Get well and golf in the Arizona desert: Tucson's the place for a healthy vacation destination

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

What does wellness mean to you? A round at the Golf Club at Vistoso or Ventana Canyon? A Life Enrichment package or a session with Dr. Andrew Weil? Tucson health resorts like Miraval and Canyon Ranch go beyond spas to offer truly soul-soothing Arizona golf vacations.

Miraval Health Resort in Tucson
At Miraval, it's all about finding yourself in the Tucson desert.
Miraval Health Resort in TucsonJW Marriott Starr Pass in TucsonTucson Golf-Health Sspa Retreats
If you go

TUCSON, Ariz. - Some cities are made for partying. Some are all about culture. Some are defined by their sports franchises. (Quick: Name something in Indianapolis besides the Colts and the 500.)

Tucson is a city that's all about wellness. Luxury wellness.

It's a hard concept to define until you actually get out here, two hours and world away from Scottsdale's club cool. Tucson is a town that treasures the high-concept (and high-dollar) idea of taking a vacation to soothe the soul.

The Tucson area is full of spas, but they often don't go by that name - too traditional and pampering-centered. Around here these are health resorts, or wellness hotels, and it's not just about getting a massage on high-thread-count sheets with soft lighting and new-age music.

Oh, these places are plush - plush enough to attract Oprah. They're just geared toward a larger experience, one in which diet, exercise and serene settings matter as much as actual spa treatments.

"It's such a natural, healthy lifestyle out here, and you almost cannot help but get caught up in that while here," said John Adams, general manager of the JW Marriott Starr Pass, who's worked at high-end resorts around the world.

"There's a real reverence for treating your body right and making health a priority. We have guests who came back every year to sort of revitalize themselves. It's an easy spot to finally lose that cell phone or Blackberry and just completely relax."

It helps that many of Tucson's spas ... err, wellness resorts are set out in the foothills away from the city. There's not a whole lot to do except eat right and stare at the stars.

Well, that and golf your days away.

Golf is very much a part of Tucson's health retreats. Even Miraval, arguably the top spa in the world (it's been ranked No. 1 by Conde Nast and Travel & Leisure magazines), heavily promotes its golf option.

For Miraval, that's the Golf Club at Vistoso, a Tom Weiskopf design that has you swinging toward mountains, hoping to avoid the desert.

There are some 50 golf courses in the Tucson area, everything from desert monsters with forced carries galore to soothing resort courses where they'll do everything for you but light a candle in the fairway.

It fits right into Tucson's luxury health vibe. You spend time outdoors and get some exercise without having to really exert yourself.

"We do have some of the healthiest golfers in the world," Monique Berger, a Swedish transplant, said with a laugh. "Even the older people look like they could take a long hike."

That's probably because they just have. Many health resorts promote Tucson's renowned system of hiking trails as well.

Of course, not every palace of well-being is created equal. Here's some of the best Tucson has to offer in health tourism.

Tucson's healthy luxury splurges

1) Miraval: This "destination" resort's greatest accomplishment may be its ability to lure celebrities to Tucson of all places. That's how much mystique and aura surround this center out among the cacti that offers classes like Loving Kindness Meditation and Thinking, Feeling, Eating: How Food Effects Mood.

Former AOL Chairman Steve Case thought up this place and there's definitely a pampered CEO's sense of luxury throughout the 104 rooms on this 400-acre property about 45 minutes from the Tucson airport. Case even recruited some of the giants in the wellness field (yes, there's a whole field to this) to Tucson, including good-living guru Dr. Andrew Weil and sexuality expert Lana Holstein.

With room rates that start at over $500 in the prime winter season, it can be expensive to live right. But those rates do include one free round of golf per day.

Who said your golf obsession isn't part of a well balanced life?

2) Canyon Ranch Tucson: Canyon Ranch has everything from acupuncturists to chiropractors to aquatic therapists on staff. Life Enrichment and Executive Health programs (geared towards big-time business executives) and a Demonstration Kitchen that's a big hit with Food Network devotees are available in packages that start around $2,800 for four days.

There are also four- and seven-day golf packages where you'll play at Ventana Canyon and Arizona National Golf Club.

3) JW Marriott Starr Pass: A much more traditional resort, you wouldn't expect to find Starr Pass on this list. Its setting is so serene and set away from the city, and its spa so large, complete with its own smoothie bar, that it manages to cross over though.

And it offers other routes to relaxation. Enjoying a scotch and maybe a cigar (just try that at one of the wellness palaces) on the big open-air veranda, looking up at stars that seem extra bright, you cannot help but exhale.

If you're looking to push that heart rate back up in the morning, 27 holes of Arnold Palmer golf that are anything but resort-course easy will do the trick.

4). Westwood Look Resort: In the world of boutique Tucson wellness hotels, Westwood is the Kmart. Only Kmart's not so bad when it's out in the desert with botanical gardens, private outdoor hot tubs and meals born in a chef's garden.

You can get all that for as low as $89 per night in the summer. Regular folks can find wellness and still have money left over to actually eat when they get home.

5). Westin La Paloma: Sure, there's an Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa. But there's also a 177-foot waterslide. It's chill and be thrilled here, which some Ph.D. in wellness somewhere would surely recommend.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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