Bilt for pleasure
Imagine palm trees, saguaro cactus and blooming geraniums, petunias and pansies. Imagine warm pools, chirping birds and people sporting shorts, sandals and T-shirts. The skies are blue and temperatures are warm, sometimes hot.
People play golf and tennis. They hike and bike. And snap up tickets to cheer the Seattle Mariners during spring training.
Think Phoenix. And think about staying at the state’s first resort, and still one of its finest: the historic Arizona Biltmore.
Phoenix is but 24 road hours away from Spokane through Montana and Nevada – some 1,440 clicks on the odometer.
Yes, countless snow birds and RVers crowd Arizona in the winter. (We marveled at the thousands and thousands of white RV tops covering the desert around a town called Quartzsite, on the California border.)
And sure, the Valley of the Sun (that would be greater Phoenix, home to 5 million plus) books many rooms at Sleep Inns.
But places like the Arizona Biltmore are destinations in themselves.
Upon opening in 1929, the Biltmore stood some seven miles outside Phoenix – an isolated resort in the Sonoran Desert. Old photographs hanging in the main lodge show the surrounding foothills and flatlands marked only by rock, scrub and cacti.
The resort’s design was inspired by the great Frank Lloyd Wright. The hotel, wings and cottages were constructed of “Biltmore blocks,” a variation on a Wright textile block. They were molded out of desert sand in 34 geometric patterns inspired by the palm tree’s trunk. A gold-leaf ceiling, the second largest in the world after the Taj Mahal, graces the lobby.
In a 2004 Phoenix Magazine article, architect Vernon Swaback, a Wright student who worked on several Biltmore remodelings and additions, said of the resort:
“In some magical, mystical way, it belongs in the desert – despite the pools and the lush landscape. It employs what Wright would call the ‘grammar of the desert’ – skeletal, exposed, geometric. … The design brings the outside in, and the inside out.”
That’s most dramatic in the signature dining room, aptly called Wright’s. A towering window frames a 20-foot sculpted fichus tree.
Four additional wings and various villas have been added to this sprawling resort since 1975, all striving to replicate the original design.
Hollywood celebrities, sports stars and politicians have been gathering here since opening day.
Irving Berlin penned “White Christmas” here. He told the local newspaper: “When I’m working like this, the sunshine is vital to me.”
Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and Carol Lombard and Clark Gable honeymooned here. Marilyn Monroe loved the Catalina Pool, made with colorful tiles from Catalina Island. Every president since Herbert Hoover has slept here.
One guest complained in 1978 about late-night noise, only to be advised to stand outside his room and look down on an impromptu concert by Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra.
George Clooney, Tom Cruise and Sharon Stone are just three of the more current guest stars. Michael Jordan, a frequent guest, now owns a mansion along one of the two golf courses.
Everything around the resort carries the Biltmore name, hoping to snag some of that star power: Malls. Banks. Streets. Even convenience stores.
Back in its early days, the resort let guests ride horses and shoot skeet. Nowadays, the poop and lead would disturb all those surrounding neighbors.
Today, the 39-acre Arizona Biltmore keeps guests entertained with other recreation. The diversions include an 18-hole putting course, eight pools (one holds a 92-foot water slide and another a swim-up bar), seven lighted tennis courts, a basketball court, and hiking and biking trails. Even more fun can be had on the big, grassy spot with the croquet and bocce ball court and the lawn checkers and chess.
On Saturday afternoons, executive chef Michael Cairns puts on an entertaining salsa demonstration and tasting at the swim-up bar. He even mixes up a tequila concoction with honey and passes out samples – after indulging in some himself.
The Adobe golf course recently underwent a complete renovation, restoring much of the original 1929 design. Biltmore guests also play the rolling fairways of The Links, which debuted in 1979.
The full-service spa and well-equipped fitness center, built seven years ago, also stay busy. Very apropos is the Sonoran Stone Massage. The masseuse uses various sizes of hot rocks to work the body into the state of a limp noodle.
Outside the resort, highlights include guided tours of the Desert Botanical Garden and Taliesin West.
The garden, founded in 1939, features 50,000 plants representing 4,000 different species and varieties. Five thematic trails wander through the garden’s 145 acres in Papago Park. The Sonoran Desert’s signature plant, the saguaro (pronounced “sa-gwharo” or “sa-huaro”), looms tall over the other cacti. Among many interesting facts, visitors learn that gila woodpeckers carve out nests in the saguaro, which then seals off the holes with scar tissue to prevent moisture loss.
Taliesin West, which Frank Lloyd Wright established as his Western school of architecture in the 1930s, covers 600 acres in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains. Visitors to Taliesin West – now in Scottsdale, still active as a school and a National Historic Landmark – get an intimate look at Wright’s architecture and desert design theories as well as his life. They also see his private rooms and work space.
And, of course, there are the Mariners, who play in suburban Peoria. The team’s schedule this spring includes 18 games at the Peoria Sports Complex, starting on Thursday and continuing through March 31.
Besides recreation, the Biltmore excels in the dining department, capped by Wright’s. Dinner starter options include porcini pasta with shrimp and buffalo mozzarella, or orange, cardamom and vanilla vodka-cured salmon. Main plates include orange, ginger and red chile-marinated chicken breast; grilled, mango-glazed pork chops; and seared, smoked, paprika-dusted sea bass.
Wright’s Sunday brunch is a delectable belt-buster, with entrees of griddled apricot brioche cristo; grilled prosciutto and prawns; and huevos rancheros and beef machaca.
Those main dishes also include visits to both the starter buffet (load up on shrimp and crab) and the desert buffet (cheesecakes and decadent chocolate creations).
Other dining options include the Biltmore Grill and Patio, the Squaw Peak Lounge, the Café, the poolside Cabana Club Restaurant and afternoon high tea (daily from November to May). Wright’s also offers a patio.
Imagine dining outdoors now – laughable in the Northwest, enjoyable in the Southwest.