Why Scottsdale Is the Spa Capital of the World

August 20, 2018

My four-day Scottsdale spa vacation had a serious itinerary. Trying something I’d never done before—not committing to a single spa but visiting a different one every day, or even two different spas in the same day—it would be the busiest spa vacation of the dozen or so I’d been on. But
I was up for the challenge, especially since
snow was starting to fall in Jackson, Wyoming, where I live, and the Scottsdale weather forecast called for five months of low humidity and high temperatures in the 80s and 90s. (Yes, winter and spring in Scottsdale are that predictable and that perfect.)

Scottsdale and neighboring Paradise Valley are home to dozens of spa resorts that together include more than 1 million square feet of treatment rooms, saunas, steam rooms, and pools. And then there are the area’s day spas, which are so numerous not even the city’s ultra-organized tourism bureau, Experience Scottsdale, can keep count. They’re as ubiquitous as saguaros. Scottsdale has the highest density of spa resorts of anywhere in the country, and the greatest number of spas per capita. And I couldn’t pick just one.

Multiple spas had treatments that interested me. Also, each spa had its own personality. Well & Being Spa at the Fairmont Princess is massive, 44,000 square feet,
and encourages wandering from treatment 
to pool (including a rooftop adults-only
 pool) to sauna to hot tub to waterfall pool 
to exercise class to patio café. Beyoncé and Jay-Z enjoyed the Asian vibe of Sanctuary Spa when they honeymooned at the attached resort more than a decade ago. More recently, the girlfriend who usually accompanies me on spa vacations raved about an hour-long foot treatment (the Sabai Foot Ritual) at Sanctuary and mentioned that the spa’s redesign was almost complete, and that it was very well done. (Since I thought the “old” Sanctuary Spa was pretty perfect, hearing that it was being updated had made me nervous.) “It’s still the most serene spa I’ve ever been to,” my friend reported.

Scottsdale Spa Article

At Four Seasons, the spa is intimate and results-driven
and situated at the base of Pinnacle Peak, which I wanted to hike one morning. North of Scottsdale proper, up in Carefree, 12-million-year-old boulders dramatically dot the landscape around Boulders Spa, and its café serves entrees made with produce grown in the organic garden behind it. Boulders offers rock climbing classes and rappelling adventures on-site. Spa Avania at Hyatt Regency at Gainey Ranch has a Himalayan salt room. Royal Palms’ Alvadora Spa has a citrus grove facial that sounded like exactly what my dull skin needed. Just reading about the juniper cleanse massage at Palo Verde Spa & Apothecary at the new and hip Andaz Scottsdale relaxed my muscles.

Picking just one of these resorts wouldn’t have been Sophie’s Choice, but it certainly wouldn’t have been easy. So I didn’t, and the idea of spa speed dating was born.

I planned an itinerary of body treatments, facials, and massages at eight different spas over four days. Friends accused me of going overboard. I said I was optimizing my opportunities for wellness. Because I am not a golfer—there are more than 30 courses in the Scottsdale area and most of the spas I booked treatments at are part of resorts that also have golf courses—I instead planned time for a hike every morning. There are easily more than a hundred miles of trails of varying difficulty that start right in Scottsdale.

The night of my arrival, it dawned on me that, as much as I had planned, I had not planned meals. Thankfully Bourbon Steak at Fairmont Scottsdale Princess had a table available. I spent the time I wasn’t eating a nine-ounce prime skirt steak topped with creamy blue cheese—so tender no knife was needed to cut it—studying the restaurant menus of the other resorts I’d be visiting. The brunch menu at Proof at Four Seasons included lemon ricotta masa cakes and
a sandwich with five-hour slow cooked pork, blue cheese coleslaw, and house-made pickles. Elements at Sanctuary at Camelback Mountain had a lobster carbonara dinner entrée with an Asian twist, udon noodles instead of spaghetti.
Scottsdale Spa Article 2
With the addition of meals—at the Boulders’ spa café it was an omelet with vegetables grown in the spa’s organic garden; at Proof I went for duck pastrami salad—the first two days went better than planned. (Full disclosure: I slept in the first morning rather than go for a hike.) Day one—a Desert Radiance body treatment at the Boulders and a facial at Fairmont’s Well & Being Spa—left me relaxed and my skin more hydrated then it’d been since a trip to the Amazon four years ago. As good as day one was, day two might go down in history as one of the greatest ever days of spa-ing.

That morning, I did get up at sunrise to hike six miles on Pinnacle Peak, the mountain just behind the Four Seasons with a well-maintained trail of middling difficulty that winds through the area’s full catalog of cacti. Brunch was on Proof ’s deck followed by 80 minutes of full-body exfoliation and massage using various products made with cocoa. It was the most scent-ual spa treatment I’d ever gotten. But, because I spent an hour post-cocoa walking the Four Seasons’ grounds
and admiring the blooming cacti, which was not part of my itinerary, I did arrive at Hyatt’s Spa Avania for 30 minutes of halotherapy and a 60-minute facial a few minutes late and not quite as relaxed as someone on a spa vacation should be.

But one of the purported benefits of halotherapy—in which you inhale pure, dry, micronized salt particles—is a reduction in stress (another is an improved immune system). In a private, dedicated room with walls made of thick salt tiles, I reclined on a chaise lounge and, within five minutes, fell into a deep sleep that ended only when an esthetician gently woke me up. The final activity for the day was lobster carbonara with Jay-Z and Beyoncé, or at least at the restaurant attached to the resort where they honeymooned (Sanctuary).

The following day, I popped the bubble of wellness and relaxation the prior days of spa-ing had gifted me by shattering my wrist. While hiking down Camelback Mountain shortly after sunrise and a couple of
hours before my Sabai Foot Ritual, I slipped. The
 day’s treatments were replaced by a visit to the emergency room at Scottsdale’s Osborn Hospital.

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That evening, with no spas to immediately comfort me, I fed my sorrows and distress with a return visit to Elements for dinner (a bacon-wrapped filet) and practiced gratitude that it was a spa vacation on which I had hurt myself.

Day four dawned with my arm throbbing. I briefly wanted the sunrise to acknowledge this unplanned and painful change in my situation and be muted and moody, but, like Scottsdale’s weather all winter and spring, it was reliably, spectacularly perfect. Thankfully, the surrounding mountains were still glowing pink when, instead of seeing this gorgeous sunrise as traitorous, I transitioned: It was proof that life goes on, and also that my life at the moment, despite a club- like cast on one arm, was still pretty amazing. I had broken my arm in between spa treatments, and it would heal, and, in the meantime, Sanctuary had been able to rebook me for its Sabai Foot Treatment without encroaching on my already- scheduled afternoon facial at Joya Spa. As the pink light turned orange, I vowed to never suffer an illness or injury at any time other than when on a spa vacation. I
 also vowed to return to Scottsdale sooner than later for the treatments and relaxation I missed the day prior.

Sanctuary’s Sabai Foot Ritual lived up to my friend’s
review and to its name, which, in Thai, means to relax and be comfortable. As a therapist massaged my feet, shins, and calves with a heated poultice filled with fresh herbs, I both relaxed and got more comfortable. Of course I wasn’t as relaxed and comfortable as I would have been without a freshly broken wrist, but I was much more relaxed and comfortable than I would have been anywhere else, even in my own home. I was also sold on the ideas of 1) Future spa vacations would involve multiple resorts,
and 2) Every future vacation would 
include at least one element of self-care
or wellness, just in case I did something
 stupid again.