Phoenix Resorts Brace for Shakeup: Part 1, The Grand Old Places

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PHOENIX, AZ - Within the next few weeks, a bit of an earthquake will shake up the hotel scene here as three huge resorts open, adding 2,200 rooms to the Valley of the Sun, an area already well-stocked with places to stay. The upshot could be a price war where tourists will be the winners, some say.

Right now, established hotels and resorts are playing it cool and deny that they're worried about the new kids opening down the block. "There has always been great competition in the valley," says Carolyn Pendergast, marketing communications director at the Arizona Biltmore Resort. "But we have such a unique setting and represent such a longstanding tradition in Phoenix, that I don't think it's going to affect us much."

But some hotel staff expect the new places to open with lower than usual room rates to make a debut splash. Then existing hotels may have to lower rates too. As yet, there is little evidence of any of that, but remember that anything can happen in the next few months. Be sure to ask about specials when you call for reservations.

First of the new places to open on Oct. 1 will be the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass on the Gila River Reservation, south of Phoenix. This resort, next to the Whirlwind Golf Club, has 500 rooms and will probably have the smallest impact on the older resorts in the Valley of the Sun because of its distance from the metro area. Address: 5594 Wild Horse Pass Blvd., Chandler. Phone: 602-225-0100. Web site:

The Westin Kierland and the JW Marriott Desert Ridge should make bigger waves. The Westin Kierland, a 735-room, 10-story hotel, will open Nov. 3 next door to the Kierland Golf Club. Address: 6902 E. Greenway Parkway, Scottsdale. Phone: 800-767-3574. The Desert Ridge, with 950 rooms, opens Nov. 30, next door to the Wildfire Golf Club. Address: 5350 E. Marriott Drive, Phoenix. Phone: 800-767-3574.

We'll have info on these resorts as they open, but we asked some current golf resorts in the Valley of the Sun to tell us how they will handle the competition. We'll start with some Grand Old Places to stay and play, hotels with a long history in Phoenix-Scottsdale and then profile the five-diamond resorts - the Fab Four - in a later story. These are all places that cost more than the average motel, but they claim to offer more service and recreation. Are these resorts you want to visit and what golf do they offer?

The Grand Old Places

When a building gets to be about 20 years old in Phoenix, people think of it as prehistoric. But the town has saved a few real landmarks that remain popular places to stay and play for conventioneers, tourists and locals. You will find golf courses here that are fairly traditional with wall-to-wall grass and wide-open fairways. But you'll also see buildings that will give you a flavor of the Old West. All three hotels on our list have galleries of photos that will open your eyes to what it was like when the desert was still a desert.

Arizona Biltmore

The Arizona Biltmore, with 736 rooms, has long been the biggest resort in the Phoenix area, but that will change this fall when the three new resorts make the scene.

History buffs and those who love the style of 1920s and '30s will enjoy this elegant resort that claims to be "the only existing hotel in the world with a Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced design." Wright didn't design this place, but one of his students did. When it opened in 1929, it was dubbed the "Jewel of the Desert."

The resort, meticulously restored in 1996, has mission-style furniture, 1930s-style lighting fixtures and a lobby that should be preserved in the Smithsonian some day. The outer walls of the resort are trimmed with the famous "Biltmore blocks" - concrete blocks with a geometric pattern inspired by the trunks of desert palms.

Among the famous names that have stayed and played here are Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton. Ronald and Nancy Reagan spent their honeymoon here. Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Douglas and Steven Spielberg have also been guests.

Once upon a time, the Wrigleys, the chewing-gum family, owned the Biltmore. Now it's the property of KSL Recreation Corp., owners of La Quinta and PGA West in Palm Springs area and the Grand Wailea Resort on Maui.

Improvements are always being made to the hotel, including a 22,000 square-foot spa and fitness center that opened four years ago. In the works for next year is a new ballroom that will help the Biltmore draw new convention business.

But what about the golf ? On its grounds, the hotel has an 18-hole putting course designed by top architects Gary Panks and David Graham that guests can use for free. Next door is the Arizona Biltmore Country Club, privately owned, where tee times cost about $165 during the high season. According to Carolyn Pendergast, director of marketing communications, the hotel has a Golf Spectacular Package this fall for $615 a night, including a round of golf for two, unlimited spa use, and breakfast for two.

The two traditional courses at the country club are pleasant to play and offer some of the most beautiful views of Camelback and Squaw Peak in the valley. But they're not much more challenging than your average flatland Midwestern course. Vast millions have been spent renovating the hotel, but the same kind of TLC and dollars have not gone into the golf. Green fees here, of course, are as much or more than they charge at some of the hotter new courses in the area, including We-Ko-Pa, Eagle Mountain and Legend Trail.

The Adobe Course (6,449 yards from the back tees; 5,763 yards from the forward) is the flatter course of the two and was designed in 1928 by architect William P. "Billy" Bell, who also designed the BelAir Country Club and Stanford University Golf Course in California. At the time, the Adobe was one of only three golf courses in Phoenix. The Links (6,300 yards from the back tees; 4,833 yards from the forward) is more interesting and is probably the place to play, although it's shorter and has an easier rating/slope (71.7/126 from the back tees compared to 77.0/130 at the Adobe). Phoenix architect Bill Johnston designed the course in 1978.

Most of the front nine is flat and traditional also, although there are many beautiful lagoons and canals. Despite the water, you'll find it easy to negotiate the hazards. On hole No. 12, the challenges begin. Everyone's favorite is No. 15, a 185-yard par 3 with an elevated tee box, requiring an accurate shot to a green 75 feet below. On the par 4 No. 17 you can make your drive straight at the skyline of downtown skyscrapers.

The Arizona Biltmore is located at 2400 E. Missouri Ave., Phoenix, just 15 minutes from Sky Harbor Airport. Phone numbers for the hotel: 602-955-6600 and 800-950-0086. For tee times: 602-955-9655. Green fees range from $48 to $165, depending on the season. Web site:

The Camelback Inn

The Camelback Inn is one resort that's not really worried about the competition, in part because it's part of the competition. The inn's parent company, the Marriott Corp., owns the new JW Marriott Desert Ridge. Christa Wood, public relations director for both resorts, says, "The Camelback Inn is much smaller - with 453 rooms - so we can't really attract the larger sized groups they get up at Desert Ridge. In fact, they're going to bring in the size of groups we've never really seen in the valley before. They have one ballroom that is as big as all of Camelback's meeting space put together. The Camelback does group business on a much smaller scale."

Like the Biltmore, she says, the Camelback attracts people who love the history of Arizona and seems to have an older clientele. "We've been here since 1936, and we're very well-established. We have a lot of guests who come back here year after year. Although much of the hotel has been remodeled, we still have the original lobby."

Back in the 1930s, the Camelback was a secluded hideaway where guests often rode by horse into the surrounding desert. Clark Gable also slept here, as did Jimmy Stewart, a big fan of the hotel. More recent guests: Oprah Winfrey, George Bush I and model Cindy Crawford. Lots of remodeling has been done here over the years, including a $10 million renovation of guest rooms two years ago.

One of the best parts about staying at the Camelback is its location in midtown Scottsdale, not far from great restaurants and Old Town Scottsdale. If you're not playing the Camelback Golf Club nearby, other courses you'll want to play are farther north.

Many of the guest packages here include golf. Prices vary, depending on the course and season, but the Escape Golf Package for two this fall is $489 a night. Green fees alone range from $40 in summer to $155 in winter.

The Camelback club has two courses - the Resort Course, built in 1970 and redesigned in 1999, and the Club Course, a 7,014-yard, par-72, links-style course designed in 1978 by Arthur Jack Snyder, who also did the Wailea Blue on Maui.

You'll want to play the par-72, 6,903-yard Resort Course, formerly called the Padre. Three years ago, this course remodeled by Arthur Hills of Ohio, known for Mirasol in Palm Beach. On the Resort Course, wide fairways make you feel like firing away at will on the par 4s and 5s - forget that slice or hook. The challenge here is the bunkers that pop up everywhere, often slicing fairways in two. The par 3s are on the long side; No. 17 for example is 220 yards from the back tees and 134 from the forward.

Resort Course distance: 6,903 from the back tees (72.8/132); 5,132 yards from the forward (68.6/114). Club Course distance: 7,014 yards from the back tees (72.6/122); 5,808 yards from the forward (71.5/118). Green fees range from about $40 in summer to $155 in winter, depending on the course and season. Address: 7847 N. Mockingbird Lane, Scottsdale. Phone: 480-596-7050 or 800-24-CAMEL. Web site: The nearby Camelback Inn is located at 5402 E. Lincoln Drive, Scottsdale; phone, 800-767-3574.

Wigwam Resort

The Wigwam is a bit off the beaten path - a half-hour drive on I-10 from Sky Harbor Airport to the town of Litchfield Park on the western side of the Phoenix metro area.

This resort takes in 75 acres with a sprawling main lodge and 331 rooms, three golf courses, nine tennis courts, two swimming pools and a health club and spa. Once upon a time, the hotel was a virtual oasis by the roadside; now housing developments, shopping centers and motels and restaurants are springing up as neighbors. This is also a good jumping off point for visiting other new golf courses on the booming west side, including Palm Valley and Estrella Mountain Ranch.

This area got its start in 1916 when Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. of Akron, Ohio, bought land to grow cotton for use in making tires. In 1918, Goodyear built a private lodge for executives visiting the area. The lodge soon expanded to become a luxurious vacation spot called the Wigwam that opened to the public in 1929.

Although beautifully remodeled, the Wigwam lodge and surrounding buildings still capture some of that Old Arizona feeling. The buildings are adobe pueblo style with rustic wooden furniture inside and lots of stone and Mexican tiles. Guests can stay in individual "casitas" or little houses that have their own patios and private parking spots. The Wigwam specializes in handling small conventions and big corporate meetings and has more than 30,000 square feet of meeting space with two large ballrooms. But even so, there is plenty of space at the resort for individual guests.

Packages involving golf this fall begin at $139 per person per night including accommodations, breakfast and a round of golf. There's also a play-and-eat plan: $69 per person including breakfast or lunch before teeing off.

Guests at Wigwam will find that even the golf has a touch of history. The first nine-hole golf course was built at the resort in 1929. Now there are three 18-hole courses, designed by two prominent names in golf architecture. The Gold and Blue courses were both done by Robert Trent Jones Senior and the Red Course by Robert "Red" Lawrence, a pioneer golf architect in Arizona.

On the first tee at the Gold, you wonder if you're still in Arizona; everything here seems Texas-sized: really big trees, really big bunkers and really long fairways. The Gold offers the biggest challenge at Wigwam, and it's the course that experienced golfers play first. Designed in 1964 by Trent Jones Senior, known for his long fairways and elevated greens, this is a traditional classic. "If you're only going to play one course at Wigwam, I 'd recommend playing the Gold without a doubt," says Craig Allen, director of golf. "That's because of the way that Robert Trent Jones designed it. It' s the kind of course that will have you playing every club in your golf bag before you're finished."

The course is 7,074 yards from the championship tees. Since it was built back when land and water were less expensive than now, it covers about twice as many acres as modern Arizona courses. Even the forward tees stretch to 5,663 yards. Maintenance is excellent: velvet-green fairways and some of the biggest trees you'll ever see in the desert. The Blue Course (6,085 yards from the back tees, 5,178 yards from the forward) is a shorter version of the Gold.

The Red Course was created in 1972 by designer Robert "Red" Lawrence. Although Lawrence is less well known than Robert Trent Jones, he was a golf pioneer in Arizona. The Red, at 6,865 yards from the back tees, is almost as long as its mammoth cousin, the Gold Course. Just like the Gold, the Red can wear out your woods.

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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