INDIO, Calif. — It's fairly safe to say that most humans have never seen a live polo match for one of the following reasons:
1) They don't know anyone personally who answers to "Your Royal Highness";
2) They don't own jodhpurs and riding boots and don't carry a crop to breakfast;
3) They have nicknames like "Butch" instead of "Bitsy" or "Trip";
4) They know how to hang out but have no idea how to hobnob;
5) They don't have a clue as to where the nearest polo field is.
They don't know about the Pacific Coast Polo Center in Indio, which claims to be the largest polo complex in the country, and is the scourge of people who drink tea with their pinkies up. I found that out on a recent weekend in the desert, on a short pilgrimage to check out the world's oldest equestrian sport in its Southern California habitat. The result was a weekend of both excitement and relaxation, tradition and history. And, well . . . one princess.
Several days before my trip, after a bit of calling around, I was given the name and phone number of Kathy Batchelor, who is in charge of what is known as the coaching--or instructional--leagues at the polo center. Yes, indeed, she said, the polo season was underway in Indio. In fact, it began in early October and would end in the last days of April. On the weekends, she said, matches are generally held at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. on fields at either the Eldorado Polo Club or the adjacent Empire Polo Club (the two have merged to form the Pacific Coast Polo Center).
Come on out, she said. Bring a picnic and some sun block.
I decided to stay at La Quinta Hotel and Resort, about four miles south of the polo complex, in the town of La Quinta. The resort is legendary in the desert, dating from 1926 and laid out in a series of cottages rather than in a central hotel complex. It wasn't cheap at about $200 per night for a single, but the surroundings make you forget the tariff. Snug against the foothills of the Santa Rosa Mountains, the resort consisted originally of several small adobe cottages and has grown to include dozens of detached rooms. I was given one of the newer ones--clean, roomy and efficient but fairly generic. (I checked out one of the older \o7 casitas \f7 during the weekend and it, too, was fairly institutional inside.)
However, my room was adjacent to the cottage known as the "Eisenhower Villa," where Ike and Mamie spent many vacations.
The 45-acre grounds are covered with mature plants and dozens of citrus trees, and make for fine strolling. But the central attraction of the place is the plaza area, where the main lobby and lounge, three restaurants, a cantina, several specialty shops and a lovely terraced garden with a cascading fountain are located.
However, my first stop on arrival was not the resort, but the polo complex, where I found Batchelor keeping time at a match being played on Empire field No. 1. I was surprised to be able to pull my car onto the grass next to the small folding grandstand, and further surprised to find that there were only about a half a dozen spectators there.
I was told that the turnout is not atypical, the result being a fairly incestuous crowd of horsing types, all of whom seem to know each other but are happy to have visitors drop by. Batchelor, for one, was encyclopedic with polo information. When I remarked on the carpet-like condition of the field, she explained that all 15 fields were regularly seeded, mowed, rolled flat and \o7 vacuumed \f7 in order to remove all traces of extraneous grass to allow the ball to roll truly.
Players are rated from negative-goal players (beginners) to 10-goal players (the best in the world), and the horsemanship is often superb. So is the view. From the north sideline of Empire field No. 1, it consists of rows of date palms backed by the stark Santa Rosa Mountains, a serene backdrop to an often frantic game.
Batchelor said she and some other polo folks would be doing their eating and drinking that evening at one of several haunts along a stretch of California 111: Vicky's of Santa Fe, located in Indian Wells, not far from the La Quinta Resort. I showed up there a bit early, ordered a drink in the rectangular bar area and took a look at the menu. It was a set menu, with prescribed fish, shrimp, lamb, chicken and beef dishes accompanied by a short list of sides, but a couple seated next to me assured me it was all excellent.
My next stop, the Cliffhouse, on California 111, is set into the side of a huge rock outcropping and is longer on atmosphere than cuisine. My \o7 coulotte\f7 steak was adequate but no more, with sides of mashed potatoes and vegetables. The bar crowd was friendly, however, and there were a few polo photos high on one wall.