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Poolside in Palm Springs


PALM SPRINGS — I hear America sloshing.

I smell chlorine and Coppertone. I see two-pieces, one-pieces, water wings, Ray Bans, loungers, lapsters, tanners, towel monitors, drinkers, smokers, fitness fiends, New Yorkers, Midwesterners and Nebraskans. I feel slick tile underfoot, ultraviolet rays on the brow, a stiff dry breeze raking across the date palms and luxury hotels of the Coachella Valley. Above rise the jagged San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains, their ridges so sharply defined that they look like a cardboard-cutout facsimile of a skyline. Now a murderous woman's voice wafts across the water.

"Get out of my sun," demands the voice.


It is peak season in America's swimming pool capital, where the winter sky hangs cloudless and spa water bubbles naturally from the earth. I am here, poolside, to see exactly what we've come to, poolwise, since that fateful day when the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians put up the first commercial bathhouse at a natural spring here 123 years ago.

In one very narrow sense, nothing has changed: At essentially the same site chosen by the Agua Caliente entrepreneurs in 1871, where Indian Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way now meet in downtown Palm Springs, the pink bulk of the Spa Hotel Resort & Mineral Springs looms five stories high against the sky. The owners of the Spa Hotel? The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, who bought the 30-year-old lodging and spa in 1992, hired a management company and, since reopening on Dec. 15, have once again been touting the restorative powers of a dip in mineral springs.

Otherwise, more or less everything has changed. Just in the municipality of Palm Springs, city planners this month counted 8,427 swimming pools, scores of them attached to hotels. That's roughly one pool for every five city residents, which the local movers and shakers assert is the highest pool-per-capita ratio in the country. The numbers are no doubt comparable, however, in the neighboring resort cities of Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Desert Hot Springs and Cathedral City.

And the pools are clearly getting used. When the Palm Springs convention bureau commissioned a study in 1989 to find out exactly what people do on their vacations in the area, only 21% of those surveyed named golf and just 10% named tennis. About 66% named swimming and tanning a figure surpassed only by the 75% who went shopping. Probably they were buying swimwear.

"Generally speaking, the quality of the pools here is as good or better than anywhere in the country," says Dick Leimkuhler, co-owner of Mirage WaterFeatures in Palm Desert.

"When you get outside of this area, they're still using some antiquated techniques."

They don't hold with antiquated techniques here. Most of the major resorts, for instance, have in recent years added misting systems, which lower summertime poolside temperatures by as much as 10 degrees by forcing water from special pipes at pressures of 800-1,000 pounds per square inch. The 21-acre Oasis Water Resort in Palm Springs closes for the winter, but from March through fall can boast of nine water slides, a 600-foot-long river inner-tube ride, and a beach lashed by artificial waves. Over at La Mancha Private Villas in Palm Springs, owner Ken Irwin is killing germs in his main pool with a fancy new electronic ionization system, which he says was devised under the auspices of NASA and may render chlorine obsolete. In another development that may have more to do with torts than technology, one may find water slides or steel sculptures or shorelines of imported Hawaiian sand at the hotel pools of greater Palm Springs, but one finds neither diving boards nor lifeguards.

One further result of all this hydro-sophistication is that no shrewdly positioned resort can be satisfied merely to possess a pool; it must have a pool with a personality that will beckon to some segment of the market: pools for grown-ups, pools for kids, epic pools, intimate pools--or pools with historic precedent, such as those of the Spa Hotel, in whose 104-degree bubbles my odyssey began.

In its early days, the first bathhouse in Palm Springs charged 25 cents a dip. Sally McManus, director-curator of the Palm Springs Historical Society, reports that management then maintained a pair of silty pools--one for men, one for women--sheltered by unpainted pine boards.

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