The Boulders Resort and Spa is a resort experience unlike almost any other in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. Or anywhere in the Southwest for that matter. With two Jay Morrish designed championship golf courses and its incredible Carefree, Arizona location it cannot be beat. Add in a multi-million dollar makeover (more about this later) and you have an experience of a lifetime.
The Boulders Resort and Spa is celebrating its 30th anniversary and has been recognized for three decades as a world class destination with impeccable service, a wonderful spa, championship golf plus excellent dining, lodging and tennis (and so much more). With over 1300 acres of Sonoran Desert foothills just 30 miles north of the Phoenix airport, the resort has more the feel of a small village than a hotel property.
The Boulders Resort and Spa
The resort’s newly remodeled main lodge, 33,000 square foot spa (that is not a typo) and golf clubhouse complex are separated by a short walk or complimentary golf cart ride from each other. The 160 totally redone casitas and an additional 60 villas are sprinkled around the main facilities each with impressive views of the iconic boulders mounts, desert or golf courses. Add in multiple dining options, three pools, hiking paths, free fitness classes and a myriad of other activities and you will understand when I say this somewhere you will want to return to again and again!
For decades the Boulders Jay Morrish designed North and South courses have been rated as two of the finest in the country. This scenic high desert terrain is made for golf. Paired with the stunning boulder formations that define the property this is an unparalleled golf experience. Under the leadership of Tom McCahan (Director of Club Operations) and his 24 year tenure the Boulders (www.theboulders.com) remains a mecca for golf. The two courses are shared by club members and resort guests. Play is alternated between the two courses. Guests play the North one day and the South the next. The courses also share a very nice pro shop, clubhouse, grill and an excellent driving range and short game practice area.
Some say choosing between the South and North layouts is like opting between the lobster or the filet. Both are sumptuous yet each has its own flavor and allure. I suggest the Surf and Turf…play them both! While different in taste and feel, these two layouts share tremendous visual interest, outstanding conditions and pure fun.
What I can say about the South course is this: It is beautiful! The course winds its way around the incredible boulder mount and through other smaller, but no less impressive, rock formations on a rollicking and picturesque journey unlike any course in the area. There are few forced carries, a great variety of hole designs, limited amounts of target style golf and amazing visual interest.
Signature Hole #5 on the South course
The South starts innocently enough with a slight downhill dogleg right with a landing area that narrows the further you dare hit it. Safely negotiating the tee shot leaves an approach to the first of many greens and tees guarded by the ever present rocks. The South ends with a beautiful yet dangerous Par 5 whose green sits protected behind a pond. In between are sixteen unique holes capped by the resorts signature hole…the Par 5 fifth. A split fairway off the tee is only the beginning of this amazing hole as it gently climbs toward the green. Looming in the distance is the 12 million year old boulder formation from which the resort gets its name. And tucked right up against this strange and indescribable structure of granite lies the fifth green. Awe inspiring. Incredible. Photo mandatory.
The North course is every bit the challenge of the South. While a bit wider off the tees and not quite as close to some of the boulder formations it is a true test of golf for players of every ability. It starts with a very pretty yet challenging Par 5 that requires three well placed shots to reach the green. A small wash separates your first two shots and your approach must navigate a well protected green. From here you will find an array of long and short holes that climb, fall, dogleg both left and right and challenge every club in the bag including your putter.
With incredible open views of the surrounding “mountains” it is hard to concentrate on the task at hand. One of my favorite holes is the Par 3 sixth. While not particularly long it is exceptionally pretty with seemingly every kind of native cactus, tree and bush lining the hole. Get your camera! Much like the finishing hole on the South course the eighteenth on the North is a dramatic finish right below the clubhouse patio. This swooping dog leg right Par 4 is guarded to the left of the green by both water and sand. Par here is an excellent score and just steps from a rewarding refreshment while you tally your score.
Over the summer of 2015 all of the casitas and the entire main lodge have been totally redone. The casitas were stripped to the studs with only the wooden beams in the ceiling spared. These large new rooms feature high ceilings, a patio or deck, a mini wet bar, wood burning fireplace, small walk-in closet and stone floors throughout. The luxurious bathrooms have double sinks, glass enclosed showers with floor to ceiling river rock walls as well as a separate tub. To say these casitas are nice is a vast understatement.
Newly renovated Casita
The main lodge building has undergone an equally dramatic transformation including an all new lobby and reception area. The old Latilla restaurant is now the Latilla Ballroom. The Palo Verde dining room has been renovated as has the main pool area. Perhaps the most dramatic change is to the Discovery Lounge. It now is much larger and features soaring floor to ceiling and wall to wall windows that frame the view of the iconic boulder mount. Those who have been here will not recognize the place.
The Spa, dining and more
The spa at the Boulders is one of the largest and nicest I have seen. It is situated a short walk from the casitas and the main lodge and also has the boulder mount at its’ backdoor. Guests of the resort have full use of the spa facilities at no extra cost and I used them at least once a day.
The spa encompasses three main areas: an active wing, a quiet wing and the outdoor spaces. It has everything you might need to relax, exercise and sooth your mind, body and soul. The active side features a yoga studio, fitness center, Spa Café, movement studio and more. A myriad of free classes are held here every day and include yoga, spinning, stretch, Zumba and water fitness to name a few.
The quiet side of the building houses separate but equal Men’s and Women’s lounges, a quiet room, 24 treatment rooms and a full salon. The lounges deserve special mention as each has a large spherical warm soaking bath, a fully tiled circular steam room (with a cool shower right in the room), sauna, showers and lockers. They are fully stocked with bath products, plush towels and everything else one needs to clean up after a day of relaxation or exercise.
The outdoor space is perfectly nestled between the spa building and boulder mount. The large adults only pool and hot tub offer both a soothing retreat and amazing scenery. Adjoining the pool area is an herb garden, a meditational labyrinth and quiet patios for your relaxation. The Zen like feel and feng shui elements of this entire setting induce a sense of peace and tranquility rarely found at most resorts.
Dining at the Boulders features a number of varied and distinct options. There is the newly remodeled Palo Verde restaurant in the main lodge, the Spa Café, the Grill Kitchen and Bar at the golf clubhouse, the Spotted Donkey Cantina at the adjacent Pedregal shopping area as well as the pool pavilion and of course room service.
The Boulders Resort and Spa has been ranked one of the best golf resorts in the U.S. since its inception 30 years ago. With the recent renovations it is bound to stay that way for the next thirty years. The outstanding location, incredible scenery, championship golf, wonderful lodging, exemplary service and amazing spa make this a must visit place for anyone with room on their bucket list. I know I will be going back soon!!
It has almost been a year since my last visit to the amazing Westin La Paloma and oh what a difference a year can make.
This north Tucson landmark resort has always been known for its amazing service, incredible grounds, diverse activities and an unequaled foothills location. Now, it is in the final stages of a complete and transformative makeover. As of January 2013, the entire 27 hole Nicklaus golf complex and all the resort’s guest rooms have been renovated. By Fall 2013 renewal of the pool areas, meeting spaces, lobby, tennis and health center as well as the dining venues will also be complete. Yet there is no need to wait. This is a fantastic place right now and it is only going to get better.
This is old school Nicklaus desert golf and it is visually stunning, challenging in every way and a good test for players of every ability. Forced carries, desert washes, elevated tees and good decision making are all aspects of this layout. As my host Kent Instefjord (GM of the La Paloma Country Club) pointed out, what you typically will find here are generous landing areas off most tees paired with challenging green complexes. In other words, the holes tend to get tougher the closer you get to the pin; placing a premium on your short game, sand game and putting.
A big help in that regard is that over the past year and a half the entire 27 hole layout has received new putting surfaces and renovated bunkers. The mini verde Bermuda grass greens now offer the consistent year round playability we all look for. In addition, the top notch white sand bunkers offer a perfect compliment with their look and feel. I highly recommend you play all 27 holes to get the full flavor of the Westin La Paloma golf experience.
Without question the biggest and most important change to date has been the complete makeover of the resorts 487 rooms and suites. With even the standard rooms starting at 475 square feet (Tucson’s largest) and suites measuring in up to 1900 square feet, this has been a monumental upgrade and the results are impressive. The rooms are bright yet warm and homey. At the same time they are also modern but not cold or sterile as so many contemporary rooms seem to be. In short they are a true oasis in the desert.
All units now feature: Radio Frequency locks (just wave your room card in front of the lock), Westin’s own Heavenly Bed® and outstanding linens, dual-sink granite vanities with full width backlit mirrors, expanded walk-in showers with Heavenly® Rain Forest Showerhead and hand held wands, deep soaking tubs, robes, Starbucks coffee, three phones, wireless internet, in-room safe, mini-fridge and so much more.
Perhaps the most appreciated items were the extra large 42” HD television, iHome Bluetooth digital clock radio and the LED reading lights perfectly built into the beds headboard. For TV viewing, there were ample stations as well as a variety of on demand features. The iHome clock radio is a very nice touch and allows guests to play their own music collection from an iPad, iPod or iPhone through the clock’s speakers. And the LED reading lights had separate switches allowing two to be on and two off so one guest can read while the other may sleep. A very nice touch.
The rooms, each with a patio or deck, are set in small buildings (20 rooms or so per complex) which ring the property. No room is more than a short walk to the pools, lobby, sports complex, golf course or restaurants. I found that this layout gave the resort a very warm and intimate feel and not the dominating huge main building housing all the rooms, restaurants and common areas as found in most large resorts nowadays.
There is no shortage of choices when it comes to eating at the Westin La Paloma. Options here range from the casual poolside Sabino’s to the elegant Mediterranean inspired fare at Azul. In addition, guests here will find the Espresso coffee shop in the main lobby as well as the Courtside Deli at the health center.
Sabino’s is a swim up bar and grill offering casual fare such as appetizers, grilled sandwiches, snacks and beverages for all ages. Azul is the resorts main restaurant and serves everything from daily breakfast to Sunday brunch as well as lunch and an exceptional dinner menu.
This trip I had the luxury of being the dinner guest of Executive Chef Serge Delage at Azul. Chef Delage is from France and has been with Westin for over 35 years and at the Tucson resort for more than 15 years. It was a special treat to be able to savor an inspired six course Chef’s Table dining experience. More on that in a minute but first a few short words about Azul.
Azul is located on the lower level of the main lobby and is dominated by two story floor to ceiling windows that frame the absolutely amazing views of the Santa Catalina foothills rising dramatically just to the north. I had both breakfast and dinner here but if you are lucky enough to come during sunset you will be treated to an amazing light and color show as the mountains turn from brown to orange to red as the sun goes down.
Not surprisingly, Chef Delage’s hand prepared and delivered sampler menu was equally inspiring. Each course was a smaller tasting size portion of a menu item and Chef Delage brought them tableside and explained each one. My first course was an appetizer of pan seared scallops over risotto accompanied by bacon and peas and paired with a very nice California Chardonnay. Delicious!
The second course featured the Hot House tomato salad which combined delectable house made mozzarella, arugula, marinated olives and a balsamic reduction. This fantastic collection of flavors set the tone for what came next. For the third course the chef prepared a juicy herb seared piece of Atlantic salmon. It was accompanied by fresh asparagus and a mix of mushrooms lightly bathed in olive oil and chili sauce. It couldn’t have been better and was a delightful mix of tastes and sensations.
Course number four was a little breather and a very clever take on mac and cheese; it was chipotle flavored. This little morsel came paired with a very good Mark West Pinot Noir. The fifth course was a Dijon crusted rack of lamb served with a side of Yukon gold potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Again, no complaints what so ever as everything was cooked to perfection with tastes to match. The Chef’s final surprise was an outstanding dessert sampler. It was a beautiful trio of sweets: tiramisu, fresh wild berry cobbler and lime sponge cake. With a cup of hot coffee it was the perfect end to a fabulous dining experience.
All in all the Westin La Paloma in Tucson has everything you could ever hope for. An amazing location, 27 holes of championship Nicklaus golf, fantastic new rooms, sports activities of all kinds, pools for the young and old alike and excellent dining from sunrise to sunset. With the finish of the property’s revitalization in Fall of 2013 this stellar resort will continue to be a go to destination for discriminating travelers for years to come.
It is not often in my columns that I write about private golf courses and gated communities. On rare occasions, such as Stone Canyon in Tucson, it is necessary to make an exception.
Typically my travels take me to the better resorts and public or semi-private links that are open to all golf and travel connoisseurs. Many of you have read my stories on Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill, Puerto Vallarta and the like. Well here is your chance to get inside the gates at one of Arizona’s premier golf communities. It features a stunning and award winning Jay Morrish designed desert masterpiece.
My host for this trip was Todd Huizinga (PGA Professional) who is Director of Club Operations and one hell of a nice guy. Todd leads perhaps the best trained staff I have encountered anywhere during my golf travels. From the moment we arrived at the fortress like iron gates to the time we left the property, we were welcomed like family.
Pulling into Stone Canyon involved driving up a scenic entry road leading to a stone gate-house from which emerged a friendly gent in dress shirt and tie. After giving him my name and tee time we were welcomed with “Nice to meet you Mr. Ginsberg and Mrs. Ginsberg, enjoy your day at Stone Canyon”. And off we went.
Next up was Dennis. He met us at the entrance to the parking lot and amazingly, greeted us by name, showed us to a parking spot and once parked, welcomed us and took my clubs. I went inside the clubhouse to meet Todd who offered me a brief history of the club as well as an overview of the course, the facilities and the community as a whole. More about that later.
As I headed out to the range there was Dennis. He showed us to our cart and led us to one of the most beautiful practice sites you can imagine. With Titleist golf balls and giant iron cauldrons for cleaning your clubs, this seemed more like a driving range for Roman nobles than mere mortals.
Dennis stayed with us on the range giving us tips on the course, saying hello to members by name, cleaning my clubs as I finished hitting each one, offering putting tips on the practice green (the greens here are bentgrass, very fast and break away from the mountains) and eventually leading me out to the first tee. While this may not be an everyday occurrence, it certainly was a level of service I will never forget. Dennis, you are the best!
The course is very simply a masterpiece of design. It is set on a piece of land like no other desert layout I have seen and I have played quite a few. In Morrish’s own words he says of Stone Canyon “It’s the most remarkable desert site I’ve ever seen. It has everything but an ocean – changes of elevation, beautiful rock formations, desert flora. It’s an awesome piece of land.”
The course starts innocently enough with a 390 yard Par 4 dogleg left that is fairly flat with minimal trouble off the tee and a generous green. It ends with a heroic 420 yard (503 from the tips) Par 4 that starts with a tee box perched in the heavens with an endless view of the Tucson area valley and a distant green at the end of a narrow ribbon of fairway too pretty to be believed.
In between are a mix of long and short, straightforward and deceptive, dry and water guarded holes of every imaginable shape and design. Yet there are some startling and consistent features to this layout. First and foremost, the views. Many of the holes are played from elevated tees that offer superb vistas not only of the hole at hand but of the entire surrounds as well. Second, nearly all of the interior holes are lined with hills seemingly made up from nothing but gigantic boulders. It looks as if some kid piled rock on top of rock on top of rock until a mountain was made. Spectacular, weird, eerie and the reason no doubt for the name…Stone Canyon.
The Par 3 6th is only 131 yards but plays across a desert ravine to a smallish green with a steep false front with trouble left, right and behind. Did I mention the 80’ tall waterfall cascading over a field of boulders just short and left? Just a minor distraction.
The Par 5 10th is a demanding risk/reward hole like few others. A good tee shot brings you near the edge of a lake across which lies the green; a mere 200+ yard carry over water. A small peninsula extends from the green into the lake and offers about the only safe landing spot should you go for it in two. For the timid and/or shorter hitter, a crescent moon shaped layup area skirts the entire left side of the lake. While this is dry ground it is also very narrow and quite difficult to hit in its own right. Par here…amazing!
I could on to describe every hole but this is somewhere that must be seen to be appreciated.
As I mentioned, Stone Canyon is a premier gated community in Tucson, Arizona and is only open to play for property owners and their guests. Being from Minnesota, it was nice to find so many of my home state snowbirds living part or full time in Stone Canyon. Owners do not need to join the golf club and those who choose not to still have full access to the community’s Health and Fitness Facility. Here they can take advantage of state of the art fitness equipment, swimming pools, tennis courts, yoga, Pilates as well as specially trained health and wellness instructors.
For those seeking a retirement location or second home I highly recommend you check in to all that is Stone Canyon. They have an excellent website describing the golf, community and real estate options. If you are fortunate enough to visit, be sure to say hello to Todd, Dennis and the rest of the staff and tell them that Mr. and Mrs. Ginsberg say hello.
Located on 250 prime acres at the base of Camelback Mountain is a desert oasis known as The Phoenician. This is one of Phoenix and Scottsdale’s original grand resorts. And by grand I mean soaring public spaces both inside and out with incredible fountains, flowers and landscaping throughout the entire property. The Phoenician is now home to 27 holes of golf, a tennis center, spa and a seemingly endless array of pools, dining options and activities.
The golf course has its own clubhouse and it is just a short walk from the main lobby. This large and beautiful building houses a well stocked pro shop, the golf locker rooms and the Relish Burger Bistro (on the second floor with commanding views of the course).
The Phoenician offers three separate nines each with a slightly different personality. The Desert nine is known for its elevation changes and the great views that it offers. The Par 3’s here are fun if you consider dramatic drop offs from tee to green entertaining. The Oasis nine is a more traditional tree lined layout. It has a more refined look than the rugged Desert nine and less terrain change. The Canyon nine is almost a mix of the two other nines. It rolls through the hills at the base of Camelback Mountain and is beautifully landscaped as well.
Everything here is grand. A long curved drive brings you past fountains, flowers, the golf course and portions of the resort before it ends at the circular entryway. Everything here is ornate from the waterfalls, to the enormous glass enclosed lobby and on to the multi-tiered array of pools, cabanas and utter relaxation.
Maybe afternoon formal tea time is your style? They have it here. Perhaps a rubdown at the spa? Done! Hiking? Cactus Garden? Boutique shops? Yes, yes and absolutely. And this is just a hint of all the activities in and around the resort.
Other than golf, my favorite things to do were:
- relax by one of the many pools and whirlpools late in the afternoon when the crowds were gone
- walk the paths around the beautiful grounds in the cool morning air with a fresh cup of coffee
- enjoy fireside drinks, coffee and dessert under starry skies from the upper terrace right before bedtime
While The Phoenician is not a mega-resort in the mold of the newer JW Marriot Desert Ridge or Westin Kierland it is a sophisticated and elegant resort in the tradition of the Arizona Biltmore and Hyatt Gainey Ranch. For the discriminating traveler or those wanting a once in a lifetime escape, The Phoenician is an excellent choice. It’s location just blocks from the heart of Scottsdale and its great on-site amenities makes this a must stop oasis in the desert.
Just north of Tucson, nestled against the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, awaits a wonderfully luxurious old school golf resort and spa – Loews Ventana Canyon.
While not on the ocean like Pebble Beach, or nearly as large as the enormous Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, this resort’s is a hidden gem. The terrain has the feel of Troon North in Scottsdale or the Vista Vallarta golf course in Puerto Vallarta. The resort itself may conjure up visions of classic American resorts such as the Arizona Biltmore, also up the road in Scottsdale.
Don’t be misled, this is a modern, up to date, “has it all resort”. By “old school” I simply nod to the architecture, beautiful grounds, not too big size (398 rooms), friendly staff, and excellent service. Swimming pools are large yet peaceful with no waterparks or man-made rivers in sight. Add on two Tom Fazio designed championship golf courses, a tennis center, spa, excellent dining options and you have just begun to experience all there is to do here.
Ventana Canyon is only a 30 minute drive from the Tucson airport but a world away as you climb north from the desert floor into the Catalina foothills. Ventana Canyon begins as the road is about to end at the base of the mountains. Loews at Ventana Canyon sits nearly camouflaged as you approach its commanding site high above the Tucson valley.
The Loews Ventana Canyon resort shares the Mountain and Canyon golf courses with the private Ventana Canyon Golf and Racquet Club. Play is alternated each day between the two courses. I highly recommend you play them both.
The courses are blessed with a great site including elevation changes, arroyos, rock outcroppings, trees, cacti, lakes and myriads of other distractions and attractions. The Mountain Course has its famous Hole #3, a 105 yard Par 3, with a tee shot over a ravine to a green that looks to be no bigger than your average backyard swimming pool. My favorite might be the next hole, the Par 5 fourth. From the elevated hillside tee, a swooping dogleg left beckons. Desert and sand guard the corner. The second shot offers no breather as the fairway narrows and water now comes into play. This liquid disaster guards the entire right side all the way through the green. Great hole!
The Canyon Course is equally challenging as it rolls around and through its many ravines, hillsides, cactus and undulating terrain. There are many fun holes and a really nice collection of 3 Pars. The Canyon Course culminates just below the resort lobby where an island green, complete with waterfall and even a few spectators, lays waiting at the end of this challenging Par 5 finishing hole.
Besides great golf, the resort has the intimate Lakeside Spa (with its own private pool and Jacuzzi), exercise classes, tennis center and a fitness path that meanders between the golf courses. The Flying V Bar and Grill is just one of the resorts dining options. It occupies the top floor of the spa building and offers amazing views of the 18th hole and the valley below. Dinner here is resort casual yet sophisticated and the guacamole made table side is amazing. Nearby hiking and biking trails are just the start to the myriad of outdoor activities in the area.
Loews Ventana Canyon is just minutes from the excellent shopping, dining and entertainment found throughout this modern north side of Tucson. Be sure to visit Shlomo and Vito’s New York Deli and Gavi’s Italian restaurant. Tell them Gordy sent you.
All in all this is one of my favorite spots for great golf, peace and quiet, as well as all the other amenities one might need for a great vacation.
Certainly you have seen the famed Par 3 sixteenth hole at the TPC Stadium Course in Scottsdale, Arizona. Annually it hosts the PGA Tour’s Phoenix Open where the pros must negotiate the most daunting 160 yard arena in golf. But more on that later.
The TPC Scottsdale complex is made up of two courses, the tournament hosting Stadium Course and its not so little sister the Champions Course. The adjacent Fairmont Princess resort is one of the finest in all of Phoenix. Together they combine to form one of the best golf/spa resort destinations in the country.
My initial visit to The Stadium Course was over 20 years ago. It was the first time I had played a golf course that was host to a PGA Tour event. I returned this year to find the layout just as I remembered it. Carved from nothing, this open Links style layout has matured into a good test of golf for all levels of players.
Most holes offer generous fairways off the tee but trouble abounds should you miss the short grass. The putting surfaces have always been above average both in speed and condition. Like almost all Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish designs, you will find a great mix of holes and often a drivable Par 4 like the 332 yard 17th hole.
But the most famous hole is the Par 3 16th. At only 160 yards, distance is not the main concern here during tournament week. Tuning out the thousands of spectators sitting in grandstands that line nearly the entire hole is the major obstacle here. When you tee it up, the stands and the fans will be gone. Yet, imagine the throngs, silent for a split second while you swing then bursting into cries of “You’re the man” and “It’s in the hole” ala Tiger Woods ace during the 1997 event. Memorable!
While the Stadium Course gets all the accolades, The Champions Course is no slouch. The holes here are much narrower than on the Stadium Course and the greens more severe. Keeping the ball in play is a bit more difficult making accuracy off the tee crucial for good scoring. Approach shots need to be well planned as being on the wrong level on some of these greens is a three putt in waiting.
The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is a large upscale resort with every imaginable amenity and luxury. From the Willow Stream Spa to the tennis complex and fine dining at Bourbon Steak or The Hacienda restaurants, this resort has it all. Accommodations range from oversize rooms all the way to generous casita living. Like the nearby Phoenician, Westin Kierland and JW Marriott Desert Ridge resorts, this is another fine example of today's world class resorts.
The Fairmont's pool areas are large beautiful spaces that front part of the Stadium Course. It is here, on the fourth hole right by the main pool, where your author recorded a hole in one the year the course opened. I have fond memories and a slight bias for this place.