In pursuit of her kind of wellness-themed vacation, chef and restaurateur Valerie Gordon takes her family on the road, checks out the best of Phoenix, and checks into two of Hilton’s top hotels. Part two features a legendary luxury property.
Hotels August 31, 2021
Preservation is a thing. In the history of our company, Valerie Confections, we have taken tremendous strides to appreciate and respect history, both in food and physical structure. Whenever I develop a recipe, I look back as I look forward. So as my family and I continued our Phoenix road trip it was exciting to stay at a property that follows similar philosophies in hospitality. The Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, was designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright disciple, Albert Chase McArthur, almost 100 years ago. Constructed almost entirely of “Biltmore Blocks”—a variation on a textile block, which Wright used in his residential projects—many with patterns inspired by and an echo of the palm trees dotting the grounds. The blocks are not only part of the structures, but also incorporated into recent renovations, which keeps the new feeling old, and vice versa.
Those renovations, begun in March 2020, took 13 months, which underscores exactly how involved the process was. The consulting design team, Virserius Studio, and the architectural team, PHX Architecture, were called in to meticulously restore, repair, and reinvigorate the hotel, while staying true to Wright and McArthur’s original vision. How do you honor the tradition of an historic property, while reimagining the luxurious guest experience for a new era? It’s a riddle the team solved, admirably.
It’s a complete experience for the entire family, with a menu of pools, restaurants, and pursuits to engage all of us, while retaining the glamour and grandeur that’s always been associated with the property. You truly want for nothing, which is an odd sensation for a seeker—once we settled in, I actually didn’t want to leave the property for the rest of our stay.
Well, let’s be more accurate, I didn’t want to leave the room. The guest rooms at the Arizona Biltmore create a visceral response when you walk in, the sigh of the body that occurs when you know you are cared for, tranquility that is sadly kept at bay during daily life. The decor has notes of Hollywood glamour, with luxurious earth-toned textiles, plush beds, and generous seating elements. Each piece is designed with modern lines wrapped up in a perfectly lit package. We booked adjoining rooms—a new perk of the renovation—so the kids were supervised, but Stan and I had the privacy that can go off course during a family trip. Yes, this choice increases the vacation budget, but it is a well-spent increase. Outside of the room is a private patio, appointed with a huge, circular chaise lounge—I so enjoyed this area, which allowed for a serene enclave of outdoor revelry to read or sip a glass and truly expanded the experience into spa realm. Because the rooms were so deeply comfortable, we opted for room service one night of our stay, a request GeeGee makes every time we are in a hotel, but one that is rarely indulged. The in-room service menu is smart and seasonal, featuring respected growers Murray Farms, gluten free items, and tons of kid-friendly options. Dressed in a plush white robe provided by the hotel, I enjoyed an Asian noodle salad showered in fresh herbs with a glass of Veuve Cliquot Champagne. I mean, seriously, there was no suffering in this moment.
We took a tour around the property and were allowed to peek inside the cottages, also updated in the recent renovation.
At first glance, Stan and I decided we are absolutely booking them on our next trip to Phoenix. From the dreamy bathroom tilework and hardware to the desert hues on patterned throw pillows and floor tufts, to the inviting and well-lit chaise in the corner of the bedroom, there is a well-considered elegance to every corner of the cottages, and we’re eager to return to enjoy them.
When exploring the grounds, you’ll also meet The Sprites, replicas of sculptures originally created by Wright for Chicago’s Midway Gardens, rediscovered after World War II, and watching over The Biltmore since the early ’80s. While not an original element, they’ve clearly become integral to the energy of the space, one we continually paused to enjoy.
Another great highlight of the property, literally, is the stained glass piece “Saguaro Forms and Cactus Flowers”, crafted by Taliesin students, off an original Frank Lloyd Wright design from the twenties. The vibrant colors are also present in the property’s signature drink, The Tequila Sunrise. Created at the Biltmore by bartender Gene Bulit in the ‘30’s, it was originally tequila, creme de cassis, lime juice, and soda water. Today, the cocktail has simplified a bit, currently executed as a liquid parfait of sorts, layering orange juice, grenadine and tequila in a tall, well-chilled glass. Delicious, and best enjoyed in the lobby, or at the Wright Bar itself.
Just adjacent to the Wright Bar is a small lounge followed by a vestibule holding The Mezcal Maven’s lair on one side and the charcuterie/cheese station on the other, flanking the entrance to Renata’s Hearth, the Biltmore’s new contemporary Latin restaurant. The Mezcal installation—a jewel box with apothecary appeal, styled by Frida Kahlo’s spirit—is so bespoke and completely unexpected in a resort of this proportion. How can you possibly overlook this moment before dinner?
We stopped and watched the scene as Tara O’Connor, who created the new mezcal menu, crafted a trio of mezcal cocktails for us to explore. Each drink brought out different nuance in the mezcal, but our favorite was the Burnt Paloma, with fresh grapefruit juice, pamplemousse liquor, club soda, smoked chile salt, and a wedge of charred grapefruit—smoky and refreshing.
On many evenings during deep pandemic days, I created a tapas experience to pretend we were somewhere, anywhere, other than home. Renata’s Hearth was the full actualization of a trip of culinary exploration, without a plane ride. Imagine a generous charcuterie and cheese board filled with Iberico pork, manchego, marcona almonds, and sour cherry compote, neighboring a mortar filled with freshly-made guacamole. The room is cozy and welcoming, with blankets draped over chairs throughout, pillows in every booth.
Even with the beautiful room, the incredible cocktails, the kitchen’s grill and smoker are the real stars at Renata’s. We enjoyed the unctuous charred octopus, as well as grilled, compressed watermelon salad, but the warm fava beans with roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms bathing in oregano butter is the dish I’m dying to relive. We’re eager to return to savor the smoked Chicken and Wagyu brisket, and it’s no surprise that the restaurant is filled with locals, as well as hotel guests. It’s a real see-and-be-scene.
Here’s my take on the Arizona Biltmore: You can create your own story there, and it provides different paths for your stay. From business trips to a romantic excursion, the property is so vast and well-appointed that you don’t feel the intrusion of anything outside your immediate circle. Original elements are intertwined with new activations, but it all flows organically. I read about The Twist—the new 65-ft. water slide on a corner of the property—before we set out on our wellness journey, and, to be honest, it was the thing that sold the stay for my 9-year-old. The initial visual of it scared me a bit, as I’m not the water park type and was hesitant to participate. When I acquiesced, after another piña colada, let’s be honest, I let go of the fear and stepped into the joy. Something about the drop that propelled me into a tunnel, body thrust wildly with centrifugal force spinning me uncontrollably through the tubes, felt fantastic. Again, Mommy, again. We rode the slide off-and-on all day, lounging at the cabana, dipping in the pool, and doing the whole thing, together, as a family, and was a day we’ll all treasure. That was the story we were hoping for.
Our last stop in Phoenix was Valentine, the restaurant that sits in front of vintage furniture shop Modern Manor, which had caught my eye on instagram. Valentine is ambitious, open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. on most days, and run by Blaise Farber and Chad Price. The pastry program is earning accolades beyond the city, but the whole experience deserves the same.
With a focus on local ingredients—including indeginous seeds and grains—executed at a high level, the food could succeed anywhere, but could only have come out of this town, at this moment. The tactile, modern design (by Kylie and Ryan Durkin, owners of Modern Manor, as well as partners in the restaurant), is a perfect complement to the great food, coffee, and tremendous fresh cocktails, and creates a perfect flow, from dining room to the store itself. It was a fun and delicious end to our stay.
Confession: We were wiped out when we left for our Phoenix adventure. Running a business and homeschooling two children for 18 months was no easy feat. We needed a break, and most importantly our family was ready for an escape and a little self-care. My big revelation on this trip? Staying at well-appointed hotels like Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs and the Arizona Biltmore, which both combined natural splendor with top-notch amenities and activities, allowed our family to have everyone’s needs met—and satisfied our newfound definition of wellness. Our six full days of expanding that definition with the food, the fun—and those powerful desert vibes—provided a much needed recharge and reset for the mind, body, and spirit.