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WEEKEND ESCAPE

In Palm Desert, riding out a wave of steamy heat

At Marriott's Shadow Ridge resort, nice pools, air conditioning and an off-season discount ease the discomfort.

August 29, 2004|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

Palm Desert — Odd as it is, I've always enjoyed the desert in the summer.

When I was a boy, my family made its annual reverse "Grapes of Wrath" trip each summer from California to Oklahoma to visit relatives, driving across the scorching Arizona and New Mexico highways in our Buick. Memories mostly involve stopping for grape Nehi sodas and swimming in Travelodge pools at night.

This year, my family and I watched the Oakland A's play the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants during spring training and found the games remarkably pleasant, even in the dry, 100-plus heat of Phoenix.

That said, here's a tip if you are planning a summer desert trip: Spend a few minutes with the Weather Channel first.

Our recent family weekender to Palm Desert showed that even the arid Coachella Valley can get hit with a burst of stifling humidity.

Tropical moisture from the Pacific turned what should have been tolerable heat into an unpleasant steam room. The local paper, the Desert Sun, called it "a monsoon season" and suggested "staying inside when possible."

We could have done that at home. Fortunately, a resort with two nice pools and an off-season price eased the discomfort.

The 254-room Marriott's Shadow Ridge is part of the hotel company's Vacation Club time-share division. With plans to expand to nearly 1,000 rooms, it's set to become the company's largest time share in the U.S.

Even if you have no interest in buying a time share, the development is noteworthy: Guest rooms not occupied by owners are rented out on a nightly basis, just like a traditional hotel, through Marriott central reservations.

That's good news for many, because the Palm Springs area has become a popular summer weekend trip despite temperatures that regularly hit triple digits. The dirt-cheap bargains once abundant are increasingly harder to find, at least for Friday and Saturday nights.

Gary Sherwin, vice president of marketing at the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority, attributed the change to the area's transition from the days when hotels were owned by sole proprietors who often closed for the summer so they could go on vacation.

A boom in large-scale, year-round resorts that started about 20 years ago, Sherwin said, led to the aggressive marketing that has lured people to the area even in the summer, if only for a weekend.

"There are some hotels that sell out even in the middle of summer," Sherwin said. "They do a strong weekend business."

If you don't mind carrying your own bags and not being able to order room service at 11 p.m., a time share can be a smart -- and affordable -- alternative.

For $159 a night plus tax, we had a large one-bedroom suite, the equivalent of which probably would have cost $200 or more at a conventional hotel, even during the off-season.

It had a king bed, a sofa bed for the kids, a kitchen, a fireplace (that for obvious reasons we didn't use), daily housekeeping service and a few minor flaws, including a broken lock on a sliding door between the bedroom and the bathroom. The air conditioner, which had to be on all day, was a little noisy.

A spacious balcony overlooked a golf course designed by Nick Faldo, the six-time majors winner from England. (This place also houses the impressive-sounding Faldo Golf Institute.)

The room was a five-minute walk from the resort's pools. A complimentary pool shuttle ran every half hour, had we wanted it.

Nearby was a newly planned section humming with construction. The noise was at times annoying, but guests could take comfort in looking at the workers and knowing there were others more miserable in the heat.

Other time-share players in the region that rent to nonowners include Club Intrawest (www.clubintrawest.com/hotels), Club Sunterra (www.sunterra.com; click "The Americas," then "go rental!" ) and Westin (www.starwoodvo.com/rentals), which has a big property in Rancho Mirage.

One tip: If you try your luck online, watch out for unexpected fees. One property offered a rate similar to what Shadow Ridge charges plus a $75 nonrefundable cleaning deposit for a two-night stay.

Time shares had been a turnoff for me because I envisioned having to attend mandatory est-like meetings where organizers won't unlock the doors until you agree to purchase two weeks of resort ownership a year.

At Shadow Ridge, it was a very soft sell -- just a letter waiting on the kitchen counter inviting us to a 90-minute sales pitch and tour. Points toward Marriott's frequent-guest program or a gift certificate for the resort's restaurant, spa or golf course were the incentives. We passed.

Big pool, short food line

The highest temperature I saw was 109, although the local paper said highs were to reach 116 in some places.

With that kind of heat, coupled with the humidity, we planned a simple Saturday, starting with pancakes and waffles at the IHOP in Rancho Mirage and returning to the pool for most of the day.

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