Resorts in Phoenix Brace for a Shakeup: Part 2 - The Fab Four

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PHOENIX-SCOTTSDALE, AZ - For years, four resorts have dominated the luxury hotel scene here: the Phoenician, the Fairmont Princess, the Boulders and the Four Seasons.

All four have fabulous atmosphere and sit near courses that golfers from all over the world yearn to play. When you enter their gates, you pass into another world where the staff strives to satisfy every whim and to create a fantasyland of pleasures - at great cost, of course. Even if they're too pricey for most of us, hordes of tourists still drop by for brunch or a round of golf.

Now these resorts face the opening this fall of fresh competition: the Westin Kierland, the JW Marriott Desert Ridge and the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass. Although the owners of these new places have poured multi-millions into their golf resorts, it may take them a while to reach the level that the Fab Four have attained.

The established resorts aren't too worried. "The building of those new resorts has been known about for some time," says Rita Ferraro, public relations director for the Boulders in Carefree, north of Scottsdale. "Because of their size they really aren't comparable to the Boulders. We're small and exclusive. What we have here can't be duplicated at a large hotel. This piece of property, with its boulders and scenery, cannot be duplicated down the street."

At the Four Seasons in North Scottsdale, marketing director Greg Hanss sees changes ahead, but is confident about the future. "I see it as having a trickle-down and trickle-up effect. In the short term, it might mean more competition," he says. "But in the long term, it will bring in many new customers into the Phoenix area."

Visitors might come to Phoenix for a convention at the Desert Ridge, for example, but decide when they return to stay at a smaller resort with a different style. Keep in mind that published rates for these hotels can vary wildly from one day to the next just as airline fares do. So ask for lots of information when you book a room or a package. Although all four have a golf course nearby, they're also in the vicinity of dozens of other courses with better-priced tee times. Here are short profiles of the Fab Four:

Fairmont Scottsdale Princess/TPC Stadium Course

Of all these resorts, the Princess, opened in 1987, has architecture that most strongly reflects the Spanish colonial history of the area. When you walk into the resort's inner courtyard, you feel as if you're in Mexico. There are 650 guest rooms here, but the hotel doesn't feel big, because none of the buildings are more than three stories tall. On the fringes of the property are lots of casita suites with more privacy. Prices for rooms here vary wildly from $159 for a standard room in mid-summer to $3,800 for a 2-bedroom presidential suite in high season.

Restaurants are expensive, ranging from the Marquesa, a five-diamond eatery that offers Mediterranean cuisine, to the Las Ventanas coffee shop. Best is the Grill, the steak and seafood place at the clubhouse of the TPC Stadium Course, next door to the hotel. If you don't like the in-house options, nearby Scottsdale Road offers dozens of restaurants.

To keep up with its neighbors, the Princess opened its Willow Stream Spa and Fitness Center last year, a 44,000 square foot facility where you even relax after a round of golf under a waterfall. There are also five swimming pools and tennis courts on the site.

The Princess is on the fringes of the Tournament Players Club Stadium Course where the Phoenix Open is held in January every year. If you book a round at the TPC yourself, the fee can be more than $200 a round in the winter. So a golf package at the Princess can be a better deal than you might think. We priced a room for midweek in November for about $500 for two, including breakfast, admission to the fitness center at the spa and two rounds of golf. Subsequent nights include only one round of golf and there's a minimum of two nights per stay. Besides playing the TPC, you could play the Eagle Mountain, SunRidge Canyon, Wildfire at Desert Ridge or Kierland courses.

The TPC Stadium Course, designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish, is exactly what it's called: a stadium, where thousands of spectators can watch big tournaments. It's a course designed to test long-distance hitters. The best holes are the 15th through 18th, where serious water hazards come into play. Yardage: 7,089 from the back tees (74.5/135); 5,567 from the forward tees (71.6/122). Green fees range from $60 in summer to $215 in winter. Address: 17020 Hayden Road, Scottsdale. Next door is the Desert Course, a more lenient and less pricey round of golf, also by Weiskopf and Morrish. Phone number for both courses: 800-767-3574.

The Princess is located at 7575 E. Princess Drive, in Scottsdale, just north of Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard. Phone numbers: 800-767-3574.

The Phoenician/Phoenician Golf Club

The Phoenician has a bit of colorful history, even though it only opened in 1988. Back in the 1960s it was the site of a country club that was torn out and rebuilt as part of the Phoenician Golf Club back in 1978. Then along came the flamboyant savings and loan financier Charles Keating who had the golf course redesigned and built the magnificent Phoenician resort that remains today. Things came crashing down in 1989 when federal regulators took over the property as Keating's financial empire crumbled. Keating went to jail, but the Phoenician survived to become a desert landmark and a popular success with its 27-hole golf club, 11 tennis courts, nine swimming pools and 11 restaurants and lounges. The over-the-top elegance of the 1980s is still there - marble staircases, priceless European works of art and glittering chandeliers. The 250-acre site is filled with meticulously maintained gardens, fountains, palm trees and outdoor sculptures.

The resort-spa, with 474 rooms, 107 casitas and 73 luxury suites, is the farthest south of the Fab Four and stands on the slopes of Camelback Mountain, just 15 minutes from Sky Harbor Airport. "The rooms are exquisite," says Debora Bridges, public relations director, "and almost all of them look out at the city skyline and the mountains to the south or look at Camelback Mountain."

Golfers this fall can rent a double room for four days and three nights, with breakfast, unlimited golf, a one-hour private golf lesson - all for about $4,000. The Winter Golf Package available on Jan. 1, 2003, will cost $895 per night in a deluxe-view room/double occupancy and will include unlimited golf for two people and daily breakfast. A round of golf at the Phoenician costs from $40 to $170 depending on the season.

The Phoenician golf club consists of three nine-hole courses: the Oasis Nine (3,250 yards from the back tees, 2,559 yards from the forward; the Desert Nine (3,060 yards from the back tees, 2,465 yards from the forward); and the Canyon Nine (3,008 yards from the back tees, 2,312 yards from the forward). Architect Ted Robinson redesigned an existing course to create the Oasis and Desert holes and created the Canyon Nine, which climbs up to about 1,500 feet on Camelback Mountain and provides great views of downtown Phoenix. For the original opening of the golf areas in the 1980s, Keating had some 10,000-palm trees planted. Although quite a few have been removed since then due to drainage problems, they still give much of the golf courses a very tropical flavor. Depending on which combination of nines you play, the slope/rating can vary from 70.3/130 from the back tees to 67.7/114 from the forward.

The Phoenician is located at 6000 E. Camelback Road, Scottsdale. Phone numbers: 800-767-3574.

The Boulders/Boulders Golf Club

The Boulders Resort and Golden Door Spa has a very different atmosphere from either the Phoenician or the Princess. It's in Carefree, north of Scottsdale, amid majestic rock-strewn desert. It takes 45 minutes to an hour to get here from Sky Harbor airport, and once here, you'll find it's a bit less commercial than it is to the south.

Most of the resort's 160 casitas and 55 villas are tucked away among the mesquites and saguaros. All the buildings have been painted in an earthy taupe that almost matches the surrounding boulders that give the property its name.

"The casitas are our standard rooms, but they're definitely deluxe," says Rita Ferraro, public relations director for the Boulders. "Every guest is a VIP here. We also have one-, two- and three-bedroom villas that have 1,800 square feet in the two-bedroom units and 2,100 to 2,600 square feet for the three bedrooms. They're a home experience - ideal for families with children or golf groups. But lots of people enjoy the intimate, romantic casitas."

There are several restaurants in total - on the property or in a nearby shopping complex. Our favorite is the Palo Verde, the Boulders' equivalent of a coffee shop. It's shaped like an eight-sided Navajo hogan with a ceiling painted with blue sky and stars.

Golf is definitely the main attraction at the Boulders, which has two award-winning courses, the North and the South. Most of the holes are the work of famed architect Jay Morrish, previous partner of Tom Weiskopf. Morrish finished up his work here in 1992, but some of the golf holes were part of a nine-hole course that was built way back in 1969.

The North Course is more traditional with tighter fairways. The South Course is the most impressive of the two, largely because of the boulders that loom over tees and greens, and it's the course to play first. On the very first hole, a par 4 (421 yards from the back tees, 309 yards from the forward), you're aiming your ball down a little throat of rocks toward a cluster of boulders that looks as if it was created in Hollywood. Over and over again on the front nine, you'll find breathtaking balls of stone everywhere. There actually seem to be two signature holes here. The first is the par 5 No. 5 (545 yards from the back tees, 375 yards from the forward). On your first shot on this hole you can aim for either of two fairways and take any one of a variety of shots while trying to work your way up to the green that lies under a magnificent pile of boulders. On the par-3 No. 7 (187 yards from the back tees, 98 yards from the forward) you tee up to a six-story high granite ball, sitting on a rock perch that almost looks like a tee.

This is a semi-private course so priority for tee times goes to resort guests and club members. Green fees for those who just come to play range from $75 in the summer to $250 in winter. But tips are included. There's a $10 discount for resort guests. Lots of packages involve golf, the spa or both. The published rate this fall, for example, for something called the Gold Medal Golf package - four nights in a casita for two - is $2,476 including three days of green fees and daily breakfast for two.

Distance and rating/slope for the South Course: 6,726 yards from the back tees (71.9/140), 4,716 yards from the forward tees (68.7/120). For the North Course - 6,811 yards from the back tees (72.6/137), 4,900 yards from the forward tees (68.5/115).

The Boulders is at 34631 N. Tom Darlington Drive, Carefree, AZ. Tom Darlington is a northern extension of Scottsdale Road. Phone numbers: 800-767-3574.

The Four Seasons/Troon North

Just like the Boulders, the Four Seasons is one of those escape-into-the-desert places where the craggy mountain views and famed Arizona sunsets are straight out of National Geographic. And like the Boulders, this is a more intimate resort with just 210 guest rooms and suites, all with a special view. There are three restaurants - the Acacia, Crescent Moon and Saguaro Blossom - with lots of alfresco dining so that you can watch the sun set over the city of Scottsdale far below.

This is probably the most isolated of the resorts so it's a drive to other restaurants, shopping centers and museums. However, the city's new Pinnacle Peak park is very close by for those who'd like to take an easy hike in the high desert.

The Four Seasons does not have a golf course of its own but it has priority for arranging tee times at the Troon North Golf Club, a few miles down the road. Troon North, one of the most acclaimed golf centers in the country, has two courses. The Monument, the first course built at the club, opened in 1990 and was designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish. Contoured fairways wind through a desert landscape filled with saguaros and washes. Lots of mountain views here as well. The Pinnacle Course, designed by Weiskopf alone, opened in 1996. The Pinnacle is considered the most challenging of the two courses and has sharper elevation changes and more dramatic rock formations. On the 18th hole, golfers have the sensation that they're teeing off directly into the side of Pinnacle Peak. According to Weiskopf, he built more semiblind shots and bigger and deeper bunkers into this course. He has also said you have to play this course five or six times in order to understand it - that's if you can afford it.

The golf club in general is at a higher elevation than the other courses in the rocky Pinnacle Peak area and has more holes that crawl up higher above the city, providing spectacular scenery.

To top it all off, there's a 37,000 square-foot clubhouse that cost $6.5 million when it was built in 1993. No wonder the green fees are high, ranging from a low of $75 in summer to a high of $240 in winter. This fall, the Four Seasons will have the Perfect Choice golf/spa package for those who want to stay and play. It costs $605 per night for two, including a round of golf on Troon North's Pinnacle or Monument courses or a facial or massage. It also offers unlimited access to the resort's spa and fitness center. Yardage on the Pinnacle Course: 7,044 from the back tees (73.4/147); 4,980 from the forward tees (69.7/131). Yardage on the Monument Course: 7,028 from the back tees (73.3/147); 5,050 from the forward tees (69.8/129).

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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