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The Fabulous Phoenician:  A Spiritual As Well As Hedonist Retreat

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

It was still dark on a Saturday morning in March when in a glass-walled fitness studio of the Phoenician’s “Center for Well-Being,” a dozen or so women, mats unrolled on the floor, were stretching to the accompaniment of some vaguely Eastern-sounding music. At 6:30, a slim and smiling young woman arrived, introduced herself as the yoga instructor, and proceeded to lead the group through various postures and movements. The session progressed, the stars gradually receded, and the eastern sky turned from sapphire to deep rose. Then, at 7:15, just as the women began performing “Salute to the Sun,” an orange disc  – as if in response -- began to rise above the horizon.

Some thirteen hours later, after night had fallen at the end of a perfect Arizona day, a small crowd gathered on the broad verandah outside the Terrace Dining Room which looks out over descending levels of  artistically-shaped swimming pools, waterfalls, and fountained lagoons linked by small bridges. One could sense a mood of anticipation, of waiting for something , and soon it came in the person of a casually dressed man carrying a telescope. He set it down at the terrace’s edge and began to address the assembled. This was the Phoenician astronomer. Every Saturday night when the skies are clear (and in Scottsdale, when are they not?), he takes guests on a star-filled journey through the southwestern sky.

They say this 250-acre resort which opened in the late 1980’s is the epitome of the glitz and opulence of that over-the-top era. That much becomes evident as soon as one turns off non-descript Scottsdale Road onto a long climbing avenue punctuated by palm trees, fabulous flower beds of brilliant red geraniums and yellow delphiniums, and arrangements of indigenous rocks cooled by splashing water. At the apex, before a spectacular fountain is the entrance to the resort’s main building, a wide sandstone structure shaped like a giant arc. Within are surfaces of gleaming Carrera marble elaborately-furnished lobbies and lounges, two distinguished restaurants, shops, a café, a theater, a ballroom, conference spaces, and most of the hotel’s 654 luxurious rooms and suites. Accommodations are also available in the Canyon, a boutique-type hotel at the foot of majestic Camelback Mountain that serves as backdrop to the resort, in private villas and lake-front casitas. As for the rest, the Phoenician has nine swimming pools – one paved with sparkling mother-of-pearl tiles, twelve tennis courts, three nine-hole golf courses, and a 22,000-foot world-class spa/fitness center – the Center for Well Being --  with beauty salon, 24 private treatment rooms, and manifold fitness studios.

Welcoming the sunrise and gazing at the stars might seem incongruous in such a worldly setting. But there is a spiritual dimension to the Phoenician experience as well that emerges from a powerful and pervasive sense of place. In a pair of pools of swirling water that bracket the entrance to the main building are larger-than-life-sized Tennessee marble statues of Native Americans. One is of a man beating a small prayer drum, the other an elongated maternal figure with a child clinging to her side. Sculpted by the Apache artist Allan Houser, they create a first impression that lasts throughout one’s stay.

The Phoenician has an impressive and eclectic collection of European art including 17th century French tapestries and Flemish paintings (two by a contemporary of Peter Breughel’s). But it is in its Native American statues and paintings that the spirituality of the resort is rooted. “Las Vegas hotels may have more museum-quality Impressionist or Renaissance art, but much of the Phoenician’s is specific to the region; it is part of the context,” concierge Chick Morgan said. A native of St. Paul, Minnesota who was transferred to Phoenix by his company, Chick went from the insurance to the hotel business after retirement and has been at the Phoenician for the past five years.

“I want to emphasize the fact that I am not an art expert,” the fresh-faced mid-westerner with the ready smile told us as we embarked on a little art-oriented tour of the premises. But his informed opinions spoke otherwise.

“We have eleven of Houser’s sculptures. But this one of Chief Joseph is not his,” Chick said of the inspirational figure we were looking up at in front of Canyon Building. “See the difference in the lines on the robes; how much more detail there is in the face than in Houser’s works.” He pointed out the wild streaming hair of another Houser piece and compared it to a nearby statue by a Navaho sculptor with the neat hair characteristic of that that tribe.

Concierge Chick Morgan,
art expert as far as we were concerned

If these expressive works positioned throughout the resort serve as persistent reminders of the human history of southwest Arizona, the Cactus Garden, that begins across the way from the Main Building and stretches across the base of Camelback Mountain almost to the Canyon Building, is a reminder of the natural environs in which the resort is set.

A horticulturist conducts garden tours three times a week. But we were content to walk its narrow paths in Chick’s company past the palo verde trees, the sereo cactus which at the age of 75 sprouts lily-like blossoms from the very tops of its arms, the jumping or teddy bear cholla which is so bushy and briary that it almost comes out and grabs you as you pass by. “Cacti have self protection all over them; you don’t want to get too close,” Chick told us. “But also the cacti are protected by law. You’re not allowed to take anything from or damage anything in the desert. Cacti are very slow in replacing themselves.”

The variety of plants was staggering, but  were most enchanted by the agabe, low-growing and not particularly attractive until it reaches the age of 15. Then it sends up a tall shoot, maybe eight feet high, that sprouts little green flowers which are dispersed by the wind to places where they settle and start life as a new plant. And at this point, the mother  plant -- which has devoted its entire life to producing them – dies. It brought to mind the Hans Christian Anderson tale about the nightingale who sings through the night with a rose thorn pressed to its breast and dies in the morning. Then again, perhaps it has served as the inspiration for some Indian myth.

At times the Phoenician, with its many pools and fountains, great green lawns, water-loving plants and flamboyant flower beds, can seem a tropical paradise. But a stroll through the Cactus Garden reinforces the presence of its natural habitat, the Sonoran Desert. So does a round of golf at the Desert Nine which, like the other two courses at the resort, the Canyon Nine and Oasis Nine, provide a distinctive setting and ambience.


Mel Chaiken, a golfing regular at the Phoenix who played the nine holes with us on what he called “a Chamber of Commerce day,” stopped as we approached the slope of Camelback Mountain and the tee of the sixth hole. “There is the whole panorama of the Phoenix Scottsdale area,” he said turning to look out at the vista behind us. “You can see as far as the Indian reservation to the south.”

Mel Chaiken on a “Chamber of Commerce day”

Golf pro Kevin Betts appreciates the Phoenician aura

The Phoenician’s golf pro, Kevin Betts, who like Chick Morgan, relocated to Arizona from Minnesota, agreed the views are spectacular. “It is very special to play at  the base of Camelback Mountain,” he said. “It’s part of the aura of the Phoenician.”

He continued, “When the hotel opened, there was an 18-hole golf course here already. Now it is a 27-hole property, and many people do the whole thing. A lot of big names play here, but everybody is treated very well across the board. Our goal is superior service and super surface. We keep the courses in optimum condition with 65 full-time associates.”

“Optimum condition” is standard at the Phoenician, we realized, as we descended the sweeping palatial stairways that lead from the terrace outside the main building through levels of  swimming pools and lagoons filled with gold and white Japanese koi that swim up to the edge as one passes by. At the bottom are curving lanes of casitas, the Center for Well Being, and the golf clubhouse.

The aptly named Windows on the Green on the second floor of the clubhouse is an elegant, airy dining room decorated in a blend of greens: the vivid greens of the golf course, the pale greens of palo verde trees, and the muted greens of the desert. Furnishings are luxurious. Chairs are  deep and comfortable. China is Rosenthal – pure white “because the food is so vibrant in color,” restaurant manager Jennifer Stocker says. Beneath a window overlooking the green, a man plays classical guitar music.

Voted the best southwest restaurant in the region and popular as much with the local community as resort guests, Windows on the Green is noted for an ambience that combines the casual with the elegant and an expert and energized staff. But chiefly its repute stems from the creations of a talented chef who never went to culinary school.

A living example of the American dream, Roberto Sanchez grew up in a little town between Mexico City and Guadalajara but was an immigrant living in Arizona for a few years when the Phoenician opened.

“I came here to apply for a job and was hired as a dishwasher,” he told us. “But I had hopes of working in the kitchen. That was my goal. I met an Italian chef on the job who gave me the chance to make salads in the pantry of the Terrace kitchen. From there I moved on to making salads at the Mary Elaine’s (the Phoenician’s gastronomic restaurant), and from there to Windows on the Green.

“All the while, I was watching and watching. That’s how I learned, although I also learned from my mother who is a sensational cook.”

At Windows, Roberto swiftly moved on to making hot appetizers, to the grill, the sauté. “Then I got the opportunity to be the lead cook,” he said. “Three years later, the chef said ‘I want you to be my sous chef.’ I said ‘If you think I’m ready, I’m ready.’

“As sous chef, I would go to the chef and say ‘I’d like to do this special for tonight.’ And he’d say ‘Let’s do it!’ I’d say ‘I’d like to order this fish. Can I do a special?’ ‘Yes!’ The chef liked what I did and put it on the menu.

“Every two or three months, I would meet my father at the border and get the black peppers, chili peppers, different spices. I still do. When I made the grilled New York steak with my spices, we sold it out in two hours. Everyone loved it. Now I use it on the Buffalo rib eye.

He continued, “About five years ago, the chef moved to Denver. The f & b mgr asked if I wanted to take over. But I declined; I didn’t feel ready. They hired another chef, and I stayed on as sous chef.  Then he got moved to the Terrace, and again there was an opening.

“‘Bobby, the first time you said you weren’t ready,’ they said. ‘Now the restaurant is yours.’

“I said ‘Let’s do it.’”

Windows on the Green is famous for its variety of chilis, its dried peppers, its Mexican spices, and Chef Sanchez’s inspired and stunning creations like the amuse bouche of light and airy shrimp topped with mashed sweet potato and finished with yellow bell pepper vinaigrette; the strips of grilled Portobello mushroom marinated in balsamsic vinegar and herbed goat cheese served in taco shells with small, green tomatoes and smoked orange chili pepper; the roasted chicken soup with avocado relish and tortilla strips.

And then there is Sanchez 41, Roberto’s version of southwest tapas: four small portions of unique entré offerings. The night of our dinner, there was filet of beef over three-potato hash, topped with lobster and yucca root and foie gras poblamo demi glaze; chicken breast with olive tamale, green beans with corn, finished with traditional mole (chocolate) sauce and over 20(!)  spices, lamb t-bone and lamb chop finished with sweet potato cake and sweet Creole mustard sauce, and blackened filet of salmon served over white rice and finished with potato, bacon and onion vinaigrette.

Sanchez 41, Tapas a la Roberto

Windows on the Green team  l to r: manager Jennifer Stocker,
sommelier Colin Wain, cellarmaster Colin Wain, chef Roberto Sanchez

Desserts like crème brulé with  blackberries, raspberries and strawberries and roasted banana empanada turnovers seem too beautiful to disturb but ultimately too irresistible to reject.

An American citizen now, Roberto and his wife have made their home in the Scottsdale region. Recently he was thrilled to learn he will be able to bring his parents here from Mexico. But he’ll still go back to get spices. “Once I went to visit my parents and brought back about 10 kilos of spices,” he said. “The agent at the airport asked me to open my suitcase. ‘What do you have?’ he asked. I said ‘Candy, a bottle of tequila and spices.’ ‘What kind of spices?’ ‘Different kinds I use to make sauces. I’m a chef.’ He looked at the bag of spices. ‘Open it up.’ ‘But they are very strong.’ ‘Open it up.’

“He stuck his stick in and the smell hit him. ‘I told you’ I said, ‘they’re very strong.’”

While we did not get around to experiencing the famed Mary Elaine’s, we were able to get a table for the Terrace Dining Room’s famous Sunday brunch. That was an accomplishment because people reserve weeks ahead of time. Not an empty table could be found in the enormous restaurant that spills out onto the terrace overlooking the pools. The brunch accommodates 421 guests in two servings. Yet inexplicably, there were no lines, no sense of a crowd.

Karen, our blonde and sprite-like server poured the Scharffenberger sparkling wine from Anderson Valley, California and went through the routine. “You begin in the ante chamber at the raw bar for oysters and clams. Beside it is the sushi bar: California rolls, salmon, tuna with the chopsticks, ginger, wasabi – all the accoutrements – and on the other side the smoked fish counter: salmon, whitefish, sable, sturgeon, red and white caviar with the chopped eggs, capers, chopped onions also poached salmon, and of course little bagels and cream cheese.” Alas, when we got there, all the caviar was gone. But when we returned to our table, a little dish was waiting for us.

Following Karen’s directions, we found the manifold cheese table with fruits and yogurts, the chef making eggs to order, French toast, omelets with a range of fillings, big Belgian waffles. We located the pasta bar: gnocchi, ravioli filled with duck breast pate, ziti or linguini prepared to order with white or red sauce and the carving board of roast beef.

Hot dishes are prepared on the terrace: grilled steak with potatoes roasted and flavored with rosemary. Mahi-mahi, scallops, vegetables: carrots, tiny squash, green beans.

Terrace Dining Room team – a beaming Karen at the bottom - click to enlarge 
Terrace Dining Room team – a beaming Karen at the bottom

Desserts are set up on the bar. Home made ice creams of a myriad of flavors are made into the most degenerate of sundaes. There’s flan, crème brulé, chocolate soufflé, cookies and pastries. But Karen insisted on our trying the famous Phoenician crunch chocolate covered vanilla ice cream with Heath bar.Throughout, the grand piano’s top is up and the air is filled with America’s most beloved songs, among them “I Love New York in June” over and over – must be a favorite of the pianist’s. And why not? Who doesn’t love New York in June? But someone should write a song about loving Scottsdale in March and its fabulous Phoenician Hotel.

The Phoenician
6000 East Camelback Road
Scottsdale, Arizona 85251

Phone: 480-423-2657

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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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

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

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