SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA – The Four Seasons is known as a posh hotel chain. But their product in the Arizona desert outside Phoenix sneaks up on you.
There’s no big stand of palm trees at the entrance of the Four Seasons Troon North . No fountains or fancy pools. Instead, as you drive along Alma School Road in the northern part of this lovely resort town, you see a simple brown sign for the hotel.
Once you’re on the grounds, there’s a similar vibe. There’s no waterfall or towering banks of flowers, but a natural-looking desert environment that’s true to nature. Oh, there are a handful of brilliant red/purple bougainvillea plants on the grounds, but almost every house in town has a couple of them.
There are a couple small patches of grass for weddings or other uses, but most of the vegetation is what you’d find in the area; spindly ocotillo with orange blossoms, prickly pear cactus, low-rise cholla cactus and towering Saguaro cactus, which look a bit like those blow-up “floating” figures you see outside suburban gas stations with their arms all akimbo.
A Saugaro cactus is a hugely impressive creation; with arms that take decades to grow and a towering presence in the desert, like silent sentinels. And they look awesome in silhouette at sunrise and sunset.
The resort has a couple hundred rooms and 22 suites. All the units are in two or three storey buildings painted a dull brown to match the surrounding terrain. It’s not the most beautiful shade in the crayon box, but it works and it helps the resort blend in with the natural look of the Arizona desert. And that’s a very good thing.
Of course, there are several pools and a beautiful lobby and tennis courts and a wonderful golf course around the corner, Troon North. They also offer two terrific restaurants; Proof for breakfast and casual dining and Talavera, which has sensational cuisine.
Most rooms are around 600 square feet or more, with fabulous showers and baths and patios overlooking the desert. The resort sits on a hill with fabulous views of craggy Pinnacle Peak, and the sunsets are marvellous.
I was told some of the locals were disappointed when the resort opened in 1999 because they wanted something that looked tropical and quite different from the desert. Sorry, folks.
They have a terrific spa, and I was given, if you can believe it, a massage with heated golf balls. It’s a play on the usual spa treatment with hot rocks. The golf balls offer similar heating, but because they’re round and small the masseuse or masseur can work them into small nooks and crannies in your back and really get things moving. They also give golfers an excellent neck, shoulder, arms and lower back treatment to get them ready for the next round.
They have a very good happy hour at the Onyx bar, with beers for $6 and excellent, powerful margaritas for $10. When I was there I was sitting just a few feet from one of my musical heroes, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. I was stunned, to tell you the truth. I’ve met a lot of ballplayers and politicians, but seeing the guy who wrote such meaningful classics as “Who’ll Stop The Rain” and “Fortunate Son” had me gobsmacked.
We had dinner at Proof one night and I sampled excellent pulled pork and a very good crab cake, as well as tasty salmon. The interior is tons of fun and probably not what you would expect at a Four Seasons; a roadhouse type look with old tables, campy signs, shuffleboard and license plate covers for the menus. They serve up a variety of good bourbons and have a very good breakfast set-up, although I was a bit ticked that they had run out of the lemon ricotta pancakes when I arrived for breakfast one day at 9 a.m. I think if you pay hundreds of dollars a night for a room, they ought not to run out of their special pancakes by 9 a.m. Or even by 10 a.m.
Dinner at Talavera was sensational. I found the décor an odd mix of flowery pinks and southwestern colours, but the views from the patio are fabulous and the food was excellent. I had a very good charred octopus that was perfectly grilled and not even slightly chewy, as well as wonderful roasted beets soaked in orange juice with goat cheese, greens, pecans and heirloom tomatoes. The sea bass was perfect; slightly caramelized on the outside and moist and tender inside. My rack of Colorado lamb was undercooked for the medium rare I asked for but it was a good two inches thick and was meaty and marvellous, as was the side order of sweet, charred corn. The chocolate torte dessert was nice but I was very much taken by the grilled strawberry shortcake with cream cheese mousse, strawberries and opal basil.
And I wonder why I’ve gained weight in this job….
Last but certainly not least, I had a great morning hike up towards Pinnacle Peak with local guide and fitness instructor Tammy Davis. We did the 1.5 hour version but she can take you on a 2.5 hour trip if you like.
The trails are well-marked and you could easily do the trip on your own, but it’s nice to have a guide to point out the flora and fauna and talk about the area. Davis pointed out sage, creosote and something called “jumping cholla” fuzzy cactus plants that have stems that can break off and easily attach to your clothing or even your dog’s unsuspecting nose if you’re not careful.
We spotted a couple of beautiful cottontail rabbits and some lizards. Davis says she’ll sometimes see coyotes and even the odd rattlesnake on her hikes in the region. Further out, you might spot black bears or javelinas, which are a type of pig.
We passed beautiful flowering cactus as well as enormous rocks that have been carved into fantastic blocks by eons of wind and rain and sun. It’s best to go in the morning or evening for the best colour and least amount of heat. It’s not bad in winter, but summers here can be upwards of 40 degrees Celsius so it’s best to avoid mid-day. Also be sure to take some bottled water and wear sensible shoes. It’s not rugged hiking, but the rocks and dirt trail can be a tad tricky.
We had magnificent views of Scottsdale and the surrounding wilderness areas, as well as emerald green golf courses and beautiful desert homes surrounded by rocky hills and towering Saguaros. An utterly fabulous way to start a day. And work up an appetite….
NEXT UP: The absolutely marvellous MUSICAL INSTRUMENT MUSEUM in Scottsdale