My avid-golfer husband, Brian, had long been intrigued by photos of the Boulders, the resort, golf course and spa nestled high in Arizona's Sonoran Desert, with 160 "casita" accommodations shaped to blend into the terrain. About 30 minutes north of Phoenix, it's 1,000 feet higher than the metropolitan area, making it consistently 10 degrees cooler--and if you visit during the summer, as we did, every little degree counts.
My interest was the rock climber's clinic, geared for the novice, that the resort has offered for two years. The granite desert boulders are a beginning climber's dream, with a sharp, abrasive consistency that gives perfect traction. Lessons are limited to four participants (the day I went, I had the instructor all to myself), and the cost, including equipment and drinks, is a manageable $75.
But let's get real--the Arizona desert in the summer? For his part, Brian claimed he'd much rather play a round in 105-degree "dry heat" than in 85 degrees with high humidity. I do adore heat, and I love a bargain even more: At the Boulders, casita rates drop from the January-through-April high-season price of $545 per night to a ridiculously affordable $145 Sundays through Thursdays late June through early September (Friday and Saturday rates are $175). Not bad for luxury digs that consistently win awards.
For decades, Arizona's top golf resorts shut their doors from June through August. But that all changed when they realized even triple-digit weather can't keep a die-hard duffer down. In 1997 the Boulders, the final holdout in this trend, decided to stay open.
When Brian pointed out that greens fees also are slashed from the in-season high of $200 to $95 on summer weekends ($75 weekdays), that settled it for me. As it turned out, daytime temps stayed at an even 98, 72 in the evening during our late-June visit, the norm for this time of year.
(Low casita rates also are available in May and December, excluding the holidays. And during summer, rates on one-to-three-bedroom villas drop to a starting $320 from in-season rates that begin at $720 per night. An "automatic gratuity" of $18 per night is charged for all casitas, $22 for villas, making tipping unnecessary.)
After hopping a Southwest flight from LAX, we picked up our rental car and headed toward the tiny town of Carefree, awash with Southwestern art galleries, 33 miles from Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport. As we drew nearer, all I could make out was--you guessed it--boulders. Sand-toned dwellings were either set directly into craggy hills or built so low into the landscape that they were barely discernible. Even the resort's private gated entrance was subtly marked; we drove right past it the first time.
Once inside, we gazed on surprisingly verdant grounds. Golfing twosomes cruised leisurely along the paths in special "mister" carts fitted with automatic sprayers to keep them 30 degrees cooler than the surrounding air. Golf assistants were posted at various points to provide iced towels from refreshment carts. A natural waterfall cascaded gently down a towering mass of rocks high above the air-conditioned main lodge, with tennis garden and three swimming pools. A 20-foot-tall saguaro cactus seemed to point the way toward our casita, set in splendid seclusion at the end of a blossom-trimmed trail.
Open since 1985, the resort recently spent $2 million on decor. The result is a soothing blend of wood beams, custom-made leather armchairs, wet bar, fireplace and oversize baths. Thankfully, no kitschy turquoise or "howling coyote" cliches here--just tasteful earth hues, glazed tiles, regional art and Egyptian combed cotton sheets on the bed. Brian immediately set out for a round of golf, while I opted for a first-rate in-room massage. (The resort's Sonoran Spa offers more than a dozen treatments, plus fitness classes, yoga, tai chi, even boxing.)
By the time he got back, a little warm but very enthusiastic about the hotel's North Course--where he shot his best score ever--it was time for dinner. From the resort's six restaurants, we chose the more formal, AAA four-diamond-award Latilla, an elegant room in the main lodge with views of towering rocks. From the menu of regional American cuisine Brian chose the oven-roasted range chicken with thyme pan gravy and barley succotash, while I went for grilled prawns with a verde chutney and mango salsa. Perfection. Later, after watching for shooting stars, I was so relaxed I fell asleep on the patio chaise, the scent of desert lavender perfuming the warm night air.
Next morning, we awoke to a room service wake-up of "breakfast berry parfaits," two flavors of yogurt layered with honey, blackberries, strawberries and papaya. We strolled next door to explore the Native American Heard Museum North at El Pedregal (stony place), the resort's festival-style marketplace of 40 shops, galleries and cafes, where summer "Music by Moonlight" jazz concerts are staged.
But by the time we'd finished a relaxing swim and poolside lunch, those rocks seemed to be taunting me, daring me to conquer them. I called the spa and booked the three-hour climber's clinic for 2 p.m. "That leaves you with just one hour to chicken out--I mean, reconsider," chided my husband. No respect.
I admit I knew nothing--nada, niente--about rock-climbing. I didn't know, for instance, that you have to cram your feet into unflattering little orange suede booties (the better to grip with) and wear a harness that makes your shorts ride up. After this initial shock, I was ready to listen hard to Carey, my kind, 20ish guide, who taught me the ABCs of rock-climbing, literally showing me the ropes.
After a short hike up to the base of Renunciation, the steep rock face above the hotel that I'd be ascending, Carey taught me some basic climbing techniques like belaying (securing a climber with the use of a rope), knot-tying and, most importantly, etiquette. Don't ever start an ascension without properly addressing your climbing partner--that's the guy who controls your rope. Get him bothered and all bets are off.
We progressed to a practice climb on a baby rock, and then it was time to get in touch with my inner Spiderwoman. "I've taught a 76-year-old geezer to complete this climb, so I know you can do it," Carey encouraged. (Thanks a lot, sonny.) "This is a 5.6 grade--definitely not a wimp rock," he continued, as I wondered where I could find any tiny cracks or imperfections in which to place my toe- and fingertips.
I stared at the rock. It was waiting for me. I took a deep breath, and I was climbing, I knew not how, working my way up the face of this seemingly sheer mass of stone.
In the middle, I stopped. That's when it hit me--there's a Zen of rock-climbing, a zone you're in where you trust nothing but your instincts, the feel of the cool granite under your hands, your mind focused but your body light. You become one with the lizard, the arachnid, the snake, and looking stupid in orange booties no longer matters. It's not about gripping, or upper body strength, or brute force. It's about breathing. Just don't look down.
By the time I made it over the top ledge, 90 feet up, I was soaring. An astounding view awaited me of the desert valley and resort below, its emerald course dotted with golfers the size of bugs. Hah! I thought. They call that sport? Hah!
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Budget for Two
Air fare, LA-Phoenix: $176.00
The Boulders, 2 nights with gratuity: 347.45
Greens fee: 95.00
In-room massage, tip: 99.00
Rock-climbing clinic: 75.00
Dinner, Latilla: 85.29
Dinner, Palo Verde: 55.50
Lunch, pool pavilion: 23.00
Two in-room breakfasts: 35.00
FINAL TAB: $991.24
The Boulders Resort, 34631 N. Tom Darlington Drive, Carefree, AZ 85377; tel. (480) 488-9009.