By Roger Cox, Editor
Roughly 20 miles north of Phoenix, Arizona, the Carefree Highway slips away off Interstate 17 and runs due east toward the desert foothills. It ends at a hulking mound of 12-million-year-old granite rocks as haunting as the monuments of lost civilizations. It's as if the Earth itself had heaved up a great dam against the urban sprawl that is rapidly devouring acre after acre of the Valley of the Sun.
Hidden behind those rocks is a 1,300-acre resort sensitively designed to preserve the raw power of the surrounding Sonoran Desert while cradling guests in uncommon comfort. Dubbed The Boulders, it takes the very shape and color of the rocks as an architectural model. The main lodge blends so well with the stones behind that from a distance it seems to be part of the landscape itself. So too do the 160 generously sized rooms, which have fireplaces, traditional viga ceilings, leather chairs, and private patios or balconies. Scattered below that pile of rocks, they occupy low, pueblo-like casitas the color of adobe and are thus themselves barely visible among the saguaro cactus, feathery palo verde trees, and the rest of a botanical garden of desert foliage. Rabbits, quail, and roadrunners scurry across paths and in and out of the foliage.
No less impressive are its two sterling golf courses—the North Course ranks among the top 75 resort courses in the nation—and its tennis club and spa. There are also nature trails and paths around the rocks to shops at El Pedregal on the far side or to the top of the rocks and sunset views across the Valley of the Sun.
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The tennis complex also basks in that desert landscape. Its eight courts cluster below the golf clubhouse, a swimming pool, fitness center, and modest tennis pro shop with views to the west of that riveting pile of rock. It is 5 to 10 degrees cooler there in Carefree than it is in Phoenix, which encourages guests and members to play. And tennis director Dale Light and his staff follow the hotel's policy of providing attentive service, which on the courts means working assiduously to set up games. "I want us to have a complete program so that people can come from anywhere and get all the tennis they want," says Light.
Tennis Staff. I've known Dale Light since the 1980s when he was at New Mexico's Inn of the Mountain Gods. I caught up with him again, more than a decade later, at Colorado's Broadmoor, where he started a tennis aerobics program and worked with its then camp director and former U.S. Davis Cup Captain Dennis Ralston. He continues to introduce innovative ideas here at Boulders, a post he's held since 2000.
Tennis Programs. His weekly roster lists instruction and drill clinics every day of the week. At first glance, these may seem to be typical of those you'd find at any other active resort. What sets them apart, however, is Light's approach to teaching. Adopting an Eastern-influenced philosophy (he spends three weeks in China each year), he feels that players can improve more by focusing on posture, alignment, and movement, and even health and diet, than from a narrow concentration on technique. He is also acutely attuned to differences in players' internal makeups and strives to help them be aware of what he calls "their signature style" and to nurture it. "The joy we derive from tennis should come from engaging in a healthy, holistic, fun experience and not be dependent on winning," he believes, adding "I teach completely from that place."
Much of the activity at the courts is designed with local or seasonal members in mind, including leagues, tennis exchanges with local clubs, and special events. Guests, however, are welcome to take part in most of these activities, and every other week or so Light stages a social mixture, which also brings locals and guests together.
Courts & Fees. The eight courts (four hard, three Premier cushioned, and one Classic Clay) occupy several levels. The area surrounding them consists both of the natural desert landscaping and of plots of yucca, ocotillo cactus, and desert flowers in reds, oranges, and purples. Bike rentals are also available here. The courts lie perhaps a quarter mile from the rooms, along a nature trail through a botanical garden of desert species—though a free shuttle is available for those who choose not to walk. Mornings are generally busier than afternoons. Court fees: $25/court-hour.
Spa & Fitness
Golf Courses. Boulders has two 18-hole golf courses, Jay Morrish designed both to draw their power from the surrounding desert landscape.
Spa & Fitness Center. At 33,000 square feet, the Zen-inspired Spa at the Boulders delivers a broad range of treatments and services variously focused on relaxation, healing, and beauty using aromatic scents, organic ingredients, and therapeutic intentions.
Within the spa is a well-equipped fitness center spanning several rooms. A suite of Cardio workout equipment has been strategically placed to face windows that frame view of the desert foliage and rocks. Those are supplements an array of LifeFitness stations and free weights. Classes are offered in Pilates, Tai chi, yoga, and water fitness, as well as spinning, Zumba, stretching, TRX, and more.
And ... Other options include guided hikes, boulder climbing, guided mountain biking tours, and nighttime bike rides along the golf cart paths while wearing night-vision lenses.
The lodging options at The Boulders begin with the 550-square-foot casita suites scattered through the desert to the north and south of the main Lodge, its restaurant, and swimming pool. Fresh from a total renovation, these spacious digs now sport flagstone floors, big leather chairs facing wood-burning fireplaces, viga ceilings, and outdoor patios or balconies with views of the desert and its foliage. Each has a huge bath with walk-in closet, separate tub and shower (the walls of the latter faced with a mosaic of colorful pebbly stones), twin sinks, and bright lighting. Guests needing more space can opt instead for a one-, two-, or three-bedroom villa or even larger two-to-three-bedroom haciendas all with fully equipped kitchens and a range of luxury amenities.
Palo Verde in the main lodge spills out onto a terrace that overlooks the golf course and duck pond. Its menu runs to contemporary Southwestern-inspired cuisine, sourced, as much as is feasible, locally. Alternatively, guests can dine at the Kitchen Grill and Bar in the golf clubhouse near the tennis courts, which serves everything from burgers and sandwiches to seafood and dry-aged steaks; at the Spotted Donkey Cantina in El Pedregal just outside the resort entrance, a popular hangout for Mexican food and tequila; or the Spa Cafe, which serves healthy, nutritious breakfast and lunch options prepared, when possible, from ingredients in the resort's own gardens.
If you like Boulders, but want a different sense of style—with or without the golf—also look at:
The resort has rooms called casitas as well as suites, one-to-three-bedroom villas, and new three-bedroom haciendas. Rates fluctuate with season and those provided below can serve as a guide.
Visit the website for current rates
Seasons. Year-round, though most comfortable from September to June.
Travel Instructions. By Air: The nearest major airport is Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), roughly 20 miles to the south.