I have woken up to a panorama of massive golden boulders teetering upon one another, as if a giant toddler has just stacked them like wooden building blocks. Decades-old saguaros raise their arms to the sky—thanking the heavens for the view, perhaps. A family of tiara’d quail skirt past me, followed swiftly by a lone coyote. The morning air is hot and dry like a natural sauna, and it smells like Mexican lavender and sage. Save for the occasional breeze rustling the bright green palo verde trees, there’s not a sound to break the silence. I feel like I’ve traveled about 12 million years back in time, and if only I had only packed a one-shouldered fur dress to wear, my transformation to Raquel Welch circa one million B.C. would be complete.
I am at the Boulders Resort, a Waldorf Astoria hotel set on 1,300 acres of pristine Arizona desert, and today I will experience the resort’s Golden Door Spa. Like its sister property in Escondido, California, Scottsdale’s Golden Door offers Zen-like, Asian-inspired ambience, with carved wooden doors that evoke an Indian fort-palace. But within this stark and sculptural landscape, the spa also draws upon the healing serenity of the desert. The 33,000-square-foot space rises like a modern adobe hacienda before a towering block of honey-colored rock facade. Inside the sun-filled spa lobby, a black clay fireplace, Native American woven baskets, cracked stone floors, cacti, and floor-to-ceiling views of the famed boulders and color-streaked landscape remind spa-goers they’re amid an ancient, other-worldly desert.
I’m here to sample a series of indigenous spa treatments, massages, facials and wraps that channel the healing and pampering powers of local herbs, flowers and traditions. I’m told that people from all over the world travel to the Boulders to experience an unnamed magic that emanates from its grounds and stone monuments; they also come to be enlightened by centuries-old Native American wisdom. “The property, with its boulders and cultural inheritance, is magical,” says spa therapist Kelli Casella. “Our guests are always very inquisitive about the local customs. They find the Southwestern lifestyle really intriguing—it’s grounded, down to earth, serene and quiet, like the desert itself. By drawing from local remedies, plants, herbs and beliefs, we give clients another way to experience this special place.” —By Alison Singh Gee
With that in mind, the spa menu offers a spectrum of intriguing indigenous rituals—and the best among them feel like they could only be administered against this stunning desert backdrop. For instance, there’s the Turquoise Wrap (80 min./$205-$215), a Golden Door signature treatment. Based on the Native American belief that the semi-precious, bright blue stone’s color is the hue of protection, self-confidence and positive energy, this service treats recipients to a warm wrap of turquoise clay and pure honey, and finishes with an application of honey butter. Throughout the process, guests also experience the soothing sounds of a rain stick.
Then there’s the distinctly Western-flavored American Avocado Citrus Scrub (75 min./$145-$155), an invigorating exfoliation made from natural ingredients rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, plus a sheer slick of warm avocado citrus oil. The luckiest clients are in for the Spirit of the Southwest (5 hrs./$715), which deftly combines the Turquoise Wrap with—you guessed it—a hot and cold stone massage employing ancient techniques. Then comes a Golden Harvest Facial, an aromatic treat harnessing the healing and beautifying properties of pumpkin, green tea and avocado.
I’m tempted by all of it. But right now in the glorious Southwest, it’s honey harvesting season and, not by accident, the Golden Door is offering a seasonal specialty dubbed the Honey Wrap (75 min./$145-$155). In conjunction with the resort’s first-ever Honey Festival, special honey-drenched menu items at all of its restaurants, and a public gathering of local honey producers, the Golden Door is showcasing innovative, honey-centric pampering techniques. I’ve been told that desert honey is especially fragrant and flavorful, as it contains less water than what bees produce in other parts of the country. What’s more, honey contains enzymes, nutrients and vitamins that nourish and energize the skin.
En route to the women’s changing room, I wander past a tableau of small boulders that line an indoor fountain—it’s a lovely homage to the astonishing landscape outside. After changing into a desert-weight cotton robe, I explore the wet areas of the spa. The Golden Door invites all guests to spend the entire day exploring the spa amenities, and staff suggests the following self-guided, pre-treatment ritual: a thermal circuit of the Japanese o-furo pool, a steam room infused with eucalyptus oils, and a classic dry sauna. “This purification ritual prepares the body to reap the maximum benefit of our treatments,” says spa director Sheri Claflin. I indulge in each as suggested, and then settle into a plush chaise to enjoy a cold glass of herbal tea and feast on some dried fruit and nuts.
My therapist, Stacy, leads me into a quiet room adorned with a giant rustic God’s–eye. She especially enjoys performing my chosen treatment, mostly because honey’s such an effective healer and beautifier: “A bee has to make one million trips to a flower in order to produce one tablespoon of honey, so it’s got to be special,” she reasons as she begins rubbing my back, stomach, arms and legs with a brush—a way of sloughing dead skin and bringing energy to the skin. She then brushes my entire body with a locally sourced honey, and wraps me in a luxurious blanket, allowing the golden liquid’s natural vitamins and nutrients to soften and nourish my skin. As she massages my scalp, I drift off to sleep.
For the staff at the Golden Door, conveying a sense of place for spa visitors is a primary mission. Welcome to the healing serenity of the desert, begins the spa brochure, and from the very first glance it’s hard not to sigh and relax over this arid panorama’s promise. “From the moment I set foot on the property, I was in awe of its incredible natural landscape,” says Clafin. “I was entranced by the desert and also greatly impressed by Boulders’ attentive staff. Their spirit of giving can offer a real opportunity for metamorphosis.”
To this objective of realizing positive, holistic change before a Southwestern backdrop, the Golden Door has also incorporated such stunning features as an outdoor stone labyrinth (pictured above) where guests can meditate while walking among palo verde trees and desert birds, a serene adults-only pool set against the boulders, and an organic fruit tree-shaded garden, where clients like to idle and sip tea from the nearby cafe.
On its menu, the spa publicizes such “only on this property” adventures as boulder climbing, nightrider bike tours, and energy field blanking with pulsors. They even work with a shamanic ceremonialist who can guide spa guests through Native American spiritual traditions. “Every person should leave with a story to share—some principle or value they will take away from the experience,” says Clafin.
Most significantly, the Golden Door will soon introduce Dance of the Sacred Circle [the time and price are yet to be determined], four treatments performed in succession and based on the Native American medicine wheel, which is tied to the four seasons of the earth. The “East” portion begins the ritual with an awakening massage and reflexology session with warm stones; “South” takes the flow of energy stirred up by the East and moves it into the soul via a cranio-sacral massage and warm herbal wrap. “West” consists of a desert aloe wrap, performed in the Vichy room using pink grapefruit and aloe gel; after the wrap, a flood of warm water invites any negative energy to flow from the body. The “North” treatment is a luxurious hot stone and warm oil massage. Performed with long sweeping strokes, it’s intended to integrate all the positive energy from the four treatments into clients’ bodies. “It’s a beautiful experience,” says therapist Casella, “and leaves guests reflective about the flow of life, as the Native Americans experience it.”
At the end of my treatment I too am treated to a luscious Vichy shower and, in my mind, I travel down the Colorado River and through the red, orange and gold passages of the Grand Canyon. Stacy then lavishes my skin with shea butter and honey cream—a delicious finishing touch. I emerge from the treatment glowing and wordless, like the desert at sunset.
It occurs to me later that such spa treatments, that instill clients with such distinct sense of place, provide the ideal memento of an astonishing trip—longer-lasting than any turquoise ring or leather drum could ever be. After experiencing what the desert has to offer at the Golden Door, I will now carry this journey with me—on my skin, in my hair and in my consciousness.