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Some Like It Hot 

Need a break from crowds and loud music? Check out Desert Hot Springs, the anti-Coachella

Wednesday, Apr 26 2006
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Locals say that no one arrives in Desert Hot Springs by accident, but that’s exactly what happened when Cabot Yerxa first settled the place in 1913, after prospecting in the Klondike, building houses in Cuba and watching a citrus investment in Riverside go bad from frost. It was also an accident when Cabot and his burro Merry Christmas found hot water with hand-dug wells. (He was looking for drinking water.) Miracle Hill, the site of that discovery, is where the water is hottest, and today it’s where the best hotels tend to be.

What makes this region flourish is also its greatest threat. From the air, you can see it: a sharp dividing line, running west by southwest across the Coachella Valley. It’s a part of the San Andreas that hasn’t popped for three centuries, not the strike-slipped chasm that breaches the surface elsewhere, but rather a lush vegetative imprint spreading north from the fault to mark what lies below: water. The fault zones dam the ground water into aquifers that turn the desert floor fertile. And therapeutic. The area’s earliest spa-goers, the Cahuilla Indians, first discovered this amenity in places like Palm Springs’ Agua Caliente. There, the water rises to the surface. Up the hill, you have to dig for it, and that may be why poor Desert Hot Springs has always been smaller and scrappier than its high-class cousin.

But that’s all been changing. As the great Los Angeles real estate bubble spreads halfway to Arizona, gentrification has made Desert Hot Springs its new frontier. Only a few years ago, Desert Hot Springs was mostly a last stop for rehab refugees, itinerant outlaw bikers and bandanna-wearing three-legged dogs. But the hammer and anvil of artists rejuvenating Joshua Tree and modernists moving in on Palm Springs are turning Desert Hot Springs into what the city’s General Plan describes as a “health and wellness destination.” Many of the city’s more than 40 down-and-out spa motels have been rehabilitated into boutique-style retreats, smaller and cozier and nicer to stay at than the mega-spa barracks of Palm Springs. The once-neglected city may become the prime destination it always hoped to be.

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Beat the Retreat

Leading the restoration charge was Miracle Manor, a six-room motel purchased by architect Michael Rotundi in 1999. The postwar motel vernacular of the first Desert Hot Springs heyday, in the ’50s, naturally lends itself to Rotundi’s tastefully minimalist design and decoration. The place is on the high end — $175 per night, $200 with a kitchen — and is now reinforcing itself as a retreat, with a three-night minimum stay and no phones, faxes, music, television, children or pets; the extended sensory deprivation may be worth it.

Hope Springs Eternal

Nearby Hope Springs, once called Cactus Springs, is another desert Zen experience, perhaps more heavily informed by Design Within Reach. Steve Samioff did the conversion, filling the not-quite-spartan rooms with Saarinen and Eames and creating an incredible lobby with terrazzo floors, a fire pit and a dramatic suspended flue. Hope Springs is similarly priced, child- and pet-free, and the management “discourages” contact with the outside world during the two-night minimum stay, but there is, of course, free wi-fi everywhere, even by the three pools.

Visit the Vortex

The first thing you encounter in the lobby of The Spring is a cold glass of crisp, invigorating, lemon-twisted mineral water. Once refreshed, you learn it’s from the tap. “In Desert Hot Springs,” says Dana Smith, the Spring’s manager, “even the tap water is magical. That’s why it was voted the best drinking water in the country.” The Spring is the most New Age spa on Miracle Hill, geared a bit more toward fasting programs, and the second thing you may encounter in the lobby is Enya. And if you stick around long enough, Smith will probably explain how the water’s magic is derived from the local “vortex,” a phenomenon, he says, that “has something to do with the fact that right here the earth, the water, the wind and the air combine. I don’t know if you believe in all this stuff, but it’s a real positive force.”

I don’t, but it is true that the tap water, which flows from the San Gorgonios and filters through the valley’s porous alluvium for seven years before it reaches the city’s Mission Springs Water District, has won five medals at the international Berkeley Springs Water Tasting and Competition. You can see the San Gorgonios, snowcapped in winter, as you head down the Spring’s lawn to its extensive spa facilities, where there are rooms for dry and wet treatments and an imported Finnish sauna. My first-ever salt scrub was enjoyable, but my girlfriend’s cranial massage was some kind of vortextual laying on of hands from which she did not want to emerge. It could also have been that she was closer to the sauna, and therefore got more exposure to its “negative ions,” which Smith had pointed out earlier are counterintuitively named, since they’re “the ones that are good for you.”

Made in the Shade

Just down the hill from the Spring’s sauna is the Hacienda Hot Springs Inn, a welcoming compound owned by William Dailey, owner of Dailey Rare Books in Los Angeles. He bought the place almost three years ago and spent the first 18 months restoring it. The grounds are shaded by a tall mesquite and several ficus, and when I was there, the new orange trees were ripe with fruit. Dailey’s catholic taste gives the Hacienda an omni-rustic feeling that nicely complements the scene’s prevailing austerity. The rooms and common areas are filled with books (all for sale), Mission settles, old hickory chairs and vintage Seven-Up crates filled with eclectic vinyl. The rec room’s veranda has an exterior barbecue and a circa-1940 Wolf Range that has a giant griddle on it, upon which Bill welcomes guests to make morning pancakes.

An interesting feature of the Hacienda is Dailey himself. He’s collected a lot of historical material about the city: post cards, pictures, geological surveys, written stories from old-timers, anything he can get his hands on. He loves working on his Desert Hot Springs bibliography, making him an unofficial town historian.

On several drives, Dailey provided a comprehensive lay of the land. We saw the site of the first “public plunge,” Coffee’s, torn down in the ’60s. There were remnants of old Desert Hot Springs — spas like the Highlander, which are a little rundown, but cheap, and have a loyal crowd. We saw some crack-era desert vibes, like a dude installing 20-inch rims on his gold Honda with a black pit bull standing by. Then we passed the Monte Carlo, which used to be a free-love joint. “In the dark days, that was a common subtext of the spa scene,” Dailey said. “Even when I opened, a couple of guys checked in, looked around and confused me by asking, ‘So, where’s the action?’ ”

But mostly a drive around reveals renewal: a half-dozen spas bought by Koreans; a half-dozen more bought by restoration-minded Angelenos; Marmol Radzinger’s demonstration prefab architectural home on a hill at the edge of town. Even the Christian nudists are in on the action: The former Kismet Lodge, whose sign bears two crossed scimitars, has recently become the Living Waters, an attempt to take agape down the “clothing optional” road.

Beyond the spas, however, unrestrained development looms. “The only problem with Desert Hot Springs,” Dailey said, “is the city itself.” The spas don’t interest the Chamber of Commerce, he said. “This place is a boomtown, and all they care about is turning the place into subdivisions, while turning a huge profit.” Over at the Water District offices, a map on the wall showed the spreading skein of main lines that are turning the desert into one-, two- and three-thousand-tract-home communities. “And that map is outdated,” Dailey said. In Desert Hot Springs, the usual cycle of gentrification-beachhead followed by big developers is accelerated, almost simultaneous. Soon, the town’s first Starbucks will shine its beacon over Palm Drive, the main drag. Get to Desert Hot Springs soon.?

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