|It was still dark on a Saturday morning in March when
in a glass-walled fitness studio of the Phoenician’s “Center for
Well-Being,” a dozen or so women, mats unrolled on the floor, were
stretching to the accompaniment of some vaguely Eastern-sounding
music. At 6:30, a slim and smiling young woman arrived, introduced
herself as the yoga instructor, and proceeded to lead the group
through various postures and movements. The session progressed, the
stars gradually receded, and the eastern sky turned from sapphire to
deep rose. Then, at 7:15, just as the women began performing “Salute
to the Sun,” an orange disc – as if in response -- began to rise
above the horizon.
Some thirteen hours later, after night had fallen at the end of a
perfect Arizona day, a small crowd gathered on the broad verandah
outside the Terrace Dining Room which looks out over descending levels
of artistically-shaped swimming pools, waterfalls, and fountained
lagoons linked by small bridges. One could sense a mood of
anticipation, of waiting for something , and soon it came in the
person of a casually dressed man carrying a telescope. He set it down
at the terrace’s edge and began to address the assembled. This was the
Phoenician astronomer. Every Saturday night when the skies are clear
(and in Scottsdale, when are they not?), he takes guests on a
star-filled journey through the southwestern sky.
They say this 250-acre resort which opened in the late 1980’s is
the epitome of the glitz and opulence of that over-the-top era. That
much becomes evident as soon as one turns off non-descript Scottsdale
Road onto a long climbing avenue punctuated by palm trees, fabulous
flower beds of brilliant red geraniums and yellow delphiniums, and
arrangements of indigenous rocks cooled by splashing water. At the
apex, before a spectacular fountain is the entrance to the resort’s
main building, a wide sandstone structure shaped like a giant arc.
Within are surfaces of gleaming Carrera marble elaborately-furnished
lobbies and lounges, two distinguished restaurants, shops, a café, a
theater, a ballroom, conference spaces, and most of the hotel’s 654
luxurious rooms and suites. Accommodations are also available in the
Canyon, a boutique-type hotel at the foot of majestic Camelback
Mountain that serves as backdrop to the resort, in private villas and
lake-front casitas. As for the rest, the Phoenician has nine swimming
pools – one paved with sparkling mother-of-pearl tiles, twelve tennis
courts, three nine-hole golf courses, and a 22,000-foot world-class
spa/fitness center – the Center for Well Being -- with beauty salon,
24 private treatment rooms, and manifold fitness studios.
Welcoming the sunrise and gazing at the stars might
seem incongruous in such a worldly setting. But there is a spiritual
dimension to the Phoenician experience as well that emerges from a
powerful and pervasive sense of place. In a pair of pools of swirling
water that bracket the entrance to the main building are
larger-than-life-sized Tennessee marble statues of Native Americans.
One is of a man beating a small prayer drum, the other an elongated
maternal figure with a child clinging to her side. Sculpted by the
Apache artist Allan Houser, they create a first impression that lasts
throughout one’s stay.
The Phoenician has an impressive and eclectic
collection of European art including 17th century French tapestries
and Flemish paintings (two by a contemporary of Peter Breughel’s). But
it is in its Native American statues and paintings that the
spirituality of the resort is rooted. “Las Vegas hotels may have more
museum-quality Impressionist or Renaissance art, but much of the
Phoenician’s is specific to the region; it is part of the context,”
concierge Chick Morgan said. A native of St. Paul, Minnesota who was
transferred to Phoenix by his company, Chick went from the insurance
to the hotel business after retirement and has been at the Phoenician
for the past five years.
“I want to emphasize the fact that I am not an art
expert,” the fresh-faced mid-westerner with the ready smile told us as
we embarked on a little art-oriented tour of the premises. But his
informed opinions spoke otherwise.
“We have eleven of Houser’s sculptures. But this one
of Chief Joseph is not his,” Chick said of the inspirational figure we
were looking up at in front of Canyon Building. “See the difference in
the lines on the robes; how much more detail there is in the face than
in Houser’s works.” He pointed out the wild streaming hair of another
Houser piece and compared it to a nearby statue by a Navaho sculptor
with the neat hair characteristic of that that tribe.
Concierge Chick Morgan,
art expert as far as we were concerned
If these expressive works positioned throughout the
resort serve as persistent reminders of the human history of southwest
Arizona, the Cactus Garden, that begins across the way from the Main
Building and stretches across the base of Camelback Mountain almost to
the Canyon Building, is a reminder of the natural environs in which
the resort is set.
A horticulturist conducts garden tours three times a
week. But we were content to walk its narrow paths in Chick’s company
past the palo verde trees, the sereo cactus which at the age of 75
sprouts lily-like blossoms from the very tops of its arms, the jumping
or teddy bear cholla which is so bushy and briary that it almost comes
out and grabs you as you pass by. “Cacti have self protection all over
them; you don’t want to get too close,” Chick told us. “But also the
cacti are protected by law. You’re not allowed to take anything from
or damage anything in the desert. Cacti are very slow in replacing
The variety of plants was staggering, but were most
enchanted by the agabe, low-growing and not particularly attractive
until it reaches the age of 15. Then it sends up a tall shoot, maybe
eight feet high, that sprouts little green flowers which are dispersed
by the wind to places where they settle and start life as a new plant.
And at this point, the mother plant -- which has devoted its entire
life to producing them – dies. It brought to mind the Hans Christian
Anderson tale about the nightingale who sings through the night with a
rose thorn pressed to its breast and dies in the morning. Then again,
perhaps it has served as the inspiration for some Indian myth.
At times the Phoenician, with its many pools and
fountains, great green lawns, water-loving plants and flamboyant
flower beds, can seem a tropical paradise. But a stroll through the
Cactus Garden reinforces the presence of its natural habitat, the
Sonoran Desert. So does a round of golf at the Desert Nine which, like
the other two courses at the resort, the Canyon Nine and Oasis Nine,
provide a distinctive setting and ambience.
Mel Chaiken, a golfing regular at the Phoenix who
played the nine holes with us on what he called “a Chamber of Commerce
day,” stopped as we approached the slope of Camelback Mountain and the
tee of the sixth hole. “There is the whole panorama of the Phoenix
Scottsdale area,” he said turning to look out at the vista behind us.
“You can see as far as the Indian reservation to the south.”
Mel Chaiken on a “Chamber of Commerce day”
Golf pro Kevin Betts appreciates the Phoenician
The Phoenician’s golf pro, Kevin
Betts, who like Chick Morgan, relocated to Arizona from Minnesota,
agreed the views are spectacular. “It is very special to play at the
base of Camelback Mountain,” he said. “It’s part of the aura of the
He continued, “When the hotel
opened, there was an 18-hole golf course here already. Now it is a
27-hole property, and many people do the whole thing. A lot of big
names play here, but everybody is treated very well across the board.
Our goal is superior service and super surface. We keep the courses in
optimum condition with 65 full-time associates.”
“Optimum condition” is standard at
the Phoenician, we realized, as we descended the sweeping palatial
stairways that lead from the terrace outside the main building through
levels of swimming pools and lagoons filled with gold and white
Japanese koi that swim up to the edge as one passes by. At the bottom
are curving lanes of casitas, the Center for Well Being, and the golf
The aptly named Windows on the
Green on the second floor of the clubhouse is an elegant, airy dining
room decorated in a blend of greens: the vivid greens of the golf
course, the pale greens of palo verde trees, and the muted greens of
the desert. Furnishings are luxurious. Chairs are deep and
comfortable. China is Rosenthal – pure white “because the food is so
vibrant in color,” restaurant manager Jennifer Stocker says. Beneath a
window overlooking the green, a man plays classical guitar music.
best southwest restaurant in the region and popular as much with the
local community as resort guests, Windows on the Green is noted for an
ambience that combines the casual with the elegant and an expert and
energized staff. But chiefly its repute stems from the creations of a
talented chef who never went to culinary school.
example of the American dream, Roberto Sanchez grew up in a little
town between Mexico City and Guadalajara but was an immigrant living
in Arizona for a few years when the Phoenician opened.
here to apply for a job and was hired as a dishwasher,” he told us.
“But I had hopes of working in the kitchen. That was my goal. I met an
Italian chef on the job who gave me the chance to make salads in the
pantry of the Terrace kitchen. From there I moved on to making salads
at the Mary Elaine’s (the Phoenician’s gastronomic restaurant), and
from there to Windows on the Green.
while, I was watching and watching. That’s how I learned, although I
also learned from my mother who is a sensational cook.”
Windows, Roberto swiftly moved on to making hot appetizers, to the
grill, the sauté. “Then I got the opportunity to be the lead cook,” he
said. “Three years later, the chef said ‘I want you to be my sous
chef.’ I said ‘If you think I’m ready, I’m ready.’
“As sous chef, I would go to the
chef and say ‘I’d like to do this special for tonight.’ And he’d say
‘Let’s do it!’ I’d say ‘I’d like to order this fish. Can I do a
special?’ ‘Yes!’ The chef liked what I did and put it on the menu.
“Every two or three months, I
would meet my father at the border and get the black peppers, chili
peppers, different spices. I still do. When I made the grilled New
York steak with my spices, we sold it out in two hours. Everyone loved
it. Now I use it on the Buffalo rib eye.
He continued, “About five years
ago, the chef moved to Denver. The f & b mgr asked if I wanted to take
over. But I declined; I didn’t feel ready. They hired another chef,
and I stayed on as sous chef. Then he got moved to the Terrace, and
again there was an opening.
“‘Bobby, the first time you said
you weren’t ready,’ they said. ‘Now the restaurant is yours.’
“I said ‘Let’s do it.’”
Windows on the Green is famous for
its variety of chilis, its dried peppers, its Mexican spices, and Chef
Sanchez’s inspired and stunning creations like the amuse bouche of
light and airy shrimp topped with mashed sweet potato and finished
with yellow bell pepper vinaigrette; the strips of grilled Portobello
mushroom marinated in balsamsic vinegar and herbed goat cheese served
in taco shells with small, green tomatoes and smoked orange chili
pepper; the roasted chicken soup with avocado relish and tortilla
And then there is Sanchez 41,
Roberto’s version of southwest tapas: four small portions of unique
entré offerings. The night of our dinner, there was filet of beef over
three-potato hash, topped with lobster and yucca root and foie gras
poblamo demi glaze; chicken breast with olive tamale, green beans with
corn, finished with traditional mole (chocolate) sauce and over 20(!)
spices, lamb t-bone and lamb chop finished with sweet potato cake and
sweet Creole mustard sauce, and blackened filet of salmon served over
white rice and finished with potato, bacon and onion vinaigrette.
Sanchez 41, Tapas a la Roberto
Windows on the Green team l to r:
manager Jennifer Stocker,
sommelier Colin Wain, cellarmaster Colin
Wain, chef Roberto Sanchez
Desserts like crème brulé with
blackberries, raspberries and strawberries and roasted banana empanada
turnovers seem too beautiful to disturb but ultimately too
irresistible to reject.
An American citizen now, Roberto
and his wife have made their home in the Scottsdale region. Recently
he was thrilled to learn he will be able to bring his parents here
from Mexico. But he’ll still go back to get spices. “Once I went to
visit my parents and brought back about 10 kilos of spices,” he said.
“The agent at the airport asked me to open my suitcase. ‘What do you
have?’ he asked. I said ‘Candy, a bottle of tequila and spices.’ ‘What
kind of spices?’ ‘Different kinds I use to make sauces. I’m a chef.’
He looked at the bag of spices. ‘Open it up.’ ‘But they are very
strong.’ ‘Open it up.’
“He stuck his stick in and the
smell hit him. ‘I told you’ I said, ‘they’re very strong.’”
While we did not get around to
experiencing the famed Mary Elaine’s, we were able to get a table for
the Terrace Dining Room’s famous Sunday brunch. That was an
accomplishment because people reserve weeks ahead of time. Not an
empty table could be found in the enormous restaurant that spills out
onto the terrace overlooking the pools. The brunch accommodates 421
guests in two servings. Yet inexplicably, there were no lines, no
sense of a crowd.
Karen, our blonde and sprite-like
server poured the Scharffenberger sparkling wine from Anderson Valley,
California and went through the routine. “You begin in the ante
chamber at the raw bar for oysters and clams. Beside it is the sushi
bar: California rolls, salmon, tuna with the chopsticks, ginger,
wasabi – all the accoutrements – and on the other side the smoked fish
counter: salmon, whitefish, sable, sturgeon, red and white caviar with
the chopped eggs, capers, chopped onions also poached salmon, and of
course little bagels and cream cheese.” Alas, when we got there, all
the caviar was gone. But when we returned to our table, a little dish
was waiting for us.
Following Karen’s directions, we
found the manifold cheese table with fruits and yogurts, the chef
making eggs to order, French toast, omelets with a range of fillings,
big Belgian waffles. We located the pasta bar: gnocchi, ravioli filled
with duck breast pate, ziti or linguini prepared to order with white or red
sauce and the carving board of roast beef.
Hot dishes are prepared on the
terrace: grilled steak with potatoes roasted and flavored with
rosemary. Mahi-mahi, scallops, vegetables: carrots, tiny squash, green
Terrace Dining Room team – a beaming Karen at
Desserts are set up on the bar.
Home made ice creams of a myriad of flavors are made into the most
degenerate of sundaes. There’s flan, crème brulé, chocolate
soufflé, cookies and pastries. But Karen insisted on our trying
the famous Phoenician crunch chocolate covered vanilla ice cream
with Heath bar.Throughout, the grand piano’s top
is up and the air is filled with America’s most beloved songs, among
them “I Love New York in June” over and over – must be a favorite of
the pianist’s. And why not? Who doesn’t love New York in June? But
someone should write a song about loving Scottsdale in March and its
fabulous Phoenician Hotel.
6000 East Camelback Road
Scottsdale, Arizona 85251
Photos by Harvey Frommer