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Find spiritual contentment at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Arizona

Mike BaileyBy Mike Bailey,
Senior Staff Writer
Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa
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The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa deeply reflects the culture of the native Pima and Maricopa tribes. (Courtesy of wildhorsepassresort.com)

With the caring influence of the local tribes, at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, you'll get a well-rounded experience, including golf at Whirlwind Golf Club.

CHANDLER, Ariz. - Did you know that word Arizona came from the Pima Indian word "a'al-sho-shon," meaning "many springs" or "water?"

Or that the Pima people were known for their basketry? Or the Maricopa - as in Maricopa County - were skilled clay potters using natural dyes to depict geometrical designs? Or that these peaceful tribes got together in the 18th century in the Gila River Valley when the Pimas welcomed the Maricopa from the southern Colorado River area?

These two tribes became allies and farmers (Pima Cotton is one of the better known crops) in the Gila Basin. They welcomed settlers from the East, and though they were often treated poorly, they are still welcoming visitors today.

Except this time they are being paid for it.

The two tribes, some 22,000 strong, are the owners of the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa. According to Ginger Sunbird Martin, the cultural concierge at Wild Horse Pass, Sheraton broke 117 of its own rules to accommodate the elders' wishes. No other hospitality company was willing to do that, she said.

The members of the Gila River Indian Community weren't just interested in reaping the benefits from the casino and resort at Wild Horse Pass; they wanted to tell their story. And it's evident everywhere on this resort.

Watching the sunrise at Sheraton Wild Horse Resort & Spa

Not every door faces the east - that would be impossible - but it was the elders' wish that the main doors open up to where the sun rises, Martin said. The circular shape of the main building is also representative of the shape of the homes these folks lived in for centuries.

On the ceilings, there are murals depicting their history. In the lobby, there's a replica of a sacred rock with writings on it that dates back hundreds of years. And running wild there are some 1,500 horses throughout the resort. One of the more fascinating activities is taking a guided horseback tour for a half day to see them up close.

Even the two golf courses have ties to the native people's past. Whirlwind Golf Club's Cattail and The Devil's Claw are named for the plants the Pima people used in their basket weaving.

And you won't find a palm tree on the course. Why?

"The elders said it wasn't indigenous," said Martin, a member of the Pima tribe. "And they didn't want to offend Mother Nature."

Throughout the hotel and resort - even in the rooms with handmade throws on the beds - you'll find examples of the tribes' work. Throughout, there are placards explaining the different artifacts and depictions. You could spend a day just exploring the resort, which opened in 2002.

Dining and amenities at Sheraton Wild Horse Resort & Spa

It is this Indian heritage, laid out in detail, which sets the Sheraton Wild Horse Resort & Spa apart from most resorts. But it is also a luxury experience and entertaining complex.

The 500 rooms and suites here are tastefully appointed with comfortable beds, a patio or balcony for views of the mountains and wildlife, and a deep separate tub and shower. High definition TV with a high-def signal, as well as a fully stocked minibar, could keep you in your room, but there's too much to do outside on this $170 million complex to watch much television.

First off, there's a 2 1/2-mile replica of the Gila River that meanders throughout the resort. Scenic boat rides shuttle guests to Whirlwind Golf Club, the adjacent casino or Rawhide's World Famous Steakhouse & Saloon.

Rawhide's has cowboy cookin' and live nightly musical entertainment. You can get giant, mesquite-grilled cowboy steaks, prime rib, barbecued chicken and pork ribs, and even deep-fried rattlesnake as an appetizer.

The resort itself has two restaurants on the main property - the main restaurant, Kosin, and the signature restaurant, Kai.

Kai has won numerous awards, including the AAA Five Diamond Award, the first of any Sheraton property to win the award.

Opened in 2002, Kai's renowned chefs prepare cuisine that is "Native American with Global Accents." They work closely with local Gila River Farms and Gila Crossing elementary schools to incorporate locally grown and indigenous ingredients into the menu. Favorites include Day Boat Scallops served with Puffed Pillows of Sea Urchin, bone-in New York strip steak and pan-seared Colorado lamb loin.

There are also two lobby restaurants adjacent to an indoor waterfall, a coffee bar and the Sivlik Grill at Whirlwind Golf Club.

In addition to the restaurants, the resort features more than 100,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space.

Ah, the Aji spa at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa

Aji, meaning "sanctuary," is Arizona's only American Indian-owned spa and features indigenous treatments based on ancient legends of the Pima and Maricopa Indians.

The 17,500-square-foot facility, has 17 treatment rooms, a salon, fitness center and a relaxing watsu pool, and it offers one-of-a-kind treatments developed from ancient rituals, including ingredients such as white clay and river rocks from the Gila River and a traditional American Indian roundhouse (dwelling) used for meditation.

Of course, a spa treatment is the perfect antidote to horseback riding or mustang watching in the morning or 18 holes of golf. One of the signature treatments is the Blue Coyote Wrap, where the body is coated with blue mud. Or you can get one of the many therapeutic or relaxing massage treatments.

According to Spa Director Kristi Kjar, each treatment addresses a specific need, and there are extra touches that set Aji apart from some other spas.

"For example, our tables are heated," Kjar said. "And in every massage, we wrap the feet and drape the back in warm towels after the therapist has worked that part of the body."

Sheraton Wild Horse Resort & Spa: The verdict

This is a place where you can relax, the service isn't over the top and there's plenty to do. It's a good spot for individuals or families, and you never have to leave the resort.

Dining is top-notch, rooms are extremely comfortable and the two golf courses here are enjoyable and player friendly. And if you're really feeling adventurous, you can head out to the 1,000-acre Koli Equestrian Center, saddle up and ride out to see the wild horses for which the property gets it name. What's not to like?

More photos

Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort - Gila RiverWhirlwind's Cattail Golf Course - Hole 3Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort - Murals

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in the Houston area. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 20 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @Accidentlgolfer.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Wild Horse Pass

    Elliot DeBear wrote on: Mar 23, 2009

    Nice resort. Two Troon Golf Courses, Devil's Claw and Cattail designed by Gary Panks (one of the best) on the property and two or three other really good tracks (check out Ocitello, also a Troon managed facility)and Grey Hawk within a 10-15 minute drive. The property has horseback riding and a very high-end spa. There is a Casino down the road as well as a racing school if you want to take a day and race Corvettes around a top notch track. Scottsdale is a 25 minute drive away in case you want to book a tee time at the Phoenician or the Biltmore. This is a find.


  • Great Review

    Kathy Sarkis wrote on: Mar 17, 2009

    Wanted to let you know that this was a great review of a special place and I'm glad others will get to find out how special. Also, loved the blogs on Scotch night and terrible golf. Turns out it was worth all that driving!