"You can list me as the beneficiary," Patrick Stevens of Hot Air Expeditions joked as he handed us waivers for the hot-air balloon flight we were about to experience. We were standing in the Sonoran desert north of Phoenix surrounded by saguaro cactus, creosote, mesquite, and a few palo verde trees as half a dozen hot-air balloons and their wicker baskets were being readied for takeoff. The site had been chosen after sending up trial helium balloons to gauge the direction of the wind, both at the surface and aloft. That seemed more than usually significant given that there was a menacing fence of high-voltage power lines to the south.
One by one a dozen of us climbed into the compartments at the four corners of the balloon, which afforded just about enough space to run around. "Feel free to move about the balloon," Stevens announced. Once we took off, quickly rising above and away from those power lines, we could begin to see more of the terrain around us. We overflew earthen dams built to retain storm waters and creating a few small lakes and patches of green, the area around them striated with animal paths in an area called the Cave Buttes Recreation Area. "We've seen javelina, coyote, even blue heron at those water patches," Stevens informed us, and then went on to list other desert creatures, ending with "giraffes, elephants—oh, maybe that's when I was close to the Phoenix Zoo." For the next hour, we drifted across the desert, taking in the cone-shaped hills that once were volcanoes, scrubby foliage that survives on minimal rain, and distant views of downtown Phoenix. Several javelina and a lone coyote trotted through the underbrush beneath, quickening their pace as Stevens descended for a closer look. Except when the propane burners fired, it was amazingly quiet—until we passed over a few houses setting dogs to bark. Touching down very softly, we clamored out of the basket for a champagne brunch on tablecloth-covered picnic tables set out beside a giant saguaro.
Although I had come to Phoenix for tennis, I never put in more than a couple of hours a day on court, which left an abundance of opportunity either to relax at the resort or pursue other activities. Besides hot-air ballooning, I had a couple on my agenda: a visit to the Desert Botanical Garden, an old favorite, and an afternoon at a brand-new attraction: the Museum of Musical Instruments.
From the perspective in that hot-air balloon, it is tempting to conclude that the Sonoran desert contains a fairly limited catalog of plants, but even a casual stroll through the Desert Botanical Garden reveals that this arid landscape in fact supports a rich tapestry of species—far more, in fact, than can be found in New York City's Central Park near my home. The 145-acre garden, which has more than 50,000 plants in its collection, is never more compelling than in spring, when for a few weeks its desert plants burst into a riot of color. I can still remember seeing an ocotillo, which for much of the year looks like a dead stick with thorns, that had come to life, its woody branches covered in tiny green leaves and sporting a cluster of vivid red blossoms at the ends.
But even when I walked through last November it was fascinating to see all the strange and wonderful forms cactus can take and to be able to put a name to the various species, whether its jumping cholla, an octopus cactus, or a huge thorny blob called "Mother of Hundreds." A path through the herb garden covers both medicinal and culinary species, while another look at how the native American Indians used these plants in daily life, from building material to food, medicine, dye, and crafts. And depending on when you visit, you may also find musical and culinary programs on its calendar as well.
Music—or more specifically the instruments used to make it—is the focus of the magnificent Museum of Musical Instruments, which opened in April 2010 in north Phoenix. The 190,000-square-foot building houses a collection of 10,000 instruments from all over the world. On any given day, some 3,000 of them are displayed in "Geographic Galleries" devoted to every region on the planet. These "amplifiers of human emotion" have been crafted from an astonishing diversity of materials, including wood, textile, brass, gourds, dried fruit, rope, seed pods, iron, bronze, tin, rat skin (an hourglass-shaped drum from Cameroon called bangu matakam), spider-egg casings (Cameroon's gourd xylophone), bamboo, tortoise shell, rubber, animal fur, vegetable fibers (lamellaphone of Gabon), clay, and recycled food cans, to name a few.
But the museum's great asset is that you not only get to see and read about these instruments but see and hear them being played via wireless headsets that tune into the exhibit in front of you, which is often supplemented by video on flat-screen monitors. The collection ranges from primitive drums to Moog synthesizers and self-playing instruments like Nickelodeons and music boxes. In the Artist Gallery you'll find instruments lined to world-renowned musicians—like the Steinway piano on which John Lennon composed "Imagine"; in the Experience Gallery, you and your kids can try your hand at a variety of drums, guitars, harps, xylophones, and even a Theramin (a relative of the Moog synthesizer). There are occasional live music performance in the MIM Music Theater, and finally a shop where you can purchase everything from books and CDs to your own Moog synthesizer.
Which Greater Phoenix Tennis Resort Is Best For You?
Drawn to greater Phoenix but unsure which tennis property to choose? Here's a quick comparison of the features of the major tennis resorts with links to my more extensive reviews.
The Boulders, A Waldorf Astoria Resort. Located beside haunting outcrop of 12-million-year-old rock in the Sonoran Desert in Carefree, 26 miles north of the Phoenix airport, this 1,300-acre resort has the most beautiful setting for tennis in all of greater Phoenix. Its eight courts, three of them a rust-colored artificial surface called Classic Clay, have been terraced into a gentle slope below the pro shop, golf clubhouse, fitness center, and an outdoor swimming pool and landscaped with lawns, feathery palo verde trees, cactus, desert shrubs and flowers, and river rock.
Veteran director Dale Light offers the usual mix of clinics and drill sessions—including family options during major holidays—but his approach his approach to teaching tends to be holistic, emphasizing not just technique, but also movement, balance, and simply relaxing and enjoying the game. That approach informs his specialty camps, which he organizes for teams and small groups, suggesting that they "spend a weekend and address different aspects of your tennis," he says. "I'm using a lot of Eastern philosophy, Chinese culture (he taught tennis at the Olympic training center in China last summer), to find a balance so you're using your whole body to find pleasure in the game rather than have your joy contingent upon winning a USTA match."
The 33,000-square-foot Golden Door Spa's approach to wellness meshes well with his approach, while those seeking creature comforts and other diversions will find two 18-hole golf courses awaiting them as well as casita lodging that has just been elegantly modernized while still retaining its desert Southwest inspiration.
Carefree Resort & Conference Center. Western in theme, with roots that date to 1963, Carefree Resort is currently in the throes of a thorough refurbishment under its new ownership. All the rooms are being modernized with updated soft goods, flatscreen televisions, microwaves, and small refrigerators, as are the public areas like the lobby and Lariat Grill, though they retain their stone walls, wrought-iron chandeliers, and wall-sized oil paintings of stagecoaches and the Grand Canyon. As this has been going on, the tennis, too, has been quietly re-energized under new tennis director Glenn Gerbino.
A former college player, Gerbino later taught at Saddlebrook International Tennis and at country clubs in Texas and Arizona (most recently as director at Troon Country Club in Scottsdale). Since coming to the five-court Carefree facility he has presided over the refurbishing of the courts, beefed up the weekly tennis calendar—which includes junior programs—and recruited new members, who now number 80. The courts stand just across the street from the resort lobby and the tennis villas (which had been gutted but not renovated when I visited in November). Its two-story clubhouse has a pro shop—whose four clocks show the current time at the four Grand Slam venues—and terrace overlooking the courts on the main level and a fitness center on the second floor with views of the courts and mountains.
There is no competition from golf here (though the resort does have golf privileges elsewhere), making tennis a central amenity. The town of Carefree, with its restaurants, galleries, and shops, is an easy three-minute drive away and unlike many resorts, this one is pet friendly. Most significant, however, are the rates, which start at less than $200/night/couple in season.
Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. Once a high-profile tennis destination as the site for men's professional tennis tournaments (among them the WCT Scottsdale Open and the Franklin Templeton Classic), the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess seemed to lose interest in tennis when its events moved elsewhere or disappeared. Its sunken stadium, bereft of seats, sits rather forlornly at the side of an otherwise handsomely designed complex of six hard courts, the clubhouse court below the pro shop the most attractive of all. In November, however, this Fairmont signaled a renewed focus on tennis by hiring former touring pro John Austin to direct what has been renamed the John Austin Tennis Center.
"It's a personal goal of mine to get events for that stadium court," he told me, "and I wand people playing, so I'll do whatever I have to do to make that happen." In particular, he's looking to take advantage of the Willow Stream Spa, which stands on the same plaza as the pro shop. "Because of the spa, we can to total body conditioning," he continued. "We've got a great synergy with the spa. Yoga (which he does) helps your concentration and flexibility."
Amenities like that 44,000-square-foot Willow Stream Spa—an exceptionally peaceful place of red sandstone, gardens, and waterfalls—are one compelling reason to stay here. So are its 649 amenity-rich rooms and casitas, two TPC golf courses, five swimming pools—one with two 200-foot waterslides—two fitness centers (one at the spa, another in the hotel), a lagoon for fishing, a kids's club, teen programs, and five restaurants and lounges, including La Hacienda by Richard Sandoval and Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak.
The Phoenician. The Phoenician has almost exactly the same number of rooms as the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess—647—but its footprint is very different. Whereas the Fairmont occupies level ground, the Phoenician cascades down the side of Camelback Mountain, with its lobby and many of its rooms near the top of the cascade, and its swimming pools, waterslide, spa, fitness center, golf clubhouse, tennis garden, and Funicians Children's Center on lushly landscaped terraces below. Some $25 million in artwork has been scattered throughout the hotel and property. There's a cactus garden at the entrance, and saguaros, like sentinels, lining the golf fairways—though some of those near the tee boxes bear the round holes of errant drives.
Tennis received first-class treatment when the resort opened, with its own well designed pro shop and clubhouse, a sunken stadium court set off by flower beds, and 10 other courts, one of them grass, two of them the former Australian Open surface Rebound Ace. Ordinarily this is a lively venue. However, long-time direct Yaz Tavatli has left to pursue other interests and a new pro has yet to be named. Check iwith the resort about its tennis offerings during any period you plan to visit.
Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain. The former John Gardiner Tennis Ranch on Camelback has morphed into a elegant small resort and spa with a modest complex of just five tennis courts. What's notable, however, is that there are two pros for those five courts, John Abelardo and Horst Falger, both of who date to the Gardiner years. The courts are now green with tan border, because ownership wants to keep desert colors. The pro shop harbors a gallery of black-and-white and color photos from that era, showing Aussie greats like Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall as well as the late John Gardiner, politicians, and Hollywood celebrities.
Today, it is less the tennis than the intimacy of the boutique property, its Sanctuary Spa, and cuisine (the chef of the resort's restaurant elements, Beau MacMillan, defeated Bobby Flay on "Iron Chef America") that attract bold-face names, among them Maria Sharapova while she was rehabilitating her shoulder. But Abelardo and Falger are there for anyone looking for tennis, running the morning clinic even if a single person shows up, and they custom-design clinics for groups or teams, occasionally with unexpected amenities: "When you're having mimosas and a chair massage before your clinics, it's a little different experience," says Abelardo.
Scottsdale Resort & Athletic Club. Of all the properties listed here, the 11-court family-owned Scottsdale Resort & Athletic Club stands out for its singular devotion to tennis. It originated as a racquet club, rather than a resort, and thus has the friendly feel of a place where people come together because of their shared passion for tennis. Only in 2003 did founder Robert Hing, himself an avid tennis player, add lodging and thus give players a place to stay close to the courts. A local membership of some 1,000 players means there is plenty of on-court activity, including ongoing junior programs.
Under director David Critchley, a former touring pro, the resort has also pursued groups and teams by promising tailor-made adult camps. "You can choose your own topic and we provide a lot of personal attention," Critchley says of his approach. "You're either going to get me or Dan Kilen, the other pro." Lodging ranges in size from guest rooms to three-bedroom fully equipped villas, and in addition to tennis the on-site amenities include an expansive (and complimentary) fitness center, intimate spa, and a restaurant and bar. Rates are some of the most attractive in the area.
Wigwam Golf Resort & Spa. When I visited the Wigwam last November, the historic resort, which has 54 holes of golf, an Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa, and a fitness center, was in the final stages of a major overhaul. Sports icon Jerry Colangelo had purchased it a year earlier and after interviewing past guests and locals had had set about redesigning many of the public spaces in an effort to recapture some of the excitement that accompanied the opening of the resort in 1929. That work should be nearing completion, enhancing everything from the tree-lined entrance and lobby to the pools, restaurants, and meeting space. And although I did not get to see elements like the redone Adobe Pool with its twisting waterslides, dancing fountains, cabanas, or canal or the new areas for outdoor dining and entertainment, I did get to meet the new tennis director Carlos Hassey, whose infectious enthusiasm for the game has already has already enlivened the nine-court complex.
A national junior champion in his native Mexico, Hassey went on to play the tour only to have to give up his aspirations when his farther died. He took up teaching and coaching, working with Robert Lansdorp and his pupil Tracy Austin and helping Vic Braden run his Coto de Caza operation. In just his first few months at the Wigwam, he has increased the local membership and participation, on the strength of his warm personality and commitment to treating people well. "You've got to work and service, service, service," he says of his approach. Both of his children are nationally ranked juniors and likely to be found helping other kids because Hassey insists that they give back to the game. During my brief visit, he arranged a match for me, something he says he loves doing, and filled the courts with a Saturday morning round robin. His goal is to develop a broad-based program, heavy on family tennis, kids' clinics, and leagues.