Sometimes luxury hotels try to do things differently and it is not a success – other times, as at The Sanctuary in Paradise Valley AZ, all the innovations not only work but they grow on the guest, charmingly. First, says the gal, it is necessary to set the scene. Paradise Valley is the Bel-Air of the Phoenix region. At latest government count, 92.6% of the 13,154 population is white, 71.6% have degrees and the median household income is $139,524, versus $50,256 for Arizona as a whole. Paradise Valley has no street lights: its main street is strictly one-lane each way, and billboards and the like are banned.
In 1955 Paradise Valley Racquet Club was established, which evolved, following a prototype in Carmel CA, into the John Gardiner Tennis Club (yes, the same John Gardiner who had been involved with Enchantment, later). Investors and/or supporters here at various times included Charlie Chaplin’s son Sydney and local boy Barry Goldwater, plus a large-scale fruit and veg supplier, Bob Castellini, who is now sole owner – he also owns the Cincinnati Reds and he is a renowned philanthropist, of the Jonathan Plutzik scale. Here, he has put Mike Surgine, with prominent support of his Westroc colleague Bill Nassikas, in charge. After 12 years, the pair have created wonders. It is such a fun place.
Arrive at the top of the two-floor main lodge and you are greeted by the buggies that some guests use to get around the steep-sloped 53-acre resort. I preferred to walk. Luckily my casita, one of 105 in all, was in a block of two nearest the pool, the gym and spa, and the 45 concrete steps up to the lodge. Twelve years ago it was all undecorated concrete: now, as the photo shows, there are bold walls of different colours. My casita, up 12 steps, concrete of course, had two outdoor terraces, one with a proper freestanding bathtub. Indoors, I had both black and white cuddly robes, with the bright green S logo – and I had two sizes of slippers, and one good-quality green pen. The same bright green is found on the Silver Tequila Patron, one of the whole spirit bottles accompanying the minibar. Of course I had the gas-fuelled log fire that is ubiquitous in Arizona resorts.
Back up at the lodge is a nonstop hive of activity, especially from about 4pm on when the locals arrive at ‘their’ bar, Jade. This is their meeting place, either inside or out. They look down at the infinity pool but they cannot see any casitas and apparently some do not realise that there are any. They think The Sanctuary is a series of drinking and eating venues. I was in the bar at 4pm, and one table of four ladies was still there when I arrived later for dinner at 6.30pm. Eighty percent of diners at all main meals are locals, who also make massive use of the three private dining venues (Breitling had a conference there during my stay).
The most exotic of all the private dining rooms is the 12-seat chef’s room, XII. OK, you sit around a spectacular oval table set with Bernardaud and Riedel, on arguably the world’s most comfortable dining chairs, but where is the host? One long wall is all curtain. It draws back, by magic, to reveal an all-glass wall, with doors, into the kitchen, and there is your host, with chef Beau MacMillan, formerly private chef to hockey entrepreneur Wayne Gretsky. The two are preparing your first course. And so the meal continues, half of you looking directly into the kitchen and the other half seeing what is happening via reflections in three mirrors strategically placed on the opposite wall. At the end you walk out and admire another entire wall, of wine bottles – prize on the Reserve wine list in Elements, the main restaurant, is a Ch Latour 2003, at $2,400.
XII would be the ideal small wedding dinner venue, or even a romantic dinner for two. As you walk the estate before and after, you are reminded of Handel’s Water Music, the tinkling of fountain walls outside, the illumination from more fire bowls than I have ever seen in one place. As I leave this fun luxury hotel, Mike Surgine says stay longer, to do as others do and merely walk, listening to hummingbirds and watching rabbits. I did not even get to the spa or one of the many gym classes on this visit, and there was no time to do my favourite climb, up Camelback via Echo Canyon, 2.4 miles round trip and if you can do it in under 22 minutes dinner here, at Elements, is on the house (good, perhaps some more of that delicious foie gras panacotta, with a glass of a humble Pinot Noir, in Riedel of course).