Scottsdale's Spa Wars are your pampering gain

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Mai Nguyen lingered in the lobby of the Willow Stream Spa, pondering a pedicure for the road. Nguyen's appointment began at 10 a.m. and the clock already read well past 2 p.m., but with everything to do in the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess' shrine to relaxation (or at least zany-named lotions), time wasn't on her side.

Fairmont Princess Willow Stream Spa  - Private Pool
Private pools for spa guests only are becoming par for the course in the competitive relaxation world.
Fairmont Princess Willow Stream Spa  - Private PoolOprah Winfrey - Spa MavenRaven South Mountain golf course
If you go

Nguyen started with the Havasupai Body Oasis Experience (two hours for $309), which begins with a swim under warm waterfalls, reaches a Zen moment with some desert tea (yes, desert tea's still wet) and continues along with an aromatherapy wrap. All before the actual massage. After that, Nguyen needed time to take a few leisurely laps in the spa's private rooftop pool and get in some sauna time.

How's one supposed to find the time for a pedicure with a schedule like that?

"I should have worked a pedicure in," Nguyen said with a groan, which seemed to startle her inordinately relaxed muscles.

No one ever said being this pampered is easy.

"Why did I agree to meet my dumb husband for lunch?" Nguyen asked, smiling sweetly.

Nguyen's husband was out golfing. In the old days, Nguyen would have been pestering him about what time he'd get back, so they could get on with their vacation. Then, she discovered the spas. And not her mother's spas either. These are full-blown, state-of-the-art, Architectural Digest-worthy, theatrical palaces.

Soon, Nguyen started dropping more cash in her days inside than her husband did in his days outdoors (consider Scottsdale trophy track Troon North maxes out at $295 weekends high season, while the Havasupai Body Oasis Experience runs $309 year round).

Soon, Nguyen began planning their trips around great "spa destinations" as her husband wondered if she'd lost her mind. Soon, he was the one wondering when she'd be done.

Resorts quickly caught up on to this new army of dedicated relaxation consumers. They built lavish spas with no pamper perk or cozy detail spared to attract the most zealous spa devotees like Nguyen. But perhaps no where has this trend been embraced with more fervor than the Scottsdale-Phoenix resort corridor. Hawaii might have more well-known spas, worldwide, but they are spread out in the islands.

Nowhere has a higher concentration of spas than Phoenix-Scottsdale. It turns out that America's high-end golf capital may also be its spa capital.

And that's no coincidence.

"The golf lifestyle really lends itself to the spa lifestyle," said Edward Reynolds, a frequent Arizona golfer and sometime spa connoisseur. "Let's face it: they're both pretty much having a lot of free time to do whatever you want.

"It's sort of thumbing your nose at the rat race. At least for a few weeks."

Unless you're in the relaxation business. For the Scottsdale corridor is in the middle of its own Spa Wars. They seem to be going up faster than Starbucks and if you're a golf resort that doesn't have one -- make that a good one -- you might as well be stuck in 1952.

"To be considered a top-end hotel these days, you need a spa that seasoned vacationers are going to be impressed by," said Lance Burton, the marketing director at Wigwam Resort. "People are going all out on their vacations these days. They want that relaxation experience they're going to remember."

Spa Wars

Burton would know. After years of staying resolutely old school, Wigwam went full force brand name into the Spa Wars with the opening of the new 26,000-square-foot Red Door Spa this winter. It's only the fifth Red Door Spa linked with a resort in the U.S. and it's already made the Wigwam a little more hip.

The $5 million renovation to the Wigwam's two Robert Trent Jones Sr. golf courses was important. The new spa was essential.

That's how it works in Arizona these days.

You'd better built it because you know somebody else is. The Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort at Gainey Ranch came out with new spa that includes its own gardens. And you thought a private rooftop pool was something?

It's all about bigger, better and more unique services. And a growing legion of spa nuts is loving it.

"The Scottsdale area is like heaven," Nguyen said. "You can spend a week here every year and go to a different spa every day without ever repeating yourself. I think my husband might run out of golf courses first."

Relaxation Kings

Some spas are better than others of course. Here are some of Phoenix-Scottsdale's best for those who feel a plush, Egyptian Cotton robe is their second skin:

Sanctuary Spa: Located in the exclusive Sanctuary at Camelback Mountain resort, this is where Hollywood hot couple Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn wiled away some of the early days of their relationship. And who can blame them, with the mountains overhead, tarot card readings in the spa (what better time to tackle the future than when you're in deep tissue message blitz?) and exotic treatments like Table Thai?

Centre for Well Being at the Phoenician: A little old school with its 1998 opening (yes, that's old school in spas), the Phoenician is one of those places that emphasizes the healing powers of spa with its almost medical Well Being approach. Meditation is encouraged. But they'll also serve you some tasty fruit cocktails.

The Spa at Marriott's Camelback Inn: What are most spas missing? A full-service restaurant complete with a nice wine list of course. Marriott's ode to plush fills that void. For what's better than a 90-minute massage? A 90-minute massage when you're a little tipsy apparently.

Don't laugh. Oprah Winfrey and Jessica Simpson are just a few of The Spa's devotees.

The Boulders Resort & Golden Door Spa: Every top spa has some skilled masseuses. How many boast of a meditation maze? That's what Golden Door at the Boulders has. It's sort of like one of those cornfield maze paths in the desert. Only it's based on ancient Hopi medicine wheels and modestly called The Labyrinth.

If that doesn't move you, there are also little tucked away corners set up for catnaps and O'furo, a traditional Japanese bath.

Willow Stream Spa: The monster of spas at 55,000 square feet, Fairmont Scottsdale Princess essentially devoted its own separate wing to it. The waterfalls in the pool are no dainty, tiny things either. You could think you stumbled upon a hidden lagoon.

Well, a lagoon stuffed with beauty products.

"It's my favorite so far," Nguyen said.

You can be sure she'll keep testing though. She's caught in the middle of the Spa Wars and loving it.

Nguyen's cellphone started ringing. She shot a glance at and sighed. Her husband was waiting.

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment