California Springs Back

In Desert Hot Springs, Soak Up Another Era

By Laura Randall

Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 4, 2006; Page P10


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Giant palm trees cast shadows across the water as the night sky darkened into a crystalline, star-speckled masterpiece. Lulled by the quiet and the film-noir ambiance of our hotel's 1950s-style courtyard, we lingered in the Jacuzzi's soft, warm embrace far longer than we had planned.

So this is what chilling in the desert is all about.

It took some time to reach this blissful hot tub moment during our May weekend in Desert Hot Springs, Calif. But my husband and I were ultimately happy about the decision to forgo Palm Springs for a change and check out this town of about 20,000, only 15 miles north of its swankier neighbor and about a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles.

Despite its Chamber of Commerce billing as "the Spa City," Desert Hot Springs doesn't instantly make one think of 400-thread-count linens and indulgent massages. It has more abandoned storefronts and auto body shops than four-star restaurants and luxury resorts. If Palm Springs is martinis and cosmopolitans, Desert Hot Springs is Midori sours and Singapore slings ($3 happy hour specials at Sidewinder, the local watering hole). While Palm Springs has experienced a revival in recent years, Desert Hot Springs has remained pretty much what it was in the 1940s and '50s -- a dusty desert outpost with mom-and-pop motels and roads that dead-end in tumbleweeds and brown foothills.

That's starting to change (real estate signs and new tract developments are everywhere), but the town is still quieter and less expensive than Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and other Coachella Valley cities. Our huge poolside room at the Lido Palms was $100 a night; a comparable room in Palm Springs would have gone for about twice as much. A filling dinner for two with cocktails won't set you back more than $40 at most restaurants, and I discovered a small grocery store selling eight locally grown avocados for a dollar.

While many locals claim to love the slow pace, they also can't hide their excitement about the scheduled opening of the town's first Starbucks. The expectation is that it will lead to bigger and better things, such as a mall, movie theaters and maybe a recreational park with a water slide, explained Sidewinder owner Rula Avramidis, who's lived in Desert Hot Springs for 25 years.

"We've been pushing for these things for years," she said.

Yet Desert Hot Springs has something most of its neighbors don't -- natural, odorless mineral springs that bubble under four square miles of the city. (Palm Springs, as its names indicates, also has a natural mineral spring, but it's on a small parcel of land owned by the Cahuilla Indians, the area's original inhabitants, and is not as accessible or abundant as the springs up the hill.) Hot and cold aquifers feed the pools and Jacuzzis of just about every hotel, from the 50-room Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel, which lets day-trippers take a dip for a few dollars, to the handful of circa-1950 motels that have recently been renovated and restored to their former mid-century fineness.

The town's tap water has won five medals over the years at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting competition in West Virginia, a fact not lost on the small-hotel owners who market a stay here as the ultimate Zen experience. In recent years, new owners have turned abandoned or rundown one-story motels into boutique-style retreats and added nice-but-not-over-the-top touches like landscaped gardens, Frette linens and poolside pitchers of cucumber water. Many don't allow children or pets and are tucked away in residential areas with no signs out front. Few have more than a dozen rooms, most of which are clustered around a small pool or two.

Other places, like the clothing-optional Living Waters Spa and the Beat Hotel, where the pool gets second billing to the vintage typewriters and original William S. Burroughs sketches, have an independent vibe that might not be embraced as easily in mainstream resort towns.

Whatever their hotel choice, most visitors come here for the hot springs. Save for a museum devoted to one of the town's original settlers and a couple of hiking trails, there's little to do unless you use one of the hotels as a base for exploring Joshua Tree National Park (30 miles away) or the western Mojave (about 75 miles away).

"There's not much going on, unless you like thrift stores and supermarkets," Jill Kroesen, a former New Yorker who runs the Lido Palms, warned me when I booked our room. When visitors ask her to recommend activities, she steers them toward Joshua Tree or Tahquitz Canyon, a hiking spot and historical site on the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation in Palm Springs.

In the summer, when the temperatures reach triple digits, lounging by the pool is your only rational option. A caveat: If you pick a small hotel, be prepared to get to really know your fellow guests. When we arrived at the Lido Palms, half a dozen boisterous people had taken over the biggest pool and barbecue area, and we had no interest in joining them with our stack of magazines and introspective moods. Those who prefer anonymity might want to consider a larger resort like Two Bunch Palms, a 52-room retreat on 250 acres with a full-service day spa and rooms with private patios. The handful of other hotels that bill themselves as resorts have more of a Motel 6 feel.

In early May, the afternoon sun was fierce enough to send John and me scurrying to the air-conditioned sanctuary of our room, but it soon eased into a pleasantly mild evening. The town's other advantage over its neighbors is its elevation, about 900 feet above the valley. Panoramic views of the San Gorgonio Mountain and Mount San Jacinto, snow-capped even in late spring, and the Coachella Valley follow you wherever you go.

One of the best views of the valley is from Cabot's Pueblo Museum, an innovative Hopi-inspired home with 35 rooms that resembles a scattered pile of cardboard boxes. Built by the pioneer Cabot Yerxa, who settled here in 1913, the structure houses an impressive collection of Native American pottery, early-20th-century photographs and a 43-foot Indian monument carved from a 750-year-old sequoia by self-taught sculptor Peter Wolf Toth. Admission to the museum -- which, alas, is only open October through May (private tours can be arranged at other times) -- includes a guided tour and the motherly affections of a ticket taker who could pass for Carol Channing.

We discovered another good view of the valley from Hacienda Boulevard, an east-west street near our hotel. From here, we watched the sky fade to pale pink and the lights over in Palm Springs begin to twinkle in a beckoning it's-Friday-night way. We were too mellowed from our earlier Jacuzzi soaks to seriously consider going out, though. Instead, we ordered takeout from Capri, a 30-year-old dimly lit Italian restaurant that could have been airlifted out of South Philadelphia.

Later that night in the Lido's cozy courtyard, we shared homemade cannelloni and an antipasto that would satisfy Tony Soprano. The other hotel guests had scattered to restaurants or were holed up in their rooms, leaving us by ourselves to contemplate one last soak before turning in and letting our desert getaway fade to black.

Laura Randall last wrote for Travel about hiking in Los Angeles.