Desert resort an oasis for more than just golfers A Swing Through Palm Springs

You've got to love a place where golf carts are street legal, a former mayor was one-half of Sonny and Cher and palm-lined boulevards are named after such American idols as Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope.

Palm Springs has been called the golf capital of the world -- and it's no wonder. If you laid the golf courses in this desert valley end to end, you could play all the way from Palm Springs to Phoenix.


This sultry setting has been identified with golfing for the last 50 years, and it now features some of the most prestigious tournaments in the world. Bob Hope was an early booster. President Eisenhower, an avid golfer, spent winters here, and golf great Arnold Palmer, who won five of the first 14 Bob Hope Chrysler Classics, designed three of the area's 89 golf courses. Indeed, golf is such a part of the local culture that it's not unusual to see golf-cart spaces in parking lots, and, in much of the nearby town of Palm Desert, golf carts are street legal.

So serious is this business of golf that even the new miniature golf course was reviewed by the golf writer of the local newspaper, and in this swanky spot you can play golf coming and going: There's a putting green and pro shop at the Palm Springs Airport.


It can cost as much as $200 a day to play a round of golf, though most fees in peak season range from $80 to $90. In the summer, the fee drops to as little as $25. "That's what keeps the summer crowd coming," said golfer Dwayne Reiter, who just about had Mesquite Golf & Country Club to himself last August. "It's incredible. All year, the weather's great. The quality of the courses is great. And the views start to work on you after a while," added Mr. Reiter, a contractor who grew up in Wisconsin. "My dad came out here and thought the desert looked like a gravel pit, but stay long enough and the desert scenery starts to grow on you."

Everyone hopes to find a bargain, but during the high-season months of January through April, there aren't a lot. The exception is Standby Golf -- (619) 321-2665 -- which, evenings, buys unsold tee times for the next day, selling them at discounts of 25 to 30 percent.

Or you could always play on the cheap like John Rodriguez. Driving down Highway 111 recently, I spotted a man hitting balls in a sandy lot that had been overgrown with weeds and desert shrubs. Mr. Rodriguez, a 46-year-old golf course superintendent, calls his pastime "off-road golfing." He logs close to 20 miles a week, shooting from the desert's virgin terrain. "It's kind of a private thing," he said. "Practice hitting off the desert, and playing off the grass becomes a big reward. It's really helped me improve my swing."

Golf courses are as ubiquitous here as the desert cactus, and they have been designed by the golf world's superstars -- Mr. Palmer, Pete Dye, Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Gary Player among them. In the 1980s, 33 courses were built in the valley, and currently 29 new projects have either been approved, proposed or are under construction. A warning: Don't plan a golf vacation in October. All the courses close for three weeks during that month to reseed.

(For a guide to golf in the region, call the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Bureau at [800] 417-3529.)


For decades, the very name Palm Springs has exuded a certain cachet -- playground of presidents, Hollywood hideaway. But underneath the veneer, the desert resort is undergoing a renaissance that caused Conde Nast Traveler recently to extol this steamy oasis as "fast becoming the hippest destination on the map." If you haven't visited Palm Springs in a while, it's time to take a fresh look.

"We have hiking trails, skies out of Van Gogh, great little shops and restaurants -- and all within walking distance. We're a small village with an eclectic populace. The desert has always drawn rebels; it still does," says Doug Smith, an architectural designer whose 12-room inn, Korakia, has attracted a Hollywood crowd and out-of-towners ranging from the publisher of the New York Times to the concertmaster of the Cincinnati Philharmonic to photographer Annie Leibovitz. "There's a renaissance going on that's not chic in the Zsa Zsa way. This is a new generation."


Part of the newfound allure is vintage Palm Springs. Its mission and Mediterranean-style architecture has a timeless elegance, and now, appreciative young audiences are discovering the campy curb appeal of the city's 1950s- and 1960s-style houses and motor courts. Some of the world's best-known fashion magazines have staged shoots here in recent months, drawn anew to this desert dateline because of its faultless light, dramatic terrain and architectural backdrops.

The interest in retro-architecture has been good news for the area's antiques shops, bulging as they are with American kitsch. (My favorite: The Village Attic at 798 N. Palm Canyon has three-piece dinette sets for as little as $95, bottle-cap statues and a vintage Gabby Hayes cactus lamp.) It's not unusual to find celebrity wares among the inventory at local shops. A friend recently paid $300 for a satin-striped love seat once owned by Walter Pidgeon.

At times, it seems Palm Springs has been preserved in the celluloid that gilded the glamour of the many movie stars who have called Palm Springs home over the years -- Kirk Douglas, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Lamour, Alan Ladd and Goldie Hawn among them. To get a quick fix on the city's architectural mix and a peek at celebrity homes, take the Palm Springs Celebrity Tour -- (619) 770-2700.

Year-round pleasures

Although January through April remains the peak season, Palm Springs has become something of a year-round resort in the last couple of years as increasing numbers of hotels, restaurants and shops stay open into the sweltering summer months.

"The Desert" is what locals call Palm Springs, itself shorthand for the string of seven cities -- Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta and Indio are the others -- that make up the Coachella Valley. Ultimately, it isn't the shops or the restaurants or the golf courses that define Palm Springs, but this slice of the Colorado Desert, bounded by the San Jacinto Mountains to the west, the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the east and the Santa Rosa Mountains to the south.


First settled by the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians, this rugged land can throw out searing heat, with temperatures shooting well above 115 degrees in the summer months. But it covers a huge aquifer, a 20-mile-long underground water basin that has transformed this spot into a lush oasis that produces more dates than any other spot in North America. Average annual rainfall is less than 6 inches, but if it didn't rain for the next 100 years, it wouldn't matter, because of the desert's extraordinary liquid riches.

I first visited Palm Springs in the summer, and that is the season I will always wrap it in. The desert can be a demanding host, but it nourishes the soul. One yellow afternoon I was aware of only two things -- the changing light and an almost holy silence that seemed to hold the rough-cut land in reassuring embrace, throwing a hush over human concerns. There is no calendar in the desert, but a timelessness and a tenderness, as palpable as the heat on my face.

Delicious heat

Ah, the delicious heat! Steering wheels too toasty to touch, pavement too hot to cross in bare feet. It's no wonder there are more than 10,000 swimming pools here. I spent the better part of a week in one, doing nothing more taxing than following a pink inner tube across my watery kingdom in the back yard of a private house in Las Palmas, a neighborhood that Dinah Shore, Mary Martin, Howard Hughes and Liberace called home. Mornings, from almost anywhere in Palm Springs, one can watch the Witch of Tahquitz Canyon appear on the mountain wall west of town, one of the shadowy spirits that the Indians believed came out of the mountains to create the deserts and canyons.

"It's magic -- this healing power of the desert," says V. J. Hume, a local radio personality who discovered Palm Springs when she came here several years ago as a lounge singer. "I'm Canadian. I didn't know desert. I didn't know what desert was. I was expecting Lawrence of Arabia and camels. I thought I'd be here six weeks, but within 36 hours, I could feel the healing power and I decided to stay. It's the magic from the mountains. It's a passion. It's a bonding. It's a love. You don't want to live here. You have to live here."

What to do


For me, Palm Springs offers a serenity fix. Its riches are about the pleasure of inactivity as much as anything else. But given the time, I would put several activities on a to-do list. Because the desert is such an important part of a visit to Palm Springs, the eco-tours conducted by Desert Adventures -- (619) 864-6530 -- are especially satisfying. Our guide, Aaron Coons, drove us in one of the company's signature red Jeeps -- up 4,500 feet and high into the Santa Rosas. Coyotes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions and a few bighorn sheep all live in these parts. Also, there's wonderful plant life: the century plant, used by Indians for everything from disposable diapers to happy hour drinks; wild jojoba, under study now for its restorative qualities; and the creosote plant, used to treat colds and cramps.

There are dinosaurs, too -- at least the concrete kind. In Cabazon, just northwest of Palm Springs, two dinosaurs built next to Interstate 10 by a local dreamer have been part of the landscape for almost two decades and are one of those odd highway fixtures I cannot seem to resist.

Also worth a stop: The Indian Canyons, on land owned by the Agua Caliente, has three of the largest palm oases in the world. Entrance fees range from $1 to $5 per person.

Even date shakes

The National Date Festival, a desert tradition, will be held Feb. 17-26 in Indio. There seems no shortage of date gardens in Indio, but my favorite is Shields -- (619) 347-0996 -- which has been producing dates for 70 years. One of Shields' charms is its hold on the past and its sense of shabby chic: The slide show, titled "Romance and Sex Life of the Date," dates to 1951, and its 1950s turquoise counter and yellow stools are the real thing. This is the place to order a date shake.

Back at the house where I'm staying in Las Palmas, I hear the bus from the Palm Springs Celebrity Tours stop. The house was built by the man who made "The Shadow" radio serial, and it's featured on the tour. So is the mailbox next door -- shaped like a grand piano and designed by Liberace, the house's first owner. I'm looking forward to the night, when the stars fill the sky like rhinestones on black velvet. I'm thinking about what V. J. Hume said earlier, and I'm beginning to understand: "The desert -- it's alive and growing and exciting," she said. "And the nights, they're not something you forget. All I can say is that the desert called me. It spoke to me. If you listen, you'll hear it."



* Feb. 15-19: Annual Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Defending champion Tom Kite and the best of the PGA compete on four country-club courses. Pros only on final day for $1.2 million purse. (619) 346-8184.

* Feb. 24-25: Annual Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament. Benefits Desert Hospital and Barbara Sinatra's Children's Center at Eisenhower Medical Center. Marriott Desert Springs. (619) 323-9411.

* March 20-26: Annual Nabisco Dinah Shore tournament. One of the most prestigious events on the LPGA Tour. Celebrity Pro-Am competition early in week. Championship play over weekend. Defending champ Donna Andrew. Total purse, $700,000. Mission Hills Country Club. (619) 324-4546.