BORREGO SPRINGS, Calif. — "I look around, and I think of Hawaii--the mountains, the breezes, the rainbows."
John Bell talking. He's the island-born golf pro at Rams Hill Country Club here.
His remark seemed strange, for we were smack in the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. But when I teed off, I saw what he meant. From the club's sloping fairways it's like gazing to Lanai from Kapalua or Kaanapali. There was even the ocean (a mirage, of course).
Borrego Springs is as far as you can go for a golf vacation and still be in San Diego County. A two-hour, 87-mile climbing, twisting drive from the San Diego airport (or a 15-minute flight), it is an oasis of calm with considerable charm and the trust of another age.
Along Christmas Circle in this neat little town, there's a stand with huge sacks of sweet, succulent grapefruit. Help yourself. Honor system--just drop a buck into the box.
Shops and restaurants have whimsical hours--opening according to their owner's moods. But if something catches your eye in the window of, say, the Silk Purse gift shop (often closed), just phone the owner to come down and open up. She's just five minutes away--no obligation.
Delightfully casual is the tempo. The town has a newspaper, published every other week. Social life used to revolve around the bowling alley, but it was turned into a grocery store, so now everyone meets at the post office.
Life was not always so peaceful. At the park's cool underground (take a sweater) visitor center, exhibits tell of the desert that for more than 100 years was a place of passage for travelers to Southern California. A year before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Capt. Juan Bautista de Anza of Spain (for whom the park is named) came through, leading a group of immigrants from Mexico in search of a better life. (They kept on going, and discovered San Francisco.)
Missionaries, soldiers, gold-seekers followed. And from ledges high in the desert's soaring mountains, bighorn sheep ( borrego in Spanish) kept a silent vigil. Half of the world's population of bighorns still live here.
In 1933 the desert and mountains became a state park, the largest (with half a million acres) in the continental United States. Because of the protection of state park status, the town of Borrego Springs will forever remain small.
Until a year ago the leading place to stay was the 50-year-old Casa del Zorro (House of the Fox). A collection of haphazard cottages, its winter rates are from $70 for a room, $100-$175 for a cottage. June through September rates are $45-$120.
A mile up the road are the new spiffy digs at Rams Hill Country Club. Patio homes for rent there have soft colors and stylish furnishings. A bedroom, bath and den is $80 ($55 in summer), but for $115-$170 ($75-$120 in summer) you can have the whole home, complete with coffeepot.
There's no maid service, no telephone, either, but you can trust the man at the gatehouse to get a message through (or out) if necessary.
Calling itself a "golf community," Rams Hill is being developed by the DiGiorgio Corp. that originally came to the desert to grow grapes. The golf course and clubhouse are open to all. There is a dress code: shirts and shoes must be worn at all times, no short shorts, no tank tops, no halters, no jogging suits or other "uniforms."
Way out here in the middle of nowhere, it comes as a surprise to discover that Bob Rosburg, one of golf's greats, is the director of golf. His wife, Eleanor, is the club's best woman player, holding a one handicap.
Greens fee is $40 in winter, $25 in summer, cart included. The course is a totally honest one; wide fairways, little rough, no tricks, no unfair (though there are plenty of them) traps. Practice your putting before starting out. Course architect Ted Robinson has molded greens that roll incredibly fast. Pro John Bell adds another tip: If the desert winds are up, swing easy, and take two more clubs than usual.
From June through September the course opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 1 p.m. and rests on Mondays and Tuesdays. Tee times are accepted five days in advance all year.
Seeing the Badlands
"It's a shame you're not staying long enough to see the Badlands," Bell told me.
It seemed like a strange remark. Did he mean some area of the golf course I'd missed? No. Just an infamous portion of the desert that can only be seen by a pine-jouncing Jeep ride.
But I did get to see the Badlands after all. In comfort, out the window of my SunAire flight back to San Diego. Like a colorless Grand Canyon it seemed, starkly dramatic and beautiful.
From the air, Rams Hill looked for all the world like a cinnamon doughnut with green frosting. The Hawaii look had disappeared--the mirage swallowed up by the desert.
Rams Hill Country Club, accommodations (800) 524-2800; pro shop (619) 767-5125.
Casa del Zorro, (619) 767-5323.
SunAire (it links Borrego Springs with San Diego, Los Angeles International, Ontario, Burbank, Palm Springs, Santa Barbara) (800) 472-4392.