La Q Factor

La Quinta’s five courses, Hollywood bloodlines and elegant intimacy continue to make the oldest resort in the California desert one of the west’s foremost destinations.

As you drive down Washington Boulevard from I-10, it is not that difficult to look around the apartment buildings, strip malls and hospitals and see the land as it was, barren and flat. After all, it is the Southern California desert, but as you head further south towards the Santa Rosa Mountains, the glimpses of the sand and sage become less frequent. Tall beige walls line the six-lane road, and only the tops of palms and brown stucco peaks of homes and condominiums offer any sort of hint as to what waits on the other side.

That ethos of “out there/in here” permeates the California desert communities 125 miles east of Los Angeles. Cities like Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and La Quinta have always offered respite from the outside world; they exist for your escape. The overall manifestation of that appeal over the last 50 years has been— figuratively speaking—for visitors to head to the heat and sun, turn into their destination and let the gate close behind them.

It wouldn’t work if there wasn’t so much from which to choose, from big-name resorts like the Desert Marriott and The Westin, to the super-exclusive private golf clubs, like The Quarry, The Madison and The Vintage. (The “The” lets you know it’s very, very private.) In this golf-oriented region that boasts more than 110 courses, the epicenter remains La Quinta Resort and Spa, the oldest resort in the Palm Springs region. (Note: it is one of only two resorts in the country for which a city has been named.)

La Quinta’s reputation as a rest stop dates back to the 1800s. In Spanish, La Quinta means “The Fifth,” referring to its place among a string of settlements in the desert. When William H. Morgan built the resort in the mid-1920s, it literally was the only thing between Palm Springs—then a dusty roadside town 19 miles west—and hundreds of miles of desolation.

In time, this land, thanks to irrigation, would turn into one of the most productive agriculture regions in the world. The greater harvest, however, came in the form of the Hollywood elite who would escape there. The stories are iconic:

Director John Huston driving the car with Clark Gable in the passenger seat, and someone new who Huston asked along in the back seat. They were on their way to the desert for a little poker and down time.

“My name’s Clark Gable, what’s yours,” said the actor by way of introduction.

“Bill. Bill Faulkner.”

“What do you do, Bill?”

“I’m a writer. What do you do, Mr. Gable?”

Morgan’s hacienda-style lodge became an outpost of luxury and  privacy. Naturally, La Quinta’s Spanish-style casitas became a must-do. Greta Garbo loved to stay in La Casa, one of the larger casitas on the grounds. During her stays in the 1930s and ‘40s she’d walk just under a mile to the nearest store, to buy a pack of smokes. Why, someone asked.
“I’d walk a mile for a Camel,” she said.

That line became an advertising tagline that lasted decades, but by the late 1940’s La Quinta’s reputation had taken root and continued to grow, thanks in part to Frank Capra writing It Happened One Night at La Quinta, and the success of that project led him to return superstitiously to the resort to write his ensuing projects like Mr. Deeds Goes To Town and You Can’t Take It With You. The list of stars who stayed have included film legends such as Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Katherine Hepburn and Shirley Temple.

Today, for all the charm and history, La Quinta Resort and Club is not all that quaint in size. It sits on 45 acres and offers 796 guestrooms and villas. Nearly 100 spa villa studio guestrooms can be transformed into three-bedroom suites. Yet, thanks to clustering the rooms around the resort’s 41 pools, these arrangements serve as excellent “collecting” points for post-golf get-togethers. With patio chairs, bright sun a cooler of beer, you get the feeling soon enough that you are not staying at a resort, but that the resort is your place.

One thing about La Quinta: You don’t open your door and step into a hallway with muted lighting. You step outside into the brilliant sun. Most of the casitas sit low and cool, their marshmallow plaster frosted with turquoise shutters, a color used as homage to the indigent Native Americans, who felt it conveyed tranquility. Five types of citrus thrive on the grounds, and bougainvillea isn’t a plant as much as a weed on steroids. But, like so many resorts, La Quinta underwent ownership changes during the past 20 years. The Hilton hotel group owns it now as part of the “Waldorf Astoria Collection” that includes, among others, The Phoenician. Management is intent on restoring
La Quinta’s standing among the Pebble Beaches and Pinehursts. It all starts with the golf.

La Quinta has two onsite courses – the Dunes and The Mountain. La Quinta also owns the PGA West properties to the east (a 12-minute shuttle) that includes TPC Stadium, The Norman and The Nicklaus Tournament courses, giving resort guests five distinct golf experiences. Also under the La Quinta’s guidance are the four private courses in the PGA West area—The Palmer, Nicklaus, Weiskopf and Citrus—which are not available for resort play.

It’s hard to find such variety, which is quite remarkable considering the Coachella Valley is so flat you could stand on a can of tuna and see LA if it were not for the Santa Rosas. Far from “minimalist,” the courses at La Quinta personify visual intimidation in the fashion in the 1980s, when course architects did their best to transform the land.

At the Dunes, it’s Pete Dye doing his bulldozer thing. Pushed up mounds, small but slanted greens and bunkers meant to catch bad shots regardless of the talent of the golfer. At the same time, fairways are fairly generous and there’s minimal water in play.
The Mountain, on the other hand, also has wide fairways, but a closer look reveals some of Dye’s traits that reach full blossom at The Stadium. Hidden bunkers and hollowed out holes behind small greens; bunkers deceptively placed to throw off distance and depth perception. And with the 210-yard par-3 second, we see his penchant for the forced carry, as a lake guards the entire left side of the hole.
At PGA West the Nicklaus Tournament course is Jack done through Pete: raised greens, sheer faces on fairways that fall into expansive waste areas, and lots of shaping to define the holes. Course aficionados familiar with Nicklaus’ more recent oeuvre might have a hard time recognizing this style.

The Greg Norman course, which opened in 1999, stands out from the others in that there are no raised, hard edges. His is Heathland in the Desert, a reference to Shark’s love of Melbourne courses like Kingston Heath and Royal Melbourne. Norman flared many bunkers, but the wide, firm fairways look like someone laid carpet amidst the desert scrub. It is fun for beginner and skilled alike. From the blues, one par-3 plays just over 100 yards; the next hole, a par-4, stretches 450.

But the king of the resort golf is the Stadium, which now stands as a relic to Dye’s penchant for scaring PGA Tour pros and 20-handicappers alike. Dye went out of his way to shape the course to reflect the surrounding topography, and nothing captures it better than “San Andreas,” his name for the par-5 16th. Nearly 600 yards from the tips, the dominant features are two waste bunkers on the left. The second waste bunker starts about 100 yards short of the green and guards the entire left side and continues to the putting surface, wrapping around about 60 percent of the putting surface. In the middle of the green the drop-off is nearly 30 feet. Like the chip left of Pebble Beach’s 17th green, placing a ball in the greenside bunker is a must-do for every visitor.

TPC Stadium, to say the least, is designed to induce frustration. The most fun for novices and ardent players alike is The Norman, but then the Nicklaus Tournament offers a completely different experience, especially the par-5 eighth hole and its island green. For those looking for an honor badge, the Stadium is a must. For those who want good golf, acres of green turf against the Santa Rosa Mountains, then the Mountain is for you.

It’s only appropriate that La Quinta offers excellent instruction. From its expansive practice facilities at all the courses to the teaching talents of a staff under the guise of Bill Shaw, the resort’s Director of Golf, it’s a place that wants to embed the game into the soul.
Ken Simonds, head pro at The Stadium, has noticed that, in these trying times, more and more ex-country club members find their way to La Quinta. Golf packages vary but the variety provides a plenty of rejuvenation for the most ardent golf junkie. And in that vein, it’s hard to find a better “golf road trip” destination than La Quinta.

The world-class spa is matched by the tennis facilities, with former ATP star and regular Davis Cup member Tom Gorman running that racquet (pun intended). And the food offerings are worthy of four stars. The Adobe Grill brings inspired Mexican fare, but the bar fare at Twenty6 stands out for its innovative, modern creations (try the Bolognese pizza). Ernie’s Bar & Grill at PGA West is just as good, and all of it pales against Morgan’s, the resort’s clean-up hitter and (as listed on the desert’s best restaurant.

As soon as you leave La Quinta’s gates, you’re back in the cement and traffic of Southern California, albeit in the desert. And in that vein, for the complete getaway experience, upon arrival it might be best to drop the keys with the front desk and then pick them up at departure. In the meantime, soak up the experience of a candle-lit table at Morgan’s under the black desert night. With a blazer for him, jewelry for her and a table laid with Morgan’s grilled filet and black Alaskan cod, the charm lingers like a soft citrus scent.

Contributing Editor Ted Johnson lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

La Quinta Resort & Club; 800-598-3828