The saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) is one of the defining plants of the Sonoran Desert in Scottsdale, Arizona – they’re the large, tree-like cacti you see on Instagram feeds with #liveyourbestlife, or if you’re of a slightly older vintage, on Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoons. If you see a saguaro, it’s a sign you’re in the Sonoran Desert, says Brandy, our botanist guide on the ‘Sonoran Explorin’' tour around the expansive grounds of Boulders Resort & Spa.
Brandy points to a plant that looks just like the one I have on my mantle back home. While it may look like an aloe, it’s an agave, whose root system gives way to tequila. She says the mesquite tree we’re under is known as the tree of life in the desert, because its shading canopy makes the temperature drop around it.
I could have used some of that sweet mesquite shade while kayaking on the freshwater Saguaro Lake in the Tonto National Forest. If we get lost while horseback riding at the Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch in the Goldfield Mountain range, I now know that the local barbed cholla cacti are a naturally occurring calcium source, and the fishhook barrel cactus boasts a dense edible fruit that doesn’t taste like much.
Instead, I’m putting my newfound ethnobotanical knowledge to work by experiencing Scottsdale spa treatments that focus on local ingredients. First, at the Palo Verde Spa at Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Bungalows near Camelback Mountain, I book a Cactus Lift & Tone Facial. Using products extracted from the Sonoran Desert by a Sedona botanist, this is a facial in name only, as aesthetician Kerry sees that every part of my body is oiled and massaged with cactus extracts, my face with fruit acids. My winter skin sloughs off like that of a Sonoran shovel-nosed snake.
At the Phoenician Spa, a three-story ode to desert relaxation, I check in for my Sonoran Wellness Scrub, Massage & Wrap. While melting into the table as massage therapist Diane combines salt crystals with desert sage and wild lavender for my body polish, I reflect on my visit to the Desert Botanical Garden, just hours earlier. Home to 50,000 arid-land plants from deserts around the world; the remarkable garden trails are an 82-year-old Arizona institution. Diane places polished rose stones on the vital centres of my back, known as the Marma points (vital points of the body) where muscle meets bone, to enhance the massage (and one hopes, my life), followed by a head-to-toe schmear of natural aloe moisture. I roll out of that treatment room feeling as light as tumbleweed.
Once I check into the Four Seasons Scottsdale Resort at Troon North, I suddenly become like a desert spiny lizard – because this is my natural habitat, and I will never leave. There are misting cabanas to soften the sun, various pools with a rainbow of flotation noodles and icy margaritas to keep us cool.
In the spa, with its small size, hushed tones and expert staff, you instantly enter a zone of serenity. My Nopal Massage uses defanged, split open warm nopal cactus paddles, their antioxidant-rich gel delivered straight to my skin by massage therapist Abbey, who works out the past two years’ worth of knots and angst. (Seriously, ask for Abbey.)
A little while later I join a sound bathing yoga class on the lawn. Through all the stretching and pose-holding, instructor Christine explains that there’s a focus on concentration and meditation to help calm the mind. At the tail end as we’re on our backs with eyes closed and jaws unclenched, she comes around and waves her hands rubbed with prickly pear essential oils – the melon-meets-citrus scent gently wafting over our resting heads. Then there’s the shaking of the rain stick, and the ringing of a Tibetan bowl with a special mallet; Christine plays seven crystal bowls, each representing a freshly unblocked chakra.
Back on the Four Seasons’ lawn after dark, NASA solar system ambassador Ted and friends have set up the biggest telescope I’ve ever seen – we needed a stepping stool to reach the eyepiece – for a unique stargazing experience.
Ted is a volunteer who informs the public about NASA missions and experiences (and yes, Space Force is a real military branch). “Telescopes are time machines because you’re seeing things as they were,” he says, explaining that the speed of light is the speed of the universe. I’ve never seen the sky so clearly, from galaxies 35 million light years away, to clouds of dust and gas where stars were being born.
After a week in Scottsdale, I may know more about cactus extracts and tequila-based cocktails than the speed of light. But under these desert stars, on this warm night, after 320 minutes’ worth of local spa treatments, I can say with complete certainty that I am at one with the universe.
IF YOU GO:
· For a winning urban meets desert mix, check into the new Senna House (thesennahouse.com) in Scottsdale’s Entertainment District.
· Find luxurious casitas and suites, the Pinnacle Peak summit at your doorstep, and luxe spa fixings at the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale (fourseasons.com/scottsdale) at Troon North.
· Sign up for Brandy’s Sonoran Explorin’ tour (sonoranexplorintours.com) at the Boulders Resort & Spa to experience the rich diversity of the desert landscape.
· Late architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West (franklloydwright.org) is a must-visit for design enthusiasts, or simply to feel the awe of the Sonoran Desert.
· Go horseback riding, kayaking or both, at Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch (saguarolakeranch.com), on the banks of the Lower Salt River.
EAT & DRINK
· At Hush Public House (hushpublichouse.com) chef Dom Ruggiero cooks up addictive shared plates like crab hush puppies, chicken liver mousse with drunken cherries and duck fried rice. It’s where local chefs like to hang.
· Diego Pops (diegopops.com) is for good times, big margaritas and brussels spouts nachos.
· At Platform 18 (centurygrandphx.com), book a ticket for an immersive cocktail hour in a Pullman-inspired train car, where prohibition-era cocktails are served, and a moving video landscape takes you on a journey through the Rocky Mountains.
To learn more, visit experiencescottsdale.com.
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