A snake, saguaros, a spa and shopping: The Boulders Resort and Spa

It's just after 9 p.m. I've just finished a very satisfying dinner at the AAA four diamond restaurant: creamy corn chowder, blackberry and pistachio salad with goat cheese, flat iron steak with pasilla jus and a huckleberry emulsion, roasted Brussels sprouts and patty pan squash and strawberry shortcake washed down with an ice wine-kissed margarita. Most resorts with a "captive" audience don’t often offer food this delicious.

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In September, the air is still scorching by day, climbing over 100 degrees. But at night it softens as a blanket of black covers the sky, punctuated only by scattering of stars and the half moon. And though a golf cart is always at the ready to whisk guests back to their casita, I’d rather walk.

Just to the left of the entrance, I see four staffers gathered. I advance slowly, then I see it: a western diamond back rattlesnake curled on the dirt. The snake is magnificent; apparently not agitated, silent. Still, says one staffer, he sometimes makes a “big noise.” Another staffer estimates him at three and a half feet in length. He says I am lucky to see a rattlesnake, they’ve been scarce this summer.

I look down, smiling to myself: I’m wearing a snakeskin printed blouse. Have I sartorially summoned the snake with my choice of clothing? I am secretly thrilled. Though I rarely encounter the real thing in my environment, I have a number of paintings depicting artwork.

"Snakes are misunderstood." I say. "They are transformative, a good omen."
There’s a division of opinion on this.

An employee has been radioed to wrangle the snake into a pail. It will be released nearer to the mountain, further from the resort’s skittish guests. “Would you like to feel how heavy he is?” he says, thrusting the pail to me.

My heart quickens as I reach for it. It is surprisingly heavy.

Minutes later, I head down the illuminated path to my casita. I don’t see any more snakes, just the majestic silhouette of the saguaros in the moonlight.

For all its low-key elegance, The Boulders is still a wild place, the habitat of desert creatures.

Boulders: Eternally iconic

Twenty years ago, I first visited this celebrated resort, a favorite hideaway of celebrities and power brokers. Its impact was indelible and all these years later, my memory of The Boulders Resort and Spa remains crystalline. Of course, I was far less traveled then, so I wondered if a return visit would impress me as much.

It does.

Of course, Carefree, located 45 minutes north of Phoenix, has grown more populated—and popular—over two decades. There’s a new highway, a clutch of restaurants and shops in nearby Cave Creek. But the stunningly singular landscape of the Sonoran Desert seems untouched.

Unlike so many Arizona resorts, there’s a real sense of place. It’s the granite boulders said to be 12 million years old, the giant saguaros, the rattlesnakes. I feel like an extra on a movie set.

Simply put, The Boulders is iconic.

I’m an urban gal who loves the wide open spaces of the desert. The Boulders boasts 160 casitas and 60 villas tucked into the natural terrain. There are the expected top-notch amenities: two golf courses, six restaurants, a 33,000-square foot spa, two swimming pools.

My spacious casita, Number 281, has been recently renovated with a marble bathroom and cowhide accents. There’s a fireplace and a wet bar. But what I like best is the patio’s view of a pile of rocks as the sun streaks the sky amethyst and papaya.

I like the silence broken only by the nasal call of the Gambel’s quail or the hopping of desert cottontail rabbits. In a wash near my suite, I’m mildly startled to spy a pack of javelina, wild pig-like animals. How incongruous—and how utterly fantastic—is it to be headed to a spa appointment and see all this wildlife? It’s a natural tonic for a city-weary traveler.

The spa complex includes a pool, gift shop, fitness center and 24 treatment rooms; in addition, there’s a meditation labyrinth and an organic garden. And everywhere, boulders dominate the view, sharing it with tree-sized, armed saguaro cacti. Frankly, it’s too surreal to read a book when I’m surrounded by this deeply unusual landscape. I simply surrender into it, floating in the pool, stealing glances of those looming rocks.

Up, Up, and Away in a hot air balloon

It takes something special to rouse me at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m.; a hot air balloon ride qualifies. After we tumble out of the van, we watch as the balloons are inflated. It takes team effort with a torch pointed into the center of the balloon and a fan positioned to blow the hot air into the envelope (the term for the colorful fabric). As the heated air rises, it brings the balloon to a vertical position. When fully inflated a balloon is more than seven stories tall; the fabric weighs over 700 pounds.

Twelve of us climb into the basket, giddy with excitement. The sun is up and soon we lift off, hot blasts of air keeping us afloat. From 5,000 feet, we have the proverbial bird’s eye view, gliding over saguaro and washes, even the interstate at rush hour. Back on the ground, apres ballooning, the crew lays out a breakfast spread of quiche and pastries from acclaimed chef Vincent Guerithault. We toast with mimosas as Captain Mike passes out our certificates and points out the circling coyotes who await the leftovers.

Beyond the Boulders

From my base at the Boulders, there’s plenty to explore north of Phoenix.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West has been called a “manmade desert masterpiece” for the way it blends and blurs the line between indoor and outdoor spaces. Wright first came to Arizona in 1927; by 1937, at the age of 70, he had established his winter residence in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains.

Wright’s so-called organic architecture is integrated into the surroundings. (Perhaps the Boulders’ architects took their cue from Wright). There’s an interesting tension between the expansive, light feeling in the desert and the low, dark interiors. During the 90-minute Insights Tour, I learn about the cantilevered roof, the hexagonal doors, the desert masonry and the “compress and release” sensibility that make this residence so unique. This National Historic Landmark still serves as a vibrant center for a community of architecture students, artists and teachers.

After touring Taliesin in the heat of the day, lunch at The Greene House at Kierland Commons (a shopper’s paradise) offers California-inspired cuisine in cool, chic surroundings. The herb hummus is bursting with flavor thanks to the chopped tomatoes, raw onion and feta; I lap it up with thick grilled pita bread. Two creative pasta dishes floor me: fresh pea dumplings stuffed with bok choy and enoki mushroom dunked into a sweet chili broth, and sweet corn cannelloni with baby tomatoes and a basil salad. Grilled baby artichokes brushed with parmesan and lapped with balsamic vinegar round out a fine meal. A basil gimlet is a fine herbaceous liquid accompaniment.

The Heard Museum North Scottsdale is an outpost of the renowned downtown museum featuring two exhibition galleries, a cafe and a terrific gift shop. In addition to eating, Scottsdale is known for great shopping. Though too much of the space is empty (recession woes), El Pedregal, near The Boulders, offers a couple of notable boutiques: Conrad’s for beautifully handcrafted handbags and interesting jewelry and Stefan Mann for small leather goods, luggage and shoes. In the same shopping center is The Spotted Donkey, where the nachos are stacked with pulled pork, roasted tomatillo salsa and Mexican crema ; the mac and cheese is spiked with chiles and applewood smoked bacon.

Back at the Boulders

After the day’s exertions, some spa time is in order. I mindfully walk the labyrinth following a dip in the pool, then I’m ready for my 80-minutes massage at the Golden Door Spa. I’m booked for a Thai massage, but I’ve forgotten to wear loose clothes, so Aaron adjusts the session to a combination of deep tissue, cranial-sacral and Swedish with some much-needed stretching. He’s intuitive and offers a plethora of advice about the persistent pain in my sacrum: from walking backward to pressing a lacrosse ball into my back to juicing and drinking grapefruit to lessen inflammation. Tonight, I’ll order room service, but I make a note to breakfast at the spa cafe for a goat cheese and asparagus omelet and cranberry pecan muffin.

It’s a short walk back to my casita as I step into the glory of the Sonoran desert: a hawk overhead, a javelina, rabbits, the quail, the saguaro, prickly pear, those marvelous boulders. I pour myself a glass of wine, open the balcony door and take it all in.

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A former Navy brat who traveled and lived abroad extensively, Suzanne Wright is a fulltime, freelance writer based in Atlanta. She has written numerous travel, food and decor features for numerous international, national and regional publications. Her articles have appeared in Elite Traveler, Wine & Spirits, Veranda, Atlanta Magazine, The Tennessean, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, Piedmont Review, Charlotte Place, Where, On Magazine and others. A suitcase is always packed and her passport always up to date.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

© 2015