so not happening.">
washingtonpost.com
The $2,300 Solution
Stressed out? First, fly to Phoenix. . .

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.

As we covered our eyes with towels and practiced yoga breathing, Christine talked rhythmically about the link between controlling our breathing and our surroundings, and warned that we might drift off. Fat chance, I thought. But about 15 minutes later, there was loud snoring from one of the chairs -- and it wasn't the guy. The tooth-grinder had moved from alpha stage to beta. The rest of us envied her.

That afternoon, as I lolled at the pool with a margarita, I eavesdropped on three rich, youngish stockbrokers from Dallas who were talking obnoxiously about their "girls" and the need to practice "catch and release" with women. Glancing around, I saw that other women ranging in age from their late teens to mid-forties were listening, too. Despite the temperature, there was frost in the air. One of the stockbrokers complained that his honey had served him "steaks from Safeway," which he had been forced to throw out to make his point that he was "upscale." Several of us women, hiding behind Elles and Vanity Fairs, made eye contact at that remark, and when the men left to graze elsewhere, we did a little verbal vivisecting of the "Safeway steak guy."

That evening's dinner was at the Roaring Fork in Scottsdale, run by one of the hotel's former chefs. It offered unusual fare, such as duck marinated in honey and chili peppers. My server, Audrey, recommended a terrific California Meritage called Tractor Shed Red. She also told me about the city's hot dance scene, when people visit for entire weekends devoted to Western, swing, ballroom and two-step dancing.

At next morning's yoga class, the instructor told us that the Chicago Bulls had taken yoga classes here to learn balance and breathing. By the end of the class, she had all of us novices holding advanced positions. I noticed a gorgeous woman stretching behind me -- it was world champion ice skater Michelle Kwan. She wasn't the only jock in the gym: I learned about a special abs machine from a former Orioles pitcher.

That morning's scheduled cranial massage turned out to be more of a laying on of hands than a vigorous muscle rubdown. But that afternoon, I had a facial with Maggie that took a decade-plus off my face. She used a combination of seaweed, collagen and psychotherapy, and when she was through with me, I felt -- and looked -- 30 again. I'd fly back to the Phoenician just for her.

That night I had an early seating at Mary Elaine's, my much-anticipated five-star dining experience. I expected the usual singleton seat in Siberia, but to my surprise, I was seated in a central location with a great view of the city and servers who hovered like mother birds. Did I have enough light to read? Would I like a little footstool for my purse? Gregory, the sommelier, helped me choose wines by the glass and recommended a special Riesling to go with the foie gras. The staff kept arriving with tidbits -- smoked salmon, almond gazpacho with thinly sliced green grapes, sea scallops. Rick, my waiter, said, "We always like to take care of single guests so they feel comfortable."

Comfortable? After the pots de crème dessert, I wondered how I would waddle back to my room. I dismissed the platter of petits fours, only to be handed a gift bag to take back in case of a hunger attack on the elevator. That night, I blew $150 with tip, more than I've ever spent on dinner anywhere, including Paris -- but my evening was nothing less than perfect.

Early the next morning, I put on my cross-trainers and headed up to Camelback Mountain. Within minutes, the trail became nothing but sharp rocks. Hmmm, this is why one concierge, handing me a water bottle, had suggested hiking boots. I made the first summit, but descending was dangerous in my shoes. Meanwhile, I spotted golfers finishing their rounds -- in the heat, only fools were taking tee times after 7 a.m.

That afternoon, I had a neuromuscular massage with Bob, for my neck and back muscles, and a salt-and-peppermint foot scrub and massage. Bob finally got my neck to turn. Elated, I almost joined a croquet game in progress on the front lawn, but these thirtysomethings were playing for blood. I hit the outdoor whirlpool instead, fired up my own bubble bath and feasted on the previous evening's petits fours.

Morning found me back at my final treatment, foot and hand reflexology with Anna. When I'd first booked my appointments, I'd told the staffer that my goal was to leave feeling like Jell-O. Now, at last, I was shimmying.

The hotel, airfare, dinner and massages set me back $2,300. But I wrote the first chapter of my next book on the plane back -- in longhand. Maybe the high cost of relaxing will pay off in sales.

Rooms at the Phoenician (6000 E. Camelback Rd., Scottsdale, Ariz., 888-625-5144, www.thephoenician.com), a Starwood Hotels & Resorts property, start at $625 double (January-June 6), $295 (June 7-Sept.13) and $525 (Sept. 14-Dec. 31). Suites from $895. Spa services cost extra.

Washington writer Alicia Mundy, author of "Dispensing With the Truth," buys steaks at Safeway and likes lime Jell-O.

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