Luxist Takes the Honda CR-Z to the Camelback Inn
There's a desert to the west of Los Angeles, the dusty, scrubby kind riven by arroyos and snow-capped ranges. The city is protected from that barren terror by a kind of East Wall, a monumentally wide buffer of concrete that are actually cities and towns everyone knows about but few ever visit on purpose – places like Monrovia, Cerritos, Montebello, Pomona.
Occasionally, though, there comes a reason to cross that desert, and you want a good camel when such time comes. We found a proper mount in the Honda CR-Z, a two-seat hybrid to play miniature steel dromedary for our Bedouin sallies.
The destination was an oasis 380 miles due east tucked behind Scottsdale's Camelback Mountain, in Paradise Valley, and aptly named The Camelback Inn. Once there, having braved, well, nothing really, we would quench our thirst with some of the finest drinks ever sipped by any traveler, weary or otherwise...
The Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway, otherwise known as I-10, is an artery that connects the famous, the freakish, the forgotten. Most of its scenes are from some kind of dystopian Disneyland: towns about which the only thing you can remember is asking yourself, "Who lives out here?", boarded up adult bookstores defaced in their ramshackle deaths, casinos advertising appearances by bands whose members you didn't realize were still alive, billboards for God and country and managed care facilities and homes in the low $300s, refineries and prisons, wide, rutted dirt roads that spear off the highway into oblivion beyond wrinkled mountains.
And in that oblivion live, apparently, people who have bought homes in the low $300s.
The little CR-Z looks enough the part for this: its drooping snout up front, single hump in the back is just the kind of peculiar pack animal you'd expect to find unfazed in the crossing of weirded-out lands. This isn't at all like the original 1999 Honda Insight coupe, which was like something out of Woody Allen's "Sleeper" – a low-slung bullet of undulations that had all the design finesse of, well, a bullet. This car, the CR-Z, has character lines that save it from the most unflattering aspects of its design, but there's only so much that can be done with short and stubby. You will either get the design... or you won't.
Desert animals don't waste their evolution on fripperies – the desolate forge is too demanding. Likewise, hybrids don't waste their sheetmetal on the extraneous – gas mileage, and the price of gas, is too precious. One would think, then, that the diminutive CR-Z would carry on for an epoch before needing a refill. Perhaps if you stick to 55 mph, but at the 70 and 75 mph speed limits (and a skosh more for good measure) of the hinterlands, the EPA rating of 39 mpg on the highway is a tough ask and the coupe's 10.6-gallon tank will force one stop.
The icons of inland California are your rescue: Leland Fuller's Riverside, Frank Sinatra's Palm Springs, U2's Joshua Tree, the ATP's Indian Wells, the intaglios of Blythe. Although you only need stop once in the CR-Z between Los Angeles and Phoenix, there are many more reasons than fuel to take a break.
Thankfully, though, the coupe's manners isn't one of them. The CR-Z is a calm, easy beast with a familiar presentation if you've been inside a Honda in recent years. The Big Red 'H' has purged the vitality sapping Buzz und Drone from its compact cars, and we took advantage: gas mileage be damned, the CR-Z rolls nicely at 80. Throw it into Sport, liven up the acceleration a bit, and you'll find it also rolls nicely through curves.
Which meant we arrived at our oasis, The Camelback Inn, in excellent spirits - a fine coincidence, since spirits were what compelled us to the Inn in the first place. It was while attending an event for Maker's Mark that we met Trudy Thomas, the Inn's beverage manager, who mentioned that she had been poached from Chicago and brought to the Inn to create its cocktail culture.
"My whole concept was to build different drinking venues so people didn't have to leave the Inn. Each outlet focuses on a different cocktail."
The venues in question are Rita's Kitchen and R Bar, Sprouts, Hoppin Jack's Pool, BLT Steak and the spa. And the real concept was to create a cocktail Canaan wherein every drink – even those from that four-letter word called the "well" – would be sweet music to the palate.
"I believe in using premium everything, whatever's seasonal and using the best spirits," Trudy said. That isn't merely the alcohol and mixers – every aspect of a drink is natural as well as exceptional.
"I got two cold-draft ice machines because they make the purest ice commercially available - they don't freeze any impurities in the ice so there are no artificial flavors, and the the ice cubes are very dense so they melt slower than regular ice." As well, there are different cubes for different purposes: small cubes go in drinks, but large cubes are used to mix the drinks. Why? Because Trudy wants your drink to be as pure as possible when you get it; even though cold-draft cubes will melt more slowly than cubes from regular ice machines, large cubes will melt even more slowly than small cubes. By using large cubes to mix drinks, less ice melts during the making of the drink. It's that serious.
"We take the time to juice things fresh," Trudy said. "We use agave nectar [as a mixer] for its rich sweetness, and we only use premium spirits. You get out of it what you put into it."
When you go into one of the five drinks locations, you'll find that each one of them is themed: Sprouts and the spa are based around an organic program with fresh fruits and herbs, Hoppin' Jack's pool focuses on traditional poolside frozen drinks like pina coladas, frozen margaritas and mojitos, while BLT is Prohibition with a twist, turning classic, old school drinks like the Air Mail into a Love Letter (by adding Viiv, acai spirit, passionfruit puree, Arizona honey and champagne), and brewing up others like the Fictitious Old Fashioned.
It's like having a chef for drinks: the menu changes by the season and by the month, Trudy spends an entire month coming up with the next suite of recipes and she conjures and tests all of them herself. But if one needs to eat pudding in order to deduce its proof, then we knew what was required of these libations.
We headed to Rita's Kitchen and R Bar, in the Inn's main building, which we were told represent the cocktail mixology frontier. They focus on fresh margaritas, juices squeezed that day, seasonal ingredients, and herbs procured from Trudy's own herb garden. We dined on brioche, still light, fluffy and warm at that late hour, delicious butternut squash soup that arrived in a petite iron kettle and actually tasted like squash (bad butternut squash soup tastes like cream or butter), moved on to a tender filet with potato puree, mushroom ragout and asparagus, and finished with Oaxaca cookies, made to order, with a side of homemade caramel ice cream. Three words for you: Eat. At. Rita's. The couple at the next table was actually staying at another hotel, but came to Rita's every evening for dinner.
One more time: eat there.
The three drinks we sampled with dinner were equally impressive, and fresh, light contrasts to the substantial repast. Of the Winter Margarita (Don Eduardo Silver tequila, salerno blood orange liqueur, velvet felernum (clove), pomegranate juice, fresh lime juice), Berry Chic Cocktail (Absolut acai, Grand Marnier, lime, cranberry juice, agave, muddled strawberry, Chandon Rose), and Silver Plum Martini (Pearl Plum vodka, St. Jermain liqueur (elderberry), pomegranate, pineapple juice, Drouet and edible sparkles) we will gladly report that Trudy Thomas did not lie. The offerings from the R Bar passed the test with an "O." For "Outstanding." Probably why it was voted "Best Lobby Bar" by Arizona Foothills magazine, and it helps to explain why Rita's Kitchen won a 2010 Wine Spectator Award.
The drinks are the gems, but even gems must have settings, and that is the resort itself. Spread – or "flung" could be a better word – across 125 acres between Camelback and Mummy Mountains, the Camelback Inn began as a secluded getaway for the glamorous set in the 1936. Founded by the unlikely duo of a newspaper reporter from North Dakota and an industrialist from Ohio, it was Scottsdale's first luxury resort and has hosted celebrities in every market segment, from Hopalong Cassidy to Dwight D. Eisenhower. The clock above the entrance was stopped when the first guest checked in, and hasn't moved from the 12:25 position since December 15, 1936. It has been voted one of the best 50 places in Arizona. It has received five diamonds from the AAA for more than 30 years, something only two other resorts in the country have done. It received a $50 million renovation in 2008 that kept it rustic and relevant. And although there are 453 casitas, if you don't know where the Camelback Inn is you'll probably never find them.
A side benefit of that: the Inn is laid so well into the landscape that once you've settled into your casita, even though there are 452 others, you'll practically never encounter your neighbors. Mr. Marriott, who first stayed there as a 16-year-old with his parents and then bought the place in 1968, still celebrates his birthday there, every year. The spa is oh la la terrific (see sidebar). And the resort team appears not to know the word "No."
And a fine, fine drink.
It is well worth the search.
When it was time to saddle up again, refreshed and anything but thirsty, we strapped into the Honda CR-Z for the return journey across the interstate plain. It was nice to get back on the road, the little blue coupe's bowed snout uncomplainingly leading the way through the mess of sand and reflected desert hues. And we found both the coupe and the Camelback perfect for us, and each other: a relaxed mount, frugal enough, to get us to midnight at the oasis, and one that wouldn't cast any glances at our pomegranate martini when it did need to drink – because we had no intention of sharing...