I had the chance this weekend to visit the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain just outside of Tucson, AZ, and found that it's a great pick for a family winter weekend getaway. (There were lots of kids at the resort, but there's enough space and activities that even those looking for peace and quiet won't have a problem.)
First off, getting there: The airport in Tucson isn't very large, so most airlines fly into Phoenix. Visitors can opt to change planes and fly into Tucson, but it's just as easy to ask for a pickup or rent a car and drive the 80 minutes to the resort.
Upon arrival, I was driven by golf cart to one of the resort’s casitas--private standalone suites that can be combined for groups or families. (Not surprisingly, given the brand, the casitas are very comfortable and have plenty of perks--including large outdoor decks with plenty of chairs.) Most of the casitas have large living rooms and decks that look out over the desert. My one-bedroom casita was huge and very comfortable--especially when the desert nights got cold and I could turn on the gas-powered fireplace with a single button.
I was greeted by Tim Anderson, the resort’s director of sales, and started with an al fresco lunch by the main pool. (The tortilla soup, incidentally, is amazing.) The poolside area is a popular pick for casual meals and receptions, Anderson said, and while there are plenty of interior places for gatherings, the resorts 850 acres have a lot to offer in their own right. Over lunch, Anderson noted that much of the resort's business is corporate groups, and that full buy-outs of the entire facility are not uncommon.
Before setting off on a proper tour, my group was treated to special perks from Boot Barn, a Southwestern business that can provide cowboy hats and boots to event attendees. (The hotel will ship both back to the guests' house, so they do not need to worry about how to pack the unexpected accessories.)
Just outside the resort's pre-function area is a terrace with fire pits (a popular pick for receptions, Director of Meetings and Special Events Eric Duff said), and downstairs from that is the Brisa Lawn, which can accommodate up to 850 people for a reception or al fresco dinner. CJ, one of the hotel’s mixologists, was on hand to demonstrate how the hotel’s culinary team can create unique cocktails for any event, and noted that the “farm-to-table” trend has expanded to “farm-to-bar.” (His cocktail, which combined fresh blackberries, jalapeno peppers, limes, agave nectar and anejo tequila, was a nice mix of fruity and spicy.)
Good to know: Wi-Fi is included in Dove Mountain's resort fees (which can be negotiated for groups), but cellular reception seems to be spotty in this remote part of the desert. (Perfect in some areas, less so in others.)
Families and groups at Dove Mountain can participate in activities like geocaching pieces of children’s bikes in the desert, assembling them and then racing them (the bikes are later donated to children’s charities); or learning about the local wildlife on a hike. (We didn’t try either; opting instead to see the hotel’s Ranger Program room with a full menagerie of local reptiles and insects in cages.)
After nightfall, families can go out to the resort’s extensive golf course to play Glow Golf, with a putt-putt course illuminated by glow sticks and light-up balls. (The games often get very competitive, Anderson noted, especially with larger groups.) And to wrap up an event, groups can take turns driving their glowing golf balls over a hill.
Early on the morning of the second day, I rode out to the nearby White Stallion Ranch, about a 20-minute drive from the resort, to ride a horse through the desert landscape. The ranch is a great pick for a sunrise or sunset excursion, and it has enough horses to suit any riding ability.
When I got back, my group gathered on a terrace to find that several tables had been prepared with the makings of guacamole, and each of us got to try making the traditional dip with some decidedly nontraditional ingredients (cumin and green chiles, among others). Groups and families can participate in cooking competitions or mixology challenges, and members of the hotel’s culinary staff can serve as tasting judges.
We set off with Trail Dust Jeep Tours to get not only an up-close look at the local ecology, but to see where off-site receptions and meals can be set up. (There are a large number of clearings in the desert that are good for different kinds of gatherings, although not all can accommodate portable kitchens for full-fledged dinners.) The sun was beginning to sink as we drove around, and the light over the desert was just spectacular. This is definitely a tour to try--be sure to book several hours for the full experience.
Wine-tastings of local vintages are also easy to arrange, and the hotel has plenty of alcoves and niches for private sessions with a sommelier. After our final dinner, we walked out into the night to a lawn along the side of the resort. An astronomer was waiting for us there with a high-powered telescope. Tucson is home to the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, one of the best in the country if not the world, and the city has passed numerous light-pollution ordinances to keep the night skies clear for the professionals. This means that individuals (and groups) can also take advantage of the optimal viewing conditions, and our group spent a while taking turns looking through the telescope (the most powerful telescope one person can carry and set up by himself, we were told) and learning about stars, planets and nebulae.
In the morning, before heading back to Phoenix, I went over to the spa for a pre-flight massage. The spa is lovely and has its own private pool area for swimming away from the families in the main pool. My therapist, Edward, did a great job on my neck and shoulders, making the flight home much less tense but making it that much harder to come back to the cold northeast.