Basking in Palm Springs Sunshine — and History

March 1, 2010 at 11:40 am | Posted in California, culture and museums, festivals/celebrations, gay/lesbian travel, golf, history, lodging, resorts | Leave a comment
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by Emma Krasov

Twin Palms Frank Sinatra house Palm Springs CaliforniaCalifornia’s eternally sun-drenched desert resort is of course famous for a number of things, among them for being “the playground of the movie stars,” for its golf, its eponymous hot springs, its scorching summers, and its gay/lesbian resorts (even the current mayor plays on that particular team). All of which help make Palm Springs a tourism magnet —  its 48,000 population doubles in winter, while in July and August locals — mostly transplants from colder climes – have their oasis to themselves.

What I find particularly fetching is Palm Springs’ wealth of a special type of Americana – its distinctive mid-20th-century modern architecture. If that sort of thing floats your boat, you can explore it all with Robert Imber (below right), whose Palm Springs Modern Tours runs daily two-hour minivan tours (US$75* per person).

Robert Imber, Palm Springs Modern ToursIt all started, Robert explained to me, in the 1930s, when Hollywood contracts wouldn’t allow actors and actresses to venture farther than 200 miles (322 km) from Los Angeles. So a quaint, sun-drenched desert village with a serene mountain backdrop quickly evolved into a glam getaway for the likes of Gloria Swanson, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh.

You can get really up close and personal with the glamour epoch by staying at one of the first modern properties, the Movie Colony Hotel (below right; rooms from $99), with its clean lines and simple/practical layout (Jim Morrison famously jumped from his balcony into the swimming pool). The 16-room property was designed in 1935 by Swiss-born Albert Frey, whose lifelong mission was to reshape the face of the desert (today’s PS visitors center is in a futuristic onetime gas station designed by Frey, complete with hyperbolic paraboloid roof). Or how about the recently renovated, Spanish-Colonial-Revival Colony Palms Hotel (from $149), with its dense orange trees and azaleas, decadent poolside terrace bar, Moroccan-style spa, and décor of antique furniture, oriental rugs, and retro-style B/W photography?

Movie Colony Hotel, Palm Springs, CaliforniaYou can also stay or just stop by for a soak or a spin of the wheel at the Spa Resort Casino (from $184), built in 1963, its entrance and bathhouse by legendary architects Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison. The hot springs after which the town was named percolate directly into luxurious blue-tiled bathtubs, and its trademark “Taking of the Waters” treatment (from $40) is equally beloved of locals and visitors alike. Or rent Twin Palms, Sinatra’s old digs (top right), for just $2,600 a night.

On our group tour with Robert, he regaled us with accounts of how in the 1940s-50s John Lautner, a pioneer of “real architecture” (so called because of the use of new affordable materials) became enamored of concrete; how John Porter Clark strived to align the design of houses with that of automobiles; and how developers George and Robert Alexander left a legacy of 2,500 single-family homes whose designer Bill Krisel cleverly manipulated identical square floor plans to create diverse dwellings within the same style. If you can make it here in early December, more desert modern architecture is on display in an annual Walking Tour of the Inns, free to the public, and more popular every year. It usually starts at the Palm Springs Art Museum (home to quite the collection, including Moore, Remington, Tamayo, and Frankenthaler).

I learned quite a bit both about the springs, and about the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians who first discovered them, on another eye-opening excursion: one of the walking tours of Indian Canyons (from $11). Ranger Rocky Toyama leads groups on itineraries that range from a 90-minute Andreas Canyon loop to multi-hour hikes. Ancient artifacts found here date back at least two millennia, providing glimpses into the life of a well-structured hunter-gatherer society.

Another great thing to do in Palm Springs – especially in the scorching summer – is to take a ride ($16-$23) on the Aerial Tramway, soaring over the cliffs of Chino Canyon 8,516 feet (2,595 meters) up, where heat turns into celestial coolness. Designated a historic civil engineering landmark, it was built using helicopters back in the early 60s.

I should mention, too, that Palm Springs abounds with good restaurants, cafés, and cozy coffee shops, many concentrated in its 10-block downtown. A popular breakfast choice, Pinocchio in the Desert, serves humongous omelets, plate-size pancakes with all the trimmings, and generous mimosas, while lunch is always good at Jake’s Ready to Eat, with delightfully fresh salads and lick-your-fingers sandwiches. Come dinnertime, Copley’s Restaurant chef-owner Andrew Manion Copley turns out amazing Hawaiian ahi tacos, sweet and tangy roasted pumpkin ravioli, and tasty main courses using organic and sustainable ingredients. Meanwhile, Mindy Reed’s Zini Café Med serves the scrumptious Italian/Mediterranean likes of pappardelle with braised rabbit and smoked paprika, and couscous with sweet-sour lamb; Mindy’s international wine list is fabulous, and her staff versed in the vino.

Finally, for a relatively tiny town in the desert, there’s a surprising wealth of events going on year round. Modernism Week just finished up, and upcomers include the Festival of Native Film & Culture (March 10-14); Palm Springs Wild West Fest (March 12-14); Crossroads Old World Renaissance Festival (March 19-21); Dinah Shore Week (March 31-April 4); Coachella Valley Music Festival (April 16-18); Stagecoach Country Music Festival (April 24-15); and Elvis Honeymoon Weekend (May 1-2).

You’ll find Palm Springs a tonic, worth a trip even from afar; because among other things, even if you’re not a movie star, here it’s not hard to feel like one.

*at press time, €56 / £50 / CA$78 / AU$83 / NZ$143 / R572

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Michigan’s Mackinac Island: Americana to the Max

February 17, 2010 at 10:16 am | Posted in festivals/celebrations, history, Michigan, resorts | Leave a comment
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by Max Pesling

Mackinac Island, MichiganThe USA’s Midwesterners have long known that a swell strand doesn’t necessarily have to be on an ocean. After all, that’s what the half-dozen mighty Great Lakes — North America’s great freshwater inland seas — are for. And especially as of Memorial Day weekend (May 29-31), lots of them head up to this Lake Huron island on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, six hours by car north of Detroit. Just under four square miles (10 sq. km), Mackinac Island‘s resort pedigree stretches back to the 1880s, leaving it with a charming collection of Victorian architecture (for this reason the entire island’s on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places) and lots of horse-drawn carriages (thanks in part to a policy of no motor vehicles on-island). Mackinac (pronounced “MAK-i-naw,” by the way) also makes an engaging destination for overseas visitors in the market for a mix of historic Americana and outdoorsy pursuits like hiking, biking, fishing, boating, and swimming. Oh, and did I mention the festivals? They’re a big part of the island scene and its appeal, including the Lilac Festival (June 11-20 this year), the Music Festival (August 17-19), and perhaps the most famous of all, the Fudge Festival (August 21-22); you’ll want to book well ahead for these. Finally, while overnighting here can certainly be pricey — the top of the food chain, the Grand Hotel, starts at US$240 per night — you can find more moderate rates even at other lovely historic properties, such as Mission Point Resort (from $150) and Main Street Inn and Suites ($80).

Why British Columbia Nailed the Winter Olympics

January 4, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Posted in British Columbia, Canada, resorts, skiing/snow sports | Leave a comment
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British Columbia's superlative skiingby Max Pesling

Gold-medal fever’s headed our way again — for the third time in Canada, but just the first in Canada’s westernmost province. It’s fair to say that reasons number one and two why British Columbia is hosting the 21st Winter Olympics this February 12-28, followed by the Paralympic Games March 12-21, are the appeal of world-class Vancouver and nearby Whistler Blackcomb.

Vibrant yet laid-back, sophisticated yet outdoorsy, Vancouver will be hosting various ceremonies, events, and of course parties, but there’s only so much in the way of winter sports you can get done in a city — you need those soaring mountain resorts. And in this rarefied catgory, Whistler Blackcomb, a two-hour drive away, has become North America’s biggest ski area and a world star. Known for its dozen Alpine bowls, 5,280 vertical feet, and more than 8,000 skiiable acres, all 200-plus runs will be open before and after the Olympics (when it hosts events including Alpine racing, Nordic, luge, bobsled, and skelton), and 90 percent of them even during the games themselves. Serving up a wide variety of dining, shopping, clubbing, and miscellaneous fun, by now Whistler’s a phenomenon.

But it’s far from the province’s only superb center of snowy action (in fact, some would even say not the best), and in fact various Olympic teams consider several good enough to have their athletes living and training there at this very moment. So here’s a quick primer covering eight of the best of BC’s 19 resorts. Chances are you’ll be able to nab some good deals on lift passes and accommodations season — even, in some cases, during the games themselves — yet still get a chance to cross paths with an international bevy of Olympians in training.

Apex Outside Penticton in the Okanagan Valley 250 miles (420 km) from Vancouver, this under-the-radar gem is a hot practice spot this winter. So watch for an international crew of freestyle ski athletes doing their thing on the bumps, jumps, and some of North America’s driest, fluffiest powder. With a 7,250-foot elevation, it’s a little quieter than other BC resorts, and a bit more geared toward advanced levels.

Big White Also in the Okanagan, outside the town of Kelowna a few miles from Apex, B.C.’s second most popular winter resort has an elevation of just over 7,600 feet and 2,565 skiable acres celebrated for their dry powder and good for beginners and intermediate. With three hotels and more than 250 condos, cabins, and more, it’s got a pretty admirable apres-ski scene, too, including a shopping mall, spas, nine eateries, and eight nightspots.

Kimberley A good 6,500 feet up in the Kootenay Rockies 510 miles (850 km) east of Vancouver, here’s another lesser-known gem with lots to do for all skill levels (strongest on intermediate), plenty of powder, new year-round, $6-million facilities, 1,800 scenic acres, and also a fair bit of good après-ski and activity when the white stuff goes bye-bye.

Mount Washington On Vancouver Island, 75 miles (125 km) by road and ferry from the Big V, it’s not hosting events, but it is hosting plenty of Olympians, because its 5,209-foot elevation, temperatures, and ambience are similar to Whistler Blackcomb’s; more than 23 Nordic and Alpine teams from ten countries will be training and kicking back here until show time. Indeed, for scores of elite snow jocks, Mount Washington has become a second home.

Red Mountain Just over the Washington State border and 385 miles (640 km) east of Vancouver, this former gold mining town in the Monashee Mountains boasts a pair of impressive peaks with a 2,887-foot drop and is top rated for powder, service, and overall experience. And January 22-24, it’ll be hosting the Canadian Freeskiing Championships during the its annual winter carnival; front and center this year will be the Olympic torch relay.

Revelstoke Over the past three years, this West Kootenay railroad town 360 miles (600 km) east of Vancouver has morphed into BC’s most talked about new winter destination. Besides some of the newest equipment in the business (including a new on-hill helicopter, cat-ski, and mountain education/backcountry adventure center), you’ll find North America’s longest top-to-bottom trails. And of course the historic town itself is quite the charmer.

Sun Peaks When it comes to ogling Olympians and Paralympians in training, gliding on some fab powder, or just plain relaxing, it doesn’t get better than this sun-splashed trio of peaks on 3,678 acres near Kamloops, 210 miles (350 km) miles east of Vancouver. It’s where national alpine ski teams from Canada and Europe (especially mighty Austria) gather in advance to steel their nerves against scary-steep runs, and home to Canada’s top winter Olympian, skier Nancy Greene Raine (drop by the lobby her Cahilty Lodge to check out her impressive trophy cabinet, and don’t be surprised if she even offers to let you hang one around your neck). It’s all affordable, walkable, and lift lines minimal — what’s not to like?

Whitewater Intimate, mellow, and a bit off the beaten path, this resort in Nelson, 390 miles (650 km) from Vancouver (not far from Red Mountain) has been long known as the place for some outrageous champagne powder — sometimes topping 45 feet (13 meters) in a season. An “Olympic Gear-Up Winter Carnival” is being held here January 30.

Cavort Like A Sultan at Brunei’s Empire Hotel and Country Club

December 16, 2009 at 10:15 am | Posted in Brunei, resorts | 1 Comment
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by David Paul Appell

It’s just nine years old, but as you’d expect, this resort on the South China Sea beachfront in the small Malay sultanate ruled by one of the world’s richest men — originally built as a royal palace by the sultan’s kid brother to the tune of more than US$1 billion — has been in the front ranks of Asia’s top hostelries ever since. With 420 rooms, suites, and villas on a lushly landscaped 45-acre (180-hectare) spread, the palatial joint is awash in soaring columns and all manner of sumptuous finishes — marble, teak, silk, gold, you name it.

Plus, everything here is big — from the atrium lobby to the guest rooms (we’ve been in some Manhattan studios smaller than these bathrooms), and the amenities just go on and on: not just a lagoon beachfront, five restaurants, five pools, tennis courts, gym, and 18-hole Jack Nicklaus links, but even a movie theater, live stage theater, and bowling alley (one big drawback for the non-abstemious: no booze, according to Islamic practice). The Empire makes a great base for exploring the mosques and water villages of the sultanate, along with ecotourism in the Borneo rainforests that begin right outside the gates. Rates are more reasonable than you’d imagine, starting at B$250 (US$180/£108) per night, with special promotions sometimes even less. More info: www.TheEmpireHotel.com.

3 Affordable Resorts Near New York City

July 20, 2009 at 9:18 am | Posted in golf, resorts, United States | 1 Comment
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by Ed Wetschler

Eastern Pennsylvania's Shawnee Inn

Eastern Pennsylvania's Shawnee Inn

The one-tank vacation is for real: In a July ’09 survey of New Jerseyans, half the respondents said they’ll take this year’s vacation within their own state.

The good news, at least for folks in and around the tri-state (New York, Connecticut, New Jersey) area is that there are now resorts nearby that offer both taste and value, a combo that used to be scarcer than white rhinos. So I’m tempted to write a dissertation on why/how this miracle happened, but I’ll spare you, because what really matters is this: Which resorts are worth the (little) trip?

All three of the getaways described here offer stunning scenery and a sense that you’ve left the city far behind, even if you haven’t. Golf is big, but not monolithic, at these resorts. They also offer spa services, updated cuisine, activities for all four seasons, and spectacular fall foliage. Rates mentioned here are for summer; the deals get even better after foliage season.

You can pay beaucoup bucks for a “Legacy Suite” at the Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort (www.ShawneeInn.com), in Shawnee, Pennsylvania, but I’d book a $149 double. Why? Ed’s Rule #1: The guests who stay in the least costly room get the same smiles and scenery as the spenders.

Built in 1911, the 99-room Shawnee Inn is big on golf history, entertainment history, and the Delaware River. Grandfathered into the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (which it predates), Shawnee is the only full-service resort on the river. Besides a beach, it offers boating and fishing, as well as hiking and biking in the national park. There are also organized activities, tennis courts, an indoor pool — and a unique golf course.

Most of that course, designed by golf deity A.W. Tillinghast, is on an island in the river. It has hosted the PGA, and its pro was Sam Snead. Jackie Gleason and Mickey Mantle used to swat dimpled balls here with Arnold Palmer, big-band leader Fred Waring once owned the place, and the walls are festooned with photos featuring yesteryear’s stars. I’d like to see a little less yesteryear and a little more today, but I’ll admit that Waring’s old Shawnee Theater is a great venue for plays and musicals. And thank heaven (OK, the Feds) that the river remains pristine.

Although Milford, Pennsylvania’s Cliff Park Inn (www.CliffParkInn.com) also lies within the park and boasts a historic inn and golf course, there’s no way you’d confuse it with Shawnee. With just 14 individually decorated rooms (from $141), a cliff-top setting high above the river, and a culinary emphasis on local ingredients, this place is geared mostly toward couples.

The vistas from the trail along the ridge are breathtaking, guests can go fishing in a pond on the property (or cross-country skiing in winter), and the front desk arranges canoeing on the Delaware. Nearby Milford has lovely galleries, antiques shops, and historic buildings.

And did somebody say historic? President James Buchanan’s uncle acquired the place around 1820, and you can still admire the building’s 19th-century features. In the early 1900s one of the Buchanan women lost her husband, went to Scotland to grieve, took up golf, and upon returning home was outraged that ladies weren’t allowed on local links. So she built her own course in 1912 — the first ever built and owned by a female. Another reason why today it’s gratifying to see women, as well as men, playing it.

Crystal Springs Resort & Golf Club (www.CrystalGolfResort.com), in the forested hills of northwestern New Jersey, has a split personality. Its Minerals Hotel (from $194) is family-oriented; the more upmarket Cascades Lodge, where the cheapest room costs $269 in summer, is très romantic. But romance depends most on the romancers, so consider staying at Minerals and spending the difference on an unforgettable meal at Restaurant LaTour, which serves exquisite contemporary cuisine and boasts one of America’s greatest wine cellars.

Besides, Minerals does still have it all: a big spa, an even bigger fitness center, indoor tennis and racquetball, indoor and outdoor pools, guided hikes, kids’ activities, live music, horseback riding, and access to seven top-rated golf courses designed by the likes of Tom Fazio and Robert Trent Jones. And don’t forget your camera: You might spot deer, hawks, even bears on the fairways.C

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