“You’re not afraid of snakes, are you?” asked Mike, our guide with Desert Adventures Eco-Tours. “We just might see some today.”
I shook my head no, but kept my eyes peeled on the scene ahead. We were in a red Jeep, bumping along a dusty dirt road on Metate Ranch, an 800-acre private preserve in the California Desert near Palm Springs, California. There was no one else in sight, and all I heard was the crunch of our tires. The earth was dry and the dirt and rock formations looked almost white, a stark contrast to the deep blue sky overhead.
Life in the Desert
The desert is home to its own unique wildlife, from snakes and tarantulas to coyotes, lizards, and birds. The region seems barren, though, and I wondered how these creatures survive. Then, in the distance, I saw a thick line of tall California fan palms. They were a literal oasis in the desert.
Beneath them lies the San Andreas Fault, which runs 800 miles, beginning 30 minutes south of Greater Palm Springs and ending at Cape Mendocino on the northern California coast. While there’s no gaping hole in the ground along the fault line, there is an underground aquifer that oozes fresh water at the surface.
Mike parked the Jeep, and we followed him on a narrow path through the trees. He pointed out hundreds of tiny tracks of the animals that find water there daily. The tracks lead to a small creek that runs continuously throughout the year. It’s the aquifer that brings life to the desert.
Underground water has brought rich life to this entire region. After landing at Palm Springs International Airport, I was surprised by the number of tall palm trees and colorful flowers that adorn this small town. Its setting is picturesque, surrounded by mountains standing so close you can almost touch them.
The Greater Palm Springs region has roughly 360,000 year-round residents in nine distinct communities—Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio, and Coachella.
In the past, Palm Springs was a mecca for movie stars and celebrities from Hollywood. Their glitz and glamour can still be seen in the town’s abundance of mid-century architecture, which has been carefully preserved. Yet, when I looked closer, I saw a vibrant town with many young people. Palm Springs is still an oasis for those seeking an escape from the hubbub of California’s big cities or even the cold weather.
As sun-seekers on a weekend getaway with my husband Benjamin, Palm Springs didn’t disappoint us. The base for our stay was the beautiful JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa, which is a destination on its own. Recently refreshed, the luxury resort has a lakeside setting with views of the mountains and palm trees. Ben and I spent several hours lounging at their large pool and lingering over breakfast outside along the water.
The JW Marriott Desert Springs is well-known for its spa, and as an avid spa lover, I couldn’t pass up the chance to enjoy an aromatherapy massage. The resort’s 38,000-square-foot facility has 48 treatment rooms, a Turkish-style hammam, bistro, and a saltwater pool. Spa treatments incorporate locally grown citrus and dates.
Natural Mineral Springs
Natural hot mineral waters provide additional ways to relax. You can experience them in the small community of Desert Hot Springs. I spent a morning soaking in the hot springs at Azure Palm Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa, and then felt even better after a nutritious meal and fresh juice drink at their health food café. Other mineral springs to try are Two Bunch Palms, a 77-acre resort that dates back to 1930 and was a longtime favorite celebrity retreat, or El Morocco Inn & Spa, a Casablanca-inspired retreat.
BMW Performance Center
While relaxing is great, others visit Palm Springs for the adrenaline-laden experience at the BMW Performance Center in nearby Thermal Springs. The center is a dedicated performance driving facility that’s open to the public. Courses are taught by BMW professional drivers. After the class instruction, participants get to drive BMW M5 vehicles (or Minis) on the private course and receive feedback from instructors.
While I was at the mineral springs, my husband attended the full-day Car Control School.
“It was completely different than what I expected,” he said upon his return. “It was more than just a chance to drive a brand-new BMW around a track. It was an advanced driving school that gave me instruction on everything from emergency braking, last-minute lane changing. We even did skid pad work on what to do when you oversteer or understeer your vehicle in a wet environment. Our class of 11 had three instructors providing us real-time feedback on our driving techniques as we sped through each of the four real-world driving scenarios.”
The instruction is something that he can use in real life, Ben said, and I was all for that. But I think his favorite part of the experience was the high-speed Hot Lap they got to do at the end of the day.
Shots in the Night
Although a weekend isn’t a long period of time, we still packed in several other fun activities. One evening after dark, we headed to Shots in the Night, an interactive glow-in-the-dark golf experience. Alongside other families, many with school-age kids, we hit buckets of glow-in-the-dark golf balls at lit targets on the field. Then, we were handed a computer tablet and assigned to our own putting green.
The tablet communicates with the lighting and sound at the green, and we could choose one of several mini-golf games on the tablet. Special lights turned the green into a playing field for each game. Although my skill level was questionable, I hadn’t had that much fun golfing in a long time.
Dining in Palm Springs
No vacation is complete without sampling a destination’s cuisine and restaurants. Palm Springs is blessed with an abundance of top establishments to delight any foodie. We started off our dining experience in Palm Springs with dinner at Babe’s Bar-B-Que & Brewhouse. Good barbecue can be hard to find, but Babe’s has taken it to a whole new level. Everything is made from scratch and presented with obvious care. We tried a flight of the brewery’s beers and were just as impressed. Babe’s is the brainchild of Donald Callender, the man behind the Marie Callender’s food empire. Today, Babe’s is run by his son, 26-year-old Lucky Callender, whose passion for the restaurant is obvious.
One of the great things about dining in Palm Springs is that you can dine outdoors for much of the year. Eight4Nine Restaurant has one of the most beautiful outdoor settings I’ve ever seen. The white minimalist décor mixed with twinkling lights, careful artwork, and chic table settings would make the perfect setting for a rom-com engagement scene. While we weren’t getting engaged, we did find it very romantic and lingered over our delicious meal there.
Cuistot is another restaurant that would make a perfect setting for a special occasion. Located in a country French farmhouse setting, this French restaurant has earned top ratings in the Zagat survey. The food is delicious, and the wine sommelier is so helpful and knowledgeable that each wine paring fits perfectly.
On a different spectrum is the quirky, lighthearted, and truly Californian Lulu California Bistro. Their outdoor Bistro Garden was hopping when we stopped there for a delicious—and very affordable—brunch. We were having so much fun that we didn’t say no when they suggested a cotton candy dessert.
On our last evening in Palm Springs, we enjoyed one more outdoor dinner at Johannes, a European restaurant by Austrian-born chef Johannes Bacher. Bacher is known as an “eclectic” chef, and sitting on the restaurant’s patio watching the sunset, we happily tried his unique take on several Austrian classics, along with their Modern-Love Bees Knees Martinis.
It was a fitting end to a weekend of experiences that can only be found in Palm Springs.
Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 55 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine.
The author was a guest of Visit Greater Palm Springs.