Camelback Inn visit elicits 40-year-old memories

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When visiting the Camelback Inn late last year, somebody asked me, "Have you been here before?"

"Yes," I said, "a long time ago."

I was a student then at Bishop's School, a private school for the "upper crust," whatever that is. My schoolmates were Kerry Kelly, Gene Kelly's daughter, and Stephanie Wanger, Joan Bennett and Walter Wanger's daughter.

Bishop's School was in La Jolla, Calif. -- close enough to Hollywood, about 90 minutes -- but far enough away to be a perfect place to board the bored.

In that melange of young women was Helen Stewart.

Helen was the middle child of Jack and Louise Stewart, who founded and owned the Camelback Inn.

Helen was the firstborn daughter. She and her older brother, Jack, were fair-haired like their father. The youngest child, Louise, dark-haired and slender, looked like her mother.

They were a pleasant group -- no social affectations, no status-seeking. Just inclusionary, and very nice.

Helen and I were school friends. Whether she asked me and my family to come to Scottsdale for a week, or whether my mother and father, because they knew I knew the Stewarts, just packed us up and went to the Camelback Inn one week, I don't remember. All I remember is that we got there.

Camelback Inn, 40 years ago

As usual, the Stewarts were very welcoming, and I was impressed that Helen's father knew my first name and said hello.

My view of parents was skewed by my own parents, who were either arguing or getting ready to. No peace. No equipoise. Then we arrived at the Camelback Inn.

Even then, it had a magic. My mother and father stopped yelling. Looking back on it now, my mother seemed to have a profound affinity with the Sonoran Desert. She became quiet, reflective and authentic. At the Camelback Inn, she was as content as I had ever seen her.

There was not much to the inn back then but small, flat-roofed, white-stucco casitas and stables where you could ride horses around the property, which was almost all desert. Then there was a large swimming pool. I think there were other amenities, but I don't remember them well.

What I do remember is the dry warmth of the desert, in contrast to the clammy warmth of my Southern California; the colors of bougainvillea; the saguaro and organ-pipe cactus; and the heady incense of campfires made with pinyon and alligator-bark juniper.

It was another world, with Camelback Mountain as one view, and, when you turned around, Mummy Mountain as the other.

I remember also the evenings, 40 years past. Because of the sun's intense effect and the quiet of the surroundings, my mother and father slept peacefully each night.

I wondered, even as a child, how long this would last and hoped we could take some of the desert solitude back with us. Hoped we could take some of the Stewarts' gemutlichkeit back with us, too. At the Camelback Inn, unlike any other time in my life with my family, we were all at peace.

The Camelback Inn as it is today.Camelback Inn today

"Yes," said Wynn Tyner, general manager of the Camelback Inn. "Whether it was 40 years ago or today, the Camelback Inn has the same effect on people. They come here with problems and concerns; they leave here feeling better."

Yet so much had changed. The people had gone. The elder Stewarts, the kindly, lively owners and founders -- the man who remembered my name! -- had died long ago.

When I asked about the Stewart children to a few people who might have known them, they said they only knew of one child, Louise.

Louise, it turns out, runs the Grant Corner Inn, a bed and breakfast at 112 Grant Ave., Santa Fe, N.M., next door to the Georgia O'Keefe Museum. Phone: (800) 964-9003; Web: www.grantcornerinn.com.

When I tracked her down for this story, she told me Jack was well, but that Helen had died many years ago, at the age of 24.

Having arrived, again, at Camelback, four decades later, the enveloping desert peace, the colors of the desert flora and the glorious mountain topography were the same as I remembered them.

But the resort itself was quite different.

In January, Camelback Inn joined the JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts collection and is now known as Marriott's Camelback Inn Resort Golf Club and Spa.

The Spa at Camelback Inn recently underwent an $8 million renovation and features a new design as well as a full complement of spa offerings, including 32 treatment rooms, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a spa pool and Scottsdale's only spa restaurant, Sprouts.

There are more casitas, 453 in all, many elegantly appointed. By summer, these adobe-style guest rooms and suites will be upgraded, and the 16,000-square-foot Arizona Ballroom will find itself under renovation.

There are more places to eat, more variety, from the elegant Chaparral to the leisurely Kokopelli Cafe.

But the crowning jewel of the Camelback that did not exist four decades ago is the spa. The experience of the spa complements and supplements the sense of place that the Camelback exudes, as many of the massages and facials use traditional desert essences.

The Signature facial (60 minutes, $135), for example, blends desert grapefruit, orange, pomegranate essences combined with pumpkin enzyme to create a specialized facial experience customized to skin type.

Other desert extracts used are hydrating oils containing prickly pear, aloe and Sonoran rose.

The Aromatherapy Tea Wrap, the Southwestern Sage Mud Wrap, the Desert Nectar Honey Wrap, the Adobe Clay Purification Treatment and the native Hot Stone Massage involve the use of many indigenous stones, plants, herbs and flowers.

All wraps, massages, scrubs and body treatments are priced between $115 and $145 for the full hour.

The renovation also enhanced the spa's many lifestyle and wellness programs. My mother would have loved the treatments, the wellness programs and Sprouts' gustatory delights.

But, again, it's the sense of place about the spa, nestled at the base of Mummy Mountain, within the landscape of the Camelback, within the landscape of the Sonoran Desert that makes the past so palpable.

I remember the place where my mother and father sat at the pool. She has her sunglasses on and a towel wrapped around her shoulders. My father sits beside her.

Both gathering sustenance from Camelback Mountain, they hold hands and appear content. I would like to remember them that way.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

Rates and dates

he Camelback Inn offers several packages and special rates, including the 14-day Advance Purchase ($299 in a casita room until April 4, promotion code ADP) and the year-round Leisure Rate (valid any day, in a casita-style room, priced from $369 to $429 until April 4. Promotion code LRW.)

Packages include Escape Golf, Escape Spa and Escape to Romance. Rates available on the Web site at www.camelbackinn.com are valid to April 16. For more information on the Camelback Inn, call (800) 24-CAMEL.

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