Desert Drama in Tucson

The 575-room JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa is located in the upper Sonoran Desert in Tuscon, Ariz.

It may have been an omen that an innocent looking shot of espresso could pack such a punch. It all started with an irresistible dessert, known in Italian circles as an affogato. At Primo, the fine dining restaurant at the newly opened JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa in Tucson, pouring the espresso over the affogato (Italian vanilla gelato slathered in fresh whipped cream) seemed the thing to do. The dessert, accompanied by zeppole, a cinnamon pastry, was photographic as is everything on the menu at Primo. I can’t point my finger at the espresso but there’s a good chance it kept me up all night. But had I not been so wide-eyed, I would have missed the spectacular full moon over the mountains and a display of lighting so well choreographed, the hotel could have sold tickets for such a stellar performance.

And that was my introduction to this 575-room hotel sitting in the midst (some would say in the middle of nowhere) of the vast upper Sonoran Desert.

Just getting to this immense structure, sitting like an outstretched horizontal curving monolith, is a spiritually awakening experience. This is also the newest resort in Tucson in 18 years.

The road to nirvana (best understood after spending a few hours in their Hashani Spa) is a trip itself: a private one-mile road studded with more saguaro cacti than ever seen in a Hopalong Cassidy cowboy movie.

The odd thing is, as you approach the resort there are so few cars in sight. Out of nowhere appears a cadre of young men who looked like they are on the University of Arizona track team. Their mission is to whisk your car away to some secret parking structure. I was later told they actually are on the track team at the university, which makes sense since the parking structure is nearly one mile away. How’s that for streamlined valet service?

Everyone who arrives by car or horseback is welcomed with a glass of iced tea or fruit infused chilled water. And the front desk people couldn’t be more accommodating.

Despite the gargantuan size of this flagship JW Marriott, the staff is helpful at every turn, probably spending a great deal of time dispensing directions. A Global Positioning System would work well here.

I came here to visit the new Hashani Spa, but it seemed like most of the arrivals were golfers headed for the Arnold Palmer Signature golf course. They must tee off early because in August the temperatures are in the 100s. Since I had so little sleep, it made sense to have an early appointment at the spa. Rianna Riego, the spa director, studied the desert flora carefully, selecting appropriate botanical names for the 26 treatment rooms. You could have your Swedish massage in the Arizona Poppy room or your June Jacobs facial in the Tumbleweed room.

I literally slept through the Petals and Leaves Balancing Ritual (80 minutes/$160), which is an odyssey in three steps: “scrub, drench and luxuriate.” All I can say is hold on to your Turkish towel for this treatment, for this enveloping experience laced with essential oils and moisturizers will erase any left over stress from the last four weeks.

Before moving on to the Hashani Foot Ritual, order a Prickly Pear Smoothie from Blossom, the spa cafĂ©. This treatment (the ritual: soak, reflect, reflex) is 60 minutes for $115, and will have you walking on air. In fact, it’s advisable to spend about a half hour in the spa lounge and sip a cup of White Lion tea before you face the world again.

The long awaited opening of the resort has brought tourism to an area much more familiar to scorpions and wildlife than to conventions and families on vacation.

Unobstructed views of the captivating desert landscape are therapeutic. The JW Marriott takes advantage of this with the dramatic architecture: three story windows that bring the outside in. Tempting are the cozy blue cabanas clustered around the swimming pool, which can be rented for a half or full day. This is a good place to camp out if you are taking spa treatments and like to have lunch by the pool in a private setting.

It is noteworthy that the conservation of the Upper Sonoran Desert was an issue in opening a resort of this magnitude. While it is true guests are free to explore one of the most diverse ecological systems in the world, the local habitat had to be preserved. In order to allow wildlife to sustain their migration patterns, the JW Marriott Starr Pass provided 150 acres for the expansion of the Tucson Mountain Park, which is the natural preserve surrounding the site.

Contact information: JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa: 520.792.3500 or 800.228.9290; start at $139 per night, double-occupancy.

Pamela Price is the co-author of “100 Best Spas of the World.” She can be reached at