Travel queen Tara Hitchcock lets us tag along.
“You live in Scottsdale? I LOVE Scottsdale,” Irish heartthrob Jamie Dornan says as a video crew reminds me I have four minutes with the actor. I’m here to discuss his latest film, “Robin Hood,” even though most fans know him as Christian Grey from the Fifty Shades films. He swears his real-life wife hasn’t seen those steamy films, but she HAS seen Arizona. Turns out the actor brought her through our state during their honeymoon on a road trip and is already dreaming of his next golf outing here. Our discussion reminds me I’m due for my own Arizona “staycation.” So, I decide to re-visit a favorite (I can’t help it if the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa keeps adding to its “Best Staycation Resort for Families” status), sample an AAA Four Diamond Arizona property I’d never been to (how about riding horseback in search of wild mustangs on the way to your spa treatment!) and look ahead to FALL by heading Northwest for foliage and fun in Oregon’s Mt. Hood Territory. Who knows, you may just discover a new special place, activity, experience or yourself along the way!
JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa
My first Arizona spa experience was at The Spa at JW Marriott Camelback Inn, a welcome gift from a colleague. Having arrived from spa-less Beaumont, Texas, it was the perfect present that resulted in a lifelong friendship with Julie Fie, Vice President of Basketball Communications at the Phoenix Suns. She was there to unwind during the off season. I was there to moisturize and hydrate with cucumber water in a plush white robe. Before that afternoon, I had only dealt with Julie over the phone, when she basically laughed at my idea of hosting a community-sponsored breakfast for the floundering Suns, hoping some food and fan love would give coach Danny Ainge and his crew the mental boost they’d need to win the championship. To her credit, she actually let me pitch the idea to the players. Their reaction mirrored hers. To this day, I’m convinced they wouldn’t have lost 13 games if they had just adopted my “Pancakes for Players” pitch! Coming off another busy season, Julie was thrilled to join me at the AAA Four Diamond JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa for a staycation and to catch up in one of their brand new pool suites.
Over the years, I’ve written about everything from the resort’s signature Wildfire Golf Club, trendsetting pickleball courts to their Kokopelli Cabana Colada and signature prickly pear drinks. I thought the place couldn’t get any nicer. That’s when I discovered resort management (shout out to Area General Manager, Steve Hart!), just wrapped up $8 million worth of upgrades with six state-of-the-art pool suites. Pool “SWEET” is more like it, as each 500-square-foot suite includes air conditioning, a private bathroom, wet bar and two flat screen TVs. It’s hard to overstate the beauty of being able to dump your sunscreen and latest self-help book onto a couch, use your own private restroom, grab some strawberry and lemon-infused water and step out onto your private patio with two reserved lounge chairs and a front row seat.
“This will get the party started,” attendant Jayden Haight smiled as he handed me my Kokopelli Cabana Colada, now a tradition whenever I’m at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa. Julie and I ordered the chicken nachos, a resort guest favorite. In fact, days after being taken off the menu to allow for new items, guests and staff practically staged a revolt to bring them back. I almost staged a revolt of my own, demanding to know what was in their Impossible Burger, a new vegetarian burger that tasted as good as something from a steakhouse grill. It was delicious. On weekends, the resort’s “Tacos and Elote” station is also an option, with Yahya, Daniel and others grilling up the Mexican favorites on request. Julie is no stranger to beautiful hotels and resorts. She spends most of the year on the road with the Suns, staying in Marriott properties at several of their NBA stops. But she admitted she rarely gets the chance to enjoy the pool and relax. I told her we should do this more often. As we watched resort guests float by in the lazy river, she agreed. There’s nothing like this setting on the road. Who knows, maybe the next team building event for the Phoenix Suns won’t involve pancakes, but a pool suite and first dibs on one of the resorts’ many colorful donut-shaped inner tubes!
DOWNWARD DOG & SOME BUBBLY
If it weren’t for Julie, I would have assumed “downward dog” was slang for some sort of puppy training command. A yoga devotee for decades, she’s the one who convinced me years ago to give the practice a chance. Had I known you could start your Saturday mornings with an energizing flow class and a mimosa, I might have worked on perfecting my Eagle Pose years earlier! The resort’s new 600-square-foot Tierra Madre yoga lawn just outside their Revive Spa is the place to be on Saturdays for “Sunrise Yoga and Mimosas,” and I made sure to get there early as the lawn filled up with yoga mats by 7:30 a.m. Three friends on a girl’s getaway from Seattle secured spots next to me and I think we all harnessed enough group energy to earn the drink that followed an hour later after our “Namaste!” I headed to the spa to grab some homemade granola and wasn’t surprised to see the newly expanded fitness center bustling with like-minded health enthusiasts. There’s an additional 3,500 square feet to sweat in, with six new Peloton spin bikes, Life Fitness exercise machines and an 870-square-foot movement studio. Want to try a challenging total body workout? Head to the studio’s new Precor Queenax “Superfunctional” wall unit, a suspension fitness training bar that tests practically every muscle group in your body as well as your endurance, balance and ego!
SUMMER SPECIAL: Splash Into Summer includes a $50 resort credit toward F&B, spa or golf, $10 donation to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and resort fee. Prices start at $199 and is available May 23 through September 7, 2019. Must use promo code SPU when booking. Does not include tax. Based on availability.
BOOK IT: jwdesertridge.com
Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass
“FRIEND, WELCOME TO MY HOME”
Hundreds of years ago, the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Pee-Posh (Maricopa) tribes lived together near the Gila River Valley, welcoming European settlers with their storied hospitality. Today, those open arms extend to visitors from all over the world as history comes alive at the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass, a resort and spa owned by the Gila River Indian Community. This AAA Four Diamond 500 room resort includes the Aji Spa, Whirlwind Golf Club (the Arizona Cardinals were having an event there the day I visited) with two 18-hole Troon-managed golf courses and the only AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five Star award-winning restaurant in Arizona, Kai. But honestly, what sets this place apart is its Native American “soul,” celebrated throughout the resort in the artwork, music and sayings that greet you at every turn.
AJI SPA (“Sanctuary” in the Pima language)
Pima and Maricopa traditions are shared with guests through treatments like Ho’ishp, the Spa’s signature Sacred Prickly Pear Body Treatment. A special shout-out to Natasha, who had to deal with my week-old spray tan as she exfoliated me, applied Sacred Prickly Pear Red Clay and massaged my scalp while I detoxified in a therapeutic steam capsule -a first for me! She followed with a 50-minute full body massage that left me feeling like the butterfly in the story painted along the Spa walls. I emerged radiant and renewed!
MUSTANGS & MASSAGE
Where else can you spend the morning on horseback in ancient tribal lands searching for wild horses? The Spa partners with the tribe’s Koli Equestrian Center so guests can ride and enjoy a chance to spot the wild animals that roam the area. My guide, Robert admits he gets “shushed” occasionally by golfers waiting to tee off – the price you pay for being excited to share your Native American culture with guests. My horse Bubba was on his own schedule and his ‘‘take your time” approach paid off, as we ended up in the middle of a wild horse meet-up a week after a new foal had been born!
It’s no wonder this is the only AAA Five Diamond/Forbes Five-Star restaurant in Arizona! I’ve never had a server display a fruit platter with options for my glass of sparkling water! The exceptional service continued as I feasted on everything from “deconstructed” pozole (WHAT a presentation), homemade breads and venison with chanterelle and truffle mushroom bread pudding. Oh, and don’t forget the bite I took from husband’s plate of Tribal buffalo grilled tenderloin (he’s still mad at me). Pace yourself, enjoy the stories behind the food and thank me later!
INSIDER TIP: Track down Rosie Rivera, the resort’s “Cultural Manager.” She’s awesome AND adorable! Rivera provides guests with a true cultural experience. She offers complimentary property tours that highlight the history and culture of the Pima and Maricopa tribes that have inhabited central Arizona for more than 2,300 years. Her tours also showcase and interpret the significance of the many vibrant murals, pottery pieces, works of art and Native American stories found throughout the resort.
Oregon’s Mt. Hood Territory
As I load my mountain bike onto the Mt. Hood Express stop near the community of Government Camp, my husband promises me a huckleberry shake at the end of the ride. It’s another picture perfect Oregon day, with Mt. Hood standing watch, and we’re heading to historic Timberline Lodge to start our 15-mile Timberline to Town Trail trek downhill. I make my way on the bus, passing other riders and a group of hipster snowboarders from Asia who look like the boy band BTS, frosted hair and all, on a tour break enjoying the longest ski season in North America.
Our family has been coming to Oregon for years to escape the Arizona heat. Having fell in love with Mt. Hood Territory, we’ve experienced the area during all four seasons. When the snow melts, it becomes an angler’s paradise. The summer gives way to a fall that rivals Vermont’s. I was a skeptic. Also, a Boston College grad – so a New England fall, for me, is the benchmark until my husband convinced me to give The Territory’s foliage a chance. He was right. In the fall, Mt. Hood Territory becomes a Bob Ross canvas of reds, oranges and yellows dotted with vine maple and fir trees.
TIMBERLINE TO TOWN:
Mountain biking here is practically a year-round sport, and the rustic Timberline Lodge is a great place to start a ride. Now, as a National Historic Landmark, rustic Timberline Lodge sits 6,000 feet above sea level on the south side of Mt. Hood. Stephen King fans will recognize the place, as some exterior shots of the Lodge were used in 1980s The Shining. Fortunately, I’ve never stumbled across an angry Jack Nicholson there, but I HAVE enjoyed drinks at the Ram’s Head Bar and shared some incredible chili with my husband in their Cascade Dining Room after a long hike. After taking a few minutes to bond with my bike, I ride past the Lodge and began my miles-long serpentine journey down Mt. Hood’s terrain. Sadly, my handlebar death grip kept me from enjoying some of the views and, for the next hour, I actually forgot I was biking down a volcano!
INSIDER TIP: “I’ll be your Huckleberry” – the Mark Twain-esque phrase of affection is fitting as I’ve fallen in love with Oregon’s huckleberry shakes (my new favorite drink, with a homemade Hershey’s hot cocoa now a distant second). Often confused with the blueberry, the huckleberry has a similar taste, but its seeds make it a tad crunchier and yummier! Grab one at the famed Huckleberry Inn. Don’t think too much about the calories you’re imbibing as you’ll be hiking them off the next day! You can also go huckleberry picking in the summer!
TIP: head out on Lolo Pass Road to take epic shots of color in the foreground.
MT. HOOD TERRITORY MUST DO’S:
A HIKER’S PARADISE:
Even if this is the first time you’ve laced up your hiking shoes, Mt. Hood Territory has some of the best trails I’ve ever seen for hikers of all experience levels! With more than 1,200 miles in the Mt. Hood National Forest alone, you’ll trek your way through breathtaking landscapes and spectacular waterfalls. Mt. Hood Outfitters offers guided hikes, or you can create your own with the help of The Territory’s park rangers.
PUMPKINS, CORN MAZES, ALPACAS & WINE!
Enjoy an autumn day exploring one of The Territory’s “Farm Loops” in the Willamette Valley. Interact with animals, sample farm-fresh baked goods, or pick your own pumpkin. TMK Creamery is a great place to sample single-cow cheese and then meet the cow responsible! Head to Rosse Posse Acres Elk Farm in Molalla for “Dinner in the Field,” a spectacular six course meal that includes wine pairings and a chance to enjoy a meal barn-style, while a herd of 70 Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain elk roam nearby.
If you’d rather dine near a different mammal, head to Alpacas at Marquam Hill Ranch for a meal in their People Field. Field and Vine chefs host “Farm Dinners” at various Territory vineyards throughout the season – a truly unforgettable experience! alliumoregon.com/farm-dinners
A BRIDGE BETWEEN PAST & PRESENT:
Oregon Trail pioneers arrived at Mt. Hood Territory in the fall, marking the end of their journey west, so it’s a great time for families to visit the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Celebrate 175 years of history and “make an emotional connection to individual people that experienced the same hopes and fears that we would today,” according to local historian Bethany Nemec. If you can’t make a trip, there’s an app for that! Experience the Oregon Trail through the Mt. Hood Territory Heritage Trail app. mthoodterritory.com/heritage-trail
COZY UP IN A CABIN:
It’s difficult to top autumn in the mountains! Mt. Hood Territory’s lodges, vacation rentals and cabins offer everything from rooms with a view to private hot tubs by a river. Grab a blanket, sit by the fireplace and finish off the rest of your huckleberry shake (have I plugged those things enough)? mthoodrentals.com
PHOTO OP: Mt. Hood, Mt. Hood, Mt. Hood! No matter where you stand in The Territory, capturing a photo with Mt. Hood in the background never gets old!
LEAVES & LIBATIONS: Sample some of Oregon’s best wines with brilliant fall colors as yourbackdrop.The Mt. Hood Territory Wine Trail offers discounts at 16 wineries! mthoodterritory.com/wine-trail
BOOK IT: mthoodterritory.com/fall