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Not Just for Lounge Lizards

I discovered Palm Springs one winter many years ago, at the beginning of a wild romance. We stayed at a slightly louche but charming Art Deco motel once frequented by Mae West and (not simultaneously) Rock Hudson. There wasn't a kid in sight. The town was then almost exclusively a destination for golfers, retired millionaires, and Hollywood couples escaping their fishbowl lives for what used to be called a "blue weekend." The sunshine and hedonism were all I remembered.

My next visit was for a friend's wedding, held in the bougainvillea-filled garden of a 1920's Moroccan-style villa. I packed a wardrobe of white linen, and had the full body works at a spa while my husband browsed for first editions in the town's alluring used-book stores and antiques shops. We drank martinis at a venerable piano bar packed with movie stars in recovery, lounge lizards in safari suits, and predatory young beauties. Still (and probably a good thing) no kids in sight.

That brief getaway also brought a revelation: Palm Springs is an artificial paradise surrounded by a real one. There are ravishing hikes to take, rugged mountains to scale, wilderness to explore, and, if the pure air and natural beauty get too heady, mall after mall of wacky entertainment outposts featuring flashing lights, cascading water, and live animals. I have selflessly taken my 10-year-old son, Will, on many theme-park holidays, and he has just as stoically endured his share of cultural improvement with me and character-building camping trips with his father. Here, I reflected, was a place as jaded, goofy, soulful, adventurous, or sedate as one chose to make it. As a vacation spot, it had something for all of us.

Last spring, I convinced my extended family to convene in Palm Springs for a four-day weekend. Since I am an only child married to an only child and divorced from an only child, with whom I have an only child, we are a clan related by affinity rather than blood. But time has tested our bonds, so despite their doubts, my "siblings" heeded the call. We were four couples from both coasts: Peter and Joan; Michael and Harriet; Matthew and Susan (who happen to be my ex-husband and his enchanting wife); my husband, Peter, and I; five children ranging in age from 3 to 10; and one honorary grandparent—my aunt Arkie, 89.

The many Palm Springs-area hotels that cater to golfers and conventioneers or specialize in romance are neither equipped for nor interested in accommodating a gaggle as boisterous as ours. I booked rooms for us at one of the newer, kid-friendly resorts, the Westin Mission Hills in nearby Rancho Mirage. The adjacent land is unreclaimed sand bristling with sagebrush, a potent reminder of just how willful and extravagant—and how fragile—is any pleasure garden in the desert.

The Westin is a lavish complex of pink faux-adobe buildings on 360 acres, with two first-rate golf courses, seven tennis courts, a fitness center, and three pools. The rooms are cushy and large, each with a private terrace or patio. Will, who was bunking with his great-aunt, was thrilled to find a Sony PlayStation installed in the TV console, but indignant to learn he couldn't play it free of charge. Parents who want some time alone can, for about $10 an hour, send their offspring to the Cactus Kids Club. There, cheerful staff members supervise arts and crafts in an air-conditioned playroom, or outdoor activities that vary according to the ages and proclivities of their wards. We didn't make use of this service: there was too much else to do.

Early on the first morning, we set out in a four-car squadron to explore the fantastical landscape of the Indian Canyons—Palm, Andreas, and Murray. We promised the kids an adventure from an Indiana Jones film, and they weren't disappointed. The older kids—Will N. and Jake, both 10; Will M. and Lily, both eight—climbed the vertiginous boulders at the entrance to inspect ancient Native American petroglyphs. Then we plunged into the Andreas Canyon—a meandering gully of majestic skirted palms where the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians once sought shelter from burning desert summers. Following their sacred stream, we squeezed between fissures in the spooky rock formations, skipped pebbles, examined ferns and wildflowers, joked about rattlesnakes (we didn't come across any), and emerged onto the wonderful open ridge that leads back to the parking lot. There we rejoined my aunt, who had been rapturously watching a pair of hawks scour the valley. It was an exhilarating mile in all, but not so challenging as to exhaust our preschool hiker (Will's half sister), Mattie. We'd brought hats, sunscreen, and water, and we stopped at the Indian Trading Post above Palm Canyon for snacks and souvenirs.

On the way back to the hotel, we spied the surreal purple turrets of the Camelot Park Family Center. Heeding the outburst of frantic signaling from the lead car, we turned off. The kids spent a delirious two hours in bumper boats soaking one another with water cannons, then played laser tag with some leggy teenage blondes from Sacramento. The moms dragged them away before the dads got to take their turn at the trigger.

Our family had much to talk about and to celebrate (not least the recovery of our appetites after a ride on Camelot's motion simulator). For our reunion dinner, I had arranged a festive banquet at Le Vallauris, one of Palm Springs' oldest and finest French restaurants. Happily for the gracious management, who took pleasure in our high spirits, it was an otherwise quiet night at their decorous establishment. After gorging on penne and profiteroles, the kids retired to the piano bar, where the two girls flirted with the pianist, my son crashed on the banquette, and his California cousins chatted urbanely in French with the maître d'. We, in the meantime, topped off an excellent three-course meal with four bottles of Vieux Télégraphe.

Our second day was lazy and unseasonably cold. The kids explored the resort, a little daunted by its sprawl but intoxicated by the freedom to charge gum to the rooms and hitch rides on the stretch golf carts that ferry guests from one pleasure station to another. (I suggest that parents staying here without a Border collie or GPS equipment outfit their brood, at the very least, with walkie-talkies.)

After lunch by the pool, the moms commandeered a vehicle to go antiquing in "uptown" Palm Springs, a four-block cluster of eclectic little shops crammed with vintage clothing and glassware, Western paintings, antique dolls, silver and china, Asian objets d'art, and Hollywoodiana. Joan bought a drum table with a pony-skin finish ($75 reduced to $50 with a little haggling). I tried on a white mink coat that had belonged to Lana Turner. Meanwhile, the dads had—heroically, in their own view—taken the kids to Oasis, a deluxe "beach" club and water park on Gene Autry Trail that simulates roiling rivers and pounding surf. I hear they went all but berserk with joy on the flumes and 12 water slides and in the wave pools. Even the grown-ups (which ones were they?) wanted to go back.

By the time we rejoined them, the older boys were harnessing up for a twilight climbing lesson at Uprising, next door to Oasis. This tented outdoor rock-climbing center, the largest such facility in the country, has a 30-foot rappel tower and more than 100 different ascents of varying difficulty. By the eerie glow of the tungsten lights, the massive wall, bejeweled with footholds, looked like the molar of a mastodon. Harriet, an amateur trapeze artist, went up with her Jake and my Will. As we applauded their triumphant conquest of the summit, a full moon spotlighted the mountains in the distance, reminding us that this, like so much of Palm Springs, was a delightful stage set. "Try scaling us!" the real mountains scoffed.

We had a series of 5 a.m. wake-up calls the next morning, first from the front desk, then from Arkie and the kids, who had to make sure no one overslept. Eight of us were going up in a hot-air balloon. Half an hour later, our pilot from Balloon Above the Desert, a dashing Frenchman with a D'Artagnan mustache—Clotaire Castanier—arrived in his van. We drove toward Indio in the Coachella Valley, leaving behind the shuttered malls and sleeping suburbs, and emerging into the lunar landscape of the Santa Rosa Mountains. At the launching ground, the dawn sky was streaked with ocher, and four gigantic shrouds lay limp on the field. As ribbons of flame billowed from the heaters, the nylon began to inflate and the balloons puffed out like gigantic muffins. Arkie was the last passenger into our gondola, which resembled, appropriately, a French baker's basket. At almost 90, she was making her first voyage in an airship, and she dreamily recalled the experience of another maiden voyage—in a Model T. For the next hour and a half we floated above sod and carrot farms, date-palm groves and polo fields, planted on what 5 million years ago was the bed of the Gulf of California.

By afternoon, some of us were suffering from a surfeit of organized activity, so a four-man posse ducked into an action movie. The rest of our party set off in a convoy to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for what was to be one of the most spectacular experiences of the trip, a nearly vertical 6,000-foot ascent by cable car from the desert floor to the evergreen forest of the Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area. Here, in spring and summer, one can take a mule ride or hike along 54 miles of pristine alpine trails. In winter, there is cross-country skiing. As clouds closed in, we settled for a brief snowball fight on the icy terrace of the restaurant, followed by hot chocolate. Lily, who had recently moved to southern California from Connecticut, exclaimed: "I remember this. It's called winter!"

On our last day there was a slight rift in the fabric of togetherness. One faction, headed by my husband Peter, wanted to stay at the hotel and veg. Joan was interested in finding a furniture store called Wacky Wicker. Susan supported an excursion to the Living Desert—a wildlife and botanical park on 1,200 acres with native wolves, eagles, and sheep as well as exotic game from East Africa. A fourth but insistent faction-of-one, my ex-husband, argued for a more ambitious safari to the high desert of Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert—an hour each way by car. I have always found it a rewarding principle when traveling (though only when traveling) to let Matthew prevail. And he did.

The park was nearly empty because the weather had been cold and windy. There were only a few other visitors, most of them committed campers, but the Joshua trees seemed to people the desert floor like a crowd of the bewitched. A coyote wandered out of the brush and for 15 spellbinding minutes followed the cars, posing for pictures and wagging his tail. It was hard to convince the ecstatic kids that he was a wild predator and not a friendly mutt.

When the coyote trotted off, we parked and wandered into a landscape of biblical grandeur and austerity. In the primeval rock formations, the boys saw a natural fortress, and they disappeared to storm the ramparts, hallooing to one another to come see a zebra-tailed lizard's flashing scales, a snake's burrow, a mysterious paw print. My aunt tested the prickles of the silver cholla and the calico cactus. Mattie found a live tent caterpillar stuck in a crevice still filled with snow. We stood at a distance, holding hands in couples, and watched nature reclaim them. At that moment we understood the nature of our kinship. We were a tribe.

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