When the world is too much with us, it’s time for a weekend away with the girls (and I use that term loosely, being of a certain age). But girls we are, at least in spirit, and my favorite summer escape is to leave the marine layer that never burns off in Santa Monica for the dry heat of the desert, which warms the bones of those of us with runner’s knee and tennis elbow. Not only is it therapeutic, but it’s a bargain, with luxury hotel rooms at a fraction of the price (about two-thirds) of winter rates. We’re talking resorts, girlfriend, with spas, fitness centers, tennis courts, and golf courses. And even if you indulge yourself with facials, massages, afternoon mojitos, and 3-course dinners, the cost of a weekend is still less than the price of a good handbag.
Summer in the Palm Springs area sounds infernal, and it is: on a recent weekend in July it was 101 degrees in the shade, at noon. But out at the pool under an umbrella, a quick plunge in the water (or laps if you’re feeling virtuous) will cool you off. Rinse, repeat—it’s an equation that gets you through the hottest part of the day and beats taking a siesta in your air-conditioned room. Which could be an option with the proper man (!)…but oh yes, this is a girls’ weekend, and there’s nothing more relaxing than lying on a chaise, engrossed in a good book, with a green golf course in the background and turquoise water in the fore. You might hear some splashing, or the rustle of palm fronds overhead, but otherwise the silence is almost meditative. Sound seems to be sucked out of the air along with the moisture, giving the atmosphere such clarity that you can pick out every rock on the nearby San Jacinto mountains.
But we digress. For optimum fun in the sun, here’s the schedule my friends and I used for our recent 3-day road trip (leaving L.A. on Friday at 1:00 p.m. to beat rush-hour traffic).
Early to Bed, Early to Rise
The coolest part of the day is in the morning, ergo it’s the best time to exercise. So dine early the night before and hit the sack by 10:00 p.m. so you can rise at dawn, to the sliver of light limning the blackout curtains. Hikers can stroll around the paved grounds of the resorts or drive to one of the dozens of hiking trails (www.Hiking-In-PS.com/trails.html) in the hills and canyons. Tennis players book the resort courts for 7:00 a.m., and the pro shop can set you up with singles or doubles matches or get you into a teaching clinic. Another option is to zip on over to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden (760-200-8400) to use the hitting wall or take a clinic on the same purple-and-green courts where the pros play every March at the BNP Paribas Open (www.iwtg.net). If golf is your thing, there are 112 golf courses in the greater Palm Springs area. Grab an early tee time or lesson at the private course adjacent to your hotel, or hit the links at the Indian Wells Golf Resort (www.IndianWellsGolfResort.com) which is open to the public and has an upscale café, restaurant, bar, and golf shop.
Late Morning: Hit the Shops
If you’re feeling flush, head on over to El Paseo, the desert’s version of Rodeo Drive. Automatic sidewalk misters keep things cool as you duck in and out of Gucci, Saks Fifth Avenue, St. John, and Burberry. (Many resorts offer free courtesy shuttles to El Paseo.) If vintage is more your thing, the desert is a gold mine: we recommend Re-Deux in Rancho Mirage for gently used fashion and accessories (Chanel, St. John, and Judith Lieber at pennies on the dollar); Angel View Prestige Boutique in Palm Springs (a thrift store with donated clothes, furniture, and accessories); Resale Therapy in Palm Springs (a high-fashion consignment shop where starlets get dressed for the film festival in January); and Dazzles in Palm Springs (for vintage ‘50s and 60s costume jewelry and furnishings).
Noon to 4:00: Hit the Spa
To avoid sunburn, this is an optimum time for a spa treatment. I like to arrive way before my appointment to shower, shave my legs, take a eucalyptus steam bath, sit in the whirlpool, and otherwise play the hedonist. Now all that’s left is to zone out in the relaxation room while waiting for a rubdown or something novel, such as a Salty Mango Scrub or Ice Cream Pedicure (at Rancho Las Palmas, www.RanchoLasPalmas.com).
Another way to stay out of the noonday sun, as referenced above, is to park yourself under an umbrella at the adults-only pool or at the spa pool, where kids are off-limits (not that there’s anything wrong with their having a screaming good time–at the family pool).
Freshly coiffed and aglow from the day’s activities, it’s time for sundowners at the resort’s indoor or outdoor lounge, depending on where the people watching is best.
At 7:00 p.m. my friends and I had dinner at the resort (yes it’s on the early side, but we wanted an early bedtime). Another option is to follow the lead of year-round desert dwellers, who eat their main meal at lunch and graze at the happy hours so prevalent at restaurants here. Discounted drinks and small plates of food or free appetizers = what’s not to love?
Where To Stay
The hardest part about your getaway is figuring out which luxury resort will win your business in summer (and into fall, which is also a bargain). Here, a guide to get you started.
Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa (rooms starting at $149 a night, offset by the gift of a $25 gas card for driving expenses) in Rancho Mirage. This resort is nirvana for tennis players, with 25 courts and a director of tennis, Kevin Connolly, who is the Mr. Fix It of the desert (thank you, K., for teaching me the forehand slice after numerous instructors have tried and failed). (He is not one to brag, so someone had to tell me that Connolly was the Peter Burwash International Pro of the Year in 2010.) This hotel is also home to Splashtopia, a water park with a “lazy river” (for floating down while cradled in an inner tube), water slides, and a sandy beach. And it’s not just for kids, as evidenced by the many adults, fueled by pina coladas, lolling in the river. But if you’re in the mood for quiet, the adult pool and spa pool are so far removed from Splashtopia that you can’t see it or hear it. And dinner at the resort’s Blu Ember restaurant is a must if only to try the Miso Glazed Chilean Sea Bass, with wilted spinach and mushroom dumplings in a ginger-sake broth. (It’s the best preparation of this fish I’ve ever eaten.) 41-000 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage; 866-423-1195; www.RanchoLasPalmas.com
The Miramonte Resort & Spa (rooms for first-time guests starting at $109 a night, plus discounted 60-minute spa treatments beginning at $99, and unlimited golf for adults all day for $55) in Indian wells. Known for its generously sized guest rooms, the Miramonte is a low-slung hotel with 14 buildings set among lush grounds dotted with fruit trees and herb gardens that supply the chef with fresh ingredients. The centerpiece of the property, literally, is The Well, which in April of 2010 won the Conde Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Award for best resort spa.
And it is a great spa, featuring strong German massage therapists and an outdoor spa pool heated to a muscle-soothing 98 degrees, with lots of nooks and crannies that are shaded from the sun. The big draw here is the Pittura Festa or Painting Party, a group mud treatment held on the outdoor deck of a private cabana. Wearing old swimsuits that would survive a mud stain or two, the girls and I dipped paintbrushes into a palette of mineralizing and detoxifying clays of red, green, yellow, and black, depending on its function. It was a fun and sensuous preamble to the main event inside the cabana, as a therapist wrapped me in Kevlar (to help the mud penetrate) and delivered a scalp massage and pressure-point facial, after which I entered an open-air Swiss shower to rinse off all the mud. Then I headed back inside for an application of chocolate body butter, a sweet ending to a treatment that left my skin smooth, my senses tingling, and my soul, well, restored. 45-000 Indian Wells Lane, Indian Wells; 800-237-2926; www.MiramonteResort.com
La Quinta Resort & Club (rooms starting at $139 a night, plus a $25 gift card to put toward gas or a restaurant on the way home) in La Quinta. The grand dame of the desert, this resort built in 1926 has 796 rooms scattered on 45 grassy acres, and 41 pools (yup, you read that right). This enclave tucked up against the Santa Rosa mountains is like a small city-state, where you can get lost walking from your room to the tennis courts or to the spa—which is part of the pleasure, wandering grounds landscaped with roses, bougainvillea, and citrus trees (ah, the perfume). Staying here means communing not only with nature but with Hollywood history, as this is where Frank Capra wrote the screenplay for “Lost Horizon” in 1937 and where Greta Garbo went when she wanted to be alone (and have an outdoor massage). As the home of the PGA West, La Quinta is a great place to play (or learn) golf, with five award-winning golf courses and four private courses and the Jim McClean Golf School. The resort is also home to arguably the finest restaurant in the desert, Morgan’s, where the James Beard Award-winning chef Jimmy Schmidt makes a delicious Charred Ahi Tuna Pepper Steak. (Please start with an appetizer of Crispy Baby Indio Artichokes, and I apologize right now to my tablemates for eating more than my share out of the communal bowl. Blame it on the disinhibitions I felt after quaffing the house cocktail (French Champagne, cognac, lemon juice, and simple syrup). 49-999 Eisenhower Dr., La Quinta; (760) 564-4111; www.LaQuintaResort.com
Desert Springs, a JW Marriott Resort & Spa (rooms starting at $119 a night, plus the gift of a $25 for each night of your stay). This high-energy hotel in Palm Desert attracts a fun-loving crowd, with a nightclub, Costas, and the largest spa in the desert (with 48 treatment rooms, men’s and women’s hammams for Turkish steambaths, and a spa pool large enough for lap swimming). Although this resort is a haven for adults, the kid in you will love the Date Shake (even tastier than the original proffered at Shields Date Garden in Indio). 74-855 Country Club Dr., Palm Desert; 760-341-2211; www.DesertSpringsResort.com
Two more to consider: Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa in Indian Wells (rooms starting at $109 a night, plus the gift of a $25 gas card for each night of your stay; www.RenaissanceEsmeralda.com).
The Westin Mission Hills Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage (rooms starting at $135 a night, plus a $25 gas card to defray driving expenses; www.StarwoodHotels.com)