By David Barclay | March 22, 2023
If you’ve followed my travel posts for a while you probably know I’m a big proponent of all-inclusive luxury travel. This is one of the reasons I love luxury cruising and the luxury cruise lines. But when my wife and I travel we also enjoy getaways that are land-based, usually with a combination of active adventuring when in urban areas and more restful and relaxing exploration and pampering when visiting more remote areas. We particularly like adding at least one stop at a small luxury all-inclusive resort in a remote or semi-remote location, with a very limited number of guest rooms (under 30) and a high staff to guest ratio. Castle Hot Springs is a great example of this type of resort.
We have stayed at many great boutique resorts throughout the world. Some of our favorites are on the Great Barrier Reef, in Australia’s “Red Center”, in the Mendoza wine country, and in the hills of Tuscany. Though many similar resorts exist in the US, our leisure travels usually take us to other parts of the world, so domestic luxury resorts are not at the top of our consideration set. But during the waning days of the pandemic, while international travel was still challenged (and after finding out our November cruise on Seabourn to Peru and Chile was cancelled), we decided to try a quick domestic getaway.
I developed a short list of options based on our requirements for this quick getaway. But even within that short list, Castle Hot Springs rose to the top as a unique property that definitely fit the relaxation and rejuvenation focus we desired for this trip. Castle Hot Springs is both a historic resort and a new resort. The latest incarnation opened in early 2019, with a lot of excitement within the travel industry for this revitalized property. Within the small network of travel advisors I had at the time, no one had visited the property yet, so I was lucky to be the first to visit, experience, and share details on this wonderful property.
Castle Hot Springs is located outside of Phoenix, AZ (a city known for many nice luxury properties). It is about an hour and 20-minute drive from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. As a side note, the last roughly 15 miles of the drive is on an unpaved dirt/gravel road. Castle Hot Springs can arrange a luxury SUV to pick you up from the airport. If renting a vehicle, they recommend an SUV or other high clearance vehicle and I completely agree. It’s a bouncy ride but part of the adventure of getting to this remote location.
On our arrival, we drove to the gate, push the intercom button to announce our arrival, and then drove up to the main building (called The Lodge). From that point on our pampering began. A staff member was waiting outside to greet us by name, inquire which bags from our vehicle needed to go to our room, and directed us to the main desk in The Lodge for check-in. The desk staff had our documents ready in a large envelope, with our scheduled activities, a schedule of all activities on property by day (in case we wanted to sign up for more) and a map of the property. We were then escorted to our room (a Spring Bungalow that overlooked the lake where the hot spring water eventually accumulates) and from there our getaway began.
The history of Castle Hot Springs is long and interesting. In antiquity, the springs were literally an oasis in the desert for the indigenous people, and one of the few places they were able to plant crops owing to the abundance of water (roughly 200,000 gallons of water come from the springs each day). In the late 1800’s, the land was purchased by Frank M. Murphy and developed into a wellness resort, though one that was hard to reach. In 1898 a train depot built nearby allowed travelers from the east easier access and by the 1900’s it was a popular resort for wealthy families of the East Coast. The hot springs were a popular destination for many, including presidents, celebrities, and dignitaries. That all ended in 1976, when a fire destroyed the main lodging on the property (the Palm House). The property was gifted in 1977 to the Arizona State University and used for many years as a conference center. But a later fire in 1996 and subsequent demolition of many other buildings brought an end to people visiting the property. Though it changed hands several times, it seemed destined to fall into disrepair and become a part of history.
But luckily that’s not how this story ends. The property was rescued, restored, and improve by its current owners and turned into the wonderful property that it is today, with architecture designed to remember its history but also bring it into the 21st century.
While there are activities you can arrange off property (e.g. hot air ballooning) there are plenty of on property activities to keep you busy throughout the day.
The Hot Springs
It’s no surprise this is one of the first activities guests try after arriving. It’s an aerobic 3 to 4 minute uphill hike to get to the hot springs along a nicely maintained road that winds between old palm trees. Alongside a stream of hot springs water bubbles and gurgles on it’s way to the lake. If you’d prefer something less active, you can call the front desk and they will have a golf cart at your room within minutes to drive you to the top (or call from the towel room at the hot springs to get a ride back down). At the hot springs there is a changing room and a bathroom, in addition to a small area with lounge chairs if you want to take a break from soaking in the springs.
The hot springs are divided into an upper pool, which is fed from the hot spring water coming down the side of the hill, and a larger lower pool which is slowly fed from the upper pool. The upper pool is warm, between 115-120F. Very enjoyable for a quick plunge, but I personally only liked to stay in it for a few minutes before moving to the lower pool, which seemed to be closer to hot tub temperatures (I’m guessing between 101-104F). Flotation devices with two inflated halves and a mesh netting in between are provided, allowing you to make a floating chair or floating hammock (which was very useful for star gazing during night visits to the hot springs).
There is also a hidden mini hot spring pool under the stone deck with the chaise lounge chairs, to the right of the stairs up to the deck and hot springs. Usually, it’s hidden by a small waterfall, but I was lucky to get up to the hot springs early one morning when the waterfall was turned off for some maintenance to grab a picture of this little secret.
Although soaking in the hot springs is very nice, I’m sure it would get boring after a while Luckily the activity list seems to have something happening every hour to keep you entertained. We thoroughly enjoyed the hour-long tour of their lovely gardens where they grow a good portion of the produce used on the property. The garden is maintained by a staff of 5, who are all very proud to show off their efforts to guests.
We also enjoyed the archery class and lounging by the pool at The Lodge (you can have lunch served poolside if you don’t want a sit-down lunch at their restaurant).
On our first evening, we attended the Castle Hot Springs Film & Reception in the Stone House (a building that survived from the early 1900’s). The team at Castle Hot Springs produced a documentary about the property and won an Emmy for their work (you can see and hold the Emmy statue if you’d like, it’s on a mantle in The Lodge). The documentary showed the fascinating history of the property (and came with a complimentary glass of wine to enjoy, how civilized!).
For those looking to wander outside the central resort area, the property has over 1100 acres with many hiking trails to explore. We are not hardcore hikers, and I would stay for the average person the trails are moderate and not too strenuous. Estimated hiking times for the trails seem to have been set for the slowest resort guests as we completely most trails in about ½ the indicated time. Several of the trails take you to nearby peaks with beautiful views of the resort, Lake Pleasant, or the beautiful desert landscape.
One trail will even take you to the Wells Fargo cave, a cave used to store gold gathered during the goldrush in the 1800’s.
For those not scared of heights, you can try the Via Ferrata adventure course and Aerial Walkway (additional fees for these adventures). My moderate case of acrophobia made sure I skipped this optional activity, but many other guests seemed to enjoy it.
There is also a spa on the property, with massages available in spa tents (felt just like a normal spa room), with the option of leaving the sliding door open (thick light blocking curtains kept the room dark) to listen to the hot spring water cascading by as it traveled down the hill to the lake.
As one would expect, the food is very good at a resort of this caliber. And unlike some wellness resorts designed to calorie restrict their guests, Castle Hot Springs serves ample portions on their custom menu. Breakfast and lunch are casual and guests can show up anytime during the dining hours. Dinners require reservations, but these can be arranged prior to your arrival. Dinner is a 5-course meal, so make sure you take a few desert hikes in the afternoon to build up your appetite!
If that isn’t enough, you can request a s’mores kit and roast marshmallows over one of the open gas fire tables scattered around the property.
One of the main gathering areas in the evening is the bar in The Lodge. It has ample seating indoors and opens out to the patio overlooking the property with plenty of high-top tables. The mixologists have created a list of their favorite cocktails, or if you are adventurous you can tell them what liquors you like and they will mix up a custom cocktail for you on the spot.
On Fridays, Saturdays, Mondays, and Wednesdays the resort has live music on the patio in the evening, a nice touch to the evening ambiance.
What’s not included
As great as Castle Hot Springs is, I do want to call out a few things so anyone deciding to visit isn’t surprised or disappointed. Although Castle Hot Springs aims to be all-inclusive, alcoholic beverages are not included (personally I prefer an all-inclusive resort that includes everything, I hate having to sign for anything except the final bill at the end of the stay). But they aren’t one of those wellness resorts that frowns upon alcohol, they have a great bar and extensive wine list for guests. On the plus side, rooms have mini-fridges and you can bring your own favorite beverages with you if you like (we brought a few special bottles of wine since we were celebrating our 15th anniversary). One other note regarding their beverage service, they add an automatic 20% gratuity to all purchased beverages, which is very contrary to their no tipping policy and no gratuities on other purchased services (spa, premium activities, etc.).
The breakfast and lunch menus don’t change, the good news is there are plenty of delicious options (and I may have repeated one or two myself during our stay) but a heads up to those who like a changing menu each day. Dinner follows a similar format of a soup, salad, small bite, main and desert. Those all change each day and you select from one of 4 options for the main entrée, but because of the format it did feel a little repetitious after a few days (though each of our 4 dinners had a different soup, salad, bite, main options and desert, and all were wonderful).
My last 2 callouts are probably a little nit-picky, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t include them. First, there was no turndown service in the evening. Maybe I’m a traditionalist, but I love coming back to the room and finding the bed turned down and a little chocolate on my pillow. Maybe after their abundant 5-course dinner they thought more food would be frowned upon? Second, the rooms didn’t have a great way to unpack for the stay. There was a small closet and we could hang some of our better outfits. There were also a few drawers sprinkled around the room & bathroom, but I would have liked a functional dresser were we could have unpacked our suitcases and then tucked them away out of sight.
Of course, I gave feedback to the resort on all of these items, so by the time you are reading this they may have already made changes as they work to perfect their service.
All in all, Castle Hot Springs is a lovely resort. I think it’s probably best for those looking for a short getaway (e.g. long weekend) with a variety of low intensity activities and ample time to just sit with a book or soak in the hot springs. I think 3 days is probably the perfect stay for this resort, enough to relax and let the hot springs, staff and property take away the stress of daily life, but not so long that you will start to get bored or antsy for something new.
If you aren’t convinced to try Castle Hot Springs yet, let me end with a few pictures of an evening soak and stargazing in the hot springs.
Owner, Barclay & Company Travel
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