The SAGA of Castle Hot Springs resort sounds like a Carl Hiaasen novel if he swopped South Florida for Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. The history of the hard-to-access oasis an hour’s drive north of Phoenix, US, has involved a quail-hunting, self-made mogul, Native Americans, New Age crystal worshippers, scheming hoteliers and a gun-toting, toothless caretaker who had an enormous pet pig and strategically placed dead rattlesnakes to scare off people.
And those are just the recent chapters.
Save for the hunter, all were after its namesake natural resource. Rich in minerals and free of sulpher’s rotten-egg smell, the springs’ water cascades and trickles down mossy rocks at the rate of about 757083 litres per day into two tiered pools ranging from 35ºC to 40.5ºC.
“You’ll feel the energy. Breathe it in,” said Gertrude Smith, the director of Yavapai culture for the Yavapai Apache Nation in Camp Verde, Arizona, who said the springs had been a place of healing for her ancestors, until they were discovered by Anglo settlers after the Civil War.
“Our people would go there when they were injured or pregnant.”
After being closed for more than 40 years, the newly restored resort reopened in February for a brief season - because of the desert heat it will close on May 31 and reopen on October 1.
Once recreational vehicles peel off the dirt road for Lake Pleasant Regional Park, ramshackle homesteads are the only signs of civilisation until the resort’s sultan-worthy allée of mature date palms appears like a cartoon mirage. A driveway winds past pale yellow cottages and a chapel to the renovated main lodge and a cluster of new, contemporary bungalows.
The springs have a long, fuzzy history of enchanting speculators and generations of wealthy families.
The abridged version begins with George Monroe, a prospector more interested in gold than natural beauty. He staked his claim in the 1870s and named the springs after himself.
From Maxfield Parrish to the Rockefellers
The site was transformed into an elite resort at the turn of the 20th century when Frank Murphy, a railroad and mining magnate, and his brother Nathan Oakes Murphy, the Arizona territorial governor, established the Castle Creek Hot Springs Improvement Co. Rand McNally touted the destination as a new mecca of the West, and construction cranked up. Briefly serving as a sanatorium, where Maxfield Parrish painted the dramatic scenery while curing his tuberculosis, the resort soon traded patients for deep-pocketed patrons.
Walter Rounsevel, its debonair manager-turned-owner, catered to the Rockefellers, Roosevelts and Goldwaters of the country. Alberta Pew, wife of Joseph N Pew jr, the oil scion and co-founder of the Pew Family Trusts, spent 60 consecutive winters at the resort. Rounsevel ran Castle Hot Springs for decades, including during World War II, when injured veterans like John F Kennedy were sent there to convalesce.
Trainer and his brother Steve bought Castle Hot Springs in the 1980s. The resort closed because of a devastating fire in 1976. The brothers hired experts to try to reopen it, but none managed it.
“This thing is truly a book,” said Elizabeth Brazilian, a former developer who proposed a wellness retreat for the property that never opened. “When you add in the other factors like providing employee housing since staff can’t commute, and that it can operate only half the year due to the heat and flash floods, we just couldn’t figure out a way to make a profit,” she said.
The new owner, Mike Watts, became smitten with the 85 hectare property while quail hunting at the resort in the early 1970s, bought it in 2014, and then acquired its surrounding 360ha late last year.
He and his wife Cindy, entrepreneurs and philanthropists who recently gave $30 million (R428m) to Arizona State University to found the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, were looking for something to do after selling their construction equipment rental company.
“I never dreamt I’d go into the hospitality business, but it’s a unique place and story,” he said. “It was a real eye-opener when a fifth-generation resident of Wickenburg near here called to thank me for rebuilding it. That’s when I had a greater understanding of how many people feel it’s a treasure.”
Helicopters instead of Pullman cars
Before the automobile age, visitors took a train, often in private Pullman rail cars, to Morristown followed by a dusty 37km stagecoach ride. They stayed for the season to justify the trek, unlike today’s weekenders who have the option to arrive by helicopter.
Entering by Sport Utility Vehicle or truck still requires crossing several washes on a rocky road for half the journey. The cost of transporting building materials and daily supplies over such difficult terrain was one of the reasons previous efforts to revive the resort failed.
The Wattses envision the resort as Arizona’s answer to the all-inclusive Blackberry Farm in Tennessee that’s on every Garden & Gun subscriber’s bucket list. There are 32 rooms ($660 to $2200 for two with breakfast, lunch and dinner and gratuities, excluding alcohol). Guests choose their own adventures from back-to-the-land activities like harvesting chrysanthemum greens and borage for salads outside the main lodge’s kitchen door, riding trail horses and hiking the Bradshaw Mountains. The lawn - a lush, emerald carpet despite being in the middle of the desert - is set up for activities like croquet.
The couple hired an executive chef who had cooked at Gordon Ramsay’s and David LeFevre’s restaurants in Southern California, along with an agronomist who planted 150 types of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers to supply the resort’s kitchens and bars.
The Wattses intend to bottle their own mezcal and a blue agave plantation is planned.
“Tequila and mezcal are having a moment, and it will be nice for sipping,” said Mike Watts, who has developed lager exclusively for guests with Phoenix’s Helio Basin Brewing Co.
The resort’s spa heritage lives on through tented treatment rooms at creekside and cabins’ outdoor soaking tubs that are hooked up to the springs for heated, mineral baths. Wi-fi is available only for emergencies. Dark-sky stargazing is also encouraged with campfires and telescopes. Children under 16 are not allowed.
Watts and others involved in the project declined to say how much it had all cost.
“I honestly don’t know, and I don’t think you can really put a price on it anyway,” said Steven Sampson, the director of national sales for Westroc Hospitality, Castle Hot Springs’s management company, whose portfolio also includes the Sanctuary Camelback Mountain and Mountain Shadows.
“It’s an entirely different concept for the market, too, because it’s about passion versus profit.”