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Motel Chic

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Photo: Catherine Ledner

Marrakesh or Bust

In 2001, when Bruce Abney bought the Caravan Inn, a 1950’s motel in Desert Hot Springs, California, it was, he says, a bona fide flophouse—its 15 rooms occupied by a dubious lineup of "parolees, ne’er-do-wells, and lost souls." In those sorry, rough-and-tumble days, the going rate for a room was $235 per week, and, one suspects, you got what you paid for. Last year, Abney reopened the motel, and while Midcentury Modernism may be all the rage in the Coachella Valley, he eschewed the 1950’s—"Palm Springs has done it"—in favor of a decidedly more exotic aesthetic: 1940’s French Morocco. On buying trips to Marrakesh and Essaouira, Abney filled container after container with enough furniture, fabric, carpets, lighting, and accessories to outfit the now 12-room El Morocco Inn & Spa, which he manages with his partner, John Aguilar, and brother, Steve Abney.

Fifteen minutes north of Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs has a population of some 17,000, and is famous for mineral springs and its mom-and-pop "spa-tels," which at the city’s peak in the 1960’s numbered somewhere in the neighborhood of 80. The place fell on hard times in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and most of the 1990’s, when the area was inundated not by movie stars and film moguls on leave from Hollywood but by Girls Gone Wild-style spring breakers, and bronzed men on vacation at frisky "clothing optional" gay guesthouses. By 1997, when Los Angeles architect Michael Rotondi and his partner, graphic designer April Greiman, opened their much-publicized Miracle Manor Retreat in Desert Hot Springs, the down-and-out spa-tels were ripe for renovating.

Like a traditional riad, El Morocco is built around a square courtyard, with a pool at the center and palm trees in oversize planters. The exterior palette is white and bleached terra-cotta, punched up with saturated jewel tones—blues, reds, greens, and golds—"colors from the Spice Route," according to Abney. Everywhere you look, there are horseshoe arches and billowing fabrics.

There is a social component to El Morocco that Abney anticipated by transforming one of the original guest rooms into the Kasbah Lounge & Library, an open-plan, two-room public suite off the central courtyard. Just outside, in the courtyard itself, there is a large U-shaped ebonized-wicker bar where guests gather for drinks. It is also here, each late afternoon before dinner, that Abney instructs guests in the subtle art of the traditional Moroccan hand-washing ceremony, which entails much splashing water and many ornate silver vessels. For an extra $10, you are invited to try flavored tobacco in one of five elaborate glass hookahs, which Abney will set up and oversee.

The typical El Morocco guest is someone who is looking for an "experiential" escape, Abney says. "It’s a hip crowd…graphic designers, architects, artists, movie industry people, stuntmen, and actresses. At the moment, we’re flying under the radar."

66810 E. Fourth St., Desert Hot Springs, Calif.; 888/288-9905; www.elmoroccoinn.com; doubles from $199.

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