Having It All at the Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn
Luxury. Location. Celebrity. In Palm Springs, if a resort has any one of these amenities it’s a good choice. If a hotel has all three it’s, “A No. 1, at the top of the heap”—to borrow a lyric from long-time desert resident Frank Sinatra.
The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn is just such an A-list property, as I discovered on a recent Palm Springs weekend. It pampers guests with AAA 4-diamond luxury amid sumptuous antiques in the grandest tradition of a Mediterranean villa. It’s only two blocks from the heart of Palm Springs’ dining and shopping scene and across the street from what many people say is the finest restaurant in the desert: Le Vallauris. And it oozes star power, counting Albert Einstein and Marion Davies as well as current celebs including Cameron Diaz, Robert DeNiro, Diane Keaton, and Quentin Tarantino among its guests.
Built as an Italianate Mediterranean-style villa in 1925, the eight-bedroom mansion was bought by a young couple (two newly graduated medical students, Dr. Tracy Conrad and her husband, Dr. Paul Marut) in the mid-1990s. They meticulously restored the property to its former grandeur, retaining the historic architecture and charm, while updating the amenities to 21st century standards to create what Andrew Harper of Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report calls his “favorite Palm Springs hotel.”
Driving up West Tahquitz Canyon Way to the gated entrance, I feel more like I’m arriving at the vacation home of ultra-wealthy friends than at an inn. The mansion is built into the base of the San Jacinto Mountains, giving it multiple levels surrounded by terraced gardens laced with stone stairways and rustic winding paths. As in a private home, I push the call button at the wrought iron gate and wait until Daniel, the evening innkeeper, comes down the stairs to let me drive into the small, private parking area.
Walking up the stone stairway to the bougainvillea-draped loggia, I enter the expansive living room and sink into a plush velvet couch. In front of me, the ornate original fireplace sets a grand tone. In back of me, a phalanx of French doors open onto the expansive terrace with sweeping views of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. I sip a glass of wine as Daniel gives me the key to my room and escorts me down the hall.
Mine is the Marion Davies Suite, the original master bedroom and the one Marion Davies used when she was in residence during the 1950s. An elaborately carved antique mahogany bedroom set, hand-selected by Dr. Conrad, along with an elegant original fireplace, overstuffed chairs, bookshelves, and a fully stocked marble wet bar make it easy to feel as if I’m the lady of manor. Windows open onto a balcony, with the same sweeping Palm Springs views as the main terrace. The bath is as large as a second bedroom with a beautiful pedestal sink and—in the true spirit of Hollywood glamor girls—a full-sized upholstered chaise, perfect for tossing the plush robe onto before stepping into the two-person claw foot tub. A huge tile shower is also at the ready.
After settling in, it’s time for wine, hors d’ oeuvres, and music in the living room, an evening tradition just for guests. Daniel pours the wine and I join a friendly Canadian couple in front of the fireplace. A silver platter on the coffee table is filled with Brie with apricot sauce, water crackers and artichoke dip, house-made empanadas, shrimp cocktail, and green grapes. We chitchat and enjoy the gourmet goodies and the Sinatra tunes sung softly by the musician at the baby grand piano. Behind the pianist, through the open French doors, we can see the lights of Palm Springs begin to twinkle as the sun sets.
The Canadian couple is walking to town for dinner, to Johannes, a favorite for inventive Austrian cuisine. I can’t resist Le Vallauris. Visitors and locals drive from all over the desert to enjoy its acclaimed French California cuisine, and here it is—across the street for heaven’s sake. Daniel has made reservations for me and for the Canadians; concierge service is part of the Willows’ amenities. If I wished, I could have enjoyed a Le Vallauris meal en-suite since the Willows has room service from Le Vallauris, a very posh and unique amenity. After a wonderful dinner, I snuggle into the crisp white high-thread-count linen sheets and down pillows and enjoy a luxurious night’s sleep.
Sunlight shining through the French doors of my balcony awakens me. Stepping onto the balcony—Juliette comes to mind (if I only had a Romeo)—I view the morning panorama and the inviting heated swimming pool and Jacuzzi surrounded by gardens below.
My freshly brewed morning coffee is poured from a silver pot into a fine china coffee cup. Gordon, the daytime innkeeper, is doing the honors as I sit at a formally set table in the opulent dining room, in preparation for the Willow’s three-course gourmet breakfast. The dining room is grand yet comfortable, with a fireplace rising to the high frescoed ceiling, a dark antique sideboard set with a silver coffee service, and vintage photos of the mansion and its famous guests on the walls.
But the main attraction is the 50-foot waterfall bubbling over a natural rock cliff in the patio garden outside the dining room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. The waterfall dates to 1925 and the original builder. Tables are also set for breakfast on the patio. Lacy Palo Verde trees, ferns, and lush foliage grow from the rock wall and the top of the waterfall. The sound of the water tumbling into the small pond is cheerful and soothing. “Birds love the waterfall. Especially the ravens. They perch at the top and drink the water,” Gordon explains. I’m a bird-lover, so I keep an eye out—even as the morning feast unfolds.
Served in crystal, the fresh squeezed orange juice is delicious. Nutty-tasting house-made granola is the first course—in a cocktail glass. A basket of fresh-baked rosemary and blueberry muffins arrives next. The main course is sensational: peppered bacon, apple wood-smoked sausage, and baked eggs with black truffle sauce and Parmesan cheese. Wow! It’s all prepared in-house by chef Joan Johnson. Every day is something new, whatever Joan’s creativity dictates.
Halfway through my breakfast, I spy a hummingbird fluttering above the waterfall. A good omen for a good day, since Palm Springs’ Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians believe that hummingbirds bring good luck. Soon, the hummingbird darts away. Suddenly a bigger bird lands in the trees—and it’s not a raven. It’s a red-tail hawk! I’m amazed. “Hawk, hawk. There’s a hawk,” I call to Gordon to share the moment. He’s in the kitchen, which as in any home is off the dining room. The handsome hawk sits tall, eyeing the waterfall and the sky. Then it takes off. When Gordon finally appears, he’s as surprised as I was. “I didn’t hear you. The walls of this house are so thick and solid I couldn’t hear a thing,” he explains.
After breakfast, I follow the hawk’s flight path—and Einstein’s favorite walk—up and through the inn’s hillside gardens. I walk above the waterfall, and follow the stone pathway through more than an acre of shady natural landscaping. I stop and rest on the stone bench where Einstein used to sit. The view is tremendous. All of Palm Springs, the San Jacinto and the Santa Rosa mountains, and across the valley to the Little San Bernardino mountains is before me. Einstein had already devised the Theory of Relativity when he began coming here. But it’s impressive to know that I’m enjoying the same view that was the favorite spot of such a brilliant mind.
The Willows is located at 412 W. Tahquitz Canyon Way in Palm Springs, California. It’s open September through May each year. Nightly rates are $375 to $645. Complimentary amenities include: gated parking; a heated pool and Jacuzzi and ice tea served poolside; concierge service; dates, nuts, and other seasonal treats presented at check-in; three-course gourmet breakfast; nightly wine and hors d’oeuvres reception; and Wi-Fi throughout.
Guest room amenities include: fresh fruit delivered daily, high-speed Internet data port, iPod docking station, individual climate control, clock radio, flat screen TV, DVD player, coffee maker, mini fridge, hair dryer, iron and ironing board, plush robes, luxurious linens and towels, and nightly turn-down. Call (800) 966-9597 or (760) 320-0771 for more information.