There are resort spas . . . and then there are Resort Spas. Sanctuary is in the company of the latter. One of America’s iconic boutique properties, Sanctuary has been serving up imaginative and authentic spa and wellness experiences since the spa opened its Asian-inspired doors in January of 2002.
One of a handful of resort spas that helped set the bar, Sanctuary has managed to stay true to its mission and deliver experiences that keep guests coming back for more. It’s a magical mix of a loyal and longstanding staff, visionary and inclusive management, and a spectacular location that’s hard to beat. When you arrive, you feel like you’ve come home. And for whatever reason you’re there, it’s the right reason.
I’ve visited the legendary property a number of times over the years and have witnessed and experienced a variety of changes—all for the better and with the guests’ comfort at heart. And I have three dear friends from various walks of life, who love the place for the same reason: It’s a welcoming space that makes you feel safe—a place where you can lose yourself and find yourself all over again. A true respite.
And isn’t that really what we all crave these days? After the pandemic our horizons have shrunk; we’ve lived cramped, constrained, and somewhat stunted lives where at first, we couldn’t imagine the pandemic—and then we couldn’t imagine the pandemic being over. Now we have the opportunity to be able to travel to remarkable destinations not only for peace of mind and for personal healing, but for landscapes that are incredibly inviting and beckon us to look up at the sky, to marvel at the stars, to appreciate the quiet . . . Sanctuary delivers all that, and more.
I was happy to return this past January at the invitation of Kathy Massarand, the vivacious Director of Sales and Marketing who has been with Sanctuary since the very beginning, when construction on the property began in 1999. We first toured the property together around 2002, and a couple of times since. This past November, Sanctuary was sold to Gurney’s Resorts, and I was curious about new plans. It was time to check in again.
It’s a place where you can lose yourself and find yourself all over again. A true respite.
Stellar Spa Team
Situated on Scottsdale’s Camelback Mountain and serenely spread out over 53 acres, Sanctuary feels like its own private planet. It sits beneath an awe-inspiring rock formation, aptly entitled The Praying Monk. I contemplate this view from my perfect perch in the women’s lounge at Sanctuary Spa, a 12,000-square-foot space that cocoons in just the right way. The spa is a sanctuary within the Sanctuary, and I relax, while awaiting my treatment, on a cushiony seat by a floor-to ceiling bi-fold door that peeks out onto a peaceful water feature. The lounge is full. There are girlfriends spa-ing together and chattering away, business women taking time out but still talking biz, solo women like myself sipping herbal tea and happily staring into space, and spa attendants at the ready . . .
The spa team here is noteworthy (there are about 130 spa employees), and many have worked at Sanctuary for five, ten, and even twenty years. The spa is led by LaRae Verros, a passionate powerhouse of a spa director who has been with the Sanctuary since 2007. (Two of her staff have been with her since she opened the spa at Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North back in 1999). At the Sanctuary’s annual service awards dinner every year, the spa has the longest list of employees being recognized for their years of service, shares Verros, whose passion centers around her team. “I have such an amazing team,” she enthuses, “When you are with great people who are fantastic, it raises the bar and you rise to the challenge.”
Rising to the challenge is second nature for Verros, who can think outside of the box like nobody’s business. Give her a newly licensed massage therapist right out of school and—after a genius apprentice training program she created— she’ll give you one helluva good therapist who will only get better. When March 2020 hit and the resort closed its doors, the spa went from 140 appointments a day to zero. “When we came back we had such an advantage,” she notes, “We were privileged—we had a private ownership and were able to look at things from just our property standpoint, versus looking at it from a Marriott or Four Seasons’ standpoint with multiple locations globally.”
During the height of the pandemic, Verros and management were able to move quickly and make fast decisions based on their market and what was happening in their backyard. None of the staff were let go; everybody was brought back before reopening. “The day that the government said we could reopen, we reopened,” she states. “We were ready. The team was comfortable and a part of everything. They knew that ownership had their backs. I am so blessed to have been with this company during the whole Covid experience.”
Satisfying the Senses
The spa is booming, and includes around 350 members who book facials and massages, but are spa members mostly for the fabulous fitness classes, tennis, pilates, and pickle ball options. Verros upped the spa game by doing away with 30- and 90-minute treatments. Guests may now choose from 60-minute treatments and two-hour specialized services. During my visit, I had a very good custom facial with Lisa Desanti, a knowledgeable and friendly esthetician who used a number of Naturopathica products. The standout product? Naturopathica’s Plant Stem Cell Booster Serum—and a great little lip balm from Image Skincare. (The spa carries Knesko and Skin Authority lines, as well.) I also experienced the new two-hour Signature Coconut Sumatra Body Ritual that included a full-body exfoliation, a nourishing body butter wrap, and a relaxing massage. I was fortunate to be booked with Jeane Hays, a master therapist whose bodywork I had experienced years back (Jeane has been with the Sanctuary for 17 years). After two hours on her table, I was completely noodlized.
Speaking of food—elements, Sanctuary’s signature restaurant is better than ever. Two-time James Beard nominee, Chef de Cuisine, Samantha Sanz, a no-nonsense young woman who firmly believes in “the power of food and drink to connect us all,” is creating very flavorful fare that takes comfort food to a whole new level. Case in point: Two Wash Farms Chicken with chanterelle mushrooms, savory spinach butter, and whipped mashed potatoes. Not to be missed is a cocktail in the jade bar where Netherlands’ native and celebrated Bar Chef Christiaan Röllich is having fun redefining what you thought was a cocktail. I tried his “Little Leaf,” a combo of mezcal, cucumber, cilantro, cumin, and jalapeno. It whet the appetite.
We stayed in a spacious and comfortable Mountain Suite (all of the accommodations at Sanctuary are casita-style), where I spent each evening soaking in in the perfect-sized victoria + albert bathtub. Seriously, one of the best tubs in which I’ve ever immersed myself—and believe me, after 25 years in the spa biz, I have a lot of great bathtubs under my belt.
A Peek at the Past, A Leap into the Future
The property dates back to October of 1956, when it opened as The Paradise Valley Racquet Club. It was purchased by John Gardiner in 1967 and renamed John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch. “By the mid-1950s, when the Paradise Valley Racquet Club opened, the Scottsdale/Paradise Valley resort scene was morphing from one with small guest ranches and inns to larger, more luxurious resorts,” shares Joan Fudala, Scottsdale community historian. “Tennis became an important resort amenity. When John Gardiner acquired the property in the late 1960s, he hosted numerous tennis tournaments, including the annual US Senators Cup Tennis, which drew senators, as well as Hollywood celebrities, as players.”
In 1992, Gardiner sold the property to Robert Castellini who renamed it the Ranch on Camelback Mountain. “That was the transitional name until the opening of Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa [in March 2001],” states Massarand. “This was when they decided to expand the resort, add twenty-four spa casitas, and Sanctuary Spa.”
From the beginning, the property was branded to be a unique luxury boutique resort that was situated on Camelback Mountain that gave it breathtaking views of Paradise Valley, explains Massarand, who after 22 years of building the property into a national award-winning boutique resort, is now taking the opportunity to share her branding and marketing wisdom with other luxury resort properties. “Sanctuary is a jewel,” she says. “Something that is exclusive and tranquil—a place where guests can experience the tranquility of the surrounding natural beauty.”
Mary Bemis is Founder & Editorial Director of InsidersGuidetoSpas.com. She is a pioneering spa journalist, most recently honored as one of the "Top 30 Influential Voices Transforming Wellness." She is an inaugural recipient of Folio's Top Women in Media Award, and was honored by ISPA with its distinguished ISPA Dedicated Contributor Award. In 1997, she launched American Spa magazine, and in 2007, Mary co-founded Organic Spa magazine. A pioneer in the sustainable spa and beauty worlds, Mary is co-curator of Cosmoprof North America's Discover Green Pavilion. She is a Global Wellness Day Advisor, and a co-founder of the Washington Spa Alliance.
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