By Brad Barth
In a city of posh playgrounds and luxury lifestyles, Scottsdale's high-end resorts make it their mission to never leave their guests wanting. And of all these lavish lodgings, there is perhaps no greater contrast than that between the Mediterranean charm of the Montelucia Resort & Spa and the hip, swingin' atmosphere of the Hotel Valley Ho. Take it from me -- I was lucky enough to spend a few nights at both.
MONTELUCIA RESORT & SPA
So attentive is this resort to your every whim and desire, you might almost believe the Montelucia had Arizona's famed Camelback Mountain moved beside it because a guest requested a more spectacular view.
Inspired by the architecture of Spain's Andalusia region, this high-end desert retreat, located in the aptly named Paradise Valley, made waves several years ago when Barack Obama broke long-standing presidential tradition and chose to stay here while in Arizona, instead of the Biltmore. Good choice, Mr. President. (Just imagine the Commander-in-Chief soaking next to you in the hot tub.)
The resort hosts several unique activities on property, including a cocktail mixology workshop at the poolside restaurant ROQ, where I downed the best white sangria I've ever tasted. The skies here also make for excellent stargazing, and on certain nights the resort brings in a local astronomer to point out the various planets and constellations over freshly roasted S'mores.
But the star attraction here is the Joya Spa, which sports a Moroccan motif in its decor and customs -- it even has a hammam, or Middle Eastern steam bath. As a first-time spa visitor, I played it safe and selected the Joyambrosia signature body massage -- a neck-to-toe circular kneading, using a soothing blend of argan oil, Spanish citrus, Moroccan mint and spices. All of Joya Spa's products also include the scent and essence of the fragrant, yet rare Queen of the Night cactus flower, which only blooms at night, usually once every few years. Hey, as long as they don't use the rest of the cactus on me -- although that might make for a good exfoliant.
The spa's rooftop hosts one of five pools on property, although the two that are open to all resort guests are the high-energy Kasbah Pool, and the quieter Oasis pool.
The Montelucia is also home to Prado, a 2011 AAA Four Diamond Award-winning restaurant that served my favorite meal of the trip. The elegant, Italian-inspired establishment, presided over by Head Chef Peter DeRuvo, features a seasonal menu of freshly sourced ingredients, cooked rustically on a grill over a wood-burning fire .
At first I thought trying my first-ever fried oyster (addictive!) was being adventurous, until they brought out the iron-rich beef heart. Sampling liberally from a selection of cured meats and cheeses, I almost didn't leave enough room for the main course. But then again, I can always make room for duck, especially when it's served in giblet gravy, with polenta, onions, brussels, mache and cherries that literally burst with flavor. As for dessert, the dulce de leche bread pudding dish was so sinfully delectable, I suspect black magic was behind it.
HOTEL VALLEY HO
It's not an accident that this retro-chic downtown hotel exudes the same kind of hip swagger you'd expect at a trendy Hollywood boutique hotel. In fact, in its early days back in the '50s and '60s, it attracted the likes of Zsa Zsa Gabor, Tony Curtis, Ted Williams and other celebrity icons of that era. Listed on the Scottsdale historic register, the hotel was particularly big with Major League Baseball players who attended Spring Training in the Scottsdale area.
Okay, fine, so the hotel name has a certain ironic quality to it that didn't exist back in the day. But management seems to have a sense of humor about it, especially since Westroc Hotels & Resorts' $80 million renovation in 2005 saved this local landmark from the wrecking ball and rejuvenated it with a future-of-the-past motif.
Anchoring the westernmost point of Scottsdale's Main Street, the trendy hangout spot lures visitors with its martini-glass-and-olive-shaped OH pool, replete with cabanas, a bar and occasional live music to get the party started. I was told on good authority that most days you don't have to stay here to use the pool. (But I get the feeling it probably helps if you're young, pretty and tanned.) And don't worry. Guests who party too hard can always revive themselves at the VH Spa for Vitality & Health.
The rooms themselves are funky and nonconformist -- that was clear the moment I walked through the door, only to discover the bathtub sitting right next to the bed. An architecture and history tour is available here, if arranged in advance through Scottsdale's Ultimate Art & Cultural Tours. During the 90-minute walking presentation, guests learn about Valley Ho architect Edward Varney -- a student of Frank Lloyd Wright -- and his ample use of glass, concrete, stone and masonry to create what is now considered a quintessential example of mid-century modern architecture.
The recent renovation restored much of Varney's original vision, while adding a new tower with its own splashy, colorful vibe, serving as a hotel within a hotel. The tour includes an ascent to the seven-story tower's roof -- accessible to all guests -- which offers lovely views of downtown and the surrounding mountains. Apparently, Varney had always intended to have a tower constructed, and so it was built in the spirit of his design.
The Valley Ho has two full-service restaurant options. Inside the main lobby and adjacent courtyard (next to the pool), Cafe Zuzu delivers a contemporary take on seasonal comfort food, as interpreted by Executive Chef Charles Wiley. I recommend the pan-seared scallops and braised beef short rib. Trader Vic's, meanwhile, offers a taste of Polynesian fusion cuisine, as envisioned by Executive Chef Justin Pfeilsticker.
In light of its transformation, the Valley Ho has undergone a Renaissance that echoes and even surpasses its heyday in the '50s and '60s. Once again, Hollywood's finest are flocking here for some serious star treatment. Stay long enough, and you might start to feel like you're one of them.
There you have it: the Montelucia and the Valley Ho, a study in contrasts. Which did I like better? Whichever one wants to invite me back first.
Brad Barth's was a guest of the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.