Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Borrego's La Casa del Zorro: America's Greatest Getaway

A traffic jam on Palm Canyon Drive in Borrego Springs
When you hear the words Palm Canyon Drive, you probably think of the main drag in Palm Springs, where you're likely to get a strong whiff of Polo cologne and see balding, middle-aged men cruising in convertible Lamborghini's and leather-skinned, Gucci-loving, poodle-clutching shoppers who've had a few too many plastic surgeries. 

But there's another Palm Canyon Drive in another Southern California desert community that has an altogether different vibe. The Palm Canyon Drive I'm talking about, which is known for its down-to-earth, art-loving locals and fun, hole-in-the-wall eateries and shops, is the main street in Borrego Springs, a charming little town happily isolated within the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Just 90 minutes from San Diego, and refreshingly worlds away from Palm Springs, Borrego Springs, or Borrego as I prefer to call it, is a quiet, scenic, visitor-friendly desert gem with no pretense and no stoplights. It is what Palm Springs probably was 60 years ago. But I doubt Palm Springs was ever this peaceful.

Borrego has been a favorite destination of mine for more than 25 years, and the jewel in its crown remains La Casa del Zorro ("House of the fox"), an extraordinary desert respite that is the closest thing to paradise for those among us who crave rustic American elegance. Can a resort hotel really be this classy and upscale and yet stay utterly grounded and unpretentious? La Casa somehow pulls it off. It represents that rarest of things: unassuming luxury. 

Built in the 1930s, the sun-drenched retreat boasts impeccably landscaped grounds, an impressively knowledgeable and ever-pleasant staff, and tons of things to do when you're not blissfully floating on a pool raft while trying (but not trying too hard) to remember your own middle name.

As many of my readers know, we're a tennis family, and La Casa has an outstanding tennis facility with six lighted, pristine courts. A pro is available if you want a lesson. 
There are also jogging paths, a fitness center, a yoga studio, shuffleboard, ping pong, horseshoes, a full-service spa, a terrific gourmet restaurant as well as a more casual bar and restaurant, and the championship Rams Hill Golf Course next door.

A quieter and more romantic alternative to the corporate, cookie-cutter resort hotel haunts in Palm Springs, La Casa is the perfect blend of earthy and luxurious. For my money, it is America's Greatest Getaway. No other place gives me a greater sense of tranquility. Nowhere do I feel more comfortably distanced from the maddening crowds.

These days, I'm not as interested in exploring the world's four corners. I'm all about getaways that aren't too far away. As a cancer survivor I've had my share of life-altering battles. Long-distance travel is more stress and trouble than it's worth. For me, now, it's about enjoying every minute. And the closer to home the better, as long as we don't feel close to home. 

I love to find relatively nearby places with my family where we can recharge and regroup, places that feed our soul and mind and relax us but still satisfy our curious natures. Don't get me wrong: I'm still a working journalist and author and I love my work. I'll probably never retire. But I do like to take a little more time now between assignments. 

I enjoy the four-day weekends and three-day work weeks, if and whenever possible. I suspect you do, too, or you probably wouldn't still be reading this. And the place to enjoy them is La Casa. It's my first choice when I want to turn off my smartphone and my semi-smart brain. As they said in those 1970's Alka-Seltzer commercials, "Try it, you'll like it!"  

To fully appreciate the La Casa experience, book yourself into one of the casitas, the spacious private homes with their own pool. These are truly homes away from home, with wood-burning fireplaces, service bars, and total privacy. The Casitas' interiors have been upgraded since we last stayed there. They're beautifully furnished now but still offer classic Southwest desert decor.

Welcome Back, La Casa! 

La Casa del Zorro's welcoming lobby awaits you
Unbelievably, La Casa shut its glorious carved-wood doors back in 2010 after it was sold a few years prior to that by longtime owner David Copley, whose family owned Copley Press, including the San Diego Union-Tribune. The new owner, Greg Perlman, rolled into Borrego like a villain in a Clint Eastwood flick, showing up with an oversized ego and all the grace and finesse of a bighorn sheep with a big thorn stuck in his paw. 

Multiple sources tell me that Perlman tried to single-handedly turn Borrego into another Palm Springs. Yikes. And while doing so he had very little regard, I'm told, for the natural charm of the resort or the innate value of the town's wonderful residents. He almost destroyed the place. 

The hotel was shuttered for three years and no one was certain if it would ever reopen. It was a huge blow to the Borrego economy and spirit, needless to say, and a huge loss for so many who love to visit the resort.

But La Casa has new ownership and management, and this time they're doing it right. The new proprietors have upgraded but not detracted. And they've smartly embraced the locals. This is still a resort that caters to tourists from all over the world, but now the hotel is also a proud part of the community. 

Borrego's own, who include about 25,000 seasonal residents and some 3,500 who stick it out even during the blisteringly hot summer months, can use the fitness and tennis facilities now, enjoy the restaurants, etc. 

Rediscover Your Love For Nature 

Unless you're Woody Allen or you're allergic to sunlight, you can't spend your entire La Casa stay in your air-conditioned casita, as tempting as this can sometimes be. Why? Because you love nature. Yes, you do, really. And there's a reason why Borrego is best known for its hiking and scenic desert tours. 

During nature hikes with my family and friends, the abundance of life we find in what some city slickers shallowly think is the lifeless desert always renews our sense of wonder. We especially love our encounters with the critters. Even the shortest of hikes in the Anza-Borrego Desert will probably introduce you to coyotes (don't worry, they're more scared of you than you are of them), as well as road runners, eagles, desert foxes, jack rabbits, bighorn sheep (if you're lucky), rattlesnakes (if you're unlucky, just keep walking), and more.

The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park offers all kinds of jaw-dropping scenery, from the wildflowers in early spring to the canyons to the buttes to the mesas. Highlights include Font's Point, Borrego Palm Canyon, 17 Palm Oasis, Southern Emigrant Trail and Split Mountain. 

The park's main visitors' center offers a wide variety of programs, short and entertaining educational films, tours, etc., covering areas such as paleontology, geology, animal/plant life, astronomy, history and more. The visitors' center is just west of town off Palm Canyon Drive, call them at 760-767-4205.

And bring your telescope. Borrego is surrounded by the majestic Santa Rosa Mountains which help block out interfering light. Borrego, one of the best places in the nation for stargazing, is one of just seven "dark-sky communities" in the world and the only one in California. You may never see a more crystal-clear desert sky. You'll see huge clusters of stars, but thankfully very few of the Hollywood variety.

A drive into "town" and a walk along Palm Canyon Drive is also a must. It's still spring in Borrego, it's hot now, but not too hot. But in a couple of months, only the real diehard desert rats and sun worshippers will be out there. 

While in town, eat at Carlee's Place, our favorite local hangout. This retro restaurant/bar with the cushy red leather booths has good old-fashioned comfort food - steaks, pizza, burgers, pasta, onion rings, chocolate cake, etc. The atmosphere is friendly, casual and fun. And yes, it's cool. Literally. The A/C is always cranking. There's live music some nights.

But Beware the Borrego Dinosaurs!

And finally, one of the newest and most amazing Borrego highlights inside and outside of La Casa's grounds are the dinosaurs. Yes, the dinosaurs like the one on the right, and the other metal but chillingly lifelike sculptures that dot the landscape now from one side of town to the other. The 130 welded artworks include a T. Rex, sabertooth tigers, wild horses, desert tortoises and other creatures that inhabited this area millions of years ago, as well as historical characters, and even a 350-foot-long serpent that is one of the most creative sculptures I've seen.

The fabulous art was commissioned by the late Dennis Avery, land owner of Galleta Meadows Estates in Borrego Springs, who had the idea of adding free-standing art to his property created by brilliant artist and welder Ricardo Breceda, who's based in Perris, California. It is a unique and amazing public art project and something of which Borrego locals are rightly proud.

One final suggestion: If you're coming out to La Casa del Zorro from San Diego, stop first in the quaint mountain town of Julian. It's on the way. Have a piece of Julian's famous apple pie, go horseback riding or just walk around that heart-stealing mountain community and explore. Meet the friendly Julian locals and contribute to their economy before heading down the mountain and into the glorious desert. This is a trip I promise you'll never forget.


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