Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2021
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Paradise lost & found

Oasis or concrete jungle? Phoenix is split between two identities

Almost 2500 years ago the Hohokam people settled in the Valley of the Sun on the banks of the Salt River. They spent the next several hundred years building an elaborate irrigation system. Then around 1450 they disappeared. Later small bands of Pima and Maricopia people subsisted along the Salt and the Gila, but there was no permanent settlement in the valley until 1860 when the US Army arrived. A former soldier managed to resurrect some of the Hohokam canals and began farming. An early settler, Darrel Duppa suggested something new had risen on the ashes of the old, and he called the place Phoenix. In retrospect, perhaps the better decision was to abandon the spot, a decision the Hohokam made 500 years ago.

The early years were good. Phoenix was a farming community where orange groves and date-palm plantations spread out along the river and the old irrigation system. Then in 1912 the Roosevelt Dam was built on the Salt, and the water problem was declared solved. By 1926, Phoenix was linked to both coasts by rail, and the tourists and others flowed in. Frank Lloyd Wright helped create the Arizona Biltmore in 1929. Back then it was many kilometres out in the desert. When it opened that same year, it made headlines and was called the best hotel in the west. It still is one of the better watering holes anywhere, and every single US president has paid a visit since. What happened to the city, on the other hand, is another story.

Greater Phoenix now sprawls across the valley. Long ago it gobbled up adjacent Tempe and Scottsdale, and it's well on its way to engulfing Wickenburg in the west and New River to the north. Even Tucson, 145 kilometres south, can no longer be considered safe.

The population of the valley is edging toward four million and continues to explode. The Biltmore is hedged in by strings of four-lane roads, malls and cookie-cutter suburbs. Frank Lloyd Wright built his winter home and workshop, Taliesin West, 32 kilometres from the city centre in the 1940s. It's similarly beset, though marginally protected by the 243 hectares of land the architect had the foresight to purchase. Edward Abbey, the conservationist, got it right when he called the city "the blob that's eating Arizona."

A dirty brown haze of pollution hovers over the city on most days, and ozone alerts are common in Phoenix where people once came to for pure air to ease their respiratory ailments. You can't go anywhere without a car since the city is laced with freeways, with still more being frantically built. Sadly, there are no shops, movie theatres or restaurants that aren't inside a mall. Crime rates are high, while poorer sections of the city are ramshackle and feel dangerous. It's the hottest city on the planet outside the Middle East, with summer temperatures routinely going beyond 35°C.

Why would anyone want to come here? For one thing, the winter's are balmy, seldom falling below 15°C, with daytime temperatures around 25°C. The air is dry and comfortable from December through March. There are palm trees, orange trees, green golf courses, hectares of pools and tennis courts. Fashion Square in Scottsdale hosts all of America's great retailers, from Nordstrom to Saks Fifth Avenue. And whatever evil might be said of Phoenix, it's one of the most geographically appealing of any state in the union.

So what do all the people who flock here do? Well, some of them come for the winter and stay in mobile homes. Others build elaborate retirement homes in places like Sun City, where $US300,000 buys you way too much space. Construction workers come for the work -- the suburbs grow so fast you can almost see them moving. Mexican day labourers come for better wages, while businesses move into the 100 or more industrial parks that dot the valley. They put up buildings of four or five storeys that are so identical to one another, it's often hard to tell where you are. Planes full of convention-goers pour in every winter day; they take a limo to a resort, pick up their name tags and get down to networking.

Many of the resorts and most of the convention action is actually in Scottsdale, an upscale community glued to Phoenix. The cities are so seamlessly attached that you can't tell when you leave one and enter the other. Canadian doctors are frequent visitors to the Phoenix-Scottsdale area. Indeed, these days, if you regularly attend medical meetings outside the country at all, Phoenix would be hard to miss. Here's a brief rundown on where you're most likely to find yourself.

The Phoenician (6000 Camelback Road; tel: 800-888-8234; is the one you hear about most. It's over-the-top luxurious with nine pools, rivers and waterfalls, a 50-metre water slide, a 27-hole golf course, 11 tennis courts and nine restaurants, including Mary Elaine's, which was rated the top hotel restaurant in Phoenix by the 2000 Zagat survey. It's tucked away on 100 landscaped hectares at the foot of Camelback Mountain. Rates go from $590 to $785 in season, to a low of $250 in the summer months. A large number of lavishly appointed suites are also offered. If the meeting takes place here, you know the host has spared no expense.

Arizona Biltmore (24 St. at Missouri; tel: 800-950-0086) is the grand old hotel and resort that started it all. Frank Lloyd Wright's touches include stained-glass lighting and the dark, protected cave-like atmosphere of the interior. If you're not lucky enough to stay here, it's still worth a visit. There's an 18-hole golf course, five pools, eight tennis courts and even a giant outdoor chess set. The hiking and biking on Squaw Peak are fun and so is the soda fountain. The Biltmore is an institution. Rates start at $500 and go up to $710 in season and $445 to $620 in the summer.

The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (7575 E. Princess Dr., North Scottsdale; tel: 800-344-4758) is set on 182 hectares and not so long ago, the hotel was by itself in the desert on the north edge of the metropolitan area. No longer. Today it's hemmed in near the corner of Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard and Scottsdale Road. Malls and their massive parking lots curl out in all directions, like so much asphalt carpeting.

Still, once you're on the property, you're in another world. There are three ozone-purified pools, nine tennis courts and two 18-hole golf courses (the Phoenix Open is played here). There are squash and racquetball courts and the mandatory health centre includes a fitness trail. Zagat rates The Marquesa as the best restaurant offering Mediterranean fare in the valley, and the less pricey La Hacienda as the best Mexican place to eat, which is saying something given the area's fondness for food from south of the border. Rates run from $505 to $650 in season, to summer lows of $225 to $255. Casitas and suites are pricier.

The Boulders (34505 N. Scottsdale Road; tel: 800-553-1717) is known for its 18-hole golf course. The resort is set among curious rock formations about 15 kilometres north of Scottsdale near the intersection of Scottsdale Road and the Carefree Highway. Jogging and hiking trails abound and the Sonoran Spa and fitness centre is highly regarded. Guests stay in individual casitas and pueblo-style villas. Most have wood-burning fireplaces, too. Rates start at $750 for a casita and go up to as much as $1585 for a three-bedroom villa. The cost is half that in the summer.

There are plenty of other resorts in, all of them good. My favourite is the Royal Palms, a smaller resort with the flavour of an old Mexican hacienda. Fountains, pillars and lush landscaping abound. It's also on Camelback Road.

The elegant Scottsdale Plaza on Scottsdale Road won't disappoint either. Perhaps in reaction to the sterility outside, the resorts tend to cocoon their guests in a desert oasis. No one asks about where the water comes from or how much of it there is.

So should you plan a vacation to Phoenix? Absolutely. The resorts have some of the finest convention facilities anywhere; besides, Phoenix is the starting point to some of the most fascinating states in the lower 48.


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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