A fair game
Golfers love Palm Springs, and the architecture, desert landscapes and food are also winners
Dubbed the “golf capital of the world” and voted as 2012’s Top North American Golf Destination by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators, the Greater Palm Springs oasis in California is home to more than 100 lush courses and an average of 350 days of sunshine per year. This year I finally checked it off my bucket list.
Beyond the fairways, I discovered that Palm Springs has a unique vibe. Think Jetsons architecture, Frank Sinatra clones crooning in piano bars and a laid-back lifestyle that seduces both retirees and younger folks alike.
Back in the 1930s and ‘40s Palm Springs became the playground for the Hollywood set. In those days actors were pretty much “owned” by movie moguls and most contracts stipulated that movie stars had to be within two hours of Hollywood. Palm Springs fit the geographical requirement. Liberace, Lucille Ball, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope all partied in the Coachella Valley. As you drive around, you’ll notice streets and landmarks named in their honour.
Greater Palm Springs consists of nine cities (Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio and Coachella) tucked into the folds of the San Jacinto Mountains, across the desert floor and into the foothills of Joshua Tree National Park. Although the region is surrounded by sand, rock and tumbleweed, it’s far from desert-like because most of its cities sit on a giant aquifer.
What’s not to like? The ever-changing light on the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountain chains is enchanting and there’s no lack of creature comforts from hot mineral springs to cool cuisine and funky hotels. Plus, you don’t need a movie-star income to enjoy it all.
Where to golf
The Palms and Valley Courses at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa (tel: 888-538-9459; desertspringsresort.com). are set among 35 acres of rolling greens and fairways with sweeping views of the towering Santa Rosa Mountains. Both courses, originally designed by acclaimed architect Ted Robinson, were recently renovated by his son, Ted Jr., at a cost of US$3 million.
There are sparkling streams, lagoons and waterfalls, and Ted Robinson, dubbed “King of the Waterscapes,” lives up to his reputation on the Palms’ signature par-three 17th. To reach the island green, your ball must carry a series of waterfalls and boulder-lined pools that black swans and pink flamingos call home. To augment the challenge, the green sports three “magnetic” bunkers. There’s so much going on here you’ll have to harness all of your powers of concentration to score par.
Managed by Troon Golf and owned by the City of Indian Wells, the two courses at Indian Wells Golf Resort (tel: 760-346-4653; indianwellsgolfresort.com) may be the poshest “munis” you’ll ever play. Golfweek ranks both in the Top 20 Public Courses in California.
I started on the Celebrity Course, reopened in 2006 after a complete redo by Clive Clark. In addition to spectacular mountain views, the course features split-level lakes connected by waterfalls. Exquisite gardens frame every tee deck.
The Players Course, by designer John Fought, is a gem with sculpted bunkers reminiscent of Alister Mackenzie’s classics around Melbourne, Australia. Fought took advantage of the plentiful water supply, so bring lots of balls.
Time your fight against Fought late in the afternoon so you can relax in the massive new clubhouse filled with memorabilia and signed photos of celebrities. Vue restaurant’s gourmet offerings, such as lamb loin, roasted baby beets and cherry wild rice, are several notches above basic clubhouse grub.
Another “muni,” owned by the city of La Quinta, the Arnold Palmer Classic Course at SilverRock (tel: 760-777-8884; silverrock.org) was the former Bob Hope Classic home course from 2008 to 2011. From the tips at 7578 yards some forced carries look so long they might require a flight plan. Water and scrub areas will collect errant shots, as will numerous deep bunkers. The greens are massive, multitiered and were super quick on the day we played. This course demands respect and should be strategically managed from tees that are appropriate to your skill level.
When you approach the ritzy clubhouse at Mission Hills Country Club (tel: 760-324-9400; missionhills.com) in Rancho Mirage, you know you’ve arrived at a place of legendary fame. It’s the home of the Dinah Shore Tournament Course and the site of the first Major every year: the LPGA’s Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Mission Hills Country Club offers a unique experience with three diverse courses designed by some of the game’s greatest names. Diabolical Pete Dye’s Challenge Course opened in 1988. Arnold Palmer’s contribution is most members’ favourite. Desmond Muirhead designed the Dinah Shore Tournament Course in 1970. It holds the distinct honour of being rated the number one course in the Coachella Valley for many years and has hosted a Major Championship for more than four decades.
A bronze statue of Dinah Shore presides over the 18th green. Ms. Shore, a top golfer herself, used to reside on the first fairway. In 1988 Amy Alcott started the tradition of the winner of the now Kraft Nabisco Championship jumping into the pond beside the 18th island green. In later years, Annika Sorenstam celebrated with a cannonball and Lorena Ochoa took the plunge with her whole family.
La Quinta Resort & Club (tel: 760-564-4111; laquintaresort.com) boasts nine courses. Only members can play the private Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf and Citrus tracts, while the rest of us can take a swing at the PGA West’s Greg Norman, Nicklaus Tournament or Pete Dye’s TPC Stadium, Dunes and Mountain challenges.
The newest at PGA West, the only one in the Coachella Valley to be designed by “Shark” Norman, sports 102 bunkers and water on nine holes of the 7200-yard gem that has been described a truly “outback” experience. It was recently Audubon certified.
If you think the Norman course is difficult, consider that the 17th island green hole at Dye’s TPC Stadium Course is known as Alcatraz and hosts PGA TOUR “Q-School” finals every other year. As Dye has said, “Golf is not a fair game, so why build a course fair?”
Where to dine
Once you’ve said goodbye to yet another Titleist, remember that Palm Springs knows how to pamper your hedonistic side. At Arnold Palmer’s Restaurant (tel: 760-771-4653; arnoldpalmersrestaurant.com) in La Quinta, try some of the “King’s” favourite comfort foods like meatloaf and pot roast. Cool off with a glass of his chilled Chardonnay and savour the good life under the palms.
Frank Sinatra and Barbara had their pre-wedding dinner at Melvyn’s Restaurant (tel: 760-325-2323; inglesideinn.com) at the iconic Palm Springs Ingleside Inn. It’s been a celebrity hangout for years. There’s nothing hip about Melvyn’s and that’s the way his clientele like it. The restaurant specializes in chateaubriand and flambé desserts. In the evenings, a pianist plays old-time hits and folks take a spin around the Casablanca Lounge dance floor. Don’t miss Sunday brunch with eggs Benedict and an endless flute of Champagne. Melvyn’s is vintage Palm Springs at its best.
Splurge at Rancho Mirage’s most awarded restaurant, Wally’s Desert Turtle (tel: 760-568-9321; wallys-desert-turtle.com) where Old Blue Eyes also dined. I recommend the filet mignon crusted with bone marrow and horseradish with a wine jus, celeriac mash and maybe the world’s best Brussels sprouts. However, Dover sole meunière or amandine, flown in from Belgium, is the most popular dish. You’ll probably never have a better crème brûlée.
Chef/owner Andie Hubka’s unpretentious open-kitchen Cork & Fork (tel: 760-777-7555; corkandforkwinebar.com) in La Quinta packs folks in nightly. Her concept? A great wine list with many vinos available by the glass to accompany lots of tapas. Try the sesame ahi poke nachos, tequila/lime shrimp tacos and wild mushroom risotto for starters. Leave room for the butterscotch pot du crème with a bacon topping.
At Workshop Kitchen + Bar (tel: 760-459-3451; workshoppalmsprings.com begin with a cocktail. Workshop’s original martini uses a recipe dating back to 1911 concocted by the head bartender of New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel. The menu is meant for sharing. Try the oxtail shepherd’s pie and the duck fat fries with sea salt.
Where to sleep
After buying a dilapidated motel in 2001, Bruce Abney and John Aguilar went on a shopping spree in Marrakesh. They filled huge containers with Oriental rugs, inlaid furniture and colourful lanterns, and transformed the dowdy motel into El Morocco Inn and Spa (tel: 888-288-9905; elmoroccoinn.com; doubles from US$179 per night).
El Morocco is located in Desert Hot Springs, renowned for the mineral streams that feed more than 20 spa resorts. Billowing sheer fabrics tent a seductive mineral pool. Guests are welcome to help themselves to homemade cookies, dried figs, dates and Humphrey Bogart mint lemonade; breakfast includes avocados, yogurt, bagels and more. Or you can bring in some groceries and use the Kasbah kitchen.
In the heart of Palm Springs’ hip Uptown Design District, the completely renovated Alcazar (tel: 866-887-8733; alcazarpalmsprings.com; doubles from US$89 per night) features white rooms that wrap around a pool shaded by lime trees. Some have private patios, fireplaces and Jacuzzis. Espresso and pastries are complimentary each morning.
Beside the Indian Wells golf courses, the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort and Spa (tel: 760-341-1000; indianwells.hyatt.com; doubles from US$159) makes a terrific base if you prefer a larger hotel. Soak those aching golf muscles in your choice of seven pools or get professional pampering at the Agua Serena Spa.
Where to explore
Palm Springs is home to some of the world’s best-preserved modernist architecture of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. You’ll learn more about the designers who shaped the houses of the time — from Richard Neutra to Albert Frey — on Robert Ember’s Modern Architecture Tour (tel: 760-318-6118; palmspringsmoderntours.com); US$85 per person). During the three-hour driving tour, he’ll point out the former homes of Howard Hughes, Jack Benny, Spencer Tracy, Elvis Presley, Liberace and Dinah Shore.
On Thursday evenings, head to Villagefest (palmspringsvillagefest.com) on North Palm Canyon Drive, the main drag in Palm Springs. The street becomes a bustling open-air pedestrian market. Food vendors cook up sizzling dishes, musicians entertain and artisans display their handiwork.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.