A Perfect Weekend in Palm Desert
Ever need a vacation from your vacation?
Few things are more exciting than taking your family to enjoy a few days at Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, and quenching your film addiction with a full day at Universal Studios. Others might prefer a trip to San Diego to party on the beach, and get soaked by wild sea animals and thrilling rides at SeaWorld.
When I went to Disneyland, I was tickled by the excitement radiating from the wriggling kids straining to bolt from their parents’ hands. All the music, rides and colors come together for families and couples who want to share an unforgettable memory. It’s really tough to beat.
But once the amusement parks are visited, and you’re thinking that you’ve earned some pampering and lower-volume fun, you’re ready for a trip to Palm Desert.
Located two hours’ drive from Disneyland, or two hours from San Diego, Palm Desert offers a getaway full of sunshine, sports, hiking, adventure, animals, and world-class shopping and dining. How much adventure? Within city limits, it has 40 miles of marked hiking trails and more than 50 miles of designated bike trails, 150 tennis courts, and 32 golf courses.
I stayed at the Desert Springs JW Marriott Resort & Spa — a sprawling resort with spectacular views of the surrounding Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains. Room rates are within the realm of reason, starting at $139 for a standard room with a balcony. The resort also offers numerous packages that incorporate unlimited golf, tickets to Knott’s Soak City waterpark and numerous room and spa upgrades.
There’s plenty to do on the property including swimming pools, lakes, an 18-hole putting course, basketball courts, lawn croquet and biking. It’s also a place for those serious about tennis and golf.
Tennis: Desert Springs’ tennis center has 20 courts with all three surfaces (clay, grass, and hard). Its Peter Burwash International program has activities for tennis players of any skill level, and even lawn games for the non-player. The tennis center has been named one of the “10 Greatest U.S. Tennis Resorts” by Tennis Magazine, and one of the "Top 100 Resorts in the World" by Racquet Magazine.
Golf: Desert Springs has two Ted Robinson championship courses (the Palm and Valley courses). Here you’re playing amidst breathtaking desert and mountain views and are encountering some of the most challenging holes in the Coachella Valley. I liked the GPS system in each golf cart. It has a digital readout that shows how many yards fall between the golfer and the pin; and one can order lunch or a cold beverage from their cart. Of course the GPS didn’t help me find my errant drives, but that’s another story. Desert Spring also has an all-natural turf, 18-hole putting course – a nice change from all those nasty, scuffed, mini-putt surfaces at your local strip mall.
You don’t have to stay at the Marriott to enjoy phenomenal golf. The city-owned Desert Willow Golf Resort has two championship courses: The Mountain View course for a relaxing round, or Firecliff, which was voted the Best Public Access Golf Course by Desert Golf Magazine. Desert Willow’s design uses desert landscapes and indigenous plants, and relies on reclaimed water to keep the fairways green.
Since most folks can't golf or play tennis 24/7, my top choices for activities to round out the perfect weekend include a jeep tour, the tramway, and reveling in the shopping and art downtown.
Desert Adventures offers Jeep tours (starting at $99) that ramble over a 1,000-acre parcel of desert land directly on and surrounding the San Andreas Fault. Over a three-hour tour (cue Gilligan’s Island music) naturalist guides explain how the tortured landscape came to be, and then guide hikes through box and slot canyons and up hills of fault gauge to a breathtaking overlook of the entire Coachella Valley.
At Joshua Tree National Park (a 40-minute drive from Desert Willow) you can walk up to the Dr. Seuss-like trees and pretend that you’re posing for a U2 album cover. It has 12 self-guided nature trails that bring visitors close to wildlife, wildflowers, breathtaking scenery, Indian dwellings and climbable rock formations and the famous Skull Rock. If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter some of the 250 bighorn sheep that live in the park. It’s hot, so for the love of Pete, bring water before going on any hikes or drives.
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway takes guests up the 10-minute, 2.5-mile ride, which is the gateway to 50 miles of hiking trails in Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness area (cost $23.95 for adults, $16.95 for kids and $21.95 for seniors). One 5.5-mile trail takes hikers to the peak of San Jacinto, the second tallest mountain in southern California. For the less ambitious, there’s a pleasant one-mile nature walk through picturesque Long Valley, located just behind the Mountain Station. It is nearly 40 degrees cooler at the top, so you’ll want to pack along a sweater or light jacket.
Downtown, the upscale shopping strip El Paseo is referred to as the Rodeo Drive of the Desert. It hosts independent and national boutiques; restaurants; and more than 20 galleries all in the span of one mile. While I don’t have the means to darken the door of stores such as Tiffany, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Oilily, others love to peruse how the other 1 percent lives.
One of the city’s finest aspects is its devotion to public art. Palm Desert’s Art in Public Places Program has spurred 150 installations since its inception. In 1986, it passed a public art ordinance, which requires an art fee to be paid after construction of a building. The city offers free, guided tours of its public art collection on the second Saturday of each month (except July and August), featuring artwork at the Palm Desert Public Library, in the Civic Center Park and of the El Paseo Invitational Exhibition. Reservations are not required. Wear comfortable shoes, bring a bottle of water, and come prepared for a one-hour walking tour.
Finally, stop and enjoy the animals at Living Desert — a 450-acre museum, zoo, botanical garden, and nature preserve. It hosts animals from desert habitats around the world, from giraffes to local coyotes and frogs. My favorite was the coupling leopards, who were simply trying to have a good time in spite of the cheering crowd. The cost is $17.25 for adults, $8.25 for kids and $15.75 for seniors.
Palm Desert’s two closest airports:
Palm Springs International Airport (PSP), a scenic 25-minute drive from Palm Desert, is a newly remodeled airport hosting a number of scheduled carriers including Alaska, American and America West.
Ontario International Airport (ONT), just over an hour west of Palm Desert, Ontario International Airport is a mid-size airport that boasts an extensive schedule of flights from major carriers including United, Alaska, Southwest, Delta, Continental, American and others.