Palm Springs Desert: Memories and shifting sands

An oasis in the Southern California desert, Palm Springs and the neighboring towns that arose in the heat and wind of the Coachella Valley were a fashionable respite for the Hollywood elite of yesteryear seeking some combination of inspiration, debauchery, or refuge from scandal and prying eyes.

Today, as luxury sedans, pickups and 18-wheelers stream over Interstate 10, past thousands of whirling wind turbines, the “Desert Empire” — a swath of resorts, spas, golf courses and imported date palms, and behind them the working-class neighborhoods that form the backbone of the service industries — opens to a larger audience.

The valley's population of about 350,000 is an increasingly diverse mix of a wealthy leisure class, snowbirds and families on holiday, and a middle class likely drawn to more affordable property and the relative freedoms of desert life. Underneath it all lies vast aquifers, hot springs and the roiling tectonic chasm that long ago churned up rows of chocolatey mountains on both sides.

“I don't know a better place on Earth,” says Mel Haber, the well-tanned, silver-haired proprietor of the Ingleside Inn since the 1970s. A legendary hangout of the rich and famous (and infamous) since the 1930s, it remains a popular boutique hotel tucked away on a secluded corner of downtown Palm Springs.

If it's stories you're looking for, Haber has them. Sinatra, Brando, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, and a coterie of other movie stars, writers, musicians, con men, presidents and gangsters have all visited there on Haber's watch. A new generation of celebrities stays there during the annual Coachella music festival.

Now 78, the Brooklyn-born Haber – gregarious, funny and self-effacing – reflects over a second cup of coffee from the corner table of his in-house restaurant, Melvyn’s, in between greeting guests and tending to business.

“I lucked out,” says the former automotive accessory manufacturer, chuckling. “If I opened up in this market, the way I opened 40 years ago, in 30 days I would’ve been gone. Broke, busted, out of business. I made every stupid mistake in the world. Didn’t have a clue what I was doing. And that’s not to imply that I know now, OK? But I just – through pure hard work and tenacity – I made it.”

Haber still comes to work every day, and every Friday and Saturday night, he works the room in a suit and tie, shaking hands, telling jokes and posing for photos. Melvyn’s is one of the only places around where you can still get your Steak Diane cooked tableside by a tuxedoed waiter. And if you show up in shorts and a T-shirt, you will be politely asked to come back wearing something snappier. Young and old pack into the piano bar, where the drinks flow freely and the music and dancing linger late into the night.

“They want the original Hollywood glamour,” says Haber. “I jokingly call myself a relic, but I am. There’s very few places that have this kind of flavor.”

Hollywood legends went farther into the valley as well. Framed by a crescent of mountains, the La Quinta Resort & Club, a mammoth historic property that opened in 1926, played host to film stars such as Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Clark Gable. One of its adobe casitas was a creative getaway for Frank Capra and the birthplace of his screenplay “It Happened One Night.” Another was a temporary residence of reclusive actress Greta Garbo.

Sunlight enters through aquamarine doors into a chamber that — decorated with vintage furniture, the floor inlaid with mosaic tile, and the walls painted with silver-toned desert motifs under wooden rafters — bears the ambiance of an era revered for opulence, craftsmanship and attention to detail. Yet the flavor of this room is of a simple home to a lover of beauty, and a bygone time preserved only now in an uninhabited space.

Outside, families frolic in the resort's 41 pools, children push scooters down tree-lined walkways, past manicured grassy lawns, fountains and cactus gardens, and parents take in a round of golf or sip margaritas as modern-day minstrels pluck acoustic guitars and croon into the night from the songbooks of James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Gordon Lightfoot.

Two Bunch Palms Resort and Spa — a smaller, more serene abode in the working-class town of Desert Hot Springs — is a treasure trove of palm trees, shaded tamarisk glades, stone paths and the natural springs for which the area is named. Again, Hollywood notables have been using this retreat for years, bathing in the warm waters and enjoying mud baths of natural Canadian peat, wraps in arnica and chai-soy facial treatments. Encouraging words like “detoxifying” and “exfoliating” are as ubiquitous in spa settings as the desert heat, but the experience is unarguably relaxing.

Built in 1940, Two Bunch Palms also comes with its own, albeit unconfirmed, notoriety as a reputed hideout for Al Capone, citing as evidence the original stone house with its lookout tower and underground tunnels, and a massive safe in the lobby of its below-ground spa, allegedly a former brothel.

Those days – if they ever occurred – are long gone. Now well-coiffed guests from Los Angeles come here for pampering and anonymity, sipping wine over farm-to-table cuisine, brokering deals and bickering over their fantasy sports teams in the grotto, and tossing food pellets to the amiable turtles in the pond, as snow-capped Mount San Jacinto looms across the valley.

Coachella Valley may be known for resorts and spas, but the land is unforgivably desert and still largely undeveloped. The western entrance, a funnel for whipping winds with nearly 11,000 feet of mountain on one side and vast tracts of desert scrub below, has more than 2,000 wind turbines and a smattering of solar arrays that twist to follow the sun's arc.

However, what has become one of the area’s most visible landmarks sends most of its renewable energy to other parts of the state, according to local tour guides. To the east, in the hills near Indio, evidence of the ancient rumblings of the San Andreas Fault can be seen nearly alongside the vital aqueduct that carries Colorado River water into the valley, natural gas pipelines from Texas and electrical power lines from a nuclear plant in Arizona.

From the jagged landscape to its plants and animals, and centuries of human migration, “the fault defines this valley and California,” says naturalist De Karlen, who leads tours of the area by Jeep. Karlen explains that the valley is actually part of a basin through which the fault extends south to Mexico and north through Cape Mendocino, the land shaped by the movements of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates.

Hidden in the hills are oases of California fan palms (the state's only native palm), mistletoe, honey mesquite, creosote bushes and other plants that were used by the native Cahuilla Indians as both food and medicine. In spots, rivulets of groundwater have been forced up by the fault. White desert iguanas creep and scuttle along slanted sedimentary rock layers and dusty creek beds. Brown and gray canyons are swept by flash floods every few years before quickly drying. This is the edge of the Sonoran Desert, altogether different than the gorgeous and unearthly Joshua Tree National Park only a short drive north of the valley in the Mojave Desert, but spectacular in its own right.

Yet even the vast stores of water that run under the Coachella Valley are not unlimited. California's drought and water restrictions are impacting every part of the state. Lawsuits are being filed in the valley by local American Indian tribes asserting their water rights. Some golf courses have turned to recycled water, and a few homeowners have begun to replace thirsty lawns with drought-resistant plantings.

The reality that much of the state is desert and not grassland is setting in. Whether this empire will have to shed its green clothes remains to be seen. But it will always have the stardust memories.

Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at

If You Go:

Ingleside Inn: One of Palm Springs’ most famous celebrity retreats, this boutique has 30 unique, Spanish-style rooms, a restaurant and piano bar. A taste of Hollywood’s golden age. Rooms $175-350. 200 W. Ramon Road, Palm Springs.

La Quinta Resort & Club: The city of La Quinta was named for this historic resort, which opened in 1926. Today, the sprawling property has 620 rooms and 98 villas, including some of the original casitas and the main adobe ranch house, spa facilities, golf, tennis and a handy fold-out map to find your way around. Rooms from $199. 49499 Eisenhower Drive, La Quinta.

Two Bunch Palms Resort and Spa: A gorgeous retreat with an emphasis on relaxation, pampering and environmentally sustainable practices. Hot springs, farm-to-table cuisine and a variety of spa treatments. Don’t forget to feed the turtles. Rooms $189 to $499. 67425 Two Bunch Palms Trail, Desert Hot Springs.

Palm Springs Windmill Tours: An hour-and-a-half guided tour of one of the valley’s most recognizable features, in an air-conditioned bus, includes a little history, a little technology and a close-up look at the towering turbines. Adults $35; kids 12 and under $17.50. 62950 20th Ave., North Palm Springs.

Desert Adventures San Andreas Fault Jeep Tour: A three-hour, naturalist-led tour by Jeep over and around the fault, canyons and oases it created in the Indio hills. Includes nature walks, geological and historical information, and beautiful, dramatic vistas. $135. Tour departs from Palm Desert; hotel pickup available in some locations.

Whitewater Preserve: Locals love this place. Laze in the shade by the river, or embark on one of several hikes of varying length and difficulty. A moderate, two-hour hike takes you along the river, up a series of switchbacks and along the crest of a small mountain for expansive views of the canyon and beyond, connecting with the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail along the way. Free. 9160 Whitewater Canyon Road, Whitewater.

Tlaquepaque Taqueria y Birrieria: Toward the end of one of Palm Springs’ main drags, past most of the upscale dining, is an unassuming, family-owned Mexican restaurant serving fresh, inexpensive and delicious Guadalajara favorites like goat tacos. 362 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs.

Windmill Market: Cool off after touring the wind turbines with a valley specialty: the date shake. The sign on this small market says theirs – made to order with dates, ice cream and milk – are the best in the desert. Who knows? But an informal survey of one confirmed they’re very good. N. Indian Canyon Road at Dillon Road, Desert Hot Springs.

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A young San Andreas Fault enthusiast explores a canyon in the Indio hills.

Hiking trail at Whitewater Preserve near Palm Springs.

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