What the desert lacks in natural greenery can sometimes be found via manmade luxury. Once considered a wasteland that couldn’t possibly be developed into anything resembling a deluxe destination, areas of California’s moody Mojave Desert have in recent years seen a growing number of noteworthy luxury accommodations and resorts. Bordering it on the south, Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, America’s hottest, has likewise seen a flood of travelers seeking an exotic desert experience without the need to join a Bedouin caravan in the Sahara.
All across the American Southwest, in fact, stressed and weary travelers are warming up, powering down and taking in the cacti and mountain shadows. And, whenever possible, they’re luxuriating at resorts surrounded by shifting, whispering sands and that promise secret verdant courtyards, progressive spas and down-home attitude.
For years, Palm Springs, California, has been attracting Hollywood stars and starlets with its mix of old-school class and increasingly modern amenities. But unlike other hot zones, Palm Springs offers celebrities—and the less famous—the chance to chill out.
"This is the paparazzi-free zone," says Mark Graves, spokesperson for the Palm Springs Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "Hollywood history has stuck around the desert, where celebrities still slip away to gated villas and inns in secluded small neighborhoods, for decades,” he adds, “and the mystique is still here.” While some resorts are punctuated with big box resorts, this desert getaway has managed to preserve a sense of history along quiet streets evocatively lined with lush palm trees.
When you want to make yourself at home on the range in this chic desert hideaway, the choices include the intimate eight-guestroom Willows. The inn sits atop a stupendous rock formation with a natural waterfall—catch the mist while dining on a superb homemade breakfast—and the rooms, like the Einstein Suite, quietly honor previous illustrious guests. When you want to get up close and personal with the desert floor, ask the concierge to call Elite Land Tours and arrange for their Hummer to pick you up for a private tour of Joshua Tree National Park. The company also organizes excursions to the mother of all earthquake faults, the San Andreas.
Korakia Pensione seems much larger than the 1.5 acres it covers. It remains the secret getaway for the Hollywood celebrity and agent crowd. Moroccan-inspired and decorated with one-of-a-kind furnishings and accessories, this setting was designed to protect the privacy of guests in spacious bungalows surrounded by romantic gardens and inviting pools.
Why pack stiletto heels from Jimmy Choo when (in these parts) you should be rounding out your wardrobe with a ten-gallon hat, Tony Lama boots and durable denims? Families seeking a vintage yet authentic dude ranch experience will find rustic nirvana at the 375-acre Smoke Tree Ranch. It was established in 1925, when Palm Springs was in its infancy. It’s a fitting place to hang one’s Stetson, with a landscape that hits like a work of art as soon as you enter the private gate off Highway 111. And though it’s just minutes from commercial hubbub and a Holiday Inn Express, it’s still worlds away from both. There are 53 comfortable guest cottages shrouded in pink bougainvillea and jasmine, and set among the intentionally preserved wide open spaces.
This ultra-private community has been attracting families for generations, thanks to its bonfires, cookouts in the nearby Indian Canyons, family movies and horseback rides. The original homeowners included Walt Disney, so it’s little wonder newcomers will find this destination to be a blast from the past. This is an all-inclusive American Plan resort, with three square meals daily, buffet style and from the menu.
If Smoke Tree is too Western for Easterners, there’s El Morocco Inn & Spa in Desert Hot Springs. This inimitable 12-room inn shed its mid-century origins when transformed by new owners into an homage to the classic film "Casablanca". Each room is decorated to the hilt with Moroccan antiques and posters from the early 20th century. King-size beds (and one room with a round bed) are reminiscent of a harem suite at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. There’s even an original hand-painted Moroccan tent on the grounds — “the only one in the desert,” says owner Bruce Abney. If the mild desert breezes aren’t enough to evoke an exotic trip to Fes, an aromatherapy massage and exotic essential oils might do the trick.
The Californian desert doesn’t have a monopoly on luxury lodging options. Consider the CopperWynd Resortin Phoenix, where European style meets desert deluxe. Reserve the Sonoran Amethyst Renewal Body Treatment or the Champagne and Rose Facial and you might choose to skip your morning horseback ride.
When he stopped by Phoenix’s Royal Palms Resort and Spafor a few days back in 2004, President George Bush didn’t have to wear his name tag. Resting at the base of Camelback Mountain, it was opened in 1926 by Delos Cooke, an avid traveler and art collector. Today's 119 rooms, suites and casitas are in harmony with the aesthetic of the original Spanish colonial mansion, and guests are entertained with horseback riding, golf and guided hikes.
Out Tucson way, check out The Boulders Resort and Golden Door Spa in a place called Carefree (12 miles from Scottsdale) where you can hit the hiking trails day or night. A “Moonlight” hike is now on the menu, too. If you need to cool off, the Golden Door Spa has the solution with more body and skincare treatments than spots on a gecko.
So take to the desert, add a touch of deluxe, and regardless of how high the mercury rises, you’ll be on your way to a surprisingly refreshing travel experience.