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Palm Springs trying for a comeback

June 25, 1989|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

PALM SPRINGS — It's the Sonny & Share Show. In his role as mayor, Sonny Bono is flagging down balloonists, bicyclists, race-car drivers, marathon runners and conventioneers--or anyone else he can dissuade from passing up his desert domain for Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells or La Quinta, destinations that are siphoning off an audience once enjoyed exclusively by Palm Springs.

By sharing Palm Springs with vacationers, Cher's former sidekick is attempting a comeback for the desert resort. The problem is, productions being staged by other communities are snuffing out Sonny's star. And to quote from a popular ballad, it's only just begun.

Developer Bill Bone is preparing the scenario for a mega-resort by turning two square miles of sandscape in Indian Wells into an oasis featuring fountains, waterfalls, lagoons, major hotels and a lake with 10 miles of shoreline.

Only the Matterhorn and a Mississippi paddle-wheeler will be missing.

This is to be no mirage. Not with millions of gallons of water flushing against beaches and coves in a scene reminiscent of a travel agent's South Seas poster.

If all this has the familiar ring of those enormous mega-resorts developed by Hawaii's own Walt Disney, Chris Hemmeter, it's no coincidence. Hemmeter has taken on the task of designing the desert hotels with lagoons, waterfalls, fountains and ponds.

Presently Sunterra, which is the name given to the new resort, is drier than a slice of the Sahara. Bone intends to remedy this with an infusion of $1.3 billion. Twenty thousand palm trees will be trucked in. Islands will rise from the 150-acre lake. Five golf courses will turn the desert green. And scattered across the terrain will be three hotels--one with 1,625 rooms--plus a health spa that the developer says will dwarf La Costa's.

At Sunterra it will be difficult to determine if one is vacationing in the South Seas or somewhere along the sunny Mediterranean.

Sidewalk cafes like those found in Portofino will line the waterfront, and vacationers will shop in a village crowded with clubs, cafes, bars and bazaars.

Hotels will resemble European palaces, Mediterranean villas and a California mission. One will rise on an island; tropical birds will nest on another.

If this begins to sound like a fantasy, that's precisely what Bone (and Hemmeter) have in mind. Their lake would swallow Disney's at Epcot Center. At Sunterra, guests will be delivered on cocktail cruises aboard a 90-foot boat, New Orleans jazz will spill from one club and country and Western from another. Waterfalls will tumble into swimming pools with water slides, and a campanile will rise over a village with the Moorish charm of old Tangier.

What this means is competition for Sonny Bono.

While Bone is busy with his development in Indian Wells, the sprawling PGA West Resort at La Quinta is to feature three golf courses, a 1,000-room hotel, 60 tennis courts, homes, condos and a spa nearly the size of the White House.

Down the road where Dwight Eisenhower got in his licks on the links, dozens of new Spanish-style casitas have boosted the room count to 600 in a $45-million expansion at the venerable La Quinta Hotel. La Quinta remains a gem, a 45-acre enclave that harks back to the golden era of Hollywood when film stars lined up at the door--Bette Davis, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn.

In the interim, La Quinta has lost none of its charm. Guests still gather in the lounge, with its deep sofas, beamed ceiling, the lazy ticking of a grandfather clock and the fragrance of burning mesquite.

Outside, a harpist along with a classical guitarist play for romantics. Flush against the Santa Rosa Mountains, La Quinta features three championship golf courses, 30 tennis courts and 23 swimming pools. In a day of high-rise mania, low-rise La Quinta rates at the very least five stars for service, five hearts for romance.

Other traffic passing through Palm Springs is being siphoned off by Marriott's $300-million Desert Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Desert. While gondolas cruise to the lobby with its immense atrium, one can't help asking: Is this Venice, Italy, or Palm Desert, U.S.A.?

Fish the size of small sharks dart through the lagoon, and a player piano turns out ragtime tunes. It's obvious that this is not the little desert inn Hollywood once idolized. Indeed, the Desert Springs Resort is a showplace with a dozen restaurants and snack bars serving everything from sushi to steak tartare.

Its perimeter takes in three miles of shoreline, 16 tennis courts and 36 holes of golf. The resort is spread across 420 acres, with 27 acres devoted to water, including the lake in the lobby.

Swans cruise alongside flamingos, and flamingos cruise past three swimming pools, one with a white-sand beach. Doormen gussied up like French Foreign Legionnaires lend a hand at the door, and airport arrivals are picked up by limousine.

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