Taking Sanctuary in Scottsdale

Three new spas raise the bar

Starting in the 1980s, resorts like the Phoenician and its Center for Well Being established Scottsdale, Arizona, as a center for luxurious spas. Recently three new ones have raised the bar, with varying degrees of success. The most satisfying, for its intimacy and tranquillity, is Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain—the former John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch, opened in January as a sleek, contemporary resort—on the north slope of Camelback Mountain. The stadium is gone, along with all but five of the courts (part of a new tennis complex). Dominating the landscape instead: an infinity pool and a 12,000-square-foot spa that leans decidedly to the East. There's a Zen rock garden; Thai and Reiki massage; lessons in balancing one's chakras; a body scrub of bamboo and lemongrass, and another of fresh coconut, sandalwood, jasmine, and cloves. For Southwest purists, the Tucson-trademark massage with hot river stones is also on the menu. (Recommended therapist for all: Tara.)

That the tone is Asia instead of Arizona may seem incongruous, but it's actually a refreshing change for the area. So too among all the vast resorts is Camelback's size: just 74 renovated casitas that spill along the hillside and 24 new suites clustered around the spa. With only 11 treatment rooms, the menu of options can't be encyclopedic, though massages and classes are also conducted outdoors to take advantage of the spectacular scenery.

Even when the resort's full, there's a real feeling of serenity that you don't find at the larger, more group-oriented places. (Starting at Christmas, the small spa expects to be open to members and resort guests only.) The same can't be said at night, when there's a bustling scene in the capital-letter-less jade bar, attached to the equally self-effacing elements restaurant. With its dark, spare decor and Asian-accented menu, elements feels more SoHo than Southwest, though you won't mistake it, with its walls of windows that wrap the room in a Sonoran Desert panorama.

In the new suites, gas fireplaces, rustic stone walls, and floors painted by a local artist are set off by contemporary furnishings like an electric-blue couch with a plum throw and lime pillows; best are the larger two-room units with outdoor soaking tubs. Providing more privacy and better views are the woodsy, multilevel casitas with wood-burning fireplaces. Most private of all is Gallery, a four-bedroom house at the top of a hill, with its own tennis court and pool, sweeping views, and—as former home of tennis great Ken Rosewall—a link to the resort's past. Dinner, $92. Rooms, $280-$750; rates for Gallery vary by length of stay and number of guests. At 5700 E. McDonald Dr., Paradise Valley, AZ; 800-245-2051, 480-948-2100; fax 480-483-7314; www.sanctuaryoncamelback.com.

The New Megaspas

California's famed Golden Door now has an outpost at The Boulders . The 33,000-square-foot adobe spa building, with floor-to-ceiling windows, comprises an extensive fitness center, meditation areas, and 24 treatment rooms. Out in the lush desert lies the labyrinth, a circular maze guests walk in order to clear their minds. Aside from Ayurvedic massages, watsu, and a few other Asian offerings, the focus is on über-trendy Native American treatments like the blue-cornmeal-and-clay wrap with ionized turquoise and a ritual involving the shaking of a rain stick followed by chanting. Treatments, $35-$290. At 34631 N. Tom Darlington Dr., Carefree, AZ; 480-595-3500; fax 480-488-4118; www.wyndham.com/luxury/goldendoor.

Even larger, at 44,000 square feet, is Willow Stream-The Spa at Fairmont, arrayed over three levels linked by a heated waterfall you can sit under for a neck, back, and shoulder massage. If you are staying at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess , their spa is a fine extra: The staff is extremely proficient, and the range of treatments is extensive, including many that incorporate desert ingredients as well as a novel massage-stretching-acupressure combo intended to improve golf performance. But the immense size and a certain factorylike feeling to the place (the 25 treatment rooms lining the corridor, the necessity of traveling between floors by elevator) work against the spa "ethos," and like the rooftop pool, Willow Stream seems a touch unnatural and lacking in atmosphere. Treatments, $119-$269. At 7575 E. Princess Dr., Scottsdale; 800-908-9540, 480-585-2732; fax 480-585-0086; www.fairmont.com.

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