Pumped and Pampered in Palm Springs

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, February 9, 1997

Palms Springs is generally known for three things: retirees, celebrities and, of course, golf.
This is a town in which major thoroughfares have names like Frank Sinatra Drive, Gerald Ford Drive and even Fred Waring Drive.
If you are wondering, “Who’s Fred Waring?” you are probably not of retirement age, or a regular in Palm Springs. (He was a popular band leader in the 1940s and ’50s.)
Let’s just say that this patchwork of desert gray-brown and country club green is not a hip town. So why would anyone under the age of “late middle” want to spend time here?
Turns out there are a number of good reasons. Savvy travelers are discovering what the area’s younger residents – and there are some – already know: You don’t have to play golf, or be retired, to have fun in Palm Springs.
In fact, if you play your cards right, you can finish a week in Palm Springs in dire need of a vacation. If you’re an athletic thrill-seeker of any age, you can beat yourself up here, but good. Fortunately, you can also pamper yourself within an inch of heaven.
By alternating the two – activity and passivity, the hard and the soft, the challenging and the relaxing – one can theoretically find a blissful middle ground of total physical satisfaction.
At least, that was the plan at the start of a recent four-day visit that featured various spa treatments alternated with horseback riding, skydiving, rock climbing, desert hiking and mountain biking. It began with skydiving on a Tuesday. By Thursday, it was hard to tell if my muscles were aching from the outdoor activities or the spa treatments. Turns out that some of the spa treatments are a workout, too.
Because a flight and drive is an athletic event of its own – and because it was important to get a feel for the place – the visit began with the Spa Hotel and Casino’s spa, on Tahquitz Canyon Way in central Palm Springs.
This is the site of the original hot springs that gave the city its name. The area was home to the Agua Caliente (Hot Water) Band of the Cahuilla Indians, who still own a huge chunk of the real estate in the Coachella Valley, where Palm Springs and its satellite “desert communities” sit. Those Indians, among the wealthiest in the country, also own this hotel, casino and spa complex.
The Spa Casino and Hotel is one of the best and cheapest places to experience the soothing hot mineral waters that bubble out of the ground from the huge aquifer (a 20-mile-long underground lake) that lies under the valley. It’s not elegant, but the attendants will lead you from steam room to hot bath to cool relaxation room to massage, so that all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other.
This is a good thing. You need to save your strength.
To get a bit more orientation upon arriving in Palm Springs, it’s a good idea to catch the tram at the northwestern edge of town. It lifts visitors nearly 6,000 feet up the side of Mount San Jacinto, where you’ll get a spectacular view of the valley from 8,516 feet. The first tram leaves at 10 a.m. and the last to the top leaves at 8 p.m., returning at 9:45 p.m.
The other way you’ll need to get oriented is with a car: Palm Springs is actually just one of eight small towns that have grown up along Highway 111. The best-known among them are Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert and Indio. And, the only way to get from one to the other is by car. There is a bike trail that winds down the valley, parallel with Hwy. 111, but without a car, you’ll be getting more exercise than even you bargained for.
For some reason, I had decided to jump into this active vacation with both feet, so I headed straight away to Bermuda Dunes Airport, where I proceeded to take a small airplane to 12,000 feet, and jump out (see accompanying story).
It was an exhilarating experience, and I didn’t feel the least bit guilty a few hours later when I was being cared for by not one, but two massage therapists at the Ritz-Carlton in Rancho Mirage.
This small but elegant spa gives visitors a new appreciation for the word “ritzy, ” and the Pancha Karma Massage, a new appreciation for human hands. Based on the principles of Aryuvedic, or traditional Hindu, medicine, the Pancha Karma massage is distinguished by the two therapists – one man, one woman – who work your body from either end, one doing head, the other feet, or from side to side, synchronizing their movements so that the subject feels that the whole world is rubbing and massaging his troubles away.
Its other distinguishing characteristic is oil. Essential oils are held beneath one’s nose – rosemary, frankincense, sandalwood, each to balance a particular part of the body/mind. And hot oil is poured by the cupful over your body – even into your ears! – as you are being massaged.
It makes a memory to savor hours later, as you barrel down a narrow, rock-strewn path, the handlebars of your mountain bike jumping in your tired hands as you struggle to control the front wheel and remain upright.
Mountain biking is relatively new to Palm Springs, and remains fairly undiscovered, but the area offers a variety of trails, many if not most of them challenging even to experienced bikers. With some 40 routes to choose from, most of them in the Santa Rosa Mountains National Scenic Area, this is potentially great mountain biking country.
It is also one of the few chances you’ll have to see the wildlife of the area, particularly the endangered bighorn sheep.
But this is also one of the most dangerous areas in which to participate in what can be a pretty dangerous sport. The ground is rough and rocky, and the trails head into wilderness where no help is available should you become lost, disoriented, crash or have a mechanical problem. Moreover, this is the desert, where water is at a premium. Even in winter, Palm Springs can be warm or even hot, and dehydration is not something you want to experience.
As one local guidebook warns, “You must be in top physical condition to ride . . . the trails listed. These are generally not good trail systems for beginner riders.”
In short, if you’re not an experienced mountain biker, be realistic about your technique, your body and your equipment, and be sure you’re outfitted with enough food, water and savvy to survive in harsh conditions. And if you go for it, remember to never ride alone.
If you’ve passed that test, there are some extreme bike trails that will make you exclaim “Dude!” even if you never talk that way. One good place to start is the Goat Trails, a group of trails named for the way they meander all over the place, making for a good “playground.” The Goat Trails are rated moderate to difficult, and are easily accessible from Palm Springs or Cathedral City, the next town down Hwy. 111 from Palm Springs. They also stay within sight of the valley, so that becoming lost is not an issue.
When you’re done with your ride, a great way to relieve those cramped, beat-up leg and neck muscles is with a Thai massage at Marriott’s Desert Springs Resort and Spa. The spa, part of this sprawling, 400-acre property, offers terrific day-use of the facilities for a reasonable $24 a day ($18 after 4 p.m.), which entitles you to a full weight room and all sorts of saunas, steam rooms and hot and cold baths.
And, of course, massage. Marriott’s offers the usual array of services, but my choice was the Thai massage ($85 an hour), during which I lay on a mat on the floor, fully clothed, and was worked over, head to toe, by a short, quiet man with hands that brought tears to my eyes – tears of joy and of pain.
He worked my exhausted legs over so intensely, so deep in the muscle, I could barely walk afterward.
But, of course, I had to: the Indian Canyons awaited. Because what is a week near gorgeous mountains without a little hiking?
The Indian Canyons, leading into the San Jacinto Mountains at the south edge of town, offer wonderful rewards for some relatively easy hiking. In a two-hour hike, one travels through dry gullies and washes full of native plants including the bodacious teddy bear cactus (resist the urge to cuddle them!) and tall skirted palms, some of which produce wild dates that you are free to eat (if you can reach them).
It is possible to hike these hills yourself, but a guide can provide all sorts of background and running commentary on the flora and fauna and geography of the area, as well as history of the Cahuilla Indians, whose rock art is still visible in Andreas Canyon.
You can also visit the canyons on horseback, the original recreation of visitors to Palm Springs. A number of stables offers tours, Smoke Tree Stables being the closest to the entrance to the canyons. But these tours don’t go deep into the canyons, which are better observed by foot. And if you’re not accustomed to riding horses, you’re in for a rude shock when you climb off and find you are suddenly bowlegged.
But it was OK that my legs felt as though they were permanently splayed, since that position would come in handy at my next stop: Uprising Rock Climbing Center , the rock-climbing school inside Oasis Waterpark.
Here, you can practice rock climbing on walls of all heights and angles, learning to grip with your feet and reach with your legs and make all sorts of other unfamiliar maneuvers on a vertical rock surface while a friend “belays” you from below – that is, holds the other end of the rope that is tied around your waist so that rock climbing doesn’t become impromptu skydiving.
Actually, rock climbing is easier than it sounds and more fun than, well, golf. Lessons are reasonable, and the guys working there are friendly and helpful as you cling to the tiniest knob of rock, literally hanging on by your fingernails.
And even those poor, tortured fingernails get their just reward in Palm Springs: Last stop of the day was the Guest House Tropical Day Spa in downtown Palm Springs, where fingernails, toenails and most everything in between will be soaked, massaged, trimmed, buffed and otherwise pampered as only you – you Olympic god, you – deserve to be pampered.
Or at least, that’s the way proprietor Sharon Flannagan makes you feel. Her new establishment is a tiny, not particularly fancy one when put up against the megaspas at Marriott’s or the new Givenchy. But Flannagan makes up for what her place lacks in size with a delightful combination of personal attention and friendliness.
And great deals. In a city not known for low prices, Flannagan’s spa offers terrific, full-on megablasts of pampering like you haven’t had since you were, oh, 2 years old. The foot treatment – a foot bath, a half hour of reflexology (massage), a paraffin treatment (your foot massaged with oils and then sealed in layers of paraffin which are then peeled off) and a pedicure is just part of one spa package available.
Flannagan will even call you the day before your appointment to find out what kind of cocktail you’d like with the cheese, crackers and fruit she serves. while she’s working on your feet.
Foot quivering on the gas pedal as I drove back to Ontario for the flight to Sacramento, legs aching and toenails shining inside my shoes, I reflected on all the activity I’d had, and starting planning a vacation.
I think I’ll take up golf.

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