California / Chronological / Destinations / Hotels & Resorts / IFWTWA Trips / United States

When the California Desert Calls, It’s Food, Wine, Spas and Good Times

Forget Scotty’s Castle, sand storms and the perishing Salton Sea. Instead, think extravagance! Think spa amenities, spring water, high-end wines, high-caloric creamy pastries, luxurious hotel accommodations, blindingly beautiful sunrises and awesome blue skies. Where does one find these delightful pleasures? The California desert.

One of the eight mineral springs pools at Miracle Springs Resort & Spa in Desert Hot Springs.
One of the eight mineral springs pools at Miracle Springs Resort & Spa in Desert Hot Springs.

Our International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association tour began at the Miracle Springs Resort & Spa in Desert Hot Springs, about two hours from Los Angeles or San Diego depending on the time of day. Upon arrival, owner Mike Bickford introduced us to a blissful decadence that blurred all traffic nightmares.

Following a tempting chicken-enchilada lunch prepared by Chef Nigel Gainor, our host Dr. Stuart Malkin explained the essence of natural spring water. Mineral water comes from wells deep in the groundwater of the Mission Creek Aquifer nestled beneath our hotel. Cradled against the Little San Bernardino Mountains and Joshua Tree National Park, its waters are naturally heated by the magma of the earth. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water flow up to the surface each day. Temperatures range from 90 to 142 degrees, requiring a cooling process to make Miracle Springs’s swimming pool feel terrific at 92 degrees. (The hot pools are kept at a cozy 104 degrees with a recommendation to dip in for 10 minutes at a time.) Cold drinking water from the aquifer rates among the ten best-tasting municipal waters in the world, according to the International “Toast of the Tap” in 1997.

With three excellent and hearty meals a day and several side trips, I was anxious to try the resort’s deep-tissue massage. Under the spell of soft and soothing music and scented oil, massage therapist Bobbie’s stimulating treatment was a fantasy for this first-timer. I’ll gladly return anytime. Even better might have been Miracle Springs Spa’s relaxing Glittering Gold four-hour combo that includes massage, an aromatherapy facial, an aromatherapy mineral scrub and spa-essential pedicure. But, alas, we were off on a field trip to learn about the legend of Cabot Yerxa.

Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel is located at 10625 Palm Drive, Desert Hot Springs, CA 92240. Tel: (760) 251-6000. Chef Nigel Gainor can be reached via email at the

The Legend of Cabot Yerxa

A mile east of Miracle Springs Resort lies Cabot’s Old Indian Pueblo Museum. Cabot Yerxa, a natural outdoor adventurer, artist and self-skilled architect, had an uncanny pioneer spirit. For him, America had no bounds. Born in 1883 in the Dakota Territory, Cabot claimed to be a descendant of John Henry Cabot, the discoverer of Newfoundland. His youth was spent with his parents who ran the Dakota Trading Post. It was there that he met and formed a lasting relationship with William "Buffalo Bill" Cody.
At age 15, Cabot, in search of gold, headed to the Klondike. To support his travels, he sold Havana cigars to the miners and collected curios and artifacts for his family’s general store. He painted postcards to sell, and later captured scenes of his life on canvas. Popular with visitors is a painting of Cabot riding the trusty burro that he named, Merry Christmas, and another with Merry Christmas and another burro named, Happy New Year.

Along the way, he met President Theodore Roosevelt and their friendship resulted in Cabot’s appointment as Postmaster of Sierra Madre, California. Cabot was a storyteller who often recounted tales of searching for gold, selling cigars, and his adventures in the Pacific West. Eventually, he settled in what became Desert Hot Springs. There, he began to build the homestead that is now, Cabot’s Old Indian Pueblo Museum. But, perhaps his greatest contribution to the area was the discovery of the two original hot-water wells. Geologists later told Cabot that because the wells were on either side of the Mission Creek earthquake fault, a strand of the San Andreas Fault, both hot and cold water were available. This miraculous discovery resulted in its being named Miracle Fault.

But what most enthralls visitors to Cabot’s Old Indian Pueblo Museum is the old pueblo of brick and timber itself, its armature cooling and heating system, the curiosity of ancient hand-tools, cooking utensils, furniture and personal photos. Recently re-opened, the pueblo museum is a must-see for those interested in Western and Indian history. From the initial approach, one can’t miss the giant 200-foot-high California Indian sculpted out of Sequoia Redwood by artist Peter Toth that welcomes visitors.

Cabot’s Old Indian Pueblo Museum is located at 67-616 E. Dessert View, Dessert Hot Springs, CA 92240. Tel: (619) 329-7601.

The Purple Palm

It was certainly easy to get lost while driving around the Palm Springs area. Attempting to navigate California State Highway 10 and dodging the busy desert traffic on the two-lane Gene Autry Trail were mind-boggling; as were the bustling one-way boulevards in the center of Palm Springs, the indifferent pedestrians, the street names hidden by dessert flora, and locating shops without addresses.

Yet suddenly, The Purple Palm, our next destination, appeared. During its heyday in the 1930s, glamorous movie stars and slick-eyed gamblers haunted The Colony Palms Hotel and restaurant, now The Purple Palm. Seated in the courtyard of this delightful, restored Spanish Revival gem, one can be seduced by its full-length white rail balconies and tile roofs, private patios, sparkling swimming pool, and authentic ‘30s room décor. Majestic Hollywood palms (more than 70 years old), and flowering shrubs encircle the grounds.
The Purple Palm’s pool-side dining is enchanting. Food and Beverage Director Phil Armstrong charmed us with stories of Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities of times past, and promised a tour of the hotel’s rooms.

At tableside was Chef Jim Shiebler, who is renowned for his Mediterranean-inspired cuisine using classic French techniques with a modern twist. Today’s luncheon fare included Salmon Carpaccio, classic Caesar Salad, Maine Lobster Salad, or a juicy Hamburger. Entree choices included Veal Marrow Bones, spicy Shellfish Bisque or Duck Confit. One can top off their meal with Crème Brûlée made with blackberry sugar and champagne-rose petal essence. Should you join them for dinner, your escort may opt for a hearty grilled Angus New York Steak while you casually sip a Sonoma Chardonnay.

To fully experience the ‘30s atmosphere of gangster decadence and movie glamour, Mr. Armstrong suggested we come back after spring 2008 when the room beneath the kitchen will have been transformed into a speakeasy.

The Purple Palm is located at 572 N. Indian Canyon, Palm Springs, CA.Tel: (760) 969-1818.

Le Vallauris

Le Vallauris is not only a Palm Springs landmark but is considered by many food critics to be the finest French restaurant in California. The Zagat Guide awarded Le Vallauris their highest rating of "Extraordinary to Perfection" in all categories for food, décor and service. Ah, but there is more!

Upon entering, our group was warmly greeted by founding owner Paul Bruggemans as piano keys tinkled in the background, and a fashionably French romantic aura set the tone. Exquisite Flemish tapestries and handsome Louis XIV furniture radiated opulence.
Although the evening was cool, we chose a courtyard table beneath a halo of tiny lights suspended in tumbleweed balls tucked into a canopy of lush Ficus. We were warmed by outdoor heaters and a fine merlot.

Since our group was made up of food and wine writers, we agreed to select a variety of items to taste and share. We met Executive Chef Jean Paul Lair, a native Frenchman of many culinary talents, who suggested several appetizers: Russian Caviar, Caesar Salad in an aged-Parmesan basket, Jumbo Asparagus in Vinaigrette, Sashimi-Grade Ahi Tuna Tartare with Spicy Chili sauce, and Maine Lobster Ravioli with Basil Bisque Cream. I chose Burgundy Escargots in garlic butter and parsley — absolutely fantastic.

The menu, hand-written daily, was presented on a large board brought to our table to stand like artwork on an easel. Oh my, what a difficult choice! Thank goodness, we would be sharing the entrees as well. The most popular were the Roast Rack of Lamb with Thyme and Garlic, the Maine Lobster Ravioli, and the Seared Lake Superior Whitefish with Mustard Sauce. Chef Lair likes to incorporate local ingredients, as well as French mainstays such as poached Medjool dates with raisins in Perigord served with fruit-and-nut bread.

Before dessert arrived, Mr. Bruggemans suggested we take a break from the table, and indulge in a special treat. We piled into his SUV and he drove us up a steep, winding rock road, overlooking a valley of lights. In a covered outdoor setting, Chef Lair was catering a French banquet for 32. The setting: the magnificent Burgee’s home so handsomely photographed in the high-end luxury magazine, Palm Springs Modern.

We returned to Le Vallauris for dessert — another mouth-watering and difficult choice. I thought I would try something light: perhaps a trio of sherbets with coconut, peach and raspberries? But then again, I love Crème Brûlée. Why not? It has been a long time since Paris…instead it was Tarte Tatin a’ la mode and coffee. A girl can change her mind.
Au revoir!

Le Vallauris is located at 385 W. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs, CA 92262. Tel: (760) 325-7602.

Carmel-by-the (Palm) Desert?

What would Southern California’s sophisticated desert be without exotic and outrageously costly artworks? Palm Desert or "Carmel-by-the-Desert," as the tourism brochure proclaims, is "a city where art and architecture are its main features."

Nancy, our art-walk guide led us on a one-mile stroll down El Paseo where a grassy center divide displays no less than 18 bold and original modern sculptures. "Charger," an eight-foot, brilliant-red steed by artist Ted Gall, originally produced for the 1994 El Paseo Sculpture Exhibition, champions the entrance at Highways 74 and 111. Further down El Paseo, Brad Howe’s deep yellow contemporary El Chupacabra, captures the mystical creature "The Goat Sucker."

In 1986 Palm Desert was the first city in Riverside County to create a public art program with emphases on creating an artistic harmony between the buildings, land and open spaces, as well as bringing art to everyday life. They have succeeded. The city is beautifully laid out with wide avenues, attractive buildings, gracious homes, and impressive desert landscapes.

Art in another form is expensive and abundant in boutiques, pricey galleries and stylish dress shops. Displaying an elegant black gown, one owner said the luminous hand-sewn and exquisitely tailored gown was locally made. No need to ask its price. She quickly added that expensive gowns are a necessity for the Palm Desert women who regularly attend numerous charitable balls where black-tie is understood.

A walk down El Paseo makes for an entertaining and exciting afternoon. I spotted a handsome painting that would fit nicely in my living room. The cost? A mere $85,000!

Palm Desert

A Spa to Dream For

It seems that spa-going has become de rigueur in the cultured lives of upper-income middle-aged baby-boomers. And what a decadent pleasure — or is it a luxurious necessity?

Next, we visited Desert Springs, A JW Marriott Resort and Spa. Sadly, we had no time to participate in a pleasing ritual of exercise of balance, strength and vitality. Instead we were given an intimate view of this life-rewarding ritual.
The spa’s brochure further claimed, "Where the search for relaxation ends, and the process of rejuvenation begins. Where you can detach from the cares of the world and unite body, mind and spirit. Where you can linger just an hour or two yet feel the benefits for the entire day or longer."

Had I stayed, the Rasayana Ritual would be perfect for me — an Herbal wrap, Shirodhara and Abhyanga Massage for two hours at $305. Maybe I would add a Self Celebration, spa manicure and pedicure, make-up application and split of Champagne for two hours at $135. Oh, to be pampered!

These to-dream-for body pleasures are presented in softly lighted rooms of the palest coral and beige with burnished wood paneling. Spa room assignments are recognizable by subtle door plates with names like Rosemary, Thyme, Sage and Country Garden Flowers. We all wished to linger there, but it was time for yet another meal: lunch!

Desert Springs, A JW Marriott Resort and Spa

Lakeview at the Marriott Restaurant

It’s expensive, yet feels family-comfortable. With a flourish of goodwill and youthful enthusiasm, Chef Shaun Crymble presented an ambitious bar menu which lists three dozen wines and champagnes, as well as beer (domestic, import and premium). Remember, this if for the affluent baby-boomer. After pouring both red and white wine for the table, we enjoyed starter trays of Calamari, Chicken Quesadilla and Shrimp, followed by the Soup of the Day (Chicken Noodle with roasted chicken and fresh veggies). Specialties included Beer-Battered Fish & Chips, and Pasta Carbonara made with Bucatini pasta. After consuming so much excellent food, I selected a Cobb Salad while my friend had Prince Edward Island Steamed Mussels with white wine, garlic, fresh herbs and steamed tomatoes.
Dare I indulge in yet another creamy high-caloric desert? You bet! I enjoyed the Coconut Crème Caramel with fresh pineapple, chutney and passion fruit coulis.

Lakeview at the Marriott, 74-855 Country Club Dr. Palm Desert, CA 92260 Tel: (760) 341-2211

Oh, the Life of Privilege!

The warmth of the desert sun, the brilliance of the night sky, and the fragrance of the citrus trees and orange blossoms were calling my name. For delicious ambience and the ultimate in sophistication, Desert Style, our final destination was the renowned La Quinta Hotel & Club.

The sun had quietly slipped over the mountains upon my arrival. Its fading glow sparkled over this grand resort. Pro golfers and golf enthusiasts were hurriedly registering and checking starting times. Causally dressed women arrived in jazzy foreign cars, and young attendants were quick to offer service.
Exhausted by four days of gourmet food and wine (as well as endless desert driving), I quickly found my room, a movie-star cottage seeped in ‘30s ambience. I loved the basket of fresh fruit, crackers and Babybel Cheese that soon arrived, the raised fireplace, sloping wood-beamed ceilings, authentic Gladding, McBean patterned tiles of the walk-in shower, sink and mini bar. On the front porch, a faded-blue Adirondack chair completed the essence of old wealth and warm, masterful decor.

Come to think of it, this is a resort visited by presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, and many others of note. There were however, no Republican ghosts on my watch. I grew-up in a hillside Spanish home with similar architectural features, and old memories enhanced my stay at La Quinta Resort.

After four days and evenings of sumptuous gourmet delights, Merlot, Chardonnay and creamy deserts, my body clock had finally quit. I propped myself up in the most comfortable and luxuriously soft bed I had ever slept in…and missed dinner.

In the lounge of the Azur dinning room, a live pianist entertained guests who had come for La Quinta Resort’s acclaimed seafood and French-California specials. Had I awoken, I probably would have gone to the Adobe Grill for regional Mexican cuisine, a jumbo margarita and guacamole made tableside.

As it happened, the next morning I arose early with anxious thoughts about the traffic I’d face on my return drive home. Reluctantly, I closed my cottage door, nodded at the little blue chair and hurried to La Quinta’s Coffee Market. You guessed it: I grabbed a Starbucks coffee, yogurt and a sandwich-to-go. Turning north/west on Eisenhower Drive, a brilliant sun had painted the Santa Rosa Mountains, completing the beautiful landscape of La Quinta’s gracious resort. What a fantastic trip! I will return.

La Quinta Resort & Club, 49-499 Eisenhower Drive, La Quinta, CA 92253. Tel: (800) 598-3828.


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