Thursday, January 16, 2014

Jamee's Journey to Palm Springs

Windmills and billboards line the massive highway leading to Palm Springs.
Jamee's Journey to Palm Springs
By Jamee Gregory

Westward ho! Where to spend Christmas near LA? Faced with finding a resort, driving distance from Santa Monica, appealing to four generations, I remember our 1980 stay at La Quinta, fifteen minutes beyond Palm Springs, nestled at the foot of the Santa Rosa Mountains. Ginger Rodgers told my husband, Peter, that it was her favorite American vacation spot.

So off we went, with my newly widowed father-in-law, my grandmother, sister and our toddler. We arrived, instantly charmed by grapefruit-laden trees and the charming villas spread across the vast property. A beautiful dining room, built in the 1920s, welcomed us, as it once did to Greta Garbo and Lana Turner.
Garbo and John Gilbert spent many hours looking out over the Santa Rosa Mountains.
We loved the swimming pool, a terrific tennis complex and an outdoor lunching area. Everyone was thrilled, until the sun nestled behind the mountains and the temperature dropped from the high 70s to the low 40s. We were not prepared, shivering in our summer clothes. Why not return, dressed properly, to an enchanting place, 2½ hours from Los Angeles?

Friends of my daughter, Samantha, assured her that present day La Quinta was perfect for a child, with newly built playgrounds, pools and art areas, suggesting the Eisenhower suite, and two adjoining rooms. My grown-up golfing friends told us of lovely restaurants and a street of shops, El Paseo, rivaling Palm Beach's elegant Worth Avenue that would appeal to my mother.
The entrance to La Quinta.
The scenic view towards the gate.
We reserved in September. The first alarm came late November, as we dined with a savvy-journalist friend whose eyes popped when we mentioned our destination. "I changed rooms 6 times!" she said, warning us to instantly shift our accommodations to the newer spa complex. "The original rooms are untouched. You will be miserable. It is quite different from the place you visited."

We followed her advice, but by then there was no turning back. Off we went, after a fabulous week at our home-away-from-home, Santa Monica's Shutters, in two cars, speeding on the 10, past billboards and fields of energy-generating windmills, to the desert. We arrive after my son-in-law, Roberto, who calls, saying there is a problem.
A 1927 clipping about the hotel's opening.
The ground floor spa suite and adjoining room are lovely, with gas-burning fireplaces and a large living area, but the third room was not as described. A separate entrance, around the corner, with over 20 steps, leads upstairs, right into the middle of a musty-smelling bedroom.

My mother would not be safe. Reception has no gates. A cot for my granddaughter cannot make it up the stairs. By default, the room is ours. So much for my fantasy of little Carolina waking us up each morning!
Early morning view from our window.
Villa roof tops.
We arrive as the sun sets, around 4:30 PM. The entire mile-long drive is lit up with over-head tree lights, like Las Vegas. Cars cover the vast driveway, clogging the entrance. Cheered by the sight of a beautiful Christmas tree, and then shocked as the bellmen refuse our bags, telling us to drive them to our villa ourselves after checking in. The reception area, crowded with 40 people waiting in line, looks like a bank.
We are greeted by an enormous Christmas tree. The view at night.
This is not what I remember! Desks fill the front hall peppered with signs listing car rentals and conventions. Guests wear track suits, shorts and sneakers. Directed to our room, we hoist our numerous bags, as Peter curses me for bringing so many clothes to a place resembling a Carnival Cruise.

Without unpacking, we rush to meet in the outdoor restaurant, Twenty6, in time for 5:30 PM dinner, which turns out to be the hardest reservation to get. Every family has children in tow, as well as dogs and at least one grandparent. It is pitch black, and quite a walk, past hundreds of villas, where there had formerly been 40!
Lunch outside at Twenty6.
Four generations enjoying lunch.
The family fun continued into dinner at Twenty6.
Signs direct us past villas clustered around pools. The 6 of us arrive, breathing a sigh of relief, as we are seated outside, surrounded by heat lamps, on an attractive terrace. Carolina is given crayons and a coloring book. We discover crab cakes and flatbread with smoked salmon or artichoke hearts, very much to our liking, along with Pinot Grigio. Things look up.

6:30 AM, sun streaming in, we reconvene for breakfast, minus my mother, in the same spot. A buffet waits, but we are too cold for outdoor dining. The thermometer barely hits 40 degrees. Inside, large TV screens are turned on. Ignoring them, we order and enjoy a lovely breakfast. Samantha heads off to run. We ask at the concierge for the prettiest trail for our 4 mile walk, and are directed to the Santa Rosa Mountains, a five-minute drive.
Under the desert sun, trekking up the mountain path.
Carolina scooting.
We arrive, finding ourselves under blaring sun, on a barren path, littered with broken glass. Optimists, we forge on to a pinnacle, crowned with an ominous looking round receptacle that probably holds nuclear waste. Perspiring profusely, we head down, dying of thirst, and meet our daughter in the drive. Her jogging trail ran alongside the four-lane highway. Seems this section of desert is better for golfers than hikers.

Heading back to my mother's room, we find Carolina bouncing on her bed, having the best time ever, eager to put on her helmet and scoot between bungalows, followed by a big swim. We take my mother for a walk, rediscovering the original villas, where Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Errol Flynn once frolicked. We pick grapefruits.
Steps leading to the outdoor terrace where musicians play at night. Flowers leading to the hotel's boutiques.
A grapefruit-laden tree. Desert blooms.
The sun shines without mercy and temperature rises. We meet for lunch, and my mother wishes everyone looked rich and thin. I still sport my workout wear and fit right in. Carolina tucks into scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese. Surrounded by kids, she cannot wait to return to the kiddy pool, filled with large mats in the shape of dinosaurs and screaming children.
The scene at the crowded kiddy pool.
The adult pool.
Center Court at the tennis complex.
We escape, heading for El Paseo, discovering blocks of stores, more Chico's and J.Crew than Valentino. We find a nice Ralph Lauren, running a sale, and a large Saks. Returning with bargains, we decide going off campus is fun. Malls and gated communities border the highway. We reserve at Okura, a wonderful Japanese restaurant, where we feast on seaweed salad, sushi, tempura and miso soup. Discovering a Dairy Queen, all generations are content. We happily climb into bed by 7:30 PM, struggling to stay awake through a movie.
Palm trees and shops dot the street in El Paseo.
The mountains make a dramatic backdrop.
Peter and I savoring our last lunch in the desert.
My mother and I ready for the road.
Over the next five days we explore everything from The Living Desert Museum, a dusty stretch of nature with few animals, the Eisenhower Hospital, a first-rate institution, some uninspiring restaurants and shops, enjoying the daytime activities, even the walks parallel to the freeway and visits to the kiddy pool. CVS and Walgreens dot every corner, catering to aging golfers and wounded children. Failing to secure a massage for my mother, as the spa is fully booked, we soldier on.
Our last view of the wind mills.
Carolina watches "Frozen" nine times and we all have fun, finding family time in the midst of the teaming masses. Would I rush back? Probably not, but we never stop laughing. Although the food at La Quinta's Adobe was about as good as dinner on Delta, their frozen Margarita's hit the spot. Carolina wants to go back for her birthday saying, "It is more fun than Disney Land!"
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