The word esplendor can translate to a number of words in English, ranging from splendor to radiance to brilliance to brightness. The word’s origins come from the Latin splendere, which literally means “to be bright, to shine.” Of course, at first glance, this seems like a perfectly natural connection to the Southwest, a place whose sun shines for over 300 days a year. But on our trip to the Esplendor Resort and Country Club, we experienced a different kind of splendid—in the time it took us to drive from Tucson, stay the night, and get up for breakfast in the morning, we had watched a brilliant orange-red sunset, covered our heads in the rain, shivered in the snow, and watched the sun rise again. As living in the southwest doesn’t always afford us such unusual—and in our opinion, tremendously awesome—weather, my fiancé and I were more than thrilled to experience the weather of three seasons in one overnight stay.
Forty miles from Tucson and just a few miles from both the artistic milieu of Tubac and the border town of Nogales, you’ll find Rio Rico, a small town that literally looks like it’s sitting on a hill. If you talk to a lot of Rio Rico residents, they’ll tell you there’s not much to do and really nowhere to go, but what they miss is what we all often miss in the places we love—the beauty that becomes so commonplace we forget to actually pause and look. The Esplendor’s setting is gorgeous, so much so that I’m not surprised there’s one of the best award-winning golf courses on its property. Whether you’re coming for golf, which I, in fact, wasn’t, for some delightful wine tasting in the Sonoita-Elgin vineyards, a visit to the Tubac art community, or simply to get away from everything else for a while, I would absolutely consider Esplendor. The fact that it’s far away from everything except the residents of Rio Rico is actually one of its biggest strengths—with perfect views of the mountains, uninterrupted views of the rolling hills, and trailheads to incredible hiking right down the road, it honestly doesn’t need anything else.
In fact, that’s the interesting thing about Esplendor Resort—like getting three seasons in one unexpected March evening, stepping inside the Esplendor Resort is much like feeling a simultaneous and respectful homage to the three cultures that created the hotel’s home on the hill in the desert. A place of understated elegance, the entire facility is dressed in everything from Mexican pottery to Native American tepee canopy beds to cowhide headboards. And yet, it’s not kitschy. Not in the least. For some reason, whether it be the bilingual staff, the resort’s borderlands blending, or the influence of the thousands of guests who’ve passed through, the commingling just works. The lobby feels like it’s been lifted from a Spanish colonial-style home, complete with muted mustard-colored walls, thick wooden dressers, gaudy mirrors, colorful carpets, and Victorian-era chairs. The saloon looks like it’s right out of Tombstone, and the rest of the grounds look like much of southern Arizona’s architecture does—adobe, earthy, geometrically boxy. Even the rooms continue the collaborative southwest theme, right down to the boldly colored Mexican tile sink and the javelina tiles in the shower in the Mexican rooms and the tepee beds and skin drum nightstands in the Native American ones.
We stayed in one of the Deluxe King rooms, which included (as one would expect from a King room) a king-size bed with those lovely fluffy hotel pillows that have been popping up everywhere, a blonde-colored wooden desk and writing area, a private balcony overlooking the mountains, free in-room Wifi, and complimentary coffee and tea. The bathroom, as I mentioned, was a bold mix of Mexican tile, whittled wooden accents, and moments of blue javelina sightings in the tile and on the sink. Everything was exceptionally clean and fresh, right down to the bowl of homemade salsa and chips welcoming our arrival on the side table.
Santa Rita Grill and San Cayetano Saloon
That evening, my fiancé and I walked through the crisp, clean evening to the dining room at the Santa Rita Grill. One thing I didn’t know before visiting Esplendor is that this restaurant, the Santa Rita Grill, is the home to Steven Raichlen’s popular public television show Primal Grill, which has been rumored to have “virtually reinvented America’s relationship with barbeque,” has been filmed here for the two seasons. Raichlen’s legacy, in addition to leaving his stamp on the American Continental cuisine served at the restaurant, is his undeniable love for the southwest and the flavors that simultaneously echo and mingle from both Mexico and the Southwestern U.S.
When you walk in to the Grill, be sure to ask for a booth along the back side of the restaurant if you’re in the mood for a bordello-style dining experience complete with red carpet walls, huge ornate mirrors, and dangling chandeliers bedazzled in jewels. Of course, you can also sit at one of the tables next to the glass wall on the other side of the restaurant if you’re interested in watching the sun set over the San Cayetano mountains, but, well, if kitsch is your thing, take a seat along the back wall. You’ll love it.
As for the menu, you’ll immediately notice that the unusual fusion of flavors—Mexican, American, and, well, Steven Raichlen—is certainly evident on the Santa Grill’s Menu (an entire section of the menu is devoted to a number of grilled entrees he developed while on the set). To start our feast, we drank prickly pear margaritas rimmed with sea salt and mixed with hornitos reposado tequila from Mexico. We dipped freshly cut tortillas into a creamy, cheesy queso fundido filled with grilled chorizo, mushrooms, and onions. We ordered another round of margaritas (I mean, why not?). And then, we ordered the grilled salmon and the tampiqueña steak (both, of course, concoctions from the barbeque guru’s own kitchen), which came with grilled calabacitas and fried rice. The grilled cedar plank salmon was a delightful choice—it was simultaneously tender, smooth, and buttery, and even had the charred grill marks lining the flesh that I’ve loved since I was a kid (thanks for always burning everything on the grill just right, dad). The fish was drizzled with a spicy Cajun remoulade, which, while a lovely accent to the cedar plank steak, could have been a bit hotter. The tampiqueña was excellent as well, as it, too, was grilled to Ryan’s ideal medium-rare state—a bit of blood still running down the sides of the knife—and it was topped with softly cooked bistro medallions and bell peppers. On the side, though, was the best part of the entire meal: the baked chile relleno filled with salsa verde and covered with bubbling white Mexican cheese.
Also, it’s worth noting that even if you’re not a star-studded singer, the karaoke machine cranks up at 8 pm. at the Mexican-inspired saloon next door. We stopped in to try the Esplendor Ale, which as we learned from our server is rumored to be brewed up in our Tucson’s own Nimbus Brewery. Surprisingly, both the ale and the karaoke were actually quite amazing—the saloon was packed (there was an army convention being held there as well as a bunch of artists waiting to head to Tubac’s annual arts festival the next day, so naturally the bar was a rowdy affair), and we drank our beers, sat under the low-lit lanterns and watched the snow gently falling, talked about all the things we’d wanted to catch up on but never seemed to have the chance to do back home, and listened to a man sing a brilliant rendition of Desperado. After that, we walked back to our building and slept a good, long sleep.
For me, Esplendor is exactly the kind of place a stressed-out English instructor and freelance writer can really find a sense of peace. For one, because Rio Rico is only a quick highway jaunt from Tucson, it’s an easy drive—and yet for some reason, getting on the highway makes it feel somehow….further. Driving toward the small town of Rio Rico, the landscape turning from flat desert to rolling hills spotted with shrubs and green grass, reminded me of that first time my fiancé and I drove to Mexico, two eager graduate students who’d just met and were still mystified by this border region, a place we’d heard so much about but had never seen for ourselves. That trip, which not only solidified our relationship but also resulted in a beautiful brass javelina statue that my mom still has sitting on the fireplace mantle, reminded me that even though it’s hot for nine months here and the cacti aren’t exactly snuggly, there’s something starkly and unexpectedly beautiful about the Sonoran Desert.
It was a good night, indeed. A splendid one, even.
For more information or to book your room, you can visit their website at http://www.esplendor-resort.com/. Rates begin as low as $77/night for a Resort Double and $125/night for a Resort Double Suite.
Esplendor Resort at Rio Rico
1069 Camino Caralampi, Rio Rico, Arizona 85648
Article and photographs by Kristin Mock.
A special thanks to Esplendor Resort for graciously hosting me for purposes of this review.