Coachella Valley-Rancho Mirage-Palm Springs Getaway

Often our trips to the Palm Springs, Calif. area involve little more than dining, shopping, relaxing poolside with an icy drink and a good book. We wanted to do a bit more this visit; we planned a couple of hikes, a tramway trip to the top of San Jacinto Mountains followed by the inevitable dining, shopping and relaxing poolside. But we found ourselves in the first week of this month with temperatures well below the average, accompanied by strong winds, rain, and at the top of the mountain: snow. Which brings us to the number one travel tip: Always have a “plan b.”

The first morning we started out with a short hike. The winds were whipping around the desert at 30 mph, so we located a short hike that was somewhat protected by nearby hills and a thousand or so palms: the easy 1.7 miles to McCallum Pond at Coachella Valley Preserve.

Our second hike on this getaway weekend was also fairly short. We made the 1.8-mile climb up to Tahquitz Canyon Falls.

Both hikes are excellent for all ages and abilities. Both offer great views, geographic variety and photographic possibilities. Both can be prime activities for those looking for one to two hour excursions to supplement a day of shopping, sightseeing, a round of golf or lounging poolside.

In the case of inclement weather, always have a few indoor activities lined up. Several museums, shopping malls, galleries in the area provide indoor things-to-do. Because both my husband and I enjoy craft beer, we opted to visit two of several craft beer breweries. One is La Quinta Brewing in La Quinta, a 15-20 minute drive from Palm Springs. Old Town La Quinta is a picturesque and pleasant array of shops, galleries and eateries.

Beers sampled at La Quinta included the Poolside Blonde, an easy-drinking, light blonde ale, the Bloody Hot Summer, a refreshing, fruity beer, the Even Par 7.2 IPA, a smooth, perfectly balanced IPA, the Heatwave Amber Ale, a tasty brew with malt and caramel, and the Koffi Porter, with rich coffee, chocolate and malt.

 

The second brewery we visited was Coachella Valley Brewing Company, located about two miles north of our resort Westin Mission Hills.

Coachella Valley Brewing (or CVB) has many types of brews with a wide variety of flavors and blends, something for almost everyone, except the amber, red or brown ale drinker.  Beers we enjoyed were the I-10 IPA, a lower alcohol session IPA, the Kolschella, a refreshing Kolsch-style German ale, the Harvester, an imperial IPA with grapefruit, and the Palms to Pines, a triple IPA at 13 percent APV!

After a weekend of wind and rain, we wrapped up our getaway with a day of abundant sunshine next to the Westin Mission Hills pool. We like to recommend: Allow ample time on the last day to let the events of your vacation soak in. Let the intermittent bursts of kids splashing and laughing blended with faint sounds of different styles of music and low rumble of adult chatter lull you into relaxation as you turn the page of your book or magazine or swipe your Kindle. Gaze up at the sun through the palms, take a deep breath and know: no matter what the weather or other environmental factors; you’ve had the time to unwind.

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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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.