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 La Quinta Resort & Spa Blooms Beautifully in the Desert

Like his Old Testament namesake, Rafael Corona is an angel, albeit an earthbound one who works his miracles in the desert of Palm Springs, California. Turn up Eisenhower Drive, and a mass of petunias, pansies, poinsettia, geraniums, begonias, dahlias and daisies will rise up before you, a riot of red and fuchsia, purple and pink, lavender and gold filling the center aisle of the long cobblestone road that runs straight up to the entrance of La Quinta Resort and Club.

Master Gardener Rafael Corona and his gardens - click to enlarge
Master Gardener Rafael Corona and his gardens

The first of many miracles created and tended by Rafael and his staff, it sets the stage for the multitude of gardens that -- along with tangerine, lemon, orange and grapefruit trees, cypress trees like something out of Italy, olive trees like something out of Spain, and a range of cacti and wild grasses native to the region -- punctuate the 562 whitewashed and red tile-roofed Spanish-style casitas, embrace the winding paths and levels of Main Square, and bloom in the middle of avenues lined with towering date palms that come smack up against the rugged Santa Rosa Mountains.

“This is a place filled with history,” Bob Buttaro, the young Boston-born and bred public relations director of La Quinta tells us when we meet him by the flagpole outside the lobby on Main Square. Rising above the rooftops, it will prove a useful landmark later on when we try to find our way on our own. It is a beautiful morning. The sun is shining, the sky is cloudless, the temperature is in the low seventies, and the air is desert-dry. “Typical weather for January,” says Bob who has resettled, apparently contentedly, in the southern California environs.

We are trying to get our bearings this first morning of our stay. La Quinta is a 45-acre property. It would be impossible to see all of it on foot. Ultimately we’d have to succumb to one of the many golf carts that are continuously shuttling people from one place to another. But for the moment, nothing seems more appealing than a stroll. We feel  as if we are in an enchanted village where one could spend hours just walking around, coming across little coves and nooks not noticed before. And wherever we go, there will be beds of brilliant flowers, so perfectly tended one would be hard pressed to find a faded blossom.

We pass garden walls draped with flaming bougainvillea hiding secreted little courtyards, and multiple clusters of casitas and suites, each surrounding a quad with its own small swimming pool and hot tub. All told, there are 41 pools on the property, Bob tells us, which include a number of Olympic-size pools with cabanas and a children’s pool beside a play area. A popular event at one of the larger pools is the “Dive-In Movie” on Friday and Saturday nights where one can hang out in or beside the pool and watch new release. But the idea of a swimming in a little  pool just outside your own casita seemed  to hold a special appeal.

“The resort was the dream of Walter Morgan, a wealthy businessman out of San Francisco,” Bob says. “During World War I, he was in a foxhole on a battlefield, and he told his companion, ‘If we ever get out of this, we’re gonna build a nice place that’s warm where we can get away.’

“After the war, he came down to this area and bought 1,400 acres from the Cahuilla Indian tribe. He tried to incorporate some of their traditions in the resort. You’ll see a lot of blue accents around – the umbrellas, chaises, awnings, for example – because the Indians believed blue would ward off evil spirits.”

He goes on, “The city of La Quinta was not incorporated until 1982. Along with Beverly Hills, this is the only city that was named after its famous resort. But back then, there was nothing much out here. People would only go as far as Palm Springs. The road from Palm Springs to this area was pretty treacherous; horse and carriage was the typical means of transportation.

“Morgan was undaunted however. He hired Gordon Kaufman, the architect of the L.A.Times building, to design an adobe, hacienda-style hotel. He knew a lot of people from the Los Angeles area, and many of them came down to the unofficial opening of the hotel December 26, 1926. The next year he staged the grand opening, and it took off becoming a popular destination with a particular attraction for the Hollywood crowd.”

Bob stops in front of a casita. “You’ll find that many of the casitas are named for saints, a carry-over from the time of the Spanish Conquistadores,” he says. “But this one is named for Frank Capra. He wrote ‘It Happened One Night’ here. After it won the Academy Award, he kept coming back, always staying in this casita, went on to write ‘You Can’t Take it With You’ and other films here. He was a superstitious man, used to sit on this bench – it was in front of the lobby then – and act as unofficial greeter.

“Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Katherine Hepburn – they were all frequent guests. So was the artist Diego Rivera. This was his getaway. A place that he viewed as an encouragement of his art.”

Greta Garbo, we learned, had her own casita at La Quinta. Not surprisingly, the reclusive movie star whose signature comment was “I vant to be alone” selected a casita that was a considerable remove from the Main Plaza with its shops and restaurants. As a result, whenever she ran low on cigarettes, she was faced with a long walk. But that never fazed her. “I’d walk a mile for a Camel,” she often said, providing R. J. Reynolds with its universally known and still-recalled slogan.

Virtually around the corner from Greta Garbo’s casita (which is still in operation and named for the late actress), is the Arzner Suite named for Dorothy Arzner, Hollywood’s first female film director. A complete house with two bedrooms and two bathrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen and backyard with patio and several blooming tangerine trees, it is a study in Art Deco design down to the smallest details including a pair of small onyx statues of elongated greyhounds that stand on the mantle of a black granite fireplace. Along with the wall sconces, period furniture and a coppery painting of elongated women in Grecian dress, they contribute to the  aura of 20th century Hollywood glamour that pervades the entire property. Tall windows behind drapes are covered with long white shutters. Open them, and sunlight filters through the slats. Spend a day here, and you’ll submit to the illusion that, like Mia Farrow in “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” you have stepped across the footlights onto the silver screen.

 A few blocks from the Arzner Suite, a long palm-lined avenue ends at La Quinta’s 23-court Tennis Center. A combination of clay and hard courts with a sunken center court designed for tournament play, a café, shop, swimming pool, and teenagers’ arcade, the center runs right up to an imposing jagged mountainside, a cinema-worthy backdrop to the scene.

In the opposite direction, the bell tower of the resort’s brand new spa rises above the rooftops. Keeping this second landmark in sight and mind, we walked back down the avenue with Bob, turned left, and after a few blocks came upon a white stucco structure that looks like a Californian mission. It has a “California” ambience to match, something we picked up as soon as we stepped into the entrance court where water from an ornate clay-colored fountain splashes into a circular pool of blue and white ceramic tiles, and paving stones are inscribed with the words: “light,” “joy,” “beauty,” “harmony,” and “power.”

All of which describe Leslie Johnson, the effervescent and very “California” spa director who met us at the front door of her 23,000 square-foot, orchid-filled domain. Behind her in a soaring foyer, receptionists were busy checking in clients for any of 38 treatments. Just beyond, a hair salon was getting the finishing touches – it would be opening within the next week. And out the back door were more of the glorious La Quinta gardens, some walled off into small retreats that could be accessed only via particular rooms allowing clients to enjoy their spa experience outdoors in complete privacy. In the midst of the gardens are 12 outdoor water facilities: tubs and celestial showers open only to the sky.

“I’m a believer in possibilities,” Leslie, who is tall, blonde, and fit, tells us, “and when I arrived and saw the resort and all it offers, I realized how much potential there is here. The nature is so perfect, so spiritual. Sitting in the courtyard, looking at the reflection of the mountains is bound to inspire serenity.

The very “California” Spa Director Leslie Johnson - click to enlarge
The very “California” Spa Director Leslie Johnson
Hot tub in a private retreat in La Quinta’s Spa - click to enlarge
Hot tub in a private retreat in La Quinta’s Spa

“Since a very young age I have been intensely curious about who we are, how life happens, our relationship with ourselves, how we set a tone as we move through our days,” she continues. “Health and wellness has always been a preoccupation, and so I am introducing new lines of products that focus on healthful ingredients. There will be a spectrum of them, something for everyone.”

If there will be something for everyone at the spa, there is already something for everyone at La Quinta’s three restaurants, all located in the Main Plaza area (“the hub of everything,” according to Bob). TWENTY6, named for  the year of the resort’s opening, is an all-American bistro with an indoor dining room and large outdoor patio. The all-day venue serves comfort foods like meatballs and spaghetti, albeit with a creative, modern twist.

Adobe sits on the upper level of Main Square with a  broad dining terrace that looks out to gardens and mountains beyond. Its dining room, which serves authentic Mexican cuisine,  excellent margaritas and award-winning tamales, is large and lively. Diners at Adobe are treated to live music: Mariachi combos, a Peruvian band, even jazz from time to time.

And then there is Morgan’s in the desert. Named for La Quinta’s founder, the resort’s signature restaurant is in a class by itself. It had been a fine French dining room until 2008 when a fire destroyed the kitchen. Re-opened the following year, it was with an entirely new concept: farm-to-table contemporary American cuisine. The idea came from Executive Chef Jimmy Schmidt, a James Beard Award winner, who declared, “There is so much wonderful product here that we can source, it is a perfect venue for this kind of dining.”

The Southwest hacienda-style room is big and woody with a high, beamed A-shaped ceiling and a huge fireplace at the far end. Arched recesses along the stucco walls lend an intimacy to the space while the light from wrought iron sconces and table lamps casts a soft glow. An adjacent piano bar and outdoor dining area with fire pit continue the comfortable, convivial atmosphere.

Morgan’s in the desert menu is substantial: grilled or slow-roasted quality meats or fish, hand cut pastas and risottos, fresh salads like heirloom tomatoes with baby arugula and sweet basil, or ahi tuna tartare with tangerines, maui onion, Nicoise olives & endives.

Chef de Cuisine Brian Recor, Jimmy Schmidt’s acolyte, was at the helm the night we dined at Morgan’s in the desert. Fair and friendly, Brian looks very young; we were surprised when he told us he moved from Michigan, where he was born and began his career at the Rattlesnake Club in Detroit, ten years ago to the Palm Springs desert area.

“The food  here is more to the rustic style, not over-handled,” he told us. “We try to use local ingredients wherever possible. Why not? They are so good, so available. Everything grows in this valley, and it’s such good quality. We pick our oranges out back.”

Earlier in the day, a couple of men on a golfing weekend (there are 90 holes at the resort and five courses at nearby PGA West, the site of many renowned tournaments) had raved to us about the steaks they’d had at Morgan’s in the desert the night before. So one of us, at least, determined to have the tender filet coated with a crust  made of dried porcini mushrooms, grilled and served in a red wine-reduction, porcini mushroom sauce. It was sensational. The men had not mentioned the butternut squash, apple and wild mushroom risotto accompaniment. But it too was quite marvelous.

 “The steak with mushrooms  that you had? I have to keep it on the menu. People would be up in arms if we removed it,” said Brian. “The risotto? We use a touch of apple cider in the risotto  and fresh apples on top.”

What about the corn niblet, another side to the steaks? “Corn is in now. We take it off the cob and serve it with a cream sauce – a little heavy cream, infused with a touch of coconut and ginger with a little ginger crisp on top.”

One of the few non-California items on the menu is the seared Maine Diver Sea Scallops which the scallop-lover among us had to have. “Scallops are a really fun dish,” Brian noted. “I like to use the chanterelle mushrooms which work with the sweetness of apple, squash. But aside from the scallops, all our fish are Pacific. I have a great purveyor out of Santa Barbara. Everything they do is sustainable. It’s the only fish company in the country that is like that.

“We’re not overwhelmingly formal, but we are very serious about what we do,” the young chef said. “People drive here from L.A., San Diego, from all over Orange County. They’ll come up for a weekend just to dine here.”

If Brian brings a youthful joie de vivre to Morgan’s in the desert, Francois Cinq-Mars projects a sophisticated, worldly sensibility. Tall, slender and silver-haired, the Montreal-born sommelier wears a bemused, even ironic expression and speaks in a sure, confident manner. Everyone seems to want Francois’ attention. In great demand, he glides from table to table, and when he arrives, everyone stops eating and pays attention.

“Most of my customers, they don’t look at the wine list,” Francois told us. “They just ask me to bring the right wine. They trust me.

“I think I am the simplest sommelier you’ll ever meet; I wear no medals on my chest.  You can learn a lot about wines from books but until you actually take the bottle in your hands and taste the wine, you don’t really know what you’re talking about.

“I’m basically a farmer at heart,” he continued. “But what I love to grow is grapes. I don’t want to be a doctor of wines so to speak, just a simple farmer of wines.” His gift, Francois maintains, is his superior palate. “It’s genetic. I can tell you what a wine I drank 20 years ago tastes like. I can tell you about every fruit, every vegetable, every piece of meat I cut up and cooked in my life, what the aromas were like, how it made me feel.”

He showed us how smell a wine. “If you stick your nose in the center of the glass, all the aromas come together. But if you sniff it from different positions on the rim, you will find different aromas in different places – alcohol, fruit, floral, herbs. The four cardinal points: earth, wind, fire, water.”

Brian Recor, Chef de Cuisine - click to enlarge
Brian Recor, Chef de Cuisine

Francois Cinq-Mar, Sommelier - click to enlarge
Francois Cinq-Mar, Sommelier

When we came to Morgan’s in the desert it was still light out. But the sun doesn’t linger in the desert.It drops behind the mountains abruptly, and suddenly it’s dark. We walked out into a clear and starry night and followed the lights in the cypress trees back to our casita, vowing to get up early enough the next morning to watch the sun rise. Somehow we didn’t manage to do that. But we are told it’s quite a sight to see the sun emerge from the horizon facing the mountains, how they turn different colors as it ascends.

From left: David Kirkland, Director of Operations; Jim Pedone, Director of Sales & Marketing; Barry Sims, Managing Director; Chintan Dadhich, Director of Rooms - click to enlarge
From left: David Kirkland, Director of Operations; Jim Pedone, Director of Sales & Marketing; Barry Sims, Managing Director; Chintan Dadhich, Director of Rooms

That’s part of the charm of La Quinta, Chintan Dadhich, Director of Rooms, told us.  Even though his name means one who meditates, he doesn’t have the time, he confessed. But he’s does think about the charm of this resort, how it keeps the old Hollywood ambience, how people love to walk around, see the gardens, the citrus trees filled with oranges.

“After Thanksgiving, we did the tree-lighting ceremony with a 45-foot tree at the top of the drive,” Chintan said. “Two thousand people were here. The theme was ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ Frank Capra III came up in horse-drawn carriage and participated in the tree-lighting.”

Sounds bewitching. But so are most nights at La Quinta. Makes you think perhaps, after all, it is a wonderful life!

49-499 Eisenhower Drive
La Quinta, CA  92253

Phone: 760-564-4111
Web:  http:// 

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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