There are more than thirty thousand golf courses around the world, there's the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of the most remarkable and stunning you'll find in Scottsdale Arizona.
Much could be said about long-haul flights these days but "comfortable" is not a word that comes to mind. That is to say if you're not traveling first or business class. On this particular flight to Phoenix, Arizona, not only were we packed together like sardines in a tin and the fact that the air condition didn't work properly didn't exactly help. But the long uncomfortable journey was quickly forgotten when I arrived at the hotel in Scottsdale where I was going to spend the next couple of days.
Great Resort - Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is a wonderful resort located on 450 acres in North Scottsdale, and despite being in the heart of the Sonoran desert, there are plenty of local shopping centers, restaurants and attractions just a golf shot away. But there is no need to leave the resort, the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess has everything. With 650 luxurious rooms and suites, restaurants, bars, five swimming pools, an award winning spa, and not least two excellent 18-hole golf courses, there are plenty of things to do, so boredom should not be a problem here.
It's already evening, but still around 35 degrees and surprisingly humid when I step out of the car. I'm greeted by helpful porters who take care of the luggage while a valet parks the car. Someone brings me an ice-cold bottle of water, and I'm quickly checked into the hotel. My room is large and luxurious, and comfortably cool after the heat outside
Culinary delight - I was advised to try the food at Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak restaurant with its friendly, relaxed atmosphere, and found a place at the bar. Coming to America "the home of the hamburger" and sitting in a restaurant with an award winning chef - who has this as his specialty - the choice is easy. And what a burger I got. Served with a variety of French fries and dips, from spicy to mildly sweet, it made something we in Europe look upon as nothing but fast food into an exquisite culinary experience.
Immaculate - The two golf courses at the Fairmont Princess are as immaculate as is the rest of this beautiful resort. The TPC Champion's Course, formerly the Desert Course, was completely rebuilt in 2007 under the direction of golf course architect Randy Hackenkemper.
The course meanders over natural ravines and picturesque foothills, with five par-3's and a diverse array of par-4's, ranging from the 480 yard 5th hole with a split fairway, to the 15th with a sharp dogleg to the left which if you should decide to be brave and go directly for the green, makes it about 310 yards from the back tee.
We however, are going to the Stadium Course, Arizona's only PGA Tour facility and venue for the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the largest attended golf event in the world with an estimated 500 000 spectators each year. This par-71 7.216 yard course was designed by Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf and even though it's a challenging course, it's enjoyable for all levels of golfers - professional and amateur alike.
Hole in one - During the tournament the 16th hole becomes a Coliseum-like arena with fully enclosed stadium seating and the most enthusiastic fans in the world of golf. They will scream and throw their cups in the air for great shots, and relentlessly heckle poor shots. It was here on the 16th that Tiger Woods made a hole in one during the Phoenix Open in 1997, and on the 17th Andrew Magee became the only person in the PGA Tour history to hit a hole in one on a par-4 hole. Another historic moment came in 1999 when Tiger Woods got 12 fans to help move aside a 400 pound boulder to make his shot. Since then the rule is that you can still move loose impediments obstructing your shot, but just with the help of your caddy.
On most holes on this course the desert comes into play, especially on hole 13, a par-5 with a "desert island" at about 211 yards and water to the right, dividing the fairway in two. This is the longest hole on the course at 595 yards from the back tee. If you're confident with your first shot you'll want it somewhere between the water and the desert island in the middle. The green is protected by a huge bunker on the left and a smaller one on the right, so lots of fun to look forward to on this one. But now it's time for me to head back to the hotel because I have an appointment at the Spa.
Pain in the neck - In recent years golfers of all levels have become more aware of the importance of physical training and stretching to avoid injuries, and among all the choices at The Willow Stream Spa you will find the special Golf Performance Treatment, which I am going to try.
The Spa is inspired by and modeled after a hidden oasis deep in the Grand Canyon called Havasupai, and its design is drawn from nature's essential elements - earth, air, fire, water and wood.
The treatment lasts for 90 minutes and is a combination of massage, stretching and acupressure, aimed at improving balance and swing rotation for distance and accuracy. I hadn't noticed how sore and tense my neck and shoulder muscles had become, probably due to the many hours spent in front of the computer, so the treatment felt wonderful. Unfortunately I didn't have time to check out the waterfalls, where you can sit and let cascading water sooth away stresses and strain.
I end the day with dinner and good company at La Hacienda where we are served tasty Mexican tapas, while the restaurant's beautiful Tequila Goddess lets us sample some of the more than 240 varieties of tequila on offer. Needless to say I slept well that night.
Into the wild - Before 6 am the next morning I'm already on my way north towards Flagstaff on Interstate 17 to take part in an excursion into the desert with Desert Wolf Tours. Rendezvous is at the Roadrunner Saloon, an authentic western bar that has been used in several Hollywood films.
Desert Wolf Tours has a fleet of so-called Tomcars, originally developed for use by the Israeli Defence Forces Special Operations units, and still in use today in places like Afghanistan. These terrain vehicles are in a class of their own, and on this trip they certainly will have to prove their worth. If you're over 18 you'll do the driving yourself, and so as the sun slowly rises over the Sonoran desert we head out into the wilderness.
This is definitely a trip to be remembered. Incredible bumpy, as we drive literally over sticks and stones, through a terrain hardly accessible on foot. Admittedly, we don't see many animals, as most desert creatures are nocturnal, but we do see a flock of vultures sitting with their wings spread out as if to catch the first rays of the morning sun.
Our guide, Brendon Buckles a native of Colorado, has an incredible amount of knowledge about everything that lives and grows in this wild and fascinating landscape. Not least about the protected Saguaro cactus that is so characteristic of this area and the only place in the world where it grows in the wild. These fascinating cacti can live to several hundred years of age. We also visit the ancient ruins of Native American settlements and the remains of sporadic mining for copper.
If you don't mind a bit of shake, rattle and roll - this trip is well worth taking.
The Westin Kierland - My next port of call is The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa located just a few miles from Fairmont in what is called the "new" Scottsdale and like the latter, this is a resort of great dimensions. The Westin was not originally on my "wish list" for this trip, but I'm so glad I got the chance to experience this fabulous resort. A slightly more conventional hotel building with its 10 floors, but when it comes to service and comfort this establishment definitely knows how to deliver.
The one thing that makes Westin Kierland stand out is that it is very family orientated, with a wide range of facilities and activities for both kids and adults, and the fact that they have a whole shopping district with bars and restaurants just around the corner adds to the experience. I enjoyed a very pleasant meal at a lively Chinese bistro called P.F. Chang's.
For the youngsters, Westin Kierland has a range of activities to choose between, from treasure hunt and ball games to "lawn chess" and RC Car Race Tracks all to be found at the "OK Coral", and of course child-friendly swimming pools with slides and canals for paddle boating.
The Segway - There are also the three 9-hole golf courses that can be combined in different ways to provide a varied and enjoyable round of golf. The courses; Acacia, Ironwood and Mesquite, named after indigenous plants that grow here, have well-groomed fairways, more than 300 bunkers and plenty of water hazards, and of course the ever present desert.
Westin Kierland was also the first golf resort in the U.S. to offer golfers the option of using Segways to maneuver around the course. These two-wheeled devices use gyroscopes and microprocessors to keep balance, and they have been specially designed by Kierland Golf to carry golf bags and other equipment needed for the round. The Segways are more gentle on the fairways than the traditional golf buggies.
Then there is the Scottish Golf Experience complete with authentic Scottish kilt rentals for those golfers who would like to try golf the "Scottish way," and to complete the picture there is a bagpiper who "calls in" the golfers after a great game of golf.
A jewel in the desert - Troon North is truly a masterpiece of a golf course, and it is with anticipation that I take off from East Dynamite Boulevard far out in the desert and finally pull up in front of the clubhouse. Just the thought that anyone could imagine to build golf courses here in the wilderness seems to me almost incomprehensible. The two courses, Monument and Pinnacle, flows through the scorched landscape like emerald green rivers, surrounded by sandstone cliffs and a multitude of shrubs and plants, and with giant Saguaro cacti as guards to remind us that we are intruders in this otherwise pristine desert landscape. It's like a painting, dramatic, beautiful and filled with contrast.
As a photographer, I had high hopes of finding a motive that could be a cover for our magazine here at Troon North, and my guide around the course Mike Friend, Director of Golf Events is doing his best to comply with my wishes. I am a little bit disappointed by the fact that large parts of the course are surrounded by huge private villas, although built in a style that fits into the terrain, it detracts somewhat from the feeling of being out in the desert.
Many of the holes may seem a little intimidating for the novice golfer with a lot of desert between the tee and the fairway, but the desert is deceptive and the distances aren't as daunting as first perceived.
Beautifully kept - As you might expect, it is desert and bunkers that dominate among the hazards on these two courses, but there are also water hazards, as on hole 14, the Spanish Dagger and hole 18, St Andrews on the Monument Course, as well as on the 16th, Post Card on the Pinnacle. Both courses are varied and entertaining with plenty of challenges, but what strikes me most is how well maintained they are, even after a long hot summer. For me the terms manicured and well planned seems to be a perfect description, not just when it comes to fairways and greens, but also the way the natural environment comes into its own.
When we get to hole 2 on the Pinnacle course, I finally get the image I was hoping for. Satisfied, I bid farewell to these two magnificent courses, who truly deserve to be ranked among the best courses in America, and head back to the hotel to pack up and go to my final destination.
I thought I had used up most of the superlatives when describing Troon North, but that was before I came to The Boulders. Driving through the gates of this Waldorf Astoria Resort, you have a feeling of being in a giant Hollywood movie set, and as the road winds itself towards The Lodge, I can actually understand guests who think they are surrounded by giant props. This is truly an amazing resort, a place that fills you with awe, and you can't help thinking how anybody could have envisioned to build this remarkable resort in such an otherwise inhospitable place.
I'm staying in my own luxurious casita (Spanish for 'little house') next to the 7th hole on the south course, where I can sit on the patio watching the sun set and the course get taken over by rabbits, coyotes and gamble quail - a little chicken-like bird that actually comes all the way up to where I'm sitting and enjoying a cold beer after a rather hot and hectic day.
Spotted Donkey - The sunset is spectacular and I decide to walk along the fairways to El Pedregal, where there are lots of small boutiques, galleries and restaurants which are also part of The Boulders. I find a table on the terrace at the Spotted Donkey Cantina and enjoy a fabulous Mexican meal while darkness descends on the desert around us. Afterwards I take a refreshing dip in the pool behind The Lodge, which at this time is virtually empty.
It feels heavenly after spending much of the day in almost 40 degree heat, to float on my back whilst looking up at a sky carpeted with more stars than I have ever seen, and with the 12-million year old granite boulders stacked as if placed by giants, discreetly illuminated as a backdrop. Did I say heavenly? I guess I did.
Tiger Woods might have had 12 fans helping him move the little boulder on the Stadium Course at the Fairmont, but he would certainly have needed a lot more help to move any of the boulders on these courses. Because here you're talking tons - not pounds.
Something that strikes me is how wonderfully incorporated the fairways are into the landscape, and how secluded they feel, without any disturbance from other players on nearby fairways. And as my casita is situated right next to the tee on the 7th hole on the South Course, I can not help but notice the relaxed tone of the passing golfers. It seems they're laughing and enjoying themselves more than I have experienced on courses in Europe. And when it comes down to it, isn't that exactly what golf is supposed to be; an enjoyable game in beautiful surroundings with good friends.
What more can I say about these spectacular golf courses? Well, keep your eye on the ball, something that can prove hard in this distractingly beautiful landscape.
Up - up and away - My last day in Scottsdale begins at 5.45 am as I'm being picked up at The Boulders to go on a balloon flight over the desert. Not my favorite time to start the day, but this is an experience I would not want to miss. The launch site is on the other side of the valley where a total of 7 hot-air balloons will take off with passengers this morning.
As the enormous balloon lifts from the ground, there are 13 of us in the basket. For a while, everyone is quiet and perhaps a bit tense as we gather height and move towards the first cliff top which seems to us to be looming dangerously close. Just the roar from the burner breaks the silence. Then we are clear and as the sun rises and sets color to the desert below us, we float around at 5000 feet, with only the air currents and our eminent pilot to steer us for the next couple of hours.
It's a wonderfully peaceful way to fly. No wind can be felt, no engine noise heard, and the views are spellbinding. When we finally land, the ground crew who were following us via radio are already in place, and the journey ends as tradition requires - with champagne and breakfast.
What better way to end the trip to this stunning part of Arizona and a desert I've come to love - I miss it already.
Good to know
Only British Airways has nonstop flights to Phoenix Sky Harbor.
I had a car from Enterprise Car Rental, renting a Sat Nav is recommended
Resorts & Golf Clubs
Fairmont Scottsdale Princess www.scottsdaleprincess.com
The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa www.kierlandresort.com
Troon North Golf Club www.troonnorthgolf.com
The Boulders Resort www.theboulders.com
Trips & Tours
Desert Wolf Tours www.desertwolftours.com
Hot Air Expeditions Inc. www.hotairexpeditions.com