Story by Barbara Penny Angelakis
Photography by Manos Angelakis and courtesy Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa
Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa
Gila River Indian Community
Just 15 miles from downtown cosmopolitan Phoenix is the Gila River Indian Community, home to the Pima and Maricopa Native American people. For hundreds of years the Gila River Valley was a friendly oasis in a desert of hostile Indian tribes and the custom of hospitality continues today with the building of the Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa. The Pima and Maricopa people take their culture seriously and hope that visitors will want to learn more about them. Wild Horse may be the only resort that has a full-time cultural concierge to share stories and traditions freely with their guests. Ginger Sunbird Martin has an easy-going style of story-telling that is entertaining and informative, and frankly we could not get enough of her mesmerizing stories of the Pima and Maricopa Indians and the challenges they faced in building the resort and hotel.
The Pima Elders wanted a hotel that was analogous to inviting guests into their homes. Architecturally, it posed a unique challenge to construct a hotel that had the ambiance of a private home but would still provide all the amenities and services a luxury property would have to have. Plus, in keeping with the traditions and beliefs of the Pima, the hotel’s layout had to have all primary entrances facing east; all construction materials had to be native to the area; the decorative items and furniture had to be made by local artisans; and hotel personnel would had to wear uniforms that would reflect the tribal culture. Sheraton was one of the few management chains that was willing to put aside their standardized corporate policy and accept the stipulations the Pima Elders insisted upon. The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa is a unique experiment that has worked out even better than expected.
The Gila River Valley, as far back as 300 B.C. was home to the ancient Hohokam people (meaning “those who have gone”) who established a peaceful agrarian society. They created an extensive irrigation system by digging hundreds of miles of canals to water their fields. Centuries ago they mysteriously vanished but left behind their sophisticated canal system that is still used today to deliver water throughout Arizona. This friendly valley eventually became home to the Pima Tribe – perhaps they were remnants of the Hohokam, history is shaky here - and when the Maricopa’s arrived they were welcomed to stay and share the land. The two tribes share similar cultural values but maintain their own language and hierarchy. The Pima are masters of basketry using the natural materials provided so abundantly by the Sonoran Desert, while the Maricopa are known for their red clay pottery with geometrical designs. Early on the tribes established traditions of hospitality by offering sanctuary to settlers heading west.
And that tradition lives on today in the welcoming ambiance of the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa. Entering the lobby rotunda with its slate floor and hand-wrought wood furniture, the first items to catch your eye are the ten brightly painted panels that grace the ceiling’s dome. Each panel represents a different cultural aspect of the tribes including the creation legend which Ginger was only too happy to decipher for us. A fascinating Pima legend not represented in the panels is that of Eagleman, a young brave turned into a voracious eagle by a witch. When the other braves tried to kill the eagle he caught the arrows aimed at him in his claw. Sound familiar? it should, because that is the image on our silver dollar, an eagle clutching a bunch of arrows in its claw.
The lobby décor is native stone, wood and simulated rocks over which a waterfall descends to the lower level lobby. Instead of walls, the lobby bar is separated from the central public space by a massive two-sided stone and slate fireplace and behind that is the spectacular 5-diamond Kai Restaurant. For a review of this restaurant and the amazing dinner Manos and I had there (see Kai Restaurant in restaurants section). The multi-level lobby’s back wall is glass providing a sweeping view of the Sierra Estrella and South Mountain ranges far in the distance that marks the end of the tribal territory. A 2 ½ mile replica of the Gila River meanders through the grounds and wild horses roam the desert and are sometimes visible from the resort. There are a total of 500 rooms and suites which have a view from a private patio or balcony of either the golf course, mountains, or river. Our suite was beautifully appointed with traditional patterns and colors and looked out over the perfectly manicured golf course.
In addition to the 18-hole golf course designed by Gary Panks and managed by Troon Gold and home to the PGA/Buy.com Gila River Gold Classic held in October, there is an Equestrian Center the offers trail rides, special events and riding lessons; tennis courts; Desert Interpretive Trail; 4 pools with cascading waterfalls; and a Casino located near the resort. A Business Center with numerous computers and free internet access is available at the lower lobby, across from the coffee bar area. Of course for me the Aji Spa - Pima for sanctuary – was the highlight of my stay.
The Aji Spa provides a Native American experience offering the only authentic Native American spa menu in existence. All products used in the spa are organics found on the property. From the décor to the treatments designed and practiced by Aji’s cultural caretakers (therapists), the spa is a spiritual experience. I had a very special one-of-a-kind treatment from a Pima Medicine Woman, Belen Stoneman. Belen began the 110-minute Thoachta (healing) session by asking what’s “weighing on your mind” which sets the intention for the work to begin. It doesn’t matter what you think you will say; somehow the rights concerns are exposed. As a Medicine Woman Belen can communicate with your spirit guides and angels to make sure your spoken concern can be addressed and hopefully healed; she then gets to work. She begins a cross between a Swedish massage and a “hands-on energy healing” and will pass along messages from your guides to help with the healing process. Sometimes, as in my case, the guides will communicate with you directly and the experience was awesome. Afterwards you can discuss with Belen anything that came up during the session or anything that still concerns you and she will help you as much as she can to resolve your issues.
I would have loved to experience some of the other native based treatments or daily programs such as sage cleansings, guided art tours (there is an extensive collection of artwork on the property), Medicine Trail walks, Native Teachings and especially a guided meditation with Belen, but all that will have to wait for another visit to the Aji Spa at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort.
For Aji Spa treatments and packages visit www.ajibrochure.com
© March 2012 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.