HERE in Arizona's premiere resort playground, consider the dizzying number of hotel rooms -- 55,000, about as many as in all the Hawaiian islands combined -- and you may wonder how it could possibly stand more palm trees, pools and cabana boys.
I wondered too. And wondered even more after the recent openings of the JW Marriott Desert Ridge, Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, Westin Kierland and Sheraton Wild Horse Pass. Did Phoenix, Scottsdale and environs, already home to more than 10 high-end resorts, need another, much less four?
The hint of an answer came a couple of months ago, when I flew to Arizona to check out these newcomers. For comparison I also paid a brief visit to a 14-year veteran in town, the Ritz-Carlton, a plush province of butler-drawn baths and $369-a-night rooms. Visualize this exchange at the front desk:
Me: "Would it be possible to see one of the rooms?"
Clerk: "I can't show you a room because I'm the only one here."
Me (pointing to two bored bellmen in a deserted lobby): "Could one of those guys help?"
Clerk: "Why do you need to see a room? It's just your standard hotel room. There's a bed, a little living area and a restroom."
Me: "I'm familiar with the concept. I just want to compare it to other places I'm considering."
Clerk: [Blank stare. Silence.]
The moral of this story: Amid venerated resorts such as the Phoenician and the Boulders, a Four Seasons, a Fairmont and, yes, a Ritz-Carlton, one thing was clear: There may not have been a room for me to see, but there obviously was room for improvement.
Fortunately, the four newest resorts proved more welcoming. They're also as varied as cars on an L.A. freeway, so I spent a week test driving them.
For comparison I also took a spin around two dozen other resorts, inspecting rooms and logging 400 miles around greater Phoenix. By week's end I was running on empty, figuratively and literally. But after feasting in fine restaurants, snoozing by umpteen pools and taking in Arizona scenery, I couldn't complain. These four spots were mostly one long joy ride.
JW Marriott Desert Ridge
Resort & Spa
If one were to liken resorts to cars, 11-month-old Desert Ridge would be a Hummer H2: big, bold and expensive, its pretensions proudly displayed.
With 869 rooms and 81 suites, the hotel is Arizona's largest, and although the five-story building is sand colored, there's no camouflaging its bulk.
Guests enter a lobby that looks like a giant living room. Monolithic limestone pillars lined with alabaster light fixtures cast an ethereal glow. Leather club chairs and potted palms stretch farther than a football field.
Outside lies more excess: a lazy river and three swimming pools (one sporting a miniature waterfall pavilion with rooftop bonfire), plus an Olympic-sized pool for customers of the 28,000-square-foot spa. If one tires of swimming and sunning, there are eight tennis courts and two golf courses (one designed by Arnold Palmer, the other by Nick Faldo).
At every turn, the resort shouts for attention, from the classical music broadcast in the parking lot to the vibrant yellow, green and red palette in the comfortable guest rooms.
This cheerier-than-cheery, bigger-is-better brand of luxury may be a bumpy ride for those seeking serenity. While I was inspecting a room at the Four Seasons resort a few miles away, a young, polite bellman frowned when I said I was vacationing at Desert Ridge.
"Vegas without the slots," he said, shaking his head.
My only beef was personal service, or lack thereof. I could muster only the weakest of smiles when an overly exuberant front desk clerk shrieked, "How is your evening?" at me three times in an hour, clearly not remembering that I was "Just fine, thanks."
The next morning by the pool, as a harried mom gingerly maneuvered down stairs with a double stroller in one hand and a crying baby and a pitcher of water in the other, a uniformed staffer breezed by without as much as a glance.
But no matter. Most guests seemed thrilled. The morning of my departure, I shared an elevator with a beaming Chicagoan.
"It's something, ain't it?" he said. "Last night I saw the most amazing sunset -- incredible, best of my life!"
I had seen the sunset too. It was pretty but hardly spectacular. I guess Desert Ridge had dazzled him so much that even the sunsets seemed more striking.
Sanctuary was different from the JW Marriott in almost every way: smaller, more intimate and stylish -- a sleek and shiny black Porsche Carrera GT.
You'll see a fair amount of hipster black here. Enter the lobby and you can cross the black quartzite floor, sit on a black leather loveseat and watch black-clad waiters strut through the restaurant like models on a runway. The resort's other signature color? An electric saguaro-green.
Homey it's not. Then again, if I want homey, I'll stay at home.
The stark design here makes for an Asian-inspired retreat with a streak of rocker rebellion, a sort of desert Zen-meets-Led Zeppelin ambience. The crowd is equally eclectic, a few older couples peacefully coexisting with a steady stream of young guests in their best slacker-wear. Nothing like watching a couple in ripped jeans and thrift-store T-shirts check into a $330-a-night room.
Hollywood celebrities have long been part of the scene in Paradise Valley, a town of 14,000 sandwiched between Phoenix and Scottsdale. Sydney Chaplin, Charlie's son, was one of the property's original investors in the 1950s. The resort, known as John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch until the 1990s, changed owners and fully reopened last year as an uber-modern oasis of cool.
Some guests are drawn by the bar, Jade, and the 12,000-square-foot spa. They're small but smartly designed, with an intimacy and exclusivity that one might expect at a high-end retreat.
Despite the buzz about Sanctuary's trendiness, most guests still prefer traditional decor, a resort spokeswoman told me after I checked out. For these folks the resort offers 74 less expensive "mountain casitas," older concrete-block buildings refurbished in Southwestern motifs.
My mountain casita had a dynamite view, but its Asian accents felt contrived. The black Frette bathrobe and complimentary bamboo slippers made me look like a wayward Buddhist monk.
Others come for the 24 "spa casitas" best described as bomb-shelter chic. With their clean lines and smooth surfaces, the rooms have an artful, industrial look. Polished concrete floors and counters are offset by eye-popping fabrics -- cobalt blue and sunflower yellow in the unit I saw. Sheer drapery hangs like lingerie.
For all the emphasis on style, the spa casitas have substance too: generous space (650 to 850 square feet), floor-to-ceiling windows, fireplaces and outdoor Philippe Starck-designed bathtubs.
What sets Sanctuary apart most, though, is the setting, below the red-rock humps of Camelback Mountain. The nighttime view from Elements, the resort's window-wrapped restaurant, was a stunner. The lighted infinity pool below glittered baby blue, and in the distance, the sky glowed pink over Paradise Valley.
Resort and Spa
Forget a thrill ride in a sexy sports car. The Westin Kierland, opened last November, is the Volvo station wagon of this group -- a safe choice tailored to upscale, mainstream tastes.
The emphasis here is functionality over fun. My room, one of 735, had the comfortable, contemporary styling typical of the Westin chain.
Quality bed? Check.
Plush towels? Check.
Style? Nothing as ostentatious as Desert Ridge or as imaginative as Sanctuary -- which is a good thing to some.
The most noteworthy detail of my room was the carpeting, cleverly patterned to mimic golden ridges of wind-swept sand. It was a modest nod to nature in a room where all the furniture was oriented around the TV rather than the landscape beyond the balcony door.
Builders of this Westin, though, wanted the hotel to impart a sense of Arizona's land and people, so in the public spaces you'll find Western bronzes, landscape paintings and 19th century photographs of Geronimo and other historic figures.
Much of the year, business travelers and groups account for about three-fourths of the hotel's clientele, so it's not surprising the place can feel like a sterile corporate lobby. But leisure travelers predominate in summer. Many are families that take advantage of two large pools, a 110-foot waterslide and 900-foot lazy river, 27 holes of golf, a volleyball court, a full-service spa and a nearby shopping center.
The much-hyped nuevo Latino restaurant Deseo, developed by James Beard-honored chef Douglas Rodriguez, delivered a fine (if expensive) combination plate: beef churrasco paired with delicate Cuban pork tenderloin in a black bean sauce and avocado chutney.
There wasn't anything particularly objectionable about the place. It just didn't stand out among the others. Desert Ridge had a better pool complex, Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain boasted a more interesting design and better views, and the last hotel in the group -- an unassuming Sheraton -- had the most soul.
Sheraton Wild Horse Pass
Resort and Spa
This year-old hotel was the surprise of the trip, more akin to the Little Engine That Could than to any automobile. The rough-around-the-edges setting on the 600-square-mile Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix make it the kind of place that not everyone will love, but I was won over even before I arrived.
One week before my trip, a hotel representative -- unaware I work for The Times -- called me at home to double-check my date of arrival, nightly rate and room preferences (nonsmoking, king bed, high floor).
Upon my arrival, a valet politely asked for my name, sped my suitcase to the reception desk and got my check-in started. By the time I caught up, a clerk had room keys ready -- no waiting.
My room was a pleasant surprise for a midscale chain. The furniture, all custom designed, included a leather chair and a dresser adorned with the woody ribs of dried saguaro, a nod to the desert surroundings.
I liked the public spaces best, including the lobby's rotunda ceiling, decorated with 10 vibrant murals of Indian life and lore that shimmered at night thanks to the room's lighted waterfall.
In the lounge below, a display said the Gila River Indian Community was composed of two tribes, the Akimel O'odham (also known as the Pima) and the Pee Posh (also called the Maricopa), both historically agricultural. But in 1928 their lifeblood, the Gila River, was dammed about 50 miles away.
The tribes eventually realized that their future lay in economic diversification. A new 2 1/2-mile artificial river symbolizes hopes for renewed prosperity, running from the Sheraton to the resort's golf club and casino.
Though the 500-room hotel is managed by a multinational chain, the tribe's ownership is apparent at every turn, partly through staffing (tribal members make up 30% of the workforce) and partly through art. Tribal members' original oil paintings, textiles, sculpture and cultural artifacts are displayed to great effect throughout the property.
The hotel, spa and golf courses cost more than $160 million to build, or about $320,000 per room -- a figure matched by "only a handful" of new resorts each year, said Elaine Sahlins, San Francisco-based director of lodging analyst HVS International. "The magnitude of that investment puts it in the top tier of what's being developed today."
The diversions outside are a class act: a pool and a waterslide built to resemble the renowned Casa Grande Ruins to the south, a beautiful 17,500-square-foot spa with 17 treatment rooms, and 36 holes of golf managed by the same company that oversees the Four Seasons' courses.
The resort is named for about 1,500 mustangs that roam the reservation, so it makes sense that recreation options include horseback riding. My 1 1/2-hour guided trail ride wasn't across the most exciting terrain, and we saw no mustangs. But as I rode past a coyote's burrow under lightning flashes of an approaching storm, the open desert acquired a stark, wild beauty.
Dinner that night at Kai, the resort's signature restaurant, was even better. Beef tenderloin came wrapped in pancetta and draped with pasilla, haricots verts, wild mushrooms and a pomegranate glaze. From amuse bouche (seared ahi with roe on a cucumber wedge) to the treats that accompanied the check (chocolate-dipped lavender shortbread cookies), the food and service were stellar, easily the best of the trip.
The morning of my departure, I rode a little ferry along the simulated Gila River, passing the spot where the tribes plan to break ground on a promenade of restaurants and shops. I never would have guessed my favorite moment of a trip would be a boat ride on an artificial river flowing toward a casino where I wouldn't gamble a dime. But it was. The river was a reminder of the past, a glimpse of the future and, with the desert sun beating back the clouds, a reminder of how bright the present can be.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Basking in the Valley of the Sun
From LAX, nonstop service to Phoenix is available on US Airways, United, America West and Southwest, and connecting service (change of planes) also is available on Delta and Frontier. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $58.
WHERE TO STAY:
Nightly rates at these resorts vary by season. Brochure rates for fall are listed.
JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa, 5350 E. Marriott Drive, Phoenix, AZ 85054; (800) 835-6206 or (480) 293-5000, fax (480) 293-3600, www.desertridgeresort.com or marriott.com/phxdr. Vibrant, colorful playground with big pools, lazy river and sprawling grounds. A good choice for fun seekers. Doubles from $339.
Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, 5700 E. McDonald Drive, Paradise Valley, AZ 85253; (800) 245-2051 or (480) 948-2100, fax (480) 483-7314, www.sanctuaryaz.com. Smaller, quieter and hipper than the other resorts. Good views, nice Asian-inspired spa, excellent service. Mountain casitas with traditional Southwest decor from $280, distinctly modern spa casitas from $330.
Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, 6902 E. Greenway Parkway, Scottsdale, AZ 85254; (800) 937-8461 or (480) 624-1000, fax (480) 624-1001, www.westin.com/kierlandresort. A 735-room hotel catering largely to business travelers but with amenities leisure travelers may appreciate: good pools, lazy river, golf, spa. Doubles from $489.
Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, 5594 W. Wild Horse Pass Blvd. (P.O. Box 94000), Phoenix, AZ 85070; (800) 325-3535, (602) 225-0100, fax (602) 225-0300, www.wildhorsepassresort.com or www.sheraton.com/wildhorsepass. Owned by the Pima and Maricopa tribes, built on their reservation and infused with Native American culture. Equestrian center on site; boat on artificial river delivers guests to golf club and casino. Top-notch service. Doubles from $279.
WHERE TO EAT:
Elements, Sanctuary at Camelback Mountain. A stylish space with fantastic views and an executive chef, Charles Wiley, formerly of the posh Boulders resort. I had a watercress and Asian pear salad topped with a wedge of goat cheese; for an entree, surprisingly filling carrot-millet pot stickers served with sugar snap peas and a ginger coriander sauce. More traditional dishes, such as beef filet, roasted duck and grilled salmon, fill out the menu, which changes monthly. Entrees about $20-$30.
Deseo, Westin Kierland. Nuevo Latino cuisine. My trio palm salad was composed of hearts of palm, coconut gelle, dates wrapped in bacon and a shallot-thyme vinaigrette. A fine but expensive meal -- one mojito, salad, a nice beef churrasco-Cuban pork combination plate and tip: $75.78.
Kai, Sheraton Wild Horse Pass. My favorite. Excellent Southwestern restaurant with Native American touches, incorporating olive oil (pressed on site), citrus and other ingredients grown on the Gila River reservation. Restaurant's name means "seed" in Pima, appropriate considering that a tribal farm propagates near-extinct seeds, some of which are used in dishes. Entrees $19-$35.
TO LEARN MORE:
Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau, 400 E. Van Buren St., Suite 600, Phoenix, AZ 85004; (877) 225-5749 or (602) 254-6500, fax (602) 253-4415, www.visitphoenix.com.
-- Craig Nakano