Desert drama unfolds near Palm Springs

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Eisenhower Mountain Hiking Trail

I could have been on safari in Kenya. That’s how genuine an Elite Land Tour’s experience seems when seated in a spacious five-passenger all-terrain Hummer H2 vehicle.

Mark Farley, our affable guide, looked like he just stepped out from the cover of an Abercrombie & Kent tour brochure. He gave us an upfront and personal look at the Salton Sea, with its boiling mud pools and sweeping patterns of migratory birds.

The birds flock to the 37,600-acre Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge in droves. There are many species of birds, including yellow-footed gulls, snow geese and pintail ducks. It’s like watching the film “Winged Migration,” except that you view the drama from an observation deck rather than a movie theatre.

Elite Land Tours, new to the desert, has introduced its concept of eco-tourism “enhancements.” It includes gourmet snacks, coffee mugs, a gourmet picnic, Elite T-Shirts and even a personalized DVD of your tour. And how about the company’s door-to-door pick-up service?

Mark Farley, the founder, is justifiably proud because, he says, the guides are well versed in the geology, flora, fauna and culture of the desert. Being on a tour, whether it is three or six hours, is like being part of a high school field trip. “We take you to some of the most spectacular places the desert offers, from ancient cultures to geological wonders and incredible wild life. This is a total sensory experience,” Farley said.

A five-hour tour visiting the Salton Sea or to view ancient landscapes costs $179 per person or $740 in total if your group has exclusive use of the Hummer.

Palm Springs, growing by leaps and bounds, is spilling over into vast areas of the desert. Tourists who plunge into desert life, flocking here just like migratory birds, often overlook the area. In town, however, the old standbys thrive. There is the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, which is a remarkable 1200-acre Living Desert with its Village Watutu that has every animal children love, from giraffes to bighorn sheep.

There is also the 17th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival, scheduled for Jan. 5-17. Honorees at the Awards Gala on Jan. 7 will be David Cronenberg for the Visionary Award, Jake Gyllenhaal with the Desert Palm Achievement Award and Michael London as Producer of the Year. Terrance Howard (“Hustle & Flow”) will be honored with the Rising Star Award.

New in the desert is the Palm Springs Pavilion Theatre, set to open Jan. 11 in downtown Palm Springs. And another new face is the 165-room Hotel Zoso, formerly known as the Marquis Hotel. This represents a dramatic departure from the former occupant, with an emphasis on Zen décor, simple clean lines and luxury accents. The Patina Group plans to open a casual restaurant with a trendy edge, called “Eat at the Desert.” It will offer three-meal dining.

The hotel promises “a different level of service” with luxury touches such as 350-count sheets, a 42-inch plasma television set in each guestroom, comfortable Herman Miller Aeron chairs, oversized nightstands and several connecting studio suites.

With more action centered downtown, restaurants are becoming more creative with their menus. For example, during Happy Hour time, check out Matchbox Vintage Pizza Bistro on the second floor of 155 South Palm Canyon. Its Happy Hour Eatorama takes place twice daily from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Mini burgers cost $1 (with a minimum of 3), the Matchbox Bruschetta costs $1 and plump pizza rolls are $5. And if you plan to visit on “Matchbox Mondays,” your timing is perfect. All large pizzas are half price.

Palm Springs and beyond is a work in progress where everything old is new again.

Contacts:

Elite Land Tours: 800.514.4866, www.elitelandtours.com

Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge Complex: 800.344.WILD, www.fws.gov

Living Desert Zoo and Gardens: 760.346.5694, www.livingdesert.org

Hotel Zoso: 760.325.ZOSO, www.hotelzoso.com

The Palm Springs Pavillion Theatre: 760.416.2450, www.pspavillion.com

The Palm Springs International Film Festival: 760.322.2930, www.psfilmfest.org

Matchbox Pizza: 760.778.5715 and 866.877.6779, www.matchboxpalmsprings.com

Pamela Price is the co author of “Fun with the Family in Southern CA” (www.globepequot.com) She can be reached at pamprice@dc.rr.com