One step into the vast, remote reaches of the Sonoran Desert and you’ll become introspective. You might not ask for it, but the wise, ancient saguaro cacti will beckon to you with their anthropomorphic arms, teasing you to come closer. They’ll tell you, as every cactus lover knows, that each saguaro starts out in the same barrel shape—but grows old and bold, allowing their branches to sprout and curl into uniquely expressionistic shapes, sometimes vaunting as many as fifty evocative appendages. No saguaro would dare be like another. Ancients, two centuries old sometimes, saguaros will also reveal their sagacity, reminding you as you stand near them that to live a long time means to see a lot, to have digested eons of experiences, to have stories to tell. You have stories, as well.
The Vast and Jagged Beauty of the Desert
In the desert, silence and mindfulness become second nature—and quickly, if you allow yourself to listen to the dunes sing (an almost impalpable purr in harmony with the universe’s own frequency), see the barren acres flower (as the Sonoran Desert, with its uncanny 30 species of cacti, does twice a year), yield to glassy-looking mirages (a metaphor for illusion versus truth, as well as a reminder that the answers lie within), and discover oases (a place to refuel and reset). The desert with it jagged edges, chunky mountains, red otherworldly boulders, unfriendly heat, and startlingly colorful sunsets and sunrises envelops you into that space within yourself that sits buried.
The very emptiness of a desert bolsters our relentless search for meaning and enlightenment. Like the cactus, our impenetrable exterior holds something vulnerable, rich, and beautiful within. All that said, a spa experience in the desert is like a freeway to insight, revelation, rejuvenation, and epiphany. Perhaps that’s why Scottsdale’s spa scene thrives with such authenticity and gusto. Not just about beauty, the spas here have the added advantage of nature’s supernatural healing force, a primeval support group gleaned from the surroundings, a constant reminder that your voice inside matters and your light never dims. Always a mind, body, and spirit experience, the following spas offer desert wisdom and wellness messages as old as time.
A spa experience in the desert is like a freeway to insight, revelation, rejuvenation, and epiphany.
The Spa at Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North
Replicating an oasis amid the uncanny foothills of Pinnacle Peak set among the verges of Scottsdale proper, this hideaway property deftly succeeds in fusing with nature, even honoring its location by letting the desert set the tone. Wrapped around a pool, which happily is not a mirage, the resort invokes the solace of its surroundings. Guests can partake of various nature trails, which wind through its 40 acres, enjoy outdoor yoga beneath the endless sky, and play tennis on some sequestered, desert flora-ensconced courts. But by far the most profound place to spend time in is the Spa—an unpretentious sanctum, recently re-envisioned by spa veteran, Jaana Roth. Wishing to draw from the surroundings but less predictably than most, she has researched and instituted novel house-made treatments, such as the Nopal Massage. While its name may conjure images of being spanked by prickly pear paddles, in fact, the soothing ritual plies the aloe-like innards (rich in anti-oxidants, vitamins, and minerals) to hydrate and rebalance the skin via a rejuvenating, rhythmic massage. Highly recommended, this massage finishes with nopal water, or, if you prefer, a prickly pear margarita.
Palo Verde Spa & Apothecary at Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Bungalows
Comprising mid-century modern-inspired bungalows, this urban haven manages to be artsy, eccentric, hip and coddling at once. Taking riffs from Scottsdale’s ponderous architectural roots, it honors the era with Frank Lloyd Wright (and cohort) references via structural design, furnishing and landscape arrangement, including some eye-popping Eero Saarinen Suites, property-wide garden groves and inviting nooks. Fitness buffs will want to book the capacious Sonoran Wellness Suites, conveniently equipped with Tonal Smart-gym systems, digital weights and virtual coaching, healthy mini-bar snacks and Atlantic Coast Cruiser bikes. Take refuge in the Palo Verde Spa & Apothecary, which feels a world away from the surrounding metropolis. Views of Camelback Mountain, complimentary classes in yoga and meditation, and an outdoor hot tub at the spa encourage guests to return again and again throughout their stay, though the aromatherapy-centered apothecary bar (make your own curative scrubs and more) and the transcending spa treatments are the spa’s true hero amenities. Go for the Sonoran Scrub, which involves your choice of re-mineralizing desert salts, agave-infused sugar or ultra fine mesquite buffing grains. Desert botanical oils finish the job. Or, take years off with the Cactus Lift & Tone Facial, which utilizes cactus extract and apple stem cells to smooth and tighten the visage.
Spa at The Boulders, Boulders Resort & Spa
I enjoy The Boulders in Carefree, a diminutive hamlet about 30 minutes from Scottsdale, for many reasons, none the least of which is that it reigns as an exemplar retreat. But, I remain ever amused by the two things. First of all, its perfectly apt name, which conjures immediate visions of its mystical terrain, an expanse riddled with colossal, round, chunks of granite that look like balls cast down by Greek gods from the sky. Dating from 12 million years ago, they literally buzz with universal energy and intrigue, not one like the other, each whispering a secret as you walk by. Next, I won’t ever stop joking about or imagining who dubbed (and why, how and when) a tiny town in the desert a name as hopeful as Carefree, as if it were the stop one arrived to on a board game of fortune after a good role of the die, the place you hoped you’d manage to reach before the end of your life. Indeed, The Boulders is that stop, though if we’re all lucky we’ll return to this marvelous desert milieu again and again. With terrain-melding rooms called Casitas, golf courses that don’t ruin the desert views, restaurants and pools, the Boulder’s true piece-de-resistance remains its 33,000-foot spa and wellness facility. Feng shui-designed to summon an everlasting air of zen, the outpost, set apart from the rest of the resort has 24 treatment rooms, a 2,000 square-foot fitness center, a movement studio, wellness classrooms, a tea room and cafe, a Native American Tipi, and a truly magical labyrinth. Choose absolutely any treatment by the highly energy-attuned therapists, then reserve plenty of time to soak up the spa facility. For those feeling adventurous, perhaps up for a challenge, activities from hatchet throwing to rock climbing, as well night desert bike tours and hot air balloon riding will build confidence and earn you the time to be “carefree.”
Sanctuary Spa at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa
Scattered on the foot of Camelback Mountain in Paradise Valley (yes, another telling name for a town), Sanctuary Camelback, usually just called Sanctuary, feels like finding that secret party with the confidential address for which only the cool people have directions. In a way, this vibe of exclusive chic and stylish refuge pervades all of Scottsdale. The whole town, once upon a time, was a harbor for 1950s Hollywood glitterati bent on a sunny escape from the rigours of movie making. More than most, however, Sanctuary oozes clubby—albeit welcoming—sociability. The resort was a racquet club in the fifties, then morphed to be the acclaimed John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch a decade later, a history that only intensifies the sense of clique-y history—after all, how many courts can claim the likes of Elton John or Billie Jean King rallied upon them? Today, known as one of the best places in Scottsdale to spy the sunset, it covers some 53 acres, adorned with palm trees, cacti, bougainvillea. More than one hundred capacious, opulent casitas, as well as a few houses hide guests within at night. Perhaps most all, the brilliant resort draws many for its Asian-intoned spa. I’ll love it forever for its homage to the landscape, exemplified by its architectural design. In particular, the way the courtyard has been set up to ensure views of the soul stirring Praying Monk rock says everything. To see the formation suffused in amber and pink light at dawn is akin to a spiritual spa treatment. But don’t stop there. Delve into the spa’s offerings, a menu that serves as an ode to Asian motifs, from cupping to acupuncture. And, don’t miss the morning yoga on the lawn, led by the handsome, guitar playing yoga master.
Becca Hensley is Editor at Large for Insider's Guide to Spas. Based in Austin, she writes regularly about travel and spas. She believes a good story draws you in like laughter in a crowded room, and challenges you to do it justice. Her work appears regularly in Austin Monthly, Travel Channel, Toronto Star and National Geographic Traveler.