Time travel to celebrity getaways, take a jeep into the desert and meet the local wildlife on this family getaway.
by Mimi Slawoff
In the desert about 110 miles east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs is the ancestral home to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and its serenity was first discovered by Hollywood in the 1920s. It served as a rendezvous spot for Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and others bought homes there, and today’s stars – including Leonardo DiCaprio and Halle Berry – continue to use it as an escape.
In the last decade, Palm Springs and the surrounding communities of Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Desert Hot Springs, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta and Indio have merged into one destination known as Greater Palm Springs.
On a weekend visit in late September, we stayed at the sprawling Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort and Spa (www.rancholaspalmas.com), a congenial family hotel on Bob Hope Drive in Rancho Mirage. Our room, adjacent to Splashtopia water park, had a patio overlooking a golf course. This gave us the option of enjoying gorgeous mountain views from the patio or floating on an inner tube in the lazy river, gazing up at palm trees reaching high into deep blue skies while kids glided down water slides and splashed through water features. Landscaped paths lead to the resort’s restaurants and spa, but complimentary pick-up service in a golf cart is available.
Across from the resort is a shopping center (Michael’s Pizzeria, www.michaelspizzeria.com, is yummy). Down the street is Sunnylands Center & Gardens (www.sunnylands.org), where late philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg hosted elaborate parties for seven U.S. presidents, the British royal family and Hollywood celebrities. Today it is known as a West Coast “Camp David,” still playing host to U.S. and world leaders, but you can take a tour! Admission to the gardens is free, and tours of the Annenberg residence cost $35 per person. Reservations are required.
With a short drive into downtown Palm Springs, you can do a bit of time traveling. The elegant Circa 59 restaurant (www.psriviera.com), located inside the Riviera Palm Springs (the area’s largest resort when it was built in 1959), oozes Old Hollywood ambiance with oversized crystal chandeliers, retro furnishings and Andy Warhol pop art. Seated in a cozy, red leather upholstered booth with pool views, we contemplated a diverse menu including seafood and meat entrees, burgers, and mac and cheese. The elegant small plates and shareables – including the pulled pork sliders we chose – would work great for kids, too. It’s an interesting place, elegant but not at all stuffy. Though martinis are the signature drink here, the family next to us wore shorts to dinner.
The following day at 8 a.m. we met naturalist guide Carlos Salas and fellow passengers for a three-hour Desert Adventures (www.red-jeep.com) tour to the San Andreas Fault Line. The big red jeep was comfortable and stocked with chilled water bottles, but the bumpy, narrow dirt roads twisting through the rocky canyons made it feel like an Indiana Jones ride. We made several stops, with Carlos guiding us on short walks while talking about local geology and tectonic plates (and why it’s not true that California will slip into the Pacific during the Big One). We drove to the fault line, identifiable by a strip of palm trees along the top.
At a nearby natural palm oasis with clear water seeping from an underground aquifer, Salas pointed out plants the Cahuilla Indians used for medicine and making sandals, baskets and huts. Navigating winding dirt roads through Fossil Canyon and Granny Gulch, we stopped to hike between unique formations, squeezing through crevices and climbing up steep rocks for panoramic desert, Salton Sea and mountain views.
Back at the hotel, the grown-ups took a break for spa treatments – a pedicure for my mom and a massage for me. Then we drove downtown (abundant with free parking) to visit the Palm Springs Art Museum (www.psmuseum.org), featuring contemporary works as well as classic Western art and an outdoor sculpture garden. At the entrance is a portion of the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, golden palm stars embedded in sidewalks. Around the corner is a 26-foot Marilyn Monroe statue on display through March. We grabbed an early dinner at the nearby Kaiser Grille (www.kaisergrille.com), a Palm Springs classic with an outdoor patio and village views.
Up early the next day to beat the heat, we went to The Living Desert (www.livingdesert.org), a 1,080-acre preserve in Palm Desert housing animals from Africa and North America. Trails lead to natural habitats, including a rocky hill for bighorn sheep, and themed desert and butterfly gardens. At the Discovery Center, kids learn about desert life through interactive exhibits.
Our last stop: the popular Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (www.pstramway.com). The 10-minute, 2.5-mile ride begins at 2,643 feet elevation and ends at the Mountain Station at 8,516 feet. The rotating platform ensures everyone gets awesome desert and mountain views. At the top, there are viewing platforms and numerous hiking trails. It’s 30 degrees cooler up there, so bring a light jacket. There’s snow in winter.
After a great weekend away, there was still time for one more treat on the way home: date shakes at the famous Hadley Fruit Orchards (www.hadleyfruitorchards.com) in Cabazon.
Let’s Go columnist Mimi Slawoff is a mother of three who writes about family fun.