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 Experiencing Authentic Arizona at the Wigwam Resort & Golf Club

FrommerLuxuryTravel
Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

It all began with long-staple cotton, a particular kind of cotton that a very new and rapidly growing automobile industry required for the production of  pneumatic tires. The only place where it was grown domestically was on Sea Island off the coast of Georgia. When in 1916 boll weevils destroyed the entire crop, tire makers were forced to turn to the only other known source in the world: the Nile Valley in Egypt. But the following year, World War I broke out, and with Egyptian freighters getting tanked by German subs, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, began searching for a domestic environment they could count on. They found south central Arizona where the Salt River used to run. Nothing much was there, but the soil and the weather -- dry during the summer and with enough rain the rest of the year – were right. And that is how, during the second decade of the 20th century, cotton ranching in Arizona began.

The Wigwam Resort dates back to 1918. Salesmen supplying equipment to new cotton ranchers established the first building on the site, a three-room retreat they called “Organization House.” Almost immediately it took on a more colorful moniker: “the Wigwam.”  Goodyear execs came out to oversee operations, and smitten by the dry and warm winters, they began bringing their families along.

 In 1929, the Goodyear Company decided to turn the property, greatly expanded by this time, into a hotel. They sold it nearly 50 years later, but the name was retained. To this day, a huge wigwam sits atop a little hill on the putting green, a metaphor for both Arizona and the resort’s earliest days.

 “The cowboy, the Hispanic and Native- American cultures are all part of Arizona history, and we’re very much tied to it,” said Lance Burton, the Wigwam’s public relations director. Lance, a fair-haired, clean-cut fellow with an engaging smile, was born in Salt Lake City but moved to Phoenix with his parents when he was very young. He  grew up here, went to Arizona State, and considers himself a true Arizonian. So he knows of what he speaks when he says, “You couldn’t pick this resort up and put it anyplace else. Our trademark ‘Authentic Arizona’ says it all.”

So does the look of the place. Driving down a multi lane highway in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area with strip malls on either side, if not for the enveloping mountains, you could be in anyplace USA. Then you turn down a road and enter “authentic Arizona.” A long driveway stops at a low-rise, sprawling adobe building the color of the setting sun. It’s surrounded by an enchanted world of deep green lawns with brilliant flower beds, towering palms, massive rocks, all manner of cacti, and in the distance, the endless Sonora Desert.

Narrow roadways wind through the property. In the early days, they were rough trails. You checked in, and they handed you a room key and a horse. To go from your casita to the golf course, swimming pool, restaurant, desert trails, you hopped in the saddle. Horses have long been replaced with golf carts, -- “horizontal elevators” Lance calls them. But the idea remains the same.

Although it is so spread out, there is a uniformity to the place. Colors reflect the desert: glowing beige, rust, brown, ochre, muted orange, olive green. “You’ll never find a place like this again,” Lance said. “It is so non-cost effective. The property is 75 acres; with the three 18-hole golf courses, it’s 463 acres. At the moment, there are about 650 guests here; the place is nearly full. But you’d never know it because there is no density, no sense of compression.”

Spaciousness abounds within as well as without. The main building, a greatly expanded and updated version of the original Oganization House, accommodates lobbies and lounges, a restaurant, conference rooms, ballrooms, and broad hallways. Yet the scale is human, suited to intimate moments, private conversations. A western ambience emerges through stone floors and fireplaces, Navaho carpets, Native American paintings and pottery, and massive floral arrangements of tall desert grasses.

The past is remembered through walls lined with old photographs of people on horseback and some of the Wigwam’s famous guests going back through the decades. The old living room is now the library, but it looks much like it did when Goodyear execs would gather around the fireplace to talk about cotton crops. The weathered bookcase filled with almanacs and agriculture yearbooks from 1937 to 1953 is original. Not long ago, in the midst of renovating the gift shop, builders came across a section of wall with straw that had been mixed with bricks to make the original adobe; it dated back to the early 1920s. With the excitement of having hit on an archeological discovery, they decided to leave it exposed, a visible timeline to the building’s evolution.

Guest accommodations in adobe casitas (little houses) of one or two stories also provide glimpses into the resort’s chronology. Our ample two-room suite dated back to the 1930s. It had an aura of old Hollywood with pale green stucco walls, dark wooden armoires, and white French doors. One set led to a leafy little patio. You opened the doors and were greeted by the omnipresent coo-cooing of doves and the rapid fluttering of wings.

“Each time the Wigwam was expanded, they tried to do a little twist on the new rooms,” Lance told us.  “No two are alike but there still is a cohesive feel, the feel of  Arizona.”

We were following Lance (the place is so big, we had to follow him until we got our bearings) from our casita past the presidential suite, a 5,000 square-foot, four bedroom compound named Orabi for the oldest continually-inhabited Native American village in Arizona, past one of the two swimming pools surrounded by casitas, and down the road to the golf clubhouse which overlooks the 18th hole of the Gold Course.

There are also the Blue and the Red, all championship courses with undulating fairways and far-reaching greens broken by lakes and streams, and welcoming stretches of shade from eucalyptus, pine and olive trees.

“There are hundreds of golf courses in the area. But ours are among the oldest and the most traditional in design,” Craig Allen, the Wigwam’s golf pro told us. “You go out on some of those desert courses in summer and you can literally roast. But here you’ve got plenty of shade and a variety of trees, many of which go back to the time when they first started planting in the region.”

Golf was a major dimension of the Wigwam experience from the start; its first nine-hole course was built in 1930. Today it is the only resort in Arizona with three 18-hole courses on-site, all up-to-date and impeccably maintained. The Gold and Blue, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. in the 1960s, have recently undergone a $5 million renovation which modernized the courses while retaining the original vision.

Craig, a handsome, athletic man is the grandson of Red Allen, the Wigwam’s first pro who came to Arizona from Minnesota many years ago searching for a warmer year-round climate. “It was so stark out here back then, I think if he had enough money, he would have turned around and gone back home,” Craig joked. “But by the time he retired in the 1970s, he’d put in 41 years on the job. He’s 94 now. He still has a full head of carrot-top hair, and he still comes out every week to play nine holes.” 

When Red retired, his son and Craig’s father, Doug Allen, took over. Craig who had started working for his grandfather in 1969 when he was 13 years old, was next in line. “Golf was what I knew I was going to do,” he told us. “It’s in the genes, I guess.”

He’d mentioned that marshals patrol the courses to keep the game moving, and as it turned out, we ended up playing a few holes with one of them. Walter Paterson, who in his good-humored gruffness reminded us of the actor Walter Matthau, was on his day off. He was teeing off at the first hole on the Blue Course when we met up.  Together with a friend from back home in Springfield MA, he partnered with us and proved a most supportive presence on the links particularly to the duffer among us.

“Think of a pendulum on a clock,” this Walter advised as she practiced her swing. “Don’t take your eye off the ball,” was his mantra, and it worked.

Golf pro Craig Allen - click to enlarge
Golf pro Craig Allen
 
Walter Paterson (left) with friend Bob Looman - click to enlarge
Walter Paterson (left) with friend Bob Looman

 Whether after a game or not, the Grille on the Greens, which extends from within the clubhouse to a gardened patio overlooking the fairways, is a delightful dining option. The casual, country-club style restaurant draws non-golfers as much as those addicted to the fairways for its American-style comfort food. Our stay at the Wigwam coincided with the start of the baseball spring training season, and while we didn’t notice anyone from the Kansas City Royals -- the resort is the team’s official spring-training resort -- some of the upper echelon management of the Texas Rangers including  Buck Showalter and John Hart were just a few tables away.

All the traditional favorites are offered at Grille on the Greens: baby back ribs, fried chicken, coconut shrimp, New York steak as well as items with an Arizona twist like the eye-opening Bahai seafood cocktail with cilantro, onions, and tomatoes, and a crusty sour dough bread that proved absolutely irresistible.

“All the Wigwam breads are baked on the premises early each morning by a baker and his seven employees,” Jeff Quintrall, the resort’s food and beverage manager, told us. We were having dinner with  Jeff, whose hotel-executive persona in crisp white shirt, carefully knotted tie and dark jacket belied an impish and cutting sense of humor, in what he calls “the jewel in the crown” of the Wigwam dining options: the Arizona Kitchen.  

Our seats were ringside, before an open kitchen where two chefs in toque blanc were performing in a dining room where every detail from the huge adobe wood-burning fireplace to the patterns on the stoneware dishes and the heavy glass goblets carries out the “Authentic Arizona” theme.  So does the cuisine.

“All the breads have a southwest flair,” Jeff said. “Our jalapeno fried bread is a Mexican recipe. Chris, the baker, makes the dough in the morning and lets it rise throughout the day. Half an hour before service, they actually fry the rolls. You can have it with butter, or our clover honey that is mixed with cardoman, or with nothing– it’s great on its own.” (It is!)  “The blue corn rolls are also Mexican – blue corn is a staple of Mexican food.”

The menus are imaginative  interpretations of the varied and marvelous flavors and ingredients that make up Southwest Cuisine – Mexican, but also Californian, Texan, northern Sonoman, New Mexican. Dishes are infused with indigenous chiles and spices. Produce is largely organic and grown on local farms irrigated by a canal first built by the ancient Hohokam Indians. Among the colorful breakfast options are omelets with ratatouille, spinach and red peppers topped with slices of avocado; sweet potato waffles with prickly pear (the cactus blossom) preserves, and biscuits made of cheddar cheese and jalapeño with homemade chorizo.

 F & B Manager Jeff Quintrall - click to enlarge
 F & B Manager Jeff Quintrall

“This restaurant has been here for 15 years and it evolves with each chef who puts his own touches on the cuisine,” Jeff told us. We traced the touches of Chef John Garcia who adds a Southern Californian nuance to the dinner menu. It was a terrific meal with starters of smoked eel on a bed of sun-dried tomatoes with seaweed grass; a southwest Caesar salad with smoked corn and chili cornbread croutons, and the lobster “Martini” – a martini glass with Maine lobster and celery root in a blood orange vinaigrette. Entrées were roasted Portobello mushroom with quinoa, a Native American grain, oven-dried tomatoes and goat cheese; grilled rib eye with Tyrolean cheddar whipped potatoes, and Italian kale finished off with  a demi-glazed sauce made with the long and mild wakil pepper; and Colorado lamb with dried cherry mole, roasted shallots and haricort vert.

To accompany such adventurous dishes the Arizona Kitchen has an excellent wine list, largely dependent on California vintages. Taking the suggestion of our ebullient and informed waiter, we had an excellent Chardonnay from Cakebread Cellars in the Napa Valley that was slightly sweet with an aftertaste that hinted of pear and apple.

Lance had told us that guests at the Wigwam sometimes spend all their time on the property. Certainly between the Arizona Kitchen and Grille on the Greens, not to mention alfresco dining around the pool, there is enough dining variety to keep them happily sated. Among the extensive golf offerings, nine tennis courts and two refreshing pools, enough activity options are available to keep them hopping. And then there are the pleasures to be had from serenely lounging on private patios or around the pools, or strolling through spectacular grounds, envisioned and maintained, with the help of a 22-man team, by director of landscaping, Ed Fischer.

Public Relations Manager Lance Burton - click to enlarge
Public Relations Manager Lance Burton
Director of Landscaping Ed Fischer - click to enlarge
Director of Landscaping Ed Fischer

Although originally from Chicago and educated in horticulture at Rutgers University, Ed has been living in  Arizona for 27 years where his well-trained eye has focused on the desert and his imagination has stretched the possibilities of what can be grown in a two-season region where winters are generally mild but not without the danger of frost, summers are extremely hot, and rainfall is limited.

When we met Ed, he was in the midst of a new project: the creation of the largest rose collection in the valley. In a region not known for roses, Ed already has nearly 2,000 bushes in greenhouses and has begun planting. We saw some small bushes, already budded, in beds surrounding the putting green near the main building. “They use this area for a lot of weddings,” Ed told us. “So my scheme here will be white and pink to go with the white pansies, pink snaps and geraniums.

“Roses are grown out in fields in the surrounding area,” he added. “Last summer, the grower and I went out and watched them and picked the varieties that did the best here. The majority will be hybrid teas, but also we’re planting a new variety that has just come out and has not been tested anywhere. For years and years, roses have been grown for color and bloom. Traditionally, however, they represented fragrance as much as color. Now the thinking is returning to fragrance. When you walk down a path, you should experience the aroma as well as the color. That is our aim.”

We walked with Ed down the same paths Lance had escorted us through when we first arrived. The road approaching the clubhouse will be all yellow roses. Scarlet interspersed with sherbet blooms will surround the putting green in front of the clubhouse. But that is the future, and there was much to admire in the present. We passed a bougainvillea which had grown inside the cypress tree beside it, “A unique piece of art,” Ed said. He pointed out how every casita has its own little dooryard garden, some with desert blooms, others with more traditional plantings. “To me, each garden is a little eco-system; it has its own identity. The flowers attract birds. There are so many here -- doves, finches, hummingbirds. In the summertime, the butterflies are magnificent. They fly all around you.”

He continued, “I believe this property has one of the greatest garden potentials. It was well known from the beginning for its floral, for its color. Trees were planted here years and years ago, olive trees, fig trees with little pink blossoms that bloom in early March. I’ve seen the photos, and even though they are black and white, I can see what they are. Then they got away from it; I’m trying to bring it back.”

In an area that seems to be in the throes of new development, the Wigwam’s strong  connection to its past is unique. But like any other high end property, it confronts the demands of being up-to-date and cognizant of the future. A needed niche in this realm is being filled by a brand new, full-service spa under the legendary Elizabeth Arden brand. At the time of our trip, the nearly completed 26,000 square-foot-building with 16 treatment rooms was scheduled to open the following month. It promised to be a facility worth a return visit.

Heading the venture that represents a $5 1/2 million investment is a young and glamorous, long-legged brunette with a buoyant laugh and flamboyant style. Cassie Hernandez comes from Chicago where she was running four all-day, full-service spas for Mario Tricoci, a subsidiary of Elizabeth Arden.

“A few months ago, someone from corporate headquarters approached me and asked if I’d heard of the Wigwam Golf Resort,” Cassie told us. “‘What is that?’ I asked. ‘Is it a real name?’ He said, ‘Absolutely. We’re building a new spa up there.’

“I came out, stayed for three days. I’d never been to Arizona before. I was kind of low profile, under the radar, met no one, didn’t tell anyone what I was doing out here. I walked by the shell of the building ,and I was hooked.

“I’ve already hired 46 people and expect to bring out about 20 more. A lot of them live in the area; they’d been working at other resorts because there is no other spa in this area. They are all cream of the crop. We’re flying in trainers from all over to prepare them.”

Cassie Hernandez, manager of the new Elizabeth Arden Spa - click to enlarge
Cassie Hernandez, manager of the new Elizabeth Arden Spa
The spa in its final stage of construction - click to enlarge
The spa in its final stage of construction

We’d already seen the nearly completed building that blended so well with the rest. “There will be the Elizabeth Arden red door at the entrance,” Cassie said, “but after that, it will be different. Where the standard E.A. has a lot of metal and pastel, ours will have distressed wood, stone, desert tones, lots of texture, lots of hand-carved items to blend with the mood of the resort. We’ll have a full hair and nail department; aerobics, yoga, tai chi. We’ll have spa suites equipped with chaise lounges, a fireplace, a hydrotherapy tub and a treatment bed. There’ll be a unique warm water ritual -- a footbath, body scrub, hydro-soak with juniper oil and a full body massage with sage oil. We’ll have outdoor patios, courtyards for relaxing and reading.

“The spa should be a big draw not only for resort guests but for locals who want membership. It will have the signature E.A. treatments but will still manage to carry out the ‘Authentic Arizona’ theme.”

Already Cassie had picked up the feeling. It comes with the territory. At the   Wigwam, you never, for a moment, forget where you are.

The Wigwam Resort & Golf Club
The Luxury Collection, Starwood Hotels & Resorts
300 Wigwam Boulevard
Litchfield Park, AZ 85340

Phone: 623-856-1032
Web:  http://www.wigwamresort.com

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

#   #   #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, and It Happened in Manhattan, they teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the
United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. (More about these authors.)

You can contact the Frommers at:  

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU (myrna frommer)
Email: harvey.frommer@darthmouth.edu
Web:
http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2006 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

#  #  #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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