Check pretentiousness at the door when visiting Carefree Resort and Villas

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CAREFREE, Ariz. -- Two hundred years ago, U.S. Calvary Soldiers chased Apache Indians through the canyons of these craggy desert foothills. Today, business travelers chase the little white ball around in between meetings dominated by pie charts and presentations.

K.T. Palmer and Tom Darlington laid the foundation for Carefree, one of Southern Arizona's most unique upper crust settlements, in 1945. As it turned out, this seemingly undevelopable land north of the Valley was (with a healthy dose of optimism) ripe for development.

Palmer, once described as a cool and calculating lawyer, and Darlington, a quick tempered engineer, discovered they actually had something in common: the desire to found a brand spanking new town north of the hustle and bustle of burgeoning Phoenix.

In 1955, the duo purchased a goat ranch for $44,000 and gradually acquired over 2,000 acres on which to construct their Southwestern Eden. All they need was a city plan. Three years later, Palmer and Darlington were attending a play in Phoenix when they decided to belly up at the theatre bar at intermission.

The drinks were flowing like a desert arroyo after a thunderstorm and a crowd gathered round to imbibe and hear the prophets speak about the coming of Carefree. Palmer made mention that he and Darlington were in dire need of street names for their new town, as their presentation to country officials was slated for the next morning.

Alas, Carefree's Nevermind Trail, Easy Street, and Ho and Hum roads were born of the bottle and not some bureaucratic, government run focus group.

So why the history lesson? Because understanding the how and why of Carefree is essential to grasping the overall concept of the Carefree Resort and Villas. Pretentiousness, in these parts, is about as welcome as the plague. Hospitality is the name of the game, and it all starts at this rustic outpost located just off (none other than) Tom Darlington Drive.

"We are a boots and sandals in the lobby type of resort," says Dan Morn, Carefree Resort's sales manager. "This place is more about the Old West than the new west, and I think people who come all the way out here from the Midwest or northeast enjoy that."

For most of Carefree Resort's 40-plus-year history, those people have primarily been of the conference-going variety. Three separate meeting rooms, ranging from the 10,000-square-foot Saguaro to the territorial architecture of the 11,000-square-foot Carefree Opera House eagerly await the next crop of big city executives.

The times, however, are a changing. Major companies are eyeing the bottom line like the break in a ticklish downhill putt, and CEOs are less and less likely to send their middle management minions on a week long retreat in the desert Southwest.

"Traditionally, we've had a split of about 80 percent corporate, conference guests and 20 percent recreational visitors," Morn says. "We want to maintain our conference base, but we'd like to open ourselves up to more families and golfers."

With all the Carefree Resort has to offer the traveling golfer, attracting a larger faction of desert bound duffers shouldn't be a problem. While there is no course on site, the upscale resort and daily fee offerings within a 15 minute drive of the resort are plentiful. And no worries for first-time visitors -- the resort has Vacation Planners available at a moment's notice to assist with tee times, course recommendations, tournaments and transportation.

"I think the fact that we don't have our own course is one of our strengths," Morn says. "We have some outstanding relationships with courses in the area and we are able to objectively recommend courses based on conditions, design and price points."

As for accommodations, golfers are being politely nudged toward the resort's Village Condominiums. Each of the 2,136-square-foot luxury units includes a master and junior suite, both suitable for double occupancy. The master suite features an oversized living room, dining area, kitchen, two baths and a full balcony or patio. The junior suite features a double occupancy bedroom, separate study, bath and a half and full balcony or patio. Both have access to washers and dryers.

"With the Village Condominiums, we can target larger groups of golfers who want all the amenities of home," Morn says. "They are set apart from the bulk of the resort and offer more of a quiet, private atmosphere."

For those who prefer to be at the heart of it all, the resort's on-site guest rooms, suites and two and three bedroom casitas fit the bill. Some rooms offer views of the Continental Mountains and surrounding foothills while others are situated around the sprawling main pool.

Golf -- Where to Play

Legend Trail Golf Club: Legend Trail opened in North Scottsdale in 1995, boldly announcing its presence by bucking a couple of desert golf trends. First, it was pleasantly walkable and decidedly non-target in its design. Second, it was crafted by Rees Jones. Jones -- the youngest son of the late Robert Trent Jones Sr. -- seems to have a gentleman's agreement with his older brother (and fellow golf course architect) Robert Trent Jones Jr. Rees works the east coast and RJT II works the west.

An apparent loophole in the accord opened the door for Jones to create a playable golf course with plenty of built-in drama. Legend Trail is a living laboratory for the younger Jones' neoclassical design philosophy. Elevated tee boxes provide clear views of clearly defined landing areas and greens are accessible via the ground on all but a couple of holes.

As is the case with almost every Rees Jones design, there's a long and short way around the course. The "Long Trail" as it is dubbed at Legend Trail, plays to 6,825 yards, while the women's "Short Trail" plays to 5,000 yards. In between are the "Legend Trail" and "Sonoran Trail," which play to 6,400 and 6,035 yards, respectively.

Rancho Manana Golf Club: This short, tight Bill Johnston designed course in Cave Creek has long been popular with resort guests and locals. It underwent a $6 million facelift in 1994 and came out looking like a totally different golf course. Like many desert courses of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rancho Manana is considered a "tee shot" golf course. Narrow landing areas and sharply bending doglegs necessitate precision off the tee. Find position "A" with your drive and you are virtually guaranteed a manageable approach shot.

Dove Valley Ranch Golf Club: A surprisingly tame offering from the aforementioned Jones Jr. But Dove Valley Ranch can stick to golfers on a handful of holes. The par-4 second plays to 447 yards from the cranks and calls for a cut tee shot around a lake on the right side of the fairway. The back nine plays a stroke or two harder than the front, but offers superior scenery.

Chow -- Where to Eat

The Lariat Grille at the resort offers a cozy, Southwestern fine dining experience and killer views of the surrounding Continental Mountains. For a casual breakfast, lunch or dinner, try the Mesquite Dining Room just off the main lobby. For late night dining, drinking and dancing, the Red Horse Saloon looks and feels like an Old West watering hole (only with a big screen TV).

Off campus, so to speak, Cave Creek is the place to find anything from authentic Mexican to stick-to-your-ribs barbeque. Crazy Ed's Satisfied Frog (not a misprint) is a hootin', hollerin' local hangout with great grub and ice cold Chili beer. There's even a wedding chapel should the mood strike you. After the sunsets, the action heats up at Harold's Cave Creek Corral. "Music and Dancing" is what they advertise, but the chicken fried steak is worthy of its own billboard. If it's "date night" make a reservation at Cartwright's Saguaro Grill for juicy steaks and fresh seafood.

Off Course

If you can't fill up your days at the Carefree Resort, you aren't trying. In addition to golf, the resort offers horseback riding, jeep tours, mountain bike excursions, cattle drives, and hot air balloon rides. A top notch tennis and fitness facility is also on site, situated across from the lobby. If you need to nurse you injuries from any, or all of the aforementioned activities, the Breathe Spa offers all the latest treatments (even a Gentlemen's facial, boys.)

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of from 1997 to 2003.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment