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Weekend Escape: Palm Springs

The Way It Was : A Few Peaceful Oases Reminiscent of Days Gone By

May 12, 1996|SHARON BOORSTIN | Boorstin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

PALM SPRINGS — Today, the name evokes images of glitzy 500-room hotels with 36-hole golf courses and rows of night-lighted tennis courts . . . of lathe-and-plaster condos and restaurants stretched shoulder to shoulder along California 111 all the way to Indio. But there was a kinder, gentler time, before World War II, when Palm Springs was no more than a quiet desert retreat, where Angelenos weekended in unpretentious, little palm-tree-shaded bungalow motels, and "took the waters" in the mineral springs that gave the town its name. My husband, Paul, and I are not big fans of the Palm Springs that exists today. We went there recently, hoping to find some remnant of what it used to be.

Warning: Never begin what is supposed to be a relaxing weekend during rush hour. Unfortunately, Paul and I missed our Friday afternoon launch window and found ourselves stuck in a sluggish river of red taillights on Interstate 10; to make matters worse, it started to rain. A drive, which under normal conditions would have taken two hours, stretched to 3 1/2. But we were cheered up by dinner at the Wheel Inn. It's the truck stop 10 miles or so before the Palm Springs exit, with the big "EAT" sign adjacent to dinosaur statues.

The Wheel Inn is about as authentic a truck stop as you'll find in Southern California. The knotty-pine walls are covered with mounted bulls' horns and truck company emblems, and country music lilts from the speakers. We found the service at the Wheel Inn fast and friendly, the portions generous and the prices cheap. Paul had the Trucker's Special, Swiss steak smothered in gravy, along with mashed potatoes, biscuits and salad; I had Marie's Salad, a bowl of crisp greens, grilled chicken strips, avocado and pickles (pickles?) that somehow worked. To top off our satisfying meal of road food, we shared an enormous slice of luscious, stick-to-your-ribs peanut-butter cream pie.

The rain had stopped, and as we pulled off the freeway onto California 111, which snakes through the desert at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains, the sand eerily looked as white as the snow on the mountaintops. We made our way to a quiet residential section of old Palm Springs and the Villa Royale, an inn that was created in 1982 by stringing together three neighboring '30s-era bungalow motels. Owner Robert Lee laid red bricks over the old concrete patios; knocked out stucco walls to make room for French doors; added red Mediterranean tiles to the roofs, tiled fountains and Doric columns to the courtyards; and filled in the 3 1/2-acre grounds with more than 100 palm and citrus trees, along with roses and bougainvillea. To further the look of a European-style bed-and-breakfast inn, Lee decorated each of the 31 rooms and suites with antiques and knickknacks gathered in his European travels.

I had reserved a one-bedroom suite that turned out to have vaguely French decor, from the Provencal ceramics and the art nouveau-style tulip chandelier to the bird's-eye-view map of Paris on the wall. Aside from the silk flowers and the fake ficus tree, we found our accommodations attractive and cozy. In fact, the low ceilings and odd angles of the rooms, plus the tiny kitchenette with its old-fashioned mini-fridge and mini-stove, lent our suite almost a dollhouse feel. The inn's service was warm and personalized, and compared to the going rate for suites in Palm Springs' new cookie-cutter resorts, the price was right--$150 a night, reduced to $135 with an AAA discount. (Rooms at Villa Royale run from $75 to $250 in high season,the latter for a suite with a fireplace and private Jacuzzi.)

The next morning, the sky was overcast, and we decided to explore Palm Springs' namesake mineral spring. Ironically, the oldest attraction to lure visitors here is located adjacent to its newest--the Spa Hotel Casino, which was opened last year by the Agua Caliente band of the Cahuilla tribe, which also owns the mineral spring. I took a tour of the hotel's spa, where a few women were soaking in individual tubs filled with hot mineral water. (It emerges from the earth at a temperature of 106 degrees and smells of sulfur.) It is clear that the popularity of the mineral spring has been overshadowed by that of the casino. Inside the smoky (and some nonsmoking) rooms, the slot machines and blackjack tables were as busy as those in Las Vegas.

But I learned that there is another natural spring in Palm Springs--a cold spring--which is also owned by the Cahuilla. Hoping to find it more unspoiled, we picked up some snacks for a picnic and drove 20 minutes to the rugged, boulder-strewn foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains and, at the south end of South Palm Canyon Drive, Indian Canyons.

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