Travel: The Boulders in Arizona

Mine was another southwestern Christmas at The Boulders in Arizona. As one of two of the nation’s best Phoenix metropolitan area resorts (the other is the Arizona Biltmore), The Boulders offers a unique resort experience which is what I wanted. With tennis, golf, trails, swimming and fitness programs on a sprawling property that straddles Scottsdale and a small Western town called Carefree, The Boulders, owned and operated by the Hilton-owned Waldorf-Astoria brand, is best for healthy restoration and athletic activity.

Cactus at the Boulders photo by Scott HolleranSpread over acres of desert with the resort lodge, individual casitas, walking trails, three heated pools and hot tubs, golf course and clubhouse, tennis courts and adjacent shopping village – not to mention the privately owned Boulders houses on the property – the main attraction are the big boulders scattered across the land where they’ve been for millions and millions of years. As if there’s not enough to do on site, and life is slow in Arizona, nearby horseback riding, hiking, shopping and tours are also available. But I recommend staying and walking around, which I did as often as possible. Early morning and sundown are blissful times of day. Late nights under the stars are also inviting. Casita and villa rates range between $200 and $1,200 per night.

For all the luxury, there’s a do it yourself quality to the resort, which takes getting used to. I’ve stayed here before – including a stay during Christmastime – and I’ve been back several times since. It is easy to get lost, especially at night. The place is understated in every way, designed to blend in with the harsh desert landscape. Lighting is minimal at best. There are no streetlights. This is why the stars come out at nightfall. Don’t get caught on the paved paths at night or you’ll risk getting lost. The Boulders is physically huge and service is relatively laissez-faire, which is part of the relaxed, Western ranch style approach to hospitality.

Casita at the Boulders photo by Scott HolleranCasitas are individually configured and appointed. Mine was priced on the low end and equipped with a wood-burning fireplace, bench seating, two chairs, a reading lamp, balcony, Keurig coffee maker, iHome alarm clock and docking station, vanity, walk-in closet, wet bar, bathrobes and TV. Besides walking as the primary mode of transportation, everyone including staff uses golf carts to get around, even local Boulders residents, and I stayed on the property at a private home for most of the visit. From the residences, there’s a 5-minute drive over to the lodge if a walk’s not on the agenda. The lodge has two dining facilities with vaunted ceilings, a gift shop with essentials and proprietary merchandise, a bar and a lobby lounge with wood-burning fireplaces. Fires burn indoors and outdoors at the resort’s discretion unless the government’s dictating air quality. An evening performance by a folk singer with a cowboy hat served as Christmas entertainment. Light snacks and sandwiches are available in the lobby bar. There’s no front desk as such. Two desks serve as check-in centers. A concierge and a couple of computers for guest use are a few steps up behind the fireplace.

Lodge poolside at the Boulders photo by Scott HolleranStep outside the lobby for a heated pool and poolside, fire pits, hot tub, poolhouse and a short trail up to the vista point where most of the property and surrounding environs can be seen. A spa operates separately, so does a golf clubhouse restaurant and pro shop and everyone on staff constantly reminds resident guests and visitors that the resort is separate, too. The a la carte feel is mildly disruptive when trying to relax, read and have a drink or meet for business in the lounge as I did. But once settled in and welcomed, the staff generally adjusts and serves good food, drink and hospitality. There are exceptions, of course. No one seems acquainted with Hilton’s rewards program and how it works. Some are consumed by stating rules of the club, lodge or resort at the expense of a warm welcome. Meals vary in quality but most were excellent.

Besides branding conflicts, figuring out how to navigate the resort and one nasty episode in the lobby with a drunken guest, the Christmas visit was perfectly charming. I swam, hiked, strolled, dined, read, wrote and conducted business in person, by phone and Internet without problems. Besides The Boulders, a small, largely vacant commercial property called El Pedregal is located down the path. El Pedregal is also Hilton-owned. The plaza contains a couple of decent places, too. The Spotted Donkey cantina at El Pedregal has a bar with sports on TV, where I had a hamburger and glass of wine while watching the game, and there’s a Ben & Jerry’s for ice cream cones. I also discovered a delightful family-owned restaurant called Brugo’s Pizza Company at happy hour. The place has delicious desserts, pizza and wine and the owner and staff are the best in town. The views from Brugo’s are amazing.

Waterfall at the Boulders photo by Scott HolleranAgain, being among the boulders at The Boulders is the real treat. So, a manic, cram-it-in vacation approach won’t do the resort or your visit justice. If you go, plan ahead and have recharge and backup for GPS and cell phones because you’ll probably get lost on foot, by cart and by car. If you golf, golf. Walk around. Enjoy the desert sights, sounds and smells. Breathe it in and feel good. Roll with whatever crosses your path – woodpeckers, roadrunners, coyotes, deer, snakes, spiders, jackrabbits, lizards, mountain lions – I’ve seen them all at The Boulders, which was first recommended to me decades ago by my friend Sharlee. She was right and it gets better as few places do. It’s not immune from cultural contamination and there’s always room to go up or down in quality – Hilton’s recently had the biggest hotel initial public offering in history – but for stillness, sunshine and moonshine and reenergizing amid desert surroundings with attentive staff and exquisite accommodations, head for The Boulders.