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Desert Hot Springs' rustic spas, Palm Springs' Hip Hot Spots
Vanessa Hua, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, March 9, 2008

We didn't have to go far for a change of view.
From the outdoor tub, we watched the skies glow pink and gold in the morning, open into a brilliant blue in the afternoon and deepen into purple in the twilight. By day, the snow-capped San Jacinto mountains loomed on the horizon. By night, a canopy of stars floated above our heads.
Such are the simple pleasures of Desert Hot Springs, a hamlet two hours east of Los Angeles with 40 resorts and spas with hot mineral pools in 23 square miles. Combined with the more sophisticated attractions of Palm Springs 20 minutes to the south, it offers an ideal escape late fall through spring.
Its history as a tourist destination begins in the early 20th century, around the time homesteaders started settling the desert at the edge of the Coachella Valley. An eccentric homesteader, Cabot Yerxa, discovered cold and hot aquifers in 1915, but not until the 1940s did magnate L. W. Coffee began to drill for water, sell real estate and operate the first bathhouse. In the 1950s and 1960s, business boomed at the "spa-tels" which drew visitors seeking restorative cures from the bubbling waters.

The DesertNow, several properties have been converted in recent years into chic boutique spas with decor ranging from a Moroccan bathhouse to mid-century modern.
My husband and I checked into the Spring Resort and Spa last month on a winter getaway. We drove through the valley where sagebrush dotted the sere landscape, before the road began to climb steeply into town. Hidden behind a white wall on a residential street, the 11-room resort includes a swimming pool, an indoor soaking pool and Jacuzzi tub - the waters heated in the earth's fissures and emerging at 170 degrees before being cooled to varying temperatures. A velvety patch of lawn and palm trees lead down to a wooden Finnish sauna, showers and treatment rooms for massage and facials.
Our room, though small, was elegant, with high-thread-count sheets piled high with fluffy pillows and the spare decor in warm shades of chocolate and tan. An attached kitchen included a gas stove, microwave and refrigerator. Layers of curtains covered the glass doors. Other thoughtful, luxurious touches included the cotton waffle robes, the green tea-scented lotion and soap, a basket of glossy travel magazines and a pitcher of the spring water piped from the site.
We changed into our suits, slipped into the robes and out into the swimming pool, where we floated on our backs to admire the sky. The afternoon wind rustling through the trees sounded waves crashing on a vast ocean.
Though high season runs from January to May, on that Friday afternoon we never had to share the pools with any of the couples we saw strolling around. The water soaked away our aches and cares. I closed my eyes and imagined magma deep beneath the crust - red-hot, molten - and other geothermal activity at the origin of the hot springs. I envisioned the center of the earth, the layers of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rock, the dinosaur fossils - all the way to the other side of the planet. China, maybe.
Backyard Jacuzzis are nice, but don't inspire such musings.
The "downtown" of Desert Hot Springs, however, is somewhat drab and windblown, so we made 20-minute drive to neighboring Palm Springs to see the boutique hotels sprouting like wildflowers after spring rain. Among them: the Colony Palms Hotel, a Spanish Colonial structure that recently reopened after a $16 million renovation; the extensively renovated Horizon Hotel, a mid-century structure reborn in 2006; and ultra-mod Parker Palm Springs, formerly Gene Autry's Melody Ranch and Merv Griffin's Givenchy Resort and Spa, which underwent a $27 million makeover before its relaunch in 2004.
We started with drinks at Mister Parker's in the latter, also known as Le Parker Meridien Palm Springs. The hotel's gorgeous, over-the-top interior by designer Jonathan Adler is like the sets of "Logan's Run" and a 1970s porn movie, crossed with a French bordello and San Francisco's Fillmore in the 1960s. We felt cool as we sat around the circular fireplace and swung from the basket-weave, egg shaped chair hanging from the ceiling.
For dinner, we opted for another change of style at the Viceroy Palm Springs, where Citron restaurant's lush Hollywood Regency decor harkens to the days of black-and-white movie glamour. The dining room is bright with lemon and white walls, white chairs and white banquettes. We ordered the graze plate of charcuterie, hummus, crackers, olives and more; the loup de mer, with crispy skin and tail attached to tender white flesh; and a rich dish of macaroni and cheese with bacon. Portions were huge, the service polished.
Returning to Desert Hot Springs, we slipped into the hot tub at the Spring, then the indoor pool, where we lit candles and sipped wine to cap a romantic evening.
The next morning, we donned our bathrobes and had a simple, healthy breakfast of yogurt and cereal in the library. Another couple our age was already dressed in hiking boots and nylon pants. They bolted their breakfast because they were planning on visiting Joshua Tree, 35 minutes away, and taking the Palm Springs Aerial Tram, which travels 2.5 mile ride to the peak and offers views of Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea.
My husband and I looked at each other - should we be go-getters, too?
Instead, we dipped into each of the pools again: Soak, dry, repeat. The side trips? Another time. We had our change of scenery right where we were.

If You Go

Getting there
Desert Hot Springs is about 70 miles southeast of the Ontario International Airport via I-10 and 11 miles north of Palm Springs International Airport.

Where to stay
The Spring Resort and Spa, 12699 Reposo Way, Desert Hot Springs. (760) 251-6700, www.the-spring.com. 11-room resort motel, $129- $229 weekdays and $149 to $269 weekends. Summer rates begin June 1; high season starts at the end of December.

Vanessa Hua last wrote for Travel about family cruises. To comment online, visit SFGate.com/travel and follow the links.

This article appeared on page D - 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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