JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa in Phoenix: Like a cruise ship sailing the desert

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Four things Phoenix has turned into an art form are golf, food, shopping and waterslides. And you'll find all of them done in spectacular style at the city's newest and largest resort: JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa.

JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa
JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa's watery Lazy River pool area forms a backdrop for Wildfire Golf Club.
JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & SpaWildfire Golf Club - Palmer CourseJW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort - poolsWestin Kierland Resort - Agave SpaWestin Kierland Resort - rooms
If you go

Desert Ridge is one of three mega resorts that opened here last winter amid the big question: Would Desert Ridge and the other new places with a total of 2,200 rooms suck up all the tourists and turn established hotels into ghost towns?

So far Desert Ridge itself -- with 950 guest rooms and the two biggest ballrooms in the state -- has indeed been booming. Even on scorching summer days, you can find the parking lots crammed with cars and the ballrooms jammed with business meetings.

"We've had frequent sell-outs," says Marcy Hughes, director of public relations at the hotel, "and have had to send guests to other places nearby."

Doug MacKenzie, communications director for the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau, contends all the resorts, old and new, are holding their own. "We've been very, very busy in Phoenix," he says. "There's been a wonderful uptick lately."

A study for the bureau by the Smith Travel Research says greater Phoenix saw a six percent increase in hotel rooms sold in the first four months of 2003, compared to the same period in 2002. But MacKenzie had no details on where all those new tourists stay.

What JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa has done to attract its share of customers is to launch a self-contained palace of pleasure and fun -- almost like a cruise ship floating through the desert. You enter into the middle of a spectacular two-story marble lined lobby. On board the hotel -- or nearby -- you'll find: 36 holes of golf; 10 restaurants, some run by chefs with big national names; a spa with beauty, health and fitness options; a water fun park; and a brand-new shopping mall, the Desert Ridge Marketplace. (The other two mega resorts -- Sheraton Wildhorse Pass and Westin Kierland -- have followed the same formula with variations.)

JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa: The golf

Back in 1997, a developer opened the Wildfire Golf Club in North Phoenix with one course designed by Arnold Palmer and houses along the fairways. Along came Marriott and bought up the Palmer and a resort site and built another course, designed by Nick Faldo, in 2001. Both courses are favorites of tourists and locals.

"The Faldo has been a little more popular because it's so new," says Kevin Stockford, director of golf at Wildfire.

Wildfire Golf Club's Palmer Course (7,145 yards from the tips) has more of a desert feeling and plays a little tougher as a result. On his narrow fairways it's easy to lose a ball in the brittle bush. You'll find many arroyos to cross along the way. Be careful with tee shots as many balls on this course have a tendency to roll from left to right.

Wildfire's Faldo Course (6,846 yards from the back) is best known for its 106 bunkers. "They're bunkers done in the Australian sandbelt style," says Stockford. "Faldo went down there and fell in love with them. They have those high flashing earthen faces."

But don't lose sleep over whether your sand saves can match the Faldo. His landing areas are much wider off the tee, and if you study your yardage book, your sand wedge will stay in your bag.

These courses with contrasting layouts are both worth a play.

JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa: Dining

Tops among the 10 eating experiences in the resort are the Meritage Steakhouse in the golf club, a Roy's featuring Roy Yamaguchi's Hawaiian fusion cuisine plus sushi, and Ristorante Tuscany, for provincial Italian dining. Blue Sage, done by New Mexico star chef Mark Miller, is the equivalent of a hotel coffee shop. The Blue Sage Marketplace just outside has gourmet food-to-go. For quick coffee to go, there's a Starbuck's in the lobby.

Where to shop

Desert Ridge Marketplace doesn't just have an ocean of stores, it also has its own dozen or more restaurants in case you get tired of Marriott's cuisine. A movie theater offers a chance for an evening's entertainment.

Kick back by the pools

Four acres of landscaped pools here include the Lazy River with a serpentine slide. You can not only dine at poolside, you can sit at a table in a foot or so of water if your wish.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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