Paradise in the desert

“Welcome to Paradise,” said the manager.

This was in the midst of a “Twilight Zone” experience of trying to check in at the La Quinta Resort and Club in the desert, though, not due to the fault of the staff at the resort.

Gracious and accommodating they were, especially front office manager Juan Pineda, despite the fact my name could not be found on the reservations list, or anywhere else for that matter.

I waited as staff members flurried back and forth, trying to solve the mystery as to why my planned visit of one night at the famous hideaway resort and club, with some of the best golf courses in the world, was not listed anywhere. I was offered a refreshment, “A glass of wine, perhaps?” which seems to be the customary welcome to guests checking in. At first I said no thank you, and again no thank you after a second offer of a drink, though I did say, “I might need one soon,” when the staff did not recognize the name of a person I was told would be my contact at the resort. I finally did say yes when I was told the restaurant where I had dinner booked did not exist at the resort, or anywhere in the town of La Quinta.

As I sat in the rustic, yet plush, comfortable 76-year-old Santa Rosa Lounge, sipping my chardonnay, Pineda, the manager, said even though there was no record of me at all at the hotel, I would be staying in a casita-with a private patio and spa.

I cannot say enough about how gracious the staff at La Quinta is. They are trained to make each and every guest feel as if they are the most important person they have visiting the club. And with absolute sincerity.

An employee on a gas-powered cart led me to parking near my casita, then to my room, where the bellboy showed me how to work the spa and the fireplace in the spacious room with a firm, king-sized bed. The bathroom itself had a “king-sized” bathtub, with a glass-enclosed shower next to it and a double-sink counter. It was 4:30 p.m. by the time I collapsed on the bed. As I contemplated the mystery of my Twilight Zone nonexistence (my stay was set up by a third party-I found out later I was mistakenly booked at a different hotel), I decided the best way to relax after a 3-and-a-half hour drive from Los Angeles (the drive normally takes 2-and-a-half hours max.), was to jump in the perfectly temperature-set spa with jets. So private is the patio and casita, I could have jettisoned my bathing suit-but, just in case, I kept in on.

The surrounding jagged, rocky Santa Rosa Mountains, which were outlined by a deep, cornflower blue sky, could be seen from my little corner of paradise. And when dark falls, the stars fill the sky.

Walter H. Morgan, who came to the desert in 1921 for health reasons, built the La Quinta Resort and Club, originally called the La Quinta Hotel. It was a self-contained, secluded hideaway for celebrities, high-profile politicos and society leaders-a place where the rich and famous could romp and relax away from prying eyes. It is located about 20 miles past Palm Springs, off the I-10.

So many famous people have stayed here it would be impossible to say who was the most noted guest. On the literary (and showbiz) side-Frank Capra stayed in one of the original 20 casitas. It is said he penned “It Happened One Night” in Casita No. 136 (named San Anselmo). The original desk he used sits in the casita, with a copy of the Academy Award-winning script for guests to peruse. Apparently, he became superstitious about his stay in the desert and returned year after year to pen other equally regarded classics such as “You Can’t Take it With You” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” among others.

All the rooms and suites (now numbering 640) at the resort and club are decorated with old world, Spanish hacienda-style furniture.

On the other spectrum of famous guests-one casita is named the Eisenhower Villa. President Dwight D. Eisenhower came to visit friends at La Quinta while he was still in office, and played golf here. The first golf course in the Coachella Valley was built at La Quinta-a 9-hole course designed by golfer Norman Beth, at the cost of $50,000. Greens fees were $1, open to the public.

The idea of pampering guests with massage treatments started in 1946 when John Balaban, a Chicagoan who bought it from hotelier Arnold S. Kirkeby, hired Marvin Guziewicz. For 39 years, Guziewicz treated guests to “massages in the sun.” Now the resort and club offers a sybaritic array of spa treatments ranging from “celestial” showers and mustard baths to whole packages that include massage, facials, baths or showers and a choice of a variety of “body wraps.”

A stroll through the various sections of the 45-acre grounds takes you through the courtyards of other casitas, past pools (there are 25 on the grounds named after famous guests-Dietrich and Garbo were near my casita) and gurgling fountains. It is an extremely romantic place, however, families were seen at dinner and even at the health club, which was all right by me. There are so many activities here to keep everyone busy that I would consider bringing my children for a visit.

Most romantic to me was the setting of the Plaza and the Plaza Bar, which is elevated above a courtyard filled with sections of flowering gardens and fountains, and surrounded by shops. A musical group called The Inka Kings played indigenous, melodic tunes, while guests either dined or just partook of beverages outdoors. The weather was perfect-in the mid- to high-70s in the day (in early February)-although a bit colder at night.

I dined at the Adobe Grill, where I had a divine appetizer as a main course-a tamale pie made with layers of corn meal, sour cream, sauce and cheese.

The next morning I watched a game of tennis as I ate a sumptuous breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, juicy sausage and sliced tomatoes at the Spa Bistro.

At 11 a.m., despite the fact several hundred guests were to check in and out that Sunday, Pineda, the manager who reassured me that my stay was very welcome, took me on a tour of the Mountain golf course, one of five at the resort. I do not play golf, but the beauty of this course astounded me. The contrast between the green lushness of the course and the desert rocky mountains it abuts is amazing.

The 16th Hole is my favorite. After riding up a narrow path, you have to get out of your cart and walk up a set of stone stairs to the 16th tee. It gives a spectacular, complete view of the rest of the course, including the Dunes course and beyond.

Later, Pineda showed me the Hacienda Grande in the northeast section of the resort where my casita is located, which is a suite with living and dining rooms, and with its own private pool in addition to a spa. He said actor Joe Pesci always angles to get this corner to himself.

And, after all the kindness of Pineda and the staff at La Quinta, I was even allowed a late check-out of 2 p.m., which gave me time to indulge in another dip in the spa, swim in the Dietrich pool, and to luxuriate in the sun.

Ahhh yes, paradise it is.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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