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Weekend Escape: Borrego Springs : In the midst of reddened cliffs, granite boulders and a silent landscape--an oasis

March 05, 1995|JIM SCHACHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Schachter is an editor for The Times' Business section. and

BORREGO SPRINGS — The first view of the Anza-Borrego Desert is dramatic in a way that seems almost impossibly stark to the city-dweller's eye.

Sixty-two miles from the freeway, after the twists and hills of California 79 and San Diego County highways 2 and 22, you climb to a mountain pass and then, as the road drops beneath you at an 8% grade, there is the desert, all exposed granite boulders and iron-reddened cliffs, deep-blue sky and surprising green scrub--huge and silent and empty.

Well, nearly empty. Scattered about the valley floor is the hamlet of Borrego Springs. Borrego is a simple little town: a few blocks of shops, real estate offices, banks and motels along a single street--Palm Canyon Drive--and, beyond that, a scattering of homes, from tiny, charming new adobes to weathered desert denizens.

We arrived in town around 1 p.m. on the Friday of Presidents' Weekend. Since Temecula, our daughters, ages 7 and 6, had been asking for lunch, but none of their familiar favorites were to be found after we left Interstate 15 behind. So after a quick survey of the handful of options along Palm Canyon, we settled on Sandrita's, a Mexican restaurant and meat market in The Mall (one of Borrego's two shopping centers), for chicken tacos and taquitos. The highlight of a very satisfying meal was a homemade salsa slightly smoky from tomatoes grilled over charcoal.

It was cool, in the high '60s with a thin layer of white clouds, and we had a few hours before check-in time at our hotel, so we backtracked a quarter-mile or so to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitors Center, which offers displays explaining the geology, history and climate of the 600,000-acre park.

All of which severely tested Ariel and Miriam's patience. All they really wanted to do was go swimming, but it still was too early to go to the hotel. We pulled water bottles and hats out of the car and wandered down the half-mile loop trail from the visitor's center. Just when it seemed the girls were going to turn as prickly as the varied cacti along the path, a jack rabbit hopped by. Ariel turned tracker, and both girls excitedly launched into a comparison of the desert hare with their pet rabbits at home. Maybe, my daughters allowed, this trip wouldn't be so horrible after all.

Five miles southeast of the main strip, we pulled up at La Casa del Zorro. The Copley family of San Diego, publishers of the Union-Tribune newspaper, has built the Casa into a Southwestern-style oasis of luxury in the otherwise low-key desert. The buildings are cool adobe, with red-tile roofs and rich wood detailing. A koi-filled brook winds through the property; flowers line the paths, and African daisies spread beds of orange along the roadsides.

Our suite was as attractive as any hotel room I've ever stayed in: high ceilings of rough-hewn, exposed beams; Mexican paving tiles on the floor of the large bathroom; a tub with Jacuzzi; a fireplace all ready to be lit; wet bar, and wood louvers on the doors leading out to a poolside patio.

All this beauty came at a price. The deluxe suite, at $210 a night, was the only accommodation available when we booked three weeks ahead. Presidents' Day, it turns out, is the start of the high season at La Casa, with the desert wildflowers due within a week or two. With considerable advance planning, a perfectly comfortable hotel room, either with a king-size bed or two queens, is available at $98 a night on weekends. Suites without fireplaces are $170 on weekends; for larger groups or greater luxury, there are casitas--stand-alone buildings, some with spas or pools--that go for $210 to $495 per night. All rates are lower on weekdays, and prices plunge as the temperatures climb after May 18, when a casita can be booked for as little as $85 a night weekdays.

We shared the family pool and spa outside our door with the guests in 23 other suites, but there were never more than 10 people in or around the water. (I know, because we were there a lot.) Just across the way was an identical pool-spa area set aside for adults. The main pool, next to the lobby and restaurant, features bar service, and there was a jazz group performing during Sunday brunch.

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