Phoenix doesn't rise from the ashes of itself, but from a sun-drenched desert that draws visitors from around the globe for its warm winter days and sultry nights. It rose also from the imagination of people who visualized a city where people could live year-around in the shadows of the rugged mountains surrounding it. Savvy marketers branded it "The Valley of the Sun" in the 1930s and the label sticks today.
Even before the Valley of the Sun became a mecca for people fleeing the snows of the north, Phoenix drew a well-heeled set. They came by air--Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport was built in 1928--they came by train--both Santa Fe and Southern Pacific lines came into Phoenix's Union Station--and they came by automobile--Route 66 cut through Northern Arizona from where motorists dipped south on scenic Arizona highways into Phoenix. They came for health cures in the dry air, to sun themselves beside swimming pools, and to swing clubs on the golf courses that flourished in the dead of winter. They came to visit, and they came to stay.
In 1925, Albert Chase McArthur, an acolyte of Frank Lloyd Wright, moved his architectural design firm to Phoenix. His two brothers, Warren and Charles McArthur, partnered with John McEntee Bowman of the Biltmore Hotel Group, and commissioned him to build a resort hotel to draw the rich and famous to the burgeoning city of Phoenix. The partners selected a large parcel of land about ten miles north of the city, alongside one of the aqueducts that brought water into Phoenix. Albert McArthur saw the great expanses of sand surrounding the proposed resort site as building material and employed the concrete block style construction he'd learned under Wright's tutelage.
Legends abound regarding the true relationship of Wright with the Arizona Biltmore resort. The famed architect claimed a patent to the concrete block method of construction and required a hefty consultation fee for its use. It was later determined that Wright had no patent on the design method. Wright and McArthur were said to have bickered privately and publicly regarding the design, with Wright dismissing as inferior much of McArthur's contributions, but for years Wright took much of the credit for the resort's extraordinary design. McArthur's personal stamp upon the diverse designs of the concrete blocks are not disputed, though Wright's influence in the overall project is clearly visible.
"The Jewel of the Desert" opened to a full house of celebrity, dignitary and socialite guests for a three-day gala in 1929 and placed the Arizona Biltmore on the social register of places to go and places to be seen. The stock market crashed only a few months after the great resort opened, stripping the cash from investors and guests alike. Chicago chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. stepped up in 1930 and bought the resort and for the next forty years kept the resort open to guests by invitation only.
It was during this private period when the Arizona Biltmore grew in renown for celebrity getaways. Ronald and Nancy Reagan honeymooned there in 1952, the Rat Pack--Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop--were fabled guests, often performing impromptu concerts in the swanky Aztec Room or on the Yamaha piano in the lobby bar. Marilyn Monroe claimed the Arizona Biltmore's art deco Catalina Pool to be her favorite place to plunge and sunbathe, while it's said that Irving Berlin wrote "White Christmas" while sitting beside that same pool. Every president from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush has stayed at the resort at some time during his term of office.
Prohibition was on its last legs when the Arizona Biltmore opened, but that didn't stop the resort from offering guests a speakeasy right there in the main building of the hotel. A reading room by day, a cigar lounge by night, the Mystery Room as it is called today, served up cocktails and other alcoholic beverages to guests "in the know." After the reading room was closed for the evening, guests would give the secret password, then enter from a secret staircase accessible from the kitchen. A large spotlight mounted on a tower of the hotel, used ostensibly to guide guests traveling by automobile through the dark desert, also spotted police vehicles on approach and turned to shine a warning in the window of the reading room-turned speakeasy. The Mystery room today hosts whiskey mixology fetes and pop-up bars that open to guests in-the-know with a "whisper word" passed through social media channels. A new menu and permanent hours of operation for the Mystery room is in development and slated to premiere later this year.
Today the Biltmore is surrounded by two championship golf courses, mansions, upscale residences, time-share condos, and shopping centers--the lavish Biltmore Fashion Park is a place worthy of wandering even if you don't spend a penny. The original resort building designed by McArthur has since been joined by several expansions, all of which were constructed with painstaking attention to the design details, often using the original concrete molds to form new building blocks.
Situated at the foot of Squaw Peak, the silhouette of which provides a stunning backdrop, the resort boasts 39 acres of lavish gardens, 8 pools, 6 dining or drinking venues, 7 tennis courts, a world-class spa and fitness center, a total of 740 guest rooms and spacious villas. Set within the Biltmore grounds is Ocotilla, a hotel-within-a-hotel which offers a step up in luxury and exclusivity, with enhanced concierge services, a club room stocked with beverages and appetizers, a private pool and other bespoken amenities.
Phoenix has a wealth of fine restaurants, but Biltmore makes it hard to leave the resort with dining options from poolside at the Cabana Bar surrounding the sprawling Paradise Pool, to casual dining at Frank and Albert's, to high tea under the gold-leafed ceiling of the lobby, to innovative classic cuisine at Wright's at the Biltmore. Try the Beef Wellington at Wright's for a contemporary turn on this vintage dish--a filet mignon topped with foie gras, wrapped in puffed pastry and cooked to order. Wright's offers an impressive wine list, many of the premium choices available by the glass. I had a glass of The Prisoner, a lush red wine rarely found on single serving menus. Save room for dessert, and if you want one of their signature soufflés, order it early, or be prepared to sip coffee or a glass of port while waiting for it to bake.
The pool scene at the Arizona Biltmore is truly resort-worthy. The original Catalina pool with its magnificent art deco tile remains, but the enormous 24-hour Paradise pool is where the action is. A three-story, art-deco waterfall, reminiscent of the original bath house that once graced the Catalina pool, splashes a melody into the air, while a 92-ft. waterslide winds through it. Elegantly furnished cabanas available for rent from 11 a.m. to sunset come with mini-refrigerators, flat-screen TVs, private bathrooms, complimentary wi-fi, private beverage service and a pool concierge. A swim-up bar makes refreshment easy, while tables surround the bar comprising the Cabana Club where guests can munch on sandwiches, salads, wraps and other light foods.
Guest rooms vary in size and decor, but even the lowest priced rooms are spacious and feature luxurious amenities. The color scheme is rather bland, with pure white bed coverings dotted with geometric-patterned pillows and desert colors accenting the furniture. Large screen TVs are standard in every room, along with premium cable channels. Wi-fi is complimentary in all guest rooms. It's hard to believe people actually work from here, but they do, and each room is outfitted with desks, speaker-phones, mobile device power outlets, and mp3 player clock radios. All rooms, suites, villas, and cottages have personal concierge services, access to 24/7 room service and evening turn-down. Even better, the entire resort is pet friendly.
You'll be tempted to stay exclusively on the resort grounds throughout your visit to the Arizona Biltmore, but don't. Phoenix has much to offer in terms of culture, arts, dining, outdoor experiences and shopping. You can grab a hike into Phoenix Mountain Preserve right from the Biltmore, rent a bike or take a horseback excursion on rugged mountain trails. A concierge will assist you in finding other activities such as a visit to the spectacular Desert Botanical Gardens where you can hike or stroll through 50 acres of endangered, rare or indigenous cacti and other plants.
Make your visit to Phoenix even more memorable with a sunrise or sunset view of the desert from a hot air balloon. The staff at Hot Air Expeditions will pick you up from the lobby of the Biltmore and drive you through the desert to a staging area where you'll experience lighter-than-air travel over the rugged desert terrain, spotting wild horses or burros roaming free and watch your balloon's shadow drift across the ground below. After your flight, the crew treats you to either a breakfast or light dinner and the traditional champagne toast to good flight and safe landing.
The Arizona Biltmore is now a member of Hilton's exclusive Waldorf Astoria collection. As with everything branded with the Waldorf Astoria name, you can expect the ultimate in luxury, from the soft cotton towels and bed linens in the rooms, to the sharp attention of the staff, to the sumptuous spa treatments, to the dazzling floral displays inside and outside the buildings. You won't want to leave, but when you do, you'll have much to remember.
All photos by Carolyn Burns Bass. This piece also appears in Travel Ovations.