Tara’s Staycation Guide 2018

Mike MeyerJune 1, 2018
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“Are you EVER home?” That’s a question I get asked by friends a lot. With my step-kids now step-adults and out of the house and a job I love that takes me around the world, the answer is usually, “not really.” Let’s just say I see SkyHarbor’s TSA agents more than most of my family members.  A few months ago, I landed from a Cambodia bike trip with my husband only to turn around two days later and head to Paris to sit down with Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, or at least their on-camera counterparts from ‘Fifty Shades Freed’. My husband thought I was nuts. But while I love to travel, chatting with actor Jamie Dornan overlooking the Arc De Triomphe will never replace the true joy I get living in Arizona. So whether or not you’re stuffing your secretly-over-sized luggage in what seems to be a smaller-than-before overhead compartment on a plane, here’s to hopping in a car, and  experiencing some of the best in our very own backyard.

You can watch Tara’s celebrity interviews at harkins.com/behind-screens or weekly on “Good Morning Arizona”. Follow her travels on Instagram @taraontv

Shannon Everett first came to the Cherry Creek Lodge as a single mom years ago thanks to a Groupon special. Her daughter Peyton was seven, loved horses, and Shannon thought a getaway to an Arizona guest ranch was the perfect escape. On the three-hour drive from Phoenix to Young, she managed her daughter’s expectations by telling her, “This is either going to be really fun, or it’s going to suck and I don’t know which one.”

They’ve been coming back ever since, usually with friends and more family in tow.

I passed Shannon on my drive up to the Lodge during a visit in April. “Enjoy! It’s all yours!” she yelled from her white pickup as I navigated the stones, dirt and rocks that line a rugged five-mile stretch from Highway 288 to the property.

I had been to Cherry Creek Lodge once before, years ago, with my husband and some friends after hearing about it from owners Sharon and Mike Lechter. They bought the Lodge as a second home, but almost immediately realized they needed to share it with others. There’s some good old-fashioned cowboy history behind the place – a “feud over land” story complete with gunfights, cattle rustling, legal drama, and friendships-gone-bad. Let’s just say the families involved, the Grahams and the Tewksburys, would put the Real Housewives to shame in what became known as the Pleasant Valley War. Now a working cattle ranch, Cherry Creek Lodge sits on some of that valued land. Fortunately, the only argument you might hear these days involves whether or not Lodge manager Holly Dickrell is serving her famed cowboy hash for breakfast.

I pulled up to the main guest house as Sharon greeted me in their Polaris Crew ATV straight out of Pimp my Ride. Wanting a tour before sunset, Mike and Sharon let me sit shotgun as Bode and Bear – their two Australian shepherds – led the way. Surrounded by 40,000 acres of some of the most beautiful Arizona landscape you’ll ever see, we passed a spiritual stone labyrinth created for guests to meditate, dozens of cows, junipers, cliffs and swimming holes. Guests can hike anywhere they’d like at Cherry Creek Lodge, or they can saddle-up and have Holly’s husband Rick lead them on an amazing trail ride. Some guests hike in to picnic near the box canyon. Others grab a swimsuit or fishing pole and head to the fully-stocked lake. One German visitor even opted for a night under the stars instead of one of the Lodge’s cozy guest bedrooms.

“He was 28 years old,” Holly told me. “He grew up watching John Wayne movies with his dad in Germany. He saved his money, came here by himself, because all he ever wanted to be when he grew up was an American cowboy.” Holly sent him out with two lodge wranglers, a pack mule, a bed roll and some beans. “He showed up the next day after sleeping on the ground, burst through the door covered in dirt, hugged me and said, ‘I feel just like Christmas!’

I can actually visualize holidays in the Lodge’s great room, where you’ll end up more than once on your visit. Mike’s prized elk overlooks the place, but now shares duties with a Kodiak grizzly bear and a few others. The leather chairs and Western decor provide the perfect spot to curl up with a good book and a drink as you mingle with other guests or relax and wait for a delicious dinner (my steak, baked potato and beans could have fed three.) Stomach full and mind relaxed, I headed up to my room to call it a night.

I didn’t want to miss the sunrise, so at 5:30 am, I walked out past the main lake to take some pictures. There, in one of the property’s huge sycamore trees, was a group of five snowy egrets. They must have heard about the views as well. Word apparently spread later that morning, as two bald eagles joined on a nearby tree (I know, right?). Later that morning, I asked Holly if I could feed the goats before getting in one final horse ride. “Guests, especially the kids, love feeding the goats, but feed the blonde first,” she told me. “The blonde one is very aggressive with food.”

For a second, I thought she was describing the way I devoured her steak and beans the night before! After the goats had their fill of bread, Lodge General Manager Pete Davis watched as Rick helped me up a beautiful American Paint named Toy. “People have gotten a long way from nature,” Davis said. “When you see people connect with that at Cherry Creek, even in a small way, it’s really amazing.”

Shannon’s daughter Peyton, now 14, will spend a week this summer helping at Cherry Creek in exchange for lodging. Sounds like that last minute mother-daughter trip years ago was worth it. Oh, and a little tip of the cowboy hat to Groupon!

Insider Tip
It’s not always on the menu, but guests have been known to ‘sweet talk’ Holly into making her cowboy hash or biscuits and gravy!

Cherry Creek Lodge is a great place to Bring your Own  (ATV’s, Razor’s, dirt bikes, mountain bikes *great for groups!

Must Do:
Trail ride to the box canyon…even if you’re a horse novice like me, you’ll thank me later!

Book it:
Cowboy Round-Up and Cowboy Experience can be tailored for your group!
www.cherrycreeklodge.com: Rates include breakfast, lunch, dinner and one activity

For 28 years, Sundays for Jim “Bones” Mackay usually meant carrying a bag full of high-end golf clubs down some of the world’s most storied 18 holes as one of the PGA Tour’s best caddies.

On this April Sunday, however, Phil Mickelson’s former caddie is enjoying his first staycation at the base of Camelback Mountain, sitting in a cooled Phoenician cabana, with his wife Jen and feasting on some of the Valley’s best fish tacos. “I’d come back just for these,” Jen says.  Yep, they’re that good. I met Bones on an airline flight years ago and have been friends with him and his wife ever since. But the real reason we’re hanging poolside at the newly renovated AAA Five Diamond resort, is their 14-year-old son, Oliver. When tasked to revisit one of my favorite resorts in the world, I knew Jen and I could handle the Phoenician Spa on our own. But when it came to the redesigned three-tiered pool complex, complete with a new treehouse and waterslide, along with an existing splash pad in the Kids Zone, I had to consult the expert.

“When Oliver finds out we’re heading to a hotel, he jumps on his computer, googles the place, and makes sure they have a waterslide,” Jen tells me.

“If there’s no slide, he’s not invested,” Jim laughs.

Since opening its doors almost thirty years ago, The Phoenician has always been a benchmark for luxury. Thanks to a multi-million dollar transformation, that bench just became a throne. Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Phoenician before. But now it feels as if that former great welcoming handshake just turned into a full-on, 30-minute bear hug! The resort boasts a completely new three-story Phoenician Spa (the rooftop pool has stunning views), a modern glass-lined athletic club with all the state-of-the-art “Fitness-on-Demand”  technology you could ask for, and a new lounge area at the pools with reserved seating for both families and adults only. Look for the renovated 18-hole Phoenician Golf Club in the fall.

Fortunately, The Phoenician’s new waterslide meets all of Oliver’s criteria. Lots of turns? Check! Good holding bar at the top to use for some momentum on the trip down? Check! Lots of water to make the ride smooth and fast? Check!

Oliver enjoys the treehouse and waterslide so much, the only break he takes is when he realizes his chocolate shake and Kalio burger are getting close to outdoor Arizona room temperature. “How many times have you gone down so far?” I ask him.

“I don’t know 10 or 20,” he replies, grabbing a French fry and heading back to the slide with his sister Emma.

This gives Jen and me enough time for spa treatments. I’ll be honest, Arizona has some great spas. But the new one at The Phoenician exceeds my expectations – and Jen’s, too. By the time I make my way downstairs to the relaxation room, Jen is already texting another girlfriend about the place. I grab some lemon water, marvel at my comfortable velvet robe and discover that our relaxation room actually leads to a quieter relaxation room (just in case you’re with a friend who can’t contain her excitement with loud texts).

In addition to the spa’s 24 treatment rooms, there’s a Drybar on-site for blowouts and hair styling when you’re done getting steamed and pampered! I’m not lying when I say my Hydrafacial (I was THIS close to proposing to my aesthetician, Andrea) is one of the best I’ve ever had and Jen actually used the words “life-changing” when describing her “Sonoran Signature Scrub, Massage & Wrap.” “If I go missing for a few days,” Jen laughs, pointing to one of the relaxation couches, “just come looking for me here.”

By this time, rumors of my Phoenician staycation are going viral (OK – so my husband called asking where I was).  After saying goodbye to the Mackays, I invite Kenn to join me for dinner at the resort’s new local hangout, Mowry & Cotton, and a pre-dinner drink at the famed Thirsty Camel. Like almost everything else at The Phoenician, it too, has been updated.

Server Ernesto Peralta talks me into the signature El Dorado; a concoction of The Phoenician’s own Herradura Reposado Tequila, pineapple juice, lemon juice, jalapeño, grapefruit zest, agave nectar and Bitterman’s hopped-grapefruit bitters in a glass lined with Tajin (a seasoning powder with Chile peppers, salt and dehydrated lime juice) as if to say, “trust me, you won’t forget me.” I have to pace myself with the apple Camembert flatbread at Mowry & Cotton (delicious!) and my husband enjoys his Pacific striped bass so much he “forgets” I had asked for a taste. I’ll just blame Chef Tandy Peterson for his memory lapse…and our fantastic meal.

But extra credit goes to server Luis Martinez, who dishes out this gem as we eye the dessert menu. “There are several ways we can go about this,” he smiles.  One big Warm S’mores Pie later, it’s time to head in for the night….and dream about my next Phoenician Spa treatment.

If you’re trying to impress a first date, make sure they face away from the incredible views and floor-to-ceiling windows or you’ll have some competition.

Must Do:
A treatment at the brand new Phoenician Spa! From May 29-August 31, 2018, purchase 1 spa treatment & receive 50 percent off a second treatment of equal or lesser value.

Insider Tip:
Want some alone time? The Funicians Club Night Owls Program offers supervised child care so parents can dine at one of the resort’s restaurants. Nightly: 5-9 p.m. for children 5-12 years old.

Best Summer PKG:
The Phoenician Return to Summer. Rates starting at $169 per night, with complimentary self-parking.

Book It:
www.thephoenician.com/offers or call (480) 941-8200 and ask for rate plan SUMMER.

“I got him! I got him! I got the big one,” my nephew Toby yelled, as we watched a red-tailed catfish try and wrangle the piece of bread I had attached to his hook. My dad moved closer as we had been at this for about 30 minutes at a lagoon filled with lily-pads and fish.

You’d think we were fishing at our favorite lake in upstate New York. Instead, we were making family memories at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Resort, a AAA Five Diamond play-cation paradise in the middle of the Arizona desert. Promising the “Best Summer Ever,” the Princess was off to a great start. In fact, Toby was so excited to fish, he rushed through his delicious short stack of pancakes at the Ironwood American Kitchen so he could get to the Trailblazers Kids Club and rent our fishing poles, bait and tackle box the minute the club opened.

The great thing about the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is that there’s something for everyone, whether you’re a 10-year-old from Colorado who just wants to hook a catfish, or a 70-year-old golfer from Dallas who can’t wait to visit with his daughter and grandson and dine at Bourbon Steak… or a 47-year-old who thinks it’s way too early in the season to don a bathing suit (I need a few more months to get in shape!) but is excited to try out a new yoga class at the rooftop pool with her father. There’s also a menagerie of animals who seem to call the Fairmont Princess their second home, partly because pets are welcome here and given Five-Diamond “Posh Paws” treatment. Gibbs, one of the resort’s canine ambassadors, greeted us upon check in. One-Eyed Abel visited with kids the next morning before his “Hawk Talk” and nature tour with Ranger Rick (thanks Sonoran Desert Falconry).  Sadly, Toby’s catfish took his bread, and part of his fishing line with him, so we turned in our poles and set out for the Sonoran Splash. I’m actually surprised we made it out of the kids club at all, as the place has a new BEAM interactive floor playground, Virtual Adventure Chairs and all sorts of video and arcade games.

Sonoran Splash may stand out thanks to the huge waterslide and tower that stands watch over the area, but it’s one of six pools at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. In fact, the largest pool at the resort is now Sunset Beach, complete with a splash pad and 830 tons of cool white sand. The “Best Summer Ever” this year means H2 Glow pool parties that glow in the dark, “dive-In” movies, a chance to get a PhD in all things Mermaid (yep, Mermaid University!). But the pool I was most interested in was on the roof of the luxurious 44,000-square-foot Well & Being Spa. Yep, it was time to attempt chair-pose on a floating board with my dad. Having spent every summer on a lake, my dad was an avid water-skier with great balance. So I figured he’d be a natural at FloatFit Yoga, a Vinyasa style. Well & Being Spa has a truly unique menu that includes everything from aerial hammock yoga (think Cirque du Soleil with silks for the common man) to singing bowl sound therapy to the new FloatFit Yoga program we were about to try.

My dad, now 70, with a bad back (despite golfing almost daily) had never really stretched. He was nervous to try something new,  but thrilled that our instructor was basically the “Jordan Spieth of water yoga” (yep, everything’s a golf analogy with my dad). Rasoul Sophani was patient with my father and it fun to watch my childhood hero try something different, even if he did fall into the water during an attempt to balance on the board after a nice downward dog.

My parents live in Texas, so it’s no surprise my dad loves a great ribeye. He made sure he saved lots of room for dinner at Bourbon Steak, James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Michael Mina’s only Arizona restaurant. Toby’s eyes grew wide when he found out that kids under 12 eat free with the purchase of an adult entree. The night became even more special when Executive Chef Sara Garrant sent out a few surprises and our server Michael Ortiz, now on a first-name basis with Toby, led him into the kitchen for an impromptu ice-cream tasting with pastry chef Sarai Acosta. Toby was 0-4 guessing the flavors, so Sarai took the guesswork out of the final scoop. “Captain Crunch,” she said as she passed my nephew a small white spoon.

“How is that even possible?” I laughed.

“Who cares,” Toby responded. ‘It’s awesome!” We walked back to our room and thanks to a full moon, we could still make out the McDowell Mountains in the background. “Can we come back here Aunt T-bone?” Toby asked (fitting my nickname is also a cut of steak).  “Yep”, I answered. After all, the “Best Summer Ever” is just about to start. Plus, we still have catfish to catch and release.

Must Do:
A meal & drink at the Princess! Dine al fresco fireside on the patio at one the resorts five top-ranked restaurants…*try the Snake Bite tequila flight with the resort’s Tequila Goddess at La Hacienda

Insider Tip:
Insta-Crazy! Enjoy the Princess’ five unique “Instagrammable” backdrops (“Summer Chillin” ice cream pops and a “Best Summer Ever” mural) with an expert Instagram Concierge to share photo tips! #atthePrincess

Summer Special:
“Best. Summer. Ever” vacation package starts from $179 per night and includes a $50 resort credit and a complimentary photo session with the Princess’ Instagram Concierge. For stays May 28 – September 4, 2018.

Book It:

The last time I handled a tennis racquet with confidence was at the Prestonwood West Youth Tennis Tournament in Dallas. I may have been 12. So when Brian Thorfinnson, the JW Marriott Desert Ridge tennis pro, handed me a pickleball racquet, I didn’t know what to do. “Don’t worry, “ he laughed. “It’s an easy sport to learn. I call it ‘Big Boys (Girls) Ping Pong.’”

Turns out I wasn’t the only one lacking pickleball knowledge. When General Manager Steve Hart called the resort’s owner on the East Coast about his plans to add 12 new luxury pickleball courts to Desert Ridge’s sprawling grounds, the owner responded, “I think you’ve been there too long.” Hart explained the sport’s growing popularity and asked him to check out pickleball videos on YouTube when he got home. The phone rang the next morning at 5:30. The boss called Hart a genius.

A combination of tennis, ping pong, volleyball and badminton, I loved playing. Plus, how do go wrong with a yellow neon pickleball (picture a ball slightly smaller than a Wiffle ball) that looks like it’s on its way to an 80’s rave?  As Hart said, “It’s a fun sport that people are now addicted to.”

That’s the thing about the AAA Four Diamond JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa. Already considered one of the Valley’s top poolside resorts (five pools on four acres of beautiful land!) and recently named the “Best Staycation Resort for families” by Phoenix Magazine, the 950-room luxury vacation spot never rests on its laurels and is constantly reinventing itself. I invited my stepdaughter Alex to join my staycation. We were due for some bonding pool time and she had heard about the 28,000-square-foot Revive Spa and its many signature treatments. I watched as aesthetician Angela Nobel led Alex, Spa Bistro mimosa in hand, to a treatment room, and couldn’t wait to hear all about her collagen and hydrating Aloe Facial later in our Griffin Bay cabana.

Before putting on a swimsuit, I headed to the driving range. The JW Marriott Desert Ridge lies on 316 acres of scenic desert landscape and its Wildfire Golf Club is nationally known, hosting the LPGA each year for their Bank of Hope Founders Cup tournament. The resort boasts two different championship golf courses: the traditional Palmer course, and another with a more “Australian links” style, featuring 108 bunkers and lots of sand. “That’s rare for Arizona,” PGA pro Alex Fisher told me.

Rare, but in direct conflict with one of my biggest golf rules. “I don’t play out of sand,” I joked with Alex. “I just pick up my ball and plop it on to the fairway. Does that make me a bad person?”

He laughed. “Listen, nobody’s going to get a green jacket at the end of your round. They’re not going to win a big trophy, so as long as you’re having a good time out here, that’s all that matters.” No wonder Golf Digest has consistently ranked Fisher one of the nation’s top young golf instructors. He supportive!

If you’re not getting the kind of support you need on the golf course, you’ll find it in a coconut shell near the resort’s $3.6 million renovated pool complex, called Just A Splash. The Kokopelli Cabana Colada is their signature colada with an added shot of dark rum, served inside a freshly carved coconut. “Oh my gosh, this is amazing!” Alex said, fresh from her first facial in 15 years. I had reserved us one of the six new luxury cabanas at Griffin Bay, the resort’s new poolside retreat (forget drawing the short straw to wake up at the crack of dawn and dump your personal effects on a pool chair to reserve a spot).  But honestly, it doesn’t matter where you end up with your towel and sunscreen. The JW Marriott Desert Ridge’s famed 1,600-foot lazy river still winds around the place, but there’s also a brand new poolside bar and stunning dining area, with a U-shaped gorgeous granite splash bar, sunken fire pits, eight flat screen TVs, and a sound system that somehow seems a part of the Sonoran desert landscape.

After catching up on work and life, Alex left to meet up with friends. I headed to the lower lobby for a Sagamore Spirit whiskey sampling and dinner at Meritage, a great place to unwind with some comfort food (loved the meatloaf!) and one of Arizona’s local craft beers. A highlight involved restaurant manager Arthur Pottenger, who brought out a glass of Royal Takaji white wine (now that I think about it, this article makes it sound like all I do is drink!) to accompany the house made dragon fruit sorbet topped with honey straight from the resort’s garden, compliments of Chef Dejan Djukic. On a “JW Marriott Desert Ridge high,” I mused that the only thing missing was an inner tube so I could lazy-river-my-way back to my room!

Must Do:
Chill out with one of the healthy & yummy frozen petite sorbet pops from The Spa Bistro (great flavors like ‘purple basil’)!

Insider Tip:
The Griffin Club experience (hosted premium bar, great local food offerings throughout the day) It’s like a private ‘club’ within the resort.

Summer PKG:
SPLASH into Summer Package rates from $169. Must use summer promo code SPU when booking.  *A portion of the proceeds will go to the Children’s Miracle Network!

Book It: