Phoenix Rising

Taking a test drive for four new Arizona resorts

Southwest

February 22, 2004|By Craig Nakano | Craig Nakano,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Here in Phoenix, 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 with 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 a freeway, so I spent a week test driving them.

For comparison, I 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, the year-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 one of 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-size 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 might 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 Midwesterner.

"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 on Camelback Mountain

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.

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