Connect the dots--Tucson, Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Sedona--and you've drawn a bead on some of the country's top spas. Arizona is a spa mecca--and not just for the hot, dry climate. The state has long attracted bodyworkers and alternative healers, which gives spa directors a tremendous talent pool to draw upon. The spa density means that directors network easily, sharing everything from ideas to mud. There's plenty of healthy competition, too, so the bar is constantly being raised, and the guest reaps the reward. But the spa diversity can be hard to sort out. Here's a seasoned look at the old pros and the young tyros.
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Still The Champ:Canyon Ranch, Tucson
Twenty-five years old and only getting better with age. It's strong in facilities (80,000-square-foot spa building, 41 treatment rooms), fitness (50-plus classes each day, some very challenging, like the 12-minute-mile power walk shown above), massage, and medical program, with offerings that range from high-tech diagnostic to traditional alternative treatments like acupuncture and chiropractic. "Spiritual fitness"--yoga, qigong, and meditation--is solid, too: The two best yoga classes I've taken at a spa were here. Canyon Ranch is less for sheer relaxation and pampering than for life change and learning; many guests come to address weight (the spa cuisine is quite good) and stress issues. The treatment menu is heavy on the physical--the basic Canyon Ranch Massage ($95) is the most popular, but I recommend the terrific Thai massage ($210)--and refreshingly light on the metaphysical. Facials use the Ranch's own excellent product line. The four-, seven-, and ten-night packages include meals, at least one health consultation, and one basic spa or sports service each day.
Rates: Four-night package: $2,870-$5,720 per person, double occupancy
Location: 8600 East Rockcliff Road, Tucson
Being Here Now: Miraval, Life in Balance, Tucson
A stay here is all about learning to live in the moment. There are lectures and workshops on mindful eating, decision-making, and relationships; Challenge Program activities (standing atop a 25-foot pole) intended to help you face fears; and psychotherapist-horseman Wyatt Webb's hugely popular Equine Experience, in which you groom a horse to gain insight into how you interact with people. (The horse-bonding craze started here.) And if you need an escape from being here now, the hiking program is strong: three levels, smart guides, great scenery. As for the spa building, it is, as director Jim Root says, "not an amazing facility." (Aside from the too-small but sunlight-filled Quiet Room, it's rather plain-Jane.) But the therapists are talented--and willing to depart from the script when they find something that needs work. Drawback: guest rooms that are midrange hotel in look (silly cactus lamps) and amenities. (I found the lack of a bathtub especially irksome.) Treatment tip: Miraval, among the first spas to offer hot stone massage ($110), still does it well.
Location: 5000 East Via Estancia, Catalina
Sleeper Hit: Sanctuary on Camelback, Scottsdale
Scottsdale resorts sometimes merge into one largehotelgolfcourseandspa in the mind, which is why this one was such a pleasant surprise. First, its modest size (98 guest rooms) and lack of golf course make Sanctuary feel like a retreat. Second, the guest rooms are beautifully done. The southwestern-style mountain casitas ($415-$1,170) eschew regional kitsch, and the 24 spa casitas (left, $555-$1,420), the most original rooms I encountered, eschew regional altogether: They have custom Asian furnishings, gleeful modern touches (Noguchi-esque sofas), and large bathrooms that open onto courtyards with steeping tubs. The spa is pure Zen simplicity, cool and cave-like in summer, a flowing indoor-outdoor space in winter. The extensive menu includes cutting-edge consultations, such as the QXCI ($150), a "bio-energetic" biofeedback system meant to diagnose and treat the body's imbalances--the spa's hidden gem, according to director Kristin Carpenter. Two therapists regularly bring back treatments from Thailand. My pick: the Sabai Foot Ritual ($125), a foot and leg exfoliation followed by Thai reflexology with a wooden dowel.
Location: 5700 East McDonald Drive, Paradise Valley
No Bull: The Centre for Well-Being, the Phoenician, Scottsdale
"We didn't see the therapeutic value in it," says spa director John DeFontes when asked why hot stone massage isn't offered here. He takes a "militant" approach to the spa menu, spending months (sometimes years) discussing and testing proposed treatments. Thus services are seriously results-driven--muscle-loosening Table Thai (developed here, $190) and sports massage ($130) are big, and even meditation (a staple since 1988) and yoga get a practical spin with private sessions ($125) geared toward improving athletic performance. The Centre makes some mind-body connections, though. I was impressed with Acussage ($230), a mix of acupuncture, tuning forks, cupping, and massage that obliterated my jet lag. DeFontes spent more than a year finding acupuncturist Joan Laubach, who has a four-year acupuncture degree and an earth-mother presence. The downsides: dated spa facilities, the resort's marble-heavy '80s decor, and throngs of name-tag-wearing conventioneers (necessary to fill the hotel's 654 rooms).
Location: 6000 East Camelback Road, Scottsdale
Your Unspoken Wish Is Their Command: The Four Seasons Troon North, Scottsdale
Service here is almost clairvoyant. Spa therapists asked if I was okay with the temperature before I had to bring it up, and when I arrived alone at the casual restaurant for dinner (delicious), the hostess not only offered me magazines but brought a little clip-on reading lamp. Unlike most area spas, this one doesn't aggressively court locals, so resort guests rarely have trouble booking appointments when they want them. I disliked the signature Four Seasons in One treatment ($175), a four-fragrance scrub-wrap-massage medley that left me smelling like a Body Shop store. My custom facial ($120), however, was meticulously done. The facialist asked probing questions about my skin, babied it with Biodroga products and a cloth collagen mask, and even warned me about a speed trap on the interstate stretch I was driving later that day. Guest rooms are spacious and have sophisticated southwestern decor. The best: one- and two-bedroom ground-floor suites (left, $795-$2,400), which have outdoor garden showers, plunge pools, or both.
Location: 10600 East Crescent Moon Drive, Scottsdale
Best Treatments: Golden Door Spa at the Boulders, Scottsdale
It wins the laurels for its thoughtful mix of classics from the original Golden Door in Escondido, California, and intelligently done indigenous treatments, such as Native American Raindrop Therapy ($130), in which essential oils are dripped along the spine to bring the body into balance. I particularly liked the three-part Turquoise Wrap ($180): a turquoise hydromassage bath, a cornmeal exfoliation, and a wrap with ionized turquoise clay. Therapist Janet Beaver, a 20-year massage vet, proved herself a master of the pas de deux the treatment involves. The 33,000-square-foot spa has curving white walls, flowing water, and expansive windows that highlight the gigantic granite boulders outside. There's a large gym and an indoor-outdoor cafý that serves terrific spa cuisine, a mix of Golden Door chef Michel Stroot's signature recipes and healthy southwestern dishes. The minus: Standard guest rooms are awkwardly laid out, especially the bathrooms, where too much real estate is given to walk-in closets.
Location: 34631 North Tom Darlington Drive, Carefree
Most Romantic: Royal Palms Resort and Spa, Phoenix
Forget energy work and healing therapies. The Alvadora Spa focuses on old-fashioned indulgence, ideally done a deux, and it has the right setting for it: a two-story Mediterranean-style villa with fountains, fireplaces, gardens, and balconies at every turn. Royal Palms commissioned a residential design firm to create a spa that didn't feel like one at a hotel. Although only three of the ten bedroom-size treatment rooms accommodate couples, the entire spa feels seductive. The high spot: the Acqua Dolce couple's compound (left), with two rooms and three outdoor wet and relaxation areas. Signature treatments also feature Mediterranean rather than desert elements: The Orange Blossom Body Buff ($125) employs neroli oil in a nod to the orange trees throughout the property, and the Vino Therapy Body Scrub ($125) uses grapeseeds to gently exfoliate the skin. Bonus points: the fragrant, heated buckwheat pillow placed around your neck before any treatment. Best rooms: the very romantic deluxe casitas ($545), even though they're small (particularly the bathrooms) by today's standards, as they were built in the 1940s.
Location: 5200 East Camelback Road, Phoenix
Spectacular Design, Crystal Vibe:Mii amo, a Destination Spa at Enchantment, Sedona
Mii amo's 24,000-square-foot spa building and its 16 guest casitas are organic extensions of their environment, like the Anasazi cliff dwellings that inspired them. In both, indoor and outdoor are nearly one: Even some of the 19 treatment rooms have vistas of 400-foot-high red rocks, graceful cottonwoods, and Technicolor blue sky. The spa cuisine is sublime, and the accommodations are luxurious by destination-spa standards, with cushy alder-framed platform beds, outdoor sitting areas, and stylish bathrooms with deep soaking tubs. That's the outer Mii amo. The inner Mii amo (the name is a Yuman Indian word that means "journey") is rampantly New Age, with a barefoot intention-setting ritual in the Crystal Grotto every morning and a spa menu full of offerings like Psychic Massage ($125), Body Feng Shui ($125), and Aura-Soma Color Balancing ($165). Three-, four-, and seven-night packages focus on spiritual exploration, healthy lifestyle, de-stressing, or Ayurveda. (A fifth "journey," optimal aging, was set to debut in December.) Those who can't discuss energy vortexes, Tarot cards, and past-life regression with a straight face are better off staying at the adjacent Enchantment Resort and coming to Mii amo for the skilled therapists, adults-only pool (more peaceful than Enchantment's), and spa cafý and juice bar, which serves margaritas as well as wheatgrass shots. Nice touch: Packages include two treatments or consultations daily--twice the standard number.
Rates: Three-night package: $1,890-$2,790 per person, double occupancy
Location: 525 Boynton Canyon Road, Sedona
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