The $2,300 Solution

By Alicia Mundy
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 9, 2003

A couple of years ago, I wouldn't have been caught dead going to a spa resort for a vacation. That's for blue-haired ladies whose idea of excitement is a slow stroll around the croquet courts. It's where the bitchy broads of "The Women" convene to plot the destruction of their ex-husbands over vodka stingers. It's so not happening.

But by the time this summer had rolled around, and over me, I wasn't exactly "happening" either. Saddled with a neck sprain exacerbated by stress, lack of sleep and lack of sun, I was in no shape to traipse around Europe cathedral-hopping.

Then I saw an ad for the posh Phoenician resort near Phoenix, extolling its golf courses (skip that), tennis packages (nope) and 10 pages of body- and mind-soothing programs. It has a famous restaurant called Mary Elaine's that a local chef in Alexandria said I had to visit. The place had nine pools and hadn't seen a decent rain in three years.

I didn't care that the average age of visitors would probably be 65 -- that meant they'd all be in bed early and leave me alone at the hotel bars. I booked a room and six body treatments for August, the slowest month for the Phoenician, and the cheapest.

"You're going by yourself?" friends asked. I just smiled. My suitcase held two swimsuits, one dinner outfit, bubble bath, three books and four months' worth of unread magazines.

The Phoenician is actually in Scottsdale, 20 minutes from the Phoenix airport. "Get a car and drive to Sedona," urged my Russian cab driver, waxing eloquent about its artists, galleries and cafes. But I wasn't intending to talk or move for five days.

The Phoenician grounds sit at the foot of the aptly named Camelback Mountain. There are various "guest houses," a section for privacy-seeking celebrities, and a main building that looks a little like Dulles airport from the outside and is packed with ornate chandeliers and western art. When I arrived, a manager had upgraded my room to atone for a minor reservations gaffe. It came with a king-size bed, CD player and a view of the main pools with the mountains in the distance. The TV had HBO (no missing "Sex and the City"!), and the bathroom, with its adjustable lights and TV audio, walk-in shower and bathtub for two, could become my retirement cottage. When you're exhausted, luxury bathroom details are crucial.

Within an hour, I'd hit six of the nine pools, including the Mother of Pearl Relaxation pool, surrounded by cabanas. Though the lounge chairs were packed with people sipping margaritas, the pools were surprisingly empty for mid-afternoon. However, after months of summer heat, they were the temperature of a warm bath. Swimming laps anytime after about 10 a.m. was asking for heat stroke, but there was a kiddies' water slide where you could disappear from view down rapid curlicue shoots. When I saw two pro jocks (there were a lot of off-season athletes as guests) take the plunge, I climbed up, too. The slide guide gave me a tip: Hang at the top for 10 seconds and let the water back up behind you, which then pushes you down with fire-hose force. I haven't screamed at a pool since I was a kid.

My first massage was at 5 that afternoon, something calm and Swedish, with attention to my neck and back. When I mentioned that I was scheduled for the Rosemary Soothing Souffle Wrap the next morning, the masseuse just sighed, "You're sooooo lucky."

At Drinkwater's City Hall Steakhouse that night in downtown Scottsdale, alone with one of my books, I asked for a seat with a little light. The maitre d', Pierre O'Rourke, waved his hand and the entire wall of blinds in the bar were raised, letting in the sunset. The entertainment was a lounge crooner whose set began unfortuitously with the opening notes to "Cracklin' Rosie." Luckily, the martini could have served two easily, and the Neil Diamond medley didn't sound bad after a while. The waitress arrived with a huge appetizer of fried ravioli, a gift called in from the concierge at the Phoenician. Meanwhile, O'Rourke told me about his book coming out this fall, "Dog Gone -- the Fire Hydrant Way to Heaven." That's his homage to Shadow, his late retriever, who he says is really an angel in disguise. I wanted to book a second visit, just for the conversation.

Next morning, I appeared at the Centre for Well-Being for my souffle body wrap. I was enveloped and practically embalmed in herbal oil and hot towels, then massaged to sleep. Uncertain of my name or whereabouts afterward, I wobbled, wrapped in a robe, to the sunlit atrium for my first meditation class.

We settled into full-tilt lounge chairs. Christine, the teacher, asked a packed class (one male, 10 women, including a D.C. lawyer) why they were here. Answers ranged from "I can't sleep. I'm grinding my teeth all night" to "I snore and wake up. I'm stressed out at work." No one was there to achieve a higher consciousness -- they were all like me, just trying to find a way to get by without major tranquilizers.

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