Sunnylands: historic estate and gardens in Southern California

Slow down the pace at Sunnylands gardens

 

Often called “the West Coast Camp David,” Sunnylands, the estate of billionaire Walter and Leonore Annenberg, should be on every Southern California visitor’s list of ‘things to see.’ Open to the public as of March 2012, it has quickly become one of Rancho Mirage’s most popular attractions. The 200-acre property encompasses a desert botanical garden, a visitors center with art gallery, gift shop, café and the 25,000 sq. ft. historic home.

From the mid 1960s until Mrs. Annenberg’s death in 2009, Sunnylands was a private home. Walter, who died in 2002, made his millions in the publishing industry, and later became an ambassador to the United Kingdom. He and his wife hosted Hollywood celebrities, several U.S. presidents and foreign diplomats at their desert modernist home, designed in the 1960s by architect A. Quincy Jones. Even today, Sunnylands continues to be the site of many political retreats and diplomatic summits. A recent one brought politicians and government officials to discuss U.S.-Mexico relations.

Now the public may tour the home on a limited basis. Tickets are only released on the first and 15th of each month except July 15 and August 1st at a cost of $35 per person. Because tickets sell out quickly, and well in advance, we weren’t able to tour the home on our visit, but we did have the chance to see the gardens and visitors center. These are open without a charge. Hours are Thursdays through Sundays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A bright, spacious lobby area greets guests as they enter the visitors center. It’s evident in the lobby, a fusion of sunlight and building materials was carefully mapped out by architects. They followed the vision by the Annenbergs who sought to allow as much sunlight as much as possible throughout their home. This has extended to the design of the visitors center.

Late fall blossoms at SunnylandsAt Sunnylands, the use of sunlight comprises so much more than simple daylight or sunshine. Architects were clearly ‘leading edge’ with their innovative use of sustainability practices, eco-friendly design and construction. Sunlight becomes an artistic medium for aesthetic expression.

Arizonans who make the three to four hour drive to Sunnylands from Arizona for either a long day trip or as part of a weekend getaway to the Palm Springs-Coachella Valley area, should allow extra time to walk the well-planned and manicured gardens. Those who are frequent visitors at Desert Botanical Gardens and Boyce Thompson Arboretum already know this: you don’t want to zip along through these nature paths. That’s why there are so many benches — to stop and take it all in. And there are a multitude of images to absorb at every turn.

After a tour of the gardens, peruse the lobby with its wide spans of plate glass. I recommend watching the two short videos describing the Annenbergs’ lives, their vision for their estate and their legacy. It’s fascinating to learn how the house design and construction evolved. What’s most notable about the Annenbergs is not their home or their beautiful property — it’s their efforts in philanthropy. The Annenbergs, through the Annenberg Foundation, have made very generous gifts in the areas of education, arts and healthcare. Plus, their vision to establish their estate as a site for stabilizing international relations continues.

Sunnylands visitors will see a sampling of the Annenberg’s art collections in the center galleries. Many famous artists from a variety of periods are represented. Consider ending a visit to Sunnylands with a browse through the gift shop or a relaxing lunch at the café’s outdoor patio.

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Galleries display silver-gilt dinnerware from the Annenbergs' collection

Sunnylands gardens and visitors center

Interactive, educational gallery exhibits

Sunnylands visitors center

 

San Jacinto Mountains provide a nice backdrop for Sunnylands gardens

 

 

Five Reasons to dine at Babe’s Brewhouse in Rancho Mirage

Babe's Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse beer sampler

After a short but steep morning hike in the desert mountains of Rancho Mirage, Calif., (see previous post), we opted for lunch at Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse. Hot, tired, thirsty and hungry, we may have found any restaurant option more than adequate, but we were authentically impressed with this casual barbecue eatery at The River shopping center. So here are five reasons we’ll be returning to Babe’s:

1. Barbecue. We loved the large variety menu selections of barbecue sandwiches, combination plates and platters. Our lunch sandwich temptations included choices of chicken, pork, sausage, brisket or tri-tip with two side selections of French fries, sweet potato fries, cole slaw, baked beans or turkey chili. As a no-risk diner, I stayed on the conservative side and ordered a simple sandwich lunch but other menu selections that raised my interest were: the tri-tip or shrimp po’ boy, or the smoked black angus short rib sandwich with hot link sausage, brisket, grilled onions, pickles with Babe’s spicy sauce. My pulled pork sandwich plate comprised two sandwiches. The meat was tender and juicy and dabbled with Babe’s own barbecue sauce. It wasn’t smothered with sauce, as others have attempted, as if to mask a tough meat cut or to soften up a dried, overcooked brisket. Only negative about this sandwich: it was served on a white refined flour bun. Babe’s barbecue sauce compensated for the bun drawback — it’s just the right balance of smoke, spice and sweet to pair with pork, or any barbecue meat.

2. Service. Our service was right on the mark. Sometimes servers get a little too anxious to try to move customers — ours was not. Some servers lose track of tables and neglect customers — ours did not. Some servers are a little too aggressive, trying to pump up sales for the larger tip — ours did not. He was knowledgeable about the menu products, brews and local area.

Three pigs welcome diners to Babe's Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse

3. Vibe. I’m not sure about using the ‘vibe’ category, but I suspect this includes a description of décor and clientele. One word to describe the casual interior at Babe’s Brew House: whimsical. Okay, maybe the word should be kitschy. Porcine objects are everywhere: pig lamps, pig windows, pig statues, pig pictures. Seating is comfortable, ranging from cozy booths to spacious tables to accommodate groups. We stopped by on a Sunday around noon, so we witnessed an influx of The River center shoppers, seniors, large families and the after-church crowd.

4. Price. All menu items are fairly reasonably priced – especially when you compare prices to other restaurants in the area. Our two sandwiches with beer samples came to less than $50 with tax and tip. (The beer samples were at least half of the bill.) Meal portions are large so two persons could easily split an entrée or sandwich plate.

5. Brews. We sampled six of Babe’s beers: Hog Tie Rye, Babe’s Classic Golden Ale, Honey Blonde Ale, a wheat beer called Das Schwein Dunkel Weizen, 29 Palms Pale Ale and Blackfin Lager. I thought three of the samples were very good: the honey blonde, the dark lager and the 29 Palms. The latter was my favorite — it had just the right balance of malt and hops, an easy drinking pale ale.

Added notes: Babe’s original owner was Donald Callender, known for founding the Marie Callender’s restaurant chain (Marie’s son). He died in 2009, but current chef/brewer/manager Arthur Vasquez continues his legacy.

According to Palm Springs Life’s Desert Guide, Babe’s is the valley’s only onsite brewery.

Babe’s has won awards for Palm Springs Life magazine’s Best of the Best for Best Barbecue Restaurant, Best Happy Hour and Best Cocktails. This  pub’s not only known for its beers, but its signature cocktails.

Pulled pork sandwich platter at Babe's could feed two

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Hike like a local on California’s ‘Bump and Grind’ Trail

Hike like a local on the Bump and Grind Hike

 

Valley and mountain views attract hikers, bikers and runners to Bump and Grind HikeView from our turnaround spot on Bump and Grind TrailPlanning a California getaway to the Palm Springs area? Hiking on the to-do list? Then hike like a local — on the “Bump and Grind” urban hiking trail in Palm Desert.

Our concierge recommended this one. She said it’s where all the locals go. As long as you’re in pretty decent shape, you can make it to the top, and the views up there are terrific, she attested. So we’d thought we give the Bump and Grind a try. (By the way, it’s also known as the Mirage Trail.) This trailhead was near our resort, the Westin Mission Hills (about four miles), so we didn’t have to eat up a good portion of a weekend day driving around or riding a tramway to get to the trailhead. Another advantage: it’s free.

From Rancho Mirage, we drove south down Bob Hope Drive to Highway 111 and parked behind the Desert Crossing shopping center in Palm Desert. It’s a good thing we got there fairly early, as the street parking was filling up fast. (Phoenix urban hikers surely can relate.) Plus the day’s forecast temps were mid- to upper 90s. Dozens of hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers of all ages and abilities wanted to get an early start.

The path itself is much drier, softer and sandier than desert trails we’re used to in the Phoenix area, but it’s wide and well-marked – for the most part. The trailhead is designated as the Mike Schuler Trail at this at the parking area, but it actually picks up the wider Bump and Grind Trail (no sign) as you come around the back lot of Moller’s Garden Center. The first quarter mile is fairly narrow but widens out considerably – like an old Jeep trail.

For those who make it all the way to the top of the approximate two-mile, 1000 feet climb, it’s great workout. It’s a decent workout even going the first half mile. We took our time — snapping pictures, stopping for plenty of water, enjoying spectacular views of the Coachella Valley, Santa Rosa, San Jacinto and Little San Bernadino Mountains, and yielding right-of-way to faster, decisive traffic. We came up to about 1000-foot point (probably about two-thirds of the total distance) before we turned around. The Bump and Grind also is much less ‘green’ than those North or South Mountain or Superstition trails around Phoenix. Very little vegetation is found along the way – only brittle creosote bush.

But local hikers aren’t necessarily there to enjoy plants, wildlife or the trail’s photogenics. Sure, they hike to enjoy the panoramic views from the top. Of course, they hike to burn off calories for their daily or weekend workout. But most importantly, they are hiking there now because ‘they can.’ After a long and hard grassroots effort against California Department of Fish and Game, they can finally hike without threat or fear of being fenced out or hauled off.

It’s a long story, but basically the DFG closed the upper end of the Bump and Grind hike because it claimed big horn sheep used the area during lambing season. Locals cried foul when the DFG claims couldn’t be supported by wildlife management studies. Plus there were confusing proximity issues that seemed baseless. To the local hiking community, shutting down the best section of this scenic hike year-round seemed completely unnecessary. Naturally, locals took all the next logical steps. They started a Facebook page, “Save the Bump and Grind” and wrote to their representatives in the state assembly. Finally new legislation and the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown last month reversed the DFG decision — the last one-half mile would remain closed only for the February to April lambing season.

All’s well that ends well: Local hikers have access restored to most of their Bump and Grind Hike; Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert visitors (like those of us from Arizona) have another hiking area that’s worth exploring.

Tips: 1. No dogs. 2. Consider taking a loop hike in this area. Combine the Mike Schuler Trail-Bump and Grind Trail with the Herb Jeffries Trail and the Hopalong Cassidy Trail. 3. You can also begin the Bump and Grind Hike at the Rancho Mirage-Palm Desert boundary, just past the Desert Drive-Hwy. 111 intersection. Park in the furniture store lot on the west side of the street. 4. Get up-to-date info and advisories before starting out. 5. Pay attention to hiking trail etiquette.

And by the way, if you haven’t tried EveryTrail.com yet, this wiki-style content website and mobile app is worth a closer look. I really like viewing elevation contours and user-posted photos and descriptions along strategic points along the trails.

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Create your own travel memories

Re-create vacation memories with sensory reminders (Image by Royalty-Free/Corbis)Not all vacation memories come in the form of photo snapshots. Not all souvenirs are found in gift shops. You can establish your own souvenirs of your vacation or weekend getaway by re-creating and re-stimulating the senses.

I just returned from a weekend escape at the Westin Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage, California. It was an all-too-quick, but wonderful little getaway – a change of scenery, simply to relax and recharge. I didn’t book any expensive spa treatments and I didn’t take out my frustrations on a golf ball. But I wanted to remember those relaxing “ah” moments. Through my travels, I have found the best way to do that is to bring back little sensory mementos.

Even maps and brochures can bring back vacation feelings

Sight. Obviously all the photos, videos, brochures, postcards will bring back those great vacation feelings immediately. Just upload all the images to your computer and push play. The brochures, maps and cards you picked up at the concierge desk will fill in the blanks if you want to refresh details about your visit. Even my hotel site map from my weekend will bring back some pleasant thoughts of our gorgeous morning walks along the gardens, golf course fairways, tennis courts, spa and playground. Another ideas: Get creative. Remember the way your towels were arranged or folded in your hotel room? You can do the same in your guest bath at home. Like a gallery print from the lobby? You can undoubtedly find one very similar online for your home. Sometimes just simply arranging your seashells in a clear vase or desk lamp pedestal will send you back to your getaway.

Sound. This is a good memory jogger. Most people will remember old songs then recall the accompanying circumstances and situations linked to those songs. On our first night of our Rancho Mirage weekend getaway, we heard a really nice Fireside Lounge performer, Michael Keeth. His music put us into one of those “please-suspend-this-moment-in-time” mind frames. We were perfectly content to listen to the acoustic guitar music while sipping our drinks. We didn’t want to leave. But we were able to get one his CDs. Now we have musical reminders of that wonderful evening.

Candles, soap, lotions are perfect souvenirs

Smell. So many fragrant plants and flowers surround the gardens and golf course at the Westin Mission Hills. Sometime I may want to re-capture that same fantastic aroma to recall a garden walk or morning breeze on the balcony. So I’ll do a little research: identify the origins of those scents and purchase them to enjoy later. Taking home the complimentary hotel hand and body lotions will produce a similar, less dramatic reaction. The same fragrances will remind me of an extra long vacation shower or a bubble bath soak. I like Westin’s fresh White Tea Aloe bath and body collection, so I’ll use it during the hectic work week. The fragrance alone will send me back to my October getaway weekend at the Mission Hills. Other suggestions: buy a candle, sachet, spray or diffuser oil from your spa resort to put in your office. What a great instant de-stressor!

Taste. Ever have such a fantastic dinner — you just had to have the recipe? Just make a simple inquiry. Many chefs will share their most requested dishes, and many bartenders will be happy share their signature drinks. Or if you like experimenting in the kitchen, just try to re-create the dish at home. Investigate possibilities of bringing back or shipping regional delicacies. Check resort websites for posted recipes or online booksellers for cookbooks. It would be nice idea to again share that special honeymoon vacation dinner on your anniversary.

Find resort bedding in online catalogs

Touch. No, I’m not recommending packing up hotel towels or bathrobes. But an increasing number of lodging brands offer linens, bathrobes and other merchandise to guests through a “home collection” catalog or website. Westin, Marriott and Hilton all do. Then you can order that big thirsty bath sheet or snuggly duvet cover for your own home.

Going forward, I’m going to strive to be creative about ways to bring home vacation memories — no more wasting money on cheesy key chains, refrigerator magnets or shot glasses!

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Relaxing Palm Springs not just for golfers

westin mission hills

Relaxing Westin Mission Hills Resort Villas

Within four hours, it’s possible to drive from Phoenix to a popular vacation destination with world-class resorts, spas, golf, shops, attractions and outdoor recreation. And no, I wasn’t referring to a rush-hour marathon, moving at a snail’s pace to Scottsdale. Rather, I was remembering a recent road trip-vacation to Palm Springs, California.

 

fountains

Not all water features are golf course traps at Westin Mission Hills

Sometimes it’s necessary to actually leave Arizona to feel like you’re really “away from it all.” Sure, it’s nice to splurge at a Scottsdale or Phoenix resort for the occasional “staycation,” but traveling to Palm Springs and its environs gives you that “clean getaway” feel. It’s just far enough away so you feel like a tourist, but close enough so you feel like a weekender. One major downside: the drive is a bit tedious. Except for a couple of mildly interesting mountain passes and the Colorado River crossing; it’s mostly mile after mile of monotony. Bring plenty of music or audio books.

tram

Allow time to see the views from the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram

Before I had discovered Palm Springs as a weekend getaway destination, I’d thought there was no reason to stop between Phoenix and the Pacific coastline, except maybe a quick pullover at some place like Palm Springs or Blythe, Calif. for a gas fill-up or a Thirstbuster. As an Arizona newcomer in my 20s, Palm Springs to me was just a bunch of shopping centers, golf courses and retirement homes. Oh, wait….

So I have to confess: when we booked our week at nearby Rancho Mirage, Calif. at the Westin Mission Hills Resort and Spa, I was skeptical. But now I admit: we were impressed at check-in. Front desk and concierge staff were friendly, helpful and efficient. Our one-bedroom villa was clean and spacious. Our balcony easily accommodated a full dining patio set so we could enjoy dawn and dusk overlooking a lush garden area with meandering stream. The main resort facility boasts several open-air dining options for guests’ easygoing breakfasts and casual lunches. The Fireside Lounge bar and outdoor fireplace lures patrons to linger longer. And what better says, “Palm Springs” than to be relaxing in a warm swimming pool or waiting for your next putt while gazing at snow-capped peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains?

palm canyon

Make time for side trips such as hiking in Palm Canyon

If you vacation in Palm Springs — whatever resort you choose — you may get so relaxed and comfortable, you’ll be tempted to abandon those other  activities. Be strong! You can do it all! Just allow an extra day or two for hiking into Palm Canyon, riding up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, visiting the Living Desert Zoo and touring Joshua Tree National Park. (Better make that three or four extra days.) Or you could meld into the stereotype: golf, eat, drink, shop. There’s nothing wrong with that either!

Consider spending one day for a cruise past examples of desert modernism architecture, because Palm Springs is the prime location of these post-World War II sleek, angular structural designs.  And if you’re a fan of TV’s “Mad Men,” you’re quite possibly in the best place to channel your “inner Don Draper” with a tour of 1950s and 60s-era homes, hotels and office buildings. Or course, that would mean leaving your Old Fashioned drink and your comfy spot in the cocktail lounge.

Readers: What are your favorite southern California getaways? I would love to get your comments… you can also follow me on Twitter (@azgetawaytravel) or ‘like’ me on Facebook. Read other Southwest Travel blogs at AZCVoices/Travel.