Words by Fleur Rollet-Manus
In between hurried commutes, sweltering heatwaves and dissertation deadlines, every so often we all deserve some time off. There’s no better feeling than switching on your out of office, piling clothes into a suitcase and jetting somewhere exotic. Desert detoxing might not be the first thing you think of when it comes to wistful wellness getaways, but in order to truly escape the claustrophobic clawing of city dwelling you need to put jostling tourists, poisonous pollution and Uber receipts far behind you.
Palm Springs 50 years ago was a desert town on the cusp of an expansive future, stars like Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin having put it on the map. A place to go to avoid the glare of Hollywood and the billowing pollution, to escape the claustrophobic city and retreat to the barren desert – a far cry from the annual descent of Coachella millennials in gold bikinis and outlandish hen parties seeking shots and slot machines that pour into the desert now. Borrego Springs, however, has maintained all of Palm Springs’ nostalgic Hollywood glamour without a casino or franchised hotel in sight.
A ninety-minute drive from San Diego and three hours from Los Angeles lies the close knit, laidback Californian community offering respite from fast-paced living. Frank Sinatra famously graced their small airport runway and the mid-century modern architecture that dictates the town proudly upholds its retro past. An array of classic American muscle line the bays outside neon lit diners, with rows upon rows of desert cacti remaining untouched as there is not an Instagrammer in site. The isolation provided by the enclosing mountains heightens the feeling that you’re stuck in a time warp. Albeit a cool one, seeing as Black Sabbath’s former tour manager owns the local paper. There’s no denying the residents are an eclectic bunch, but very few are actually native to The Springs, claiming it’s the cosmic forces of the dark sky community that drew them in for a well-needed detox.
Visiting the desert does come with a warning though – if you’ve left the city for a few days of deserved R and R, the unpolluted air of the badlands may cause clarity, a sudden spurt of creativity and a reluctance to return back to your cramped desk.
WHERE TO STAY?
If you want to relive Hollywood’s heyday then retreat here. Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Swift regularly landed on the hotel’s private runway to escape inquisitive eyes. The living museum proudly displays its glitterati past amongst the modern mid-century sharp lines and symmetrical circles that dominate the hotel’s architecture. Even the palm trees precisely line up to the edges of the tiled pool. Whilst some of the rooms still retain their cinematic-star glory, we’d opt for those that are recently refurbished and open up to panoramic desert views.
Adjacent to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the sprawling forty-two acre spa resort boasts its own vineyard, observatory, Olympic lap pool, and tennis courts. Safe to say, we took up the offer of depositing our luggage via golf cart. The rustic resort still maintains its 1930s charm with each of the rooms benefitting from high ceilings, original wood fireplaces and opulent marble bathtubs with many opening up to private hot tubs and refreshing pools. Take advantage of the wellness resort’s outdoor facilities and rent a telescope, personal trainer or tennis coach. You’ll leave with a spring in your step.
Pack up the airstream and set foot in one of America’s top ranking RV and camping sites. Soggy tin sausages and cold baked beans over wilting campfires have no place as weekly barbeque and stargazing parties are held amongst the looming mountains that frame the endlessly blue sky. Forget communal showers and soak in the resort’s mineral baths instead. The Springs at Borrego finishes off luxury desert living with a private 9-hole golf course and tennis courts to be used at your disposal. The locals claim that the Borrego energy changes you; with these luxuries it’s surprising we haven’t pitched up for good.
WHERE TO EAT?
From waitress service to the growth of wildflowers, everything moves slower in the desert. Carlee’s head waitress has been there since the jukebox first sprung into action and will gladly fill you in on the town’s historic gossip. Everyone takes their lunch breaks at Carlee’s with its simple interior and gigantic menu, – what it lacks in décor, it makes up for with choice. Just make sure you order the potato chips (not crisps) with a side of blue cheese. You’ll be oblivious to the third refill until you’re struggling halfway through your main…
The wine cellar at the Butterfield Dining Room commands almost as much historic attention as the town itself or so the whispering walls in the Casa Del Zorro restaurant tell us. Amongst the vast grounds, the dining room’s food takes centre stage as it rejects the obscure flavourings that fine dining often now entails and instead serves beautifully executed classics. Think tempura prawn and shrimp cocktails served with tender veal and seasonal vegetables or crisp, lightly seasoned lobster followed by fresh raspberry tarts and sorbet. Set yourself up on the patio to be serenaded by the illuminated sky and legendary 86-year-old pianist.
The Dorado family are possibly the most loved family in Borrego having confirmed that the way to everyone’s heart is through the stomach. The jury is still out as to whether their fajitas are better than their chilli rellenos or if you should just go ahead and order every type of taco on the menu. Our suggestion? Order it all and wash it down with the strongest margarita in town.
WHAT TO DO?
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Sunrise Hike to Fonts Point
Bumbling along the jagged badlands in a vintage 4 x 4 will soon whisk the sleep from your eyes as the hardest part of this hike isn’t the incline, but the wearily received 4am wake up call. Take a deep breath as you watch the shift from deep oranges to blush pinks as the sun rises and the ground beneath you opens up to reveal vast craters stretching out to the horizon. The only bit of kit you shouldn’t forget: Ranger Joe. From mimosas and muffins to toasts and tales of one dollar dodge dart road trips, he’ll give you an incredible insight into desert life whether it be about the wildlife, plants, archaeological history or the people themselves.
Galleta Meadows Desert Sculptures
Whether you pass through on your way to Joshua Tree or are touring the desert’s weird and wonderful art to eradicate creative block, it’s hard to miss the gigantic metal sculptures scattered across the desert, taking the form of sabre-toothed tigers, elephants and gold miners. Originally commissioned by Dennis Avery as part of a private series, artist Ricardo Breceda brought the fossil history of the surrounding area to life. Take part in an art scavenger hunt as you spot serpents rising from the sand, tortoises shuffling behind bushes and roaming horses galloping across the dry land.
Join resident astrologer Dennis as he takes his celestial telescope to infinity and beyond, quite literally. Having gained California’s only dark sky community status, a prestige award that acknowledges the town’s commitment to eradicating light pollution, the Anza-Borrego Desert encourages you to pack a chair, some snacks and count on two hands the number of shooting stars that pass before your eyes. Calling upon Dennis’s industrial telescope, which wouldn’t look out of place at a science museum, and take a moment to ponder the Great Globular Star Cluster which is about 25,000 light years away, contains about half a million stars and Dennis’s galactic favourite.
HOW TO GET THERE?
Banish any thoughts of stressful journeys and book yourself onto Air New Zealand Premium Economy seat direct from LON – LAX. No tiresome, lengthy layovers and a journey of pure relaxation. Recline your seat all the way back without disgruntling the passenger behind you and take part in your own mini-wine tasting with some of the best Kiwi wines available on board. Trust me when you say you’ll be beaming your way through LAX passport control – your immigration photo will even resemble a filtered selfie as opposed to a sleep-deprived mug shot.
After touch down, hop into a vintage Dodge and start cruising down I-15 S towards San Diego. Stock up on peanut butter M & M’s, pretzels and turn N-Sync up loud for the three-hour journey. For trips on how to survive summer road trips, check out my guide here.