries. Statues appear in the garden. It’s Forest Lawn with frescoes and fountains.

Meanwhile musicians finger tea-time melodies on eight Steinway pianos. Guests gather for cocktails at the Thirsty Camel and take their meals in three restaurants, including Mary Elaine’s, the gourmet room named for Keating’s wife. Keating lent his own name to the resort’s discotheque, calling it Charlie Charlie’s, much to the annoyance of depositors of his failed S&L.;

At Mary Elaine’s guests dine on oxtail ravioli with thyme, terrine of foie gras with truffles, a Mediterranean brill with curry and a grilled squab with sweet potato cake and wild mushrooms. The offerings are endless, the service impeccable. Meanwhile, floodlights play on fountains and lagoons, bathing Camelback Mountain in their ghostly glow.

For water spewing like a leaky fire hydrant, the Phoenician is matched only by Scottsdale’s $80 million Hyatt Regency. With its own beach, 10 swimming pools, 28 fountains and a lineup of 47 waterfalls, the Hyatt Regency is as misty as Niagara Falls. Guests are provided with umbrellas, swim fins and snorkeling gear. (After all, dears, this is the desert).

At this Venice of the West guests drift about in gondolas while a giant waterfall (The Big Gun) showers bathers with 600 gallons of liquid a minute.

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In its fourth season, the Hyatt Regency is Arizona’s answer to San Diego’s Sea World. All that’s missing are the porpoises and whales. For the curious, California supplied sand for Hyatt’s beach and palms for its gardens. Imagine Malibu with cottontails and you get the picture.

At the Hyatt Regency, non-swimmers stroll along an aqueduct overlooking the resort’s fountains and swimming pools; swans glide by on man-made lakes and water trickles off lighted pillars.

When days turn chilly, guests seek the warmth of outdoor fire pits where a classical guitarist strums romantic melodies. Others slip into a Grecian-like temple with bubbling waters and follow this up by plunging into an icy pool. After this it’s back to the fire pit, the guitarist and a round of margaritas.

Vacationers at the Regency and other resorts make pilgrimages to shops at The Borgata, a $10 million scaled-down version of Italy’s walled village of San Gimignano. Fountains pour forth and narrow avenues weave among piazzas--the Via Montenapaleone and Via Ternabuoni. Crowds sip expresso at a sidewalk cafe called Ciao and study the seven towers of The Borgata. It’s Italy with a Western accent.

Beyond Scottsdale the highway turns to Carefree and the renowned Boulders Resort, whose 136 casitas blend with the adobe-colored soil. At The Boulders waterfalls plunge into a swimming pool and an immense lake reflects clouds scudding through a sky bluer than the heavens of Provence.

Five years following its opening, The Boulders remains impossible to fault. Without question, it ranks among the West’s best-run resorts. With a multi-million dollar purse, developers dug lakes and seeded a 27-hole golf course that appears like a swatch of Ireland shared by road runners, packs of cottontails and other desert life.

Casitas feature queen-sized beds, fireplaces, custom soaps and shampoos and wet bars stocked with spirits and soft drinks; there are beam ceilings, deep sofas and patios where sunbathers and star-gazers gather in a setting as silent as a moonbeam.

At The Boulders guests register in the main lodge before a roaring fire, the windows framing a waterfall and the sunny waters of Lake Pleasant.

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For guests who succumb to such serenity, condominiums and homes surrounding The Boulders go from $225,000 to $1.1 million apiece.

Only 20 miles outside Scottsdale, Carefree is blessed with a vast, natural underground reservoir. Discovered by developers in the ‘50s, the waters were diverted to lakes and fountains and an irrigation system that keeps golf links green.

As a result, outlanders lured by the waters of Carefree live the good life on Leisure Lane, Ho-Hum Drive, Stage Coach Pass and Never Mind Trail. In the evening they stroll down Primrose Path.

I’ve said it before--someone got awfully cute with Carefree.

Radio commentator Paul Harvey owns a home here, as does ABC’s Hugh Downs and other celebrities. In Carefree, no one hurries. There are no stop lights, no bumber-to-bumper traffic, no smog.

Artist Mary Granger still operates her studio on Easy Street. Sheri Bowden turns out salads and sandwiches at the Sundial Garden Cafe and cowboy singer Jack Fairelough pounds out honky tonk piano tunes at the Hungry Coyote Cafe in the Portales shopping mall. Of an evening, Fairelough slips away to moonlight at Crazy Ed’s Satisfied Frog, a ramshackle roadhouse that features tacos, tortillas and other Mexican fare, with the exception of September when sauerkraut, bratwurst and stuffed cabbage are served along with with Crazy Ed’s Pilsner Beer in a salute to Oktoberfest.

Others take their meals at the Mad Coyote Cafe, which is within earshot of the Black Mountain Brewing Co., which is only a turn or so from Long Rifle Road and a spanking new shopping mall, El Pedregal, with its cluster of fashionable boutiques, art galleries and restaurants.

In Carefree, residents cross paths with coyotes and homes come equipped with do-it-yourself waterfalls. As the sun melts into twilight, matrons snuggle in mink and slip away to the local country club.

In Carefree they refer to this as country casual. As a result, city types aching for action put the Rolls in reverse and retreat to Phoenix or Scottsdale. Or run off to Crazy Ed’s. Carefree lives up to its name--a peaceful desert plot with smogless days and loads of sunshine.

Except for the reservoir bubbling beneath the desert floor, Carefree without question would have remained a wasteland inhabited by rattlesnakes, javelinas and cottontails.

In the same sense, Litchfield Park and the venerable Wigwam Resort owe their existence to an abundance of water. Opened on Thanksgiving Day, 1919, The Wigwam, lying southwest of Carefree (17 miles due west of Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix) plays host to the rich and near-rich.

As it has been for years, it’s an escape for politicians and businessmen, golfers, horse lovers and plain everyday, run-of-the-mill dropouts from a high-pressure world. Shelter is provided in single and two-story casitas rising across 525 acres. The Wigwam is a man-made oasis that features date palms, olive and pine trees that spread their shade across three magnificient golf courses tended by 75 gardeners.

At one time The Wigwam functioned as a cotton plantation operated by the the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. It was after palatial homes were built for visiting executives that the Goodyear property began serving as a resort.

While Robert F. (Red) Lawrence and Robert Trent Jones were busy laying out golf courses, others created lakes and a swimming pool. Indeed, with the lakes serving as water traps, The Wigwam employs a scuba diver expressly to retrieve golf balls driven off course by guests.

At The Wigwam guests soak rays during the day and relax at night before fireplaces (each casita has its own), inhaling the smoke of juniper logs. On horses, they ride off to steak fries at Sunset Point, and those who don’t ride follow by stagecoach.

This isn’t to say that The Wigwam is a dude ranch, although stables are still maintained. On the contrary, at The Wigwam gentlemen don coats and ties for dinner and other social graces remain in vogue, as they have since the resort opened its doors to the public.

The fact of the matter is, The Wigwam is Arizona’s answer to Caneel Bay in the Caribbean, Hawaii’s Mauna Kea and the Greenbrier in West Virginia. Quiet elegance is the test of time and The Wigwam has passed the test with honors.

It is not unusual for guests to spend entire winters at The Wigwam. Easterners in particular arrive at Christmas and frequently remain until after Easter.

As The Wigwam took shape in the ‘20s and ‘30s, a community rose to serve the resort. Streets and sidewalks were paved. Telephone lines were strung. Merchants opened groceries and boutiques.

Still, the town’s namesake, Paul Litchfield, complained there was no church. At the same time the manager at The Wigwam argued he had no bar. Litchfield fussed and fumed and declared that the town would have its church but not a bar.

In the end, a compromise was struck. The Wigwam got its bar and Litchfield got his church. Indeed, the bell still peels in the old church tower.

And the bar? It pours for whom the bell tolls.


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