Step off the plane on your way to Palm Desert, and it doesn’t take long to realize you’re not at home anymore.
You’ll fly into the airport in adjacent Palm Springs and walk into the Sonny Bono Concourse, named for the ’60s pop star turned politician who died in a skiing accident in 1998. On the way to baggage claim, you’ll take the escalator down to a palm-filled, open-air courtyard.
Vacation has definitely begun.
The first thing you need to know about packing for Palm Desert is that you can leave the raincoat and umbrella at home, even if you’re the cautious type. “Not a cloud in the sky” describes the area pretty well. The National Weather Service defines a “sunny day” as one in which there are no opaque clouds in the sky. On average, Palm Desert boasts 350 of those every year. (By contrast, Nashville averages 208.)
Those sunny days turn scorching hot in summer, when temperatures can reach 110 degrees and even higher. But from October through May, Palm Desert is truly an oasis, a paradise for golfers, tennis players, tanners and swimmers, foodies, shoppers and art lovers.
A resort built to impress
The sprawling J.W. Marriott Desert Springs Resort and Spa is the perfect base of operations for a Palm Desert getaway. Just about anything you want to do can be done on the 400-acre resort.
Start with the resort’s massive eight-story lobby. From a 60-foot bar (lively at night) to a mosaic water wall, the leveled lobby is built to impress. There’s a Starbucks and a sushi bar and a wall of windows that looks out on the glimmering pool and the mountains beyond. On the far side of the lobby, you can catch a water taxi to one of the hotel’s restaurants. You can walk if you want to; the restaurants are close by and the meandering paths are fun to navigate, but how often can you take a water taxi to a Japanese steakhouse?
Dining choices at the resort include the Rockwood Grill, for farm-to-table cuisine and a hearty breakfast buffet; the Mikado Japanese Steakhouse; and Fisherman’s Landing, with a menu of seafood specialties including the $80 Seafood Tower, a mountain of crab legs, ahi sashimi, shrimp, mussels, oysters, ahi poke and scallops. Other entrees are more down-to-earth in price. My shrimp po’ boy ($12) rivaled ones I’ve had in Louisiana.
For relaxation and rejuvenation, it’s hard to beat the 38,000-square-foot Spa at Desert Springs. With 48 spacious treatment rooms, a salon and a saltwater pool, it’s one of the largest spas west of the Mississippi. A wide array of aromatherapy treatments, massages, wraps, scrubs and facials is available. For something different — and local — try a Date Scrub. Dates are grown locally in the Coachella Valley and are a natural antiseptic.
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There’s plenty for the athlete at Desert Springs: two 18-hole golf courses, a putting green and miniature golf course and tennis on three surfaces — hardcourt, clay and grass. There’s a jogging trail and a resort gym that’s a true gem, many steps above the basic equipment you find in a standard hotel fitness facility. The resort’s heated outdoor pool has plenty of chairs and cabanas and poolside drink service.
Art and shopping galore
Off the resort, you’ll find a plethora of art in Palm Desert. The Palm Springs Art Museum and its Palm Desert outpost both have excellent, eclectic collections. Admission is free at the Palm Desert location; there is a charge at the Palm Springs Museum. Both are closed on Mondays.
But in public spaces, you’ll also find notable treasures. On select Saturdays from September through May, the city offers free one-hour guided tours through Civic Center Park and a few other places. Bring comfy shoes and a bottle of water. It’s a popular activity; on the morning of our walk, more than a dozen people showed up, along with a few dogs. Check the city’s website for tour dates and locations.
There’s also art along El Paseo, the city’s answer to Rodeo Drive. It’s a shopper’s delight, with more than 250 high-end shops and restaurants.
To sample some of those El Paseo goodies, take a Desert Tasty Tour. The three-hour walking tour covers one mile and provides generous samples from six restaurants. We started our tour at Wilma and Frieda, a restaurant featuring comfort foods with a modern twist. Owner Kelly McFall opened the restaurant, named for her grandmothers, in 2013 with the help of crowdsourcing website Kickstarter. The restaurant’s breakfast and weekend brunch has a loyal following and features its own signature blend from Koffi, a local roaster.
Nearer to the Desert Springs Resort, sample California cuisine at its best at Cork Tree, which features many locally sourced products and inventive dishes, such as Organic Rainbow Beet Salad and Oven Roasted Loch Duart Salmon with Dungeness Crab-Horseradish Crust.
To get back to nature, visit the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. Stroll the Living Desert’s collection of native plants and check out its more than 400 animals, including desert tortoises and the endangered Mexican wolf.
With that, vacation is over, so it’s back to the Sonny Bono Concourse. Going up that escalator at 5 a.m., I found myself humming Sonny and Cher’s 1965 hit “Baby, Don’t Go.” It should be the airport’s theme song.
If you go
J.W. Marriott Resort and Spa
74-855 Country Club Drive, Palm Desert, Calif.
The Spa at Desert Springs
74-855 Country Club Drive, Palm Desert, Calif.
City of Palm Desert Public Art Tours
Palm Springs Art Museum
101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs, Calif.
Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Desert
72467 CA-111, Palm Desert, Calif.
El Paseo Shopping District
Desert Tasty Tours
Wilma and Frieda
73575 El Paseo, Palm Desert, Calif.
74950 Country Club Drive, Palm Desert, Calif.
Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
47900 Portola Ave., Palm Desert, Calif.
Jayne Cannon, For The Tennessean 11:05 p.m. CDT April 23, 2016