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    Amid a cactus landscape, these Arizona wellness resorts melt away life’s prickles
    • March 13, 2024

    Marlise Kast-Myers | Tribune News Service

    Before marrying my husband Benjamin, I had a habit of setting New Year’s resolutions of lofty goals-turned-faded letdowns. From publishing books to running marathons, those big dreams led to late nights, missed deadlines and self-inflicted exhaustion. A realist at heart, Benjamin taught me to crumple date-induced ambitions and simply find motivation in myself rather than a flip of the calendar.

    That is until recently.

    Tiptoeing toward us was 2024 holding a mirror of tired reflections. Coffee was my fuel and bedtime was my bestie, as we juggled four jobs between the two of us. Oddly enough, we’re wired that way, taking on more than we should because we’re driven by ourselves.

    And so, we ironed out that crumpled sheet of blankness and wrote in bold letters: “Relax. Rest. Recover. Reconnect. Rejuvenate. Restore.”

    That was our goal, to get away for four days and come back new and improved.

    Enter Arizona. The proximity to San Diego made the spontaneous getaway uncomplicated, not to mention, we heard of two properties that had the power to push the reset button on life.

    Tucked into the untamed Sonoran Desert, CIVANA Wellness Resort & Spa would start our path to wholeness, followed by Castle Hot Springs which would continue our journey to healing in the foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains. Two nights at each resort are what we dedicated to unplug from the world and reconnect to ourselves.

    The 22,000 sq-ft spa is the heartbeat of CIVANA. (Benjamin Myers/TNS)

    Simplicity was our priority, not budget. And so, we flew via JSX hop-on jet service. As first timers, we learned that the public charter traveled to 40-plus destinations including Scottsdale. Gone were the security lines, the crowded terminals and the hidden fees, meaning we could park and arrive just 20 minutes before takeoff. Included in the $279 ticket price were cocktails, Wi-Fi, business-class legroom, and oversized baggage. Trust me, we were carrying some serious baggage (figuratively, of course).

    The past year wrung us out, and now Arizona was hanging us out to dry with a bad start.

    Somehow the rental car agency had “sold out” of vehicles. For over two hours, we stood in line hoping for a set of wheels that would take us to utopia.

    Mentally, I was at a dangerous place and on the verge of getting ugly, the type where my husband walks away and pretends I’m a stranger. Stepping out of line, I went directly to the parking garage and showed an attendant our reservation. To my surprise, he handed us a set of keys and we were off — that is until we were stopped five minutes later for potential car theft.

    Back to the airport we went, waiting another 45 minutes for a vehicle we hadn’t reserved, costing double the original price. And of course, things got ugly. That’s when a text message arrived from our house sitter, informing me that my pet turkey had gone missing.

    Teetering between anger and sadness, I had nothing to say. Traffic was at a standstill, we hadn’t eaten all day, and my pre-booked meditation class was starting in five minutes.

    And so, I bit down on my knuckles and screamed.

    “Well, this is certainly off to a good start,” Benjamin said.

    Everything I had aimed to quell was boiling at the surface, and now all I wanted to do was wash away the day.

    A $40 million renovation turned this 1960s hotel into a wellness retreat. (Benjamin Myers/TNS)

    Somehow, CIVANA sensed that, greeting me with a pool where I swam laps alone at sunset.

    Within minutes, I could feel the stress dripping off my body. The setting certainly helped, a 1960’s mid-century modern hotel in a town appropriately named Carefree.

    Originally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s understudy, Joe Wong, the property resurrected in 2018 as CIVANA Wellness Resort. The $40 million dollar facelift was tight, with 144 neutral-toned rooms in stone, wood, and glass reflective of the desert.

    Never did I expect cactuses to be so esthetically soothing, saluting the marbled sky and fading into the starry night. Webbing out from the 20-acre resort were pebble-framed trails that led to the café, restaurant, fitness studios and 22,000-sqare-foot spa.

    Boldly launching during the pandemic, CIVANA is clearly the cool kid on the block, luring wellness-focused millennials with its price point and mindset that self-love is okay.

    Apparently, women got the memo. Bachelorette parties, girls getaways and sister retreats left my husband saying, “I feel very alone.”

    In my opinion, that was actually the point, for us to be (or at least feel) alone in our united solidarity. CIVANA went out of its way to do that through their pillars of discovery and nourishment. Starting with the latter, we dined at Terras with mouths-wide-open during dinner of eggplant hummus, seared scallops and Faroe Island salmon.

    A seasonal menu delivers farm-to-fork cuisine at Castle Hot Springs. (Benjamin Myers/TNS)

    “I think I need some carbs,” I whispered.

    The veggie-forward menu had gluten free, grain free, dairy free and other “free” (not to be confused with “complementary”) options; an entrée alone runs about $50, but throw in the resort perks, and the price tag doesn’t seem so heavy.

    Included in the $500+/- nightly rate are bikes, hiking trails wellness guides, aqua therapy and over 100 movement, personal growth and spiritual classes. I opted for yoga, cardio strength and “Band and Buns” while Benjamin zenned out with breathwork, meditation and sound-healing.

    In true “us” form, we packed our schedules with classes and spa treatments. Of course, there were gardens and labyrinths to quiet the mind, open the heart and ground the body. Benjamin explored them. I did not, because I was too busy running to my next class. Like students on campus, we would wave in passing or meet up for lunch over smoothies and antioxidant bowls.

    Shaking my empty water bottle, I tapped my forehead.

    “I already feel so hydrated. … Oh, look, they have hard Kombucha!”

    Despite our resolutions, we were on vacation after all — a time to let go, raise a glass, and toast to the fact we were reaping the benefits of our environment. Others got it, eating breakfast in bathrobes, sipping post-spa margaritas and ditching workouts when suffering and leisure no longer aligned.

    I was sad to leave CIVANA, having just awakened the 2.0 version of myself. As we packed the car for Castle Hot Springs, I felt healthy, alive and poised for what was next. During the hourlong drive, we passed spiny saguaro cactuses, wild donkeys and a world of Winnebagos. Tumbleweeds rolled across desert plains, as if each one had a destination and a deadline.

    “Is this where they filmed ‘Breaking Bad’?” I asked.

    My husband didn’t respond, but rather mumbled something about our rental car being put to the test. In our wake was a plume of dust, leaving behind any sign of civilization. Thoughts of his tire-changing skills crossed my mind, along with my sudden desire to adopt a burro.

    And then, there it was, an oasis thriving in the barrenness. Greeting us at parking was a valet who whisked us via golf cart through a private gate, down a palm tree-lined pathway, to Arizona’s first luxury resort. At the center of the 1,200-acre property were pools and ponds dotting manicured gardens and vibrant lawns so perfect, you’d swear you were living in an AI post.

    A seven-mile dusty road leads to the lush oasis of Castle Hot Springs. (Benjamin Myers/TNS)

    Castle Hot Springs existed to help people come up, and then slow down with mindful activities, rugged nature, and soft adventure. While rates were three times that of CIVANA, it was one-size-fits-all with an inclusive experience covering tours, meals, gratuities, resort fees, in-room amenities, valet, cart service and endless activities. Hiking, archery, paddleboarding, biking, horseback riding, pickleball, gardening, stargazing, wine-tasting, yoga — you name it, and they had a personal guide to take you from adventure to relaxation.

    The diamonds of this jewelry box, however, are the hot springs that have been replenishing souls since 1896. From the Yavapai Tribe who soaked for medicinal purposes, to the prospectors who sold the land to the Murphy brothers for development, word spread of the healing waters and fertile soil in the Bradshaw Mountains.

    The Rockefellers, Wrigleys, Vanderbilts and Roosevelts all escaped to this sanctuary of well-being, which pioneered Arizona’s first tennis courts, golf course and telephone. In 1943, it served as a military rehabilitation center for injured veterans, including future president, John F. Kennedy.

    Despite its curative properties, Castle Hot Springs went up in flames in 1975. For over 40 years, the charred resort sat desolate, ready for someone to resuscitate its heart so that it might once again breathe life into others. Along came Cindy and Mike Watts, who first spotted the land while flying over during quail-hunting season. For around $2 million, they purchased the skeleton resort with only three buildings remaining. After a five-year historic restoration, Castle Hot Springs finally had the resurrection it deserved, today earning accolades matching some of the best hotels in the world.

    Understandably so. Designed with luxury and relaxation in mind, 30 bungalows and cottages boast stone tubs, covered decks, telescopes and indoor-outdoor fireplaces. Each room is strategically located at the water’s edge so you can fall asleep to the sound of the babbling creek.

    Clearly, we had found our healing place. Pulling back the curtains, my husband inhaled deeply and closed his eyes.

    “Oh look, a hiking trail,” I clapped behind him.

    Reaching new heights at Arizona’s only Via Ferrata Adventure Course, at Castle Hot Springs. (Benjamin Myers/TNS)

    Alas, it was, and 17 of them to be exact. From aerial walkways and agave farms to canyon caves and mountain summits, we explored as many as we could in between yoga, massages, biking, rock climbing and farm tours. The latter ignited an unparalleled appreciation for the kitchen, where the chef and farmer work in unison; so much so, that they create the daily 4-course tasting menu together.

    During our tour through the “living pantry,” we tasted leafy greens and fragrant herbs that made their way from farm-to-fork later that night. With over 3-acres under cultivation, the team of agronomists harvest more than 150 varieties of crops each season. Nova Scotia halibut with beluga lentils or Colorado lamb with pistachio butter and sweet potato fondant? Choices, choices.

    If only we had more time and doggie bags to take home the feeling of Castle Hot Springs every time life turned south. It was the type of place that coated you in experiences over accommodations, memories over moments. We felt it during our bike tour, cruising down a network of single-track trails, mining roads and narrow canyons. It hit us again during our multiple soaks in the thermal pools.

    Hot springs can vary in temperature up to 106 degrees Fahrenheit. (Benjamin Myers/TNS)

    We slept deep that night, so deep in fact, that we awakened, and it was time to go … at noon.

    Driving back to the airport, we once again sat in silence. Only this time, I wasn’t thinking about rental cars and traffic and the meditation class I was about to miss.

    Instead, I was thinking about the miracle of an oasis that withstood the flames of the past to now extinguish the pain of the present. I thought about how those restorative waters had the power to plunge me out of exhaustion and emerge me anew with a deeper understanding and appreciation of loving myself. I thought about how cultivating wellness — from the food that I eat to the hours that I sleep — is a purposeful journey, not a prescribed destination. I thought about how two resorts in the Arizona desert revealed the importance of staying aligned in 2024, versus reaching a point of pushing reset.

    Grabbing my husband’s hand, I gave it little squeeze. “Well,” I said, “this is certainly off to a good start.”


    Marlise Kast-Myers ( is an author and journalist based in San Diego. She and her husband live at the historic Betty Crocker Estate where they run Brick n Barn (

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