A Totally Insane (But Completely Awesome) Palm Springs Family Vacation

We booked our brood into a cheapskate room in California’s desert paradise. What happened next will not surprise you.

By Zach Dundas April 1, 2014

At the tail end of Portland winter, you’ve got to do something. So when my kindergartener’s spring break rolled around, my family set course for Palm Springs. While this is not a revolutionary concept, the way we did it may prove instructive. By that I mean, you can take the information, but never, ever do it the way we did. Starting with the strange fact that in five days in the desert, I became acquainted with four different hotels.

CHEZ DOOM We booked our trip late in the game. So we missed out on Alaska’s handy direct flights from PDX, flew into LAX, and Hertz’ed the 121 miles through LA metro traffic. That was not the problem. The problem was the “hotel”—it looked like a hotel (and a CHEAP HOTEL!!!) through the lens of the Internet, but was actually a fraying timeshare—that I will call Chez Doom. I won’t give its name, because that might accidentally lead to people staying there. I will say that:

—everyone at Chez Doom looked like a candidate for the Iron Lung or witness relocation.

—the promised crib for my seven-month-old was broken.

—the one hapless guy who was the only night-shift staffer for the 200-room property could not fix that, or the nonfunctional bathroom light.

—the “suite” we booked turned out to have one fewer room than promised. When you’re rolling with a six-year-old and a baby, this is a big deal.

Teachable moment: Some people can tough this kind of thing out when visiting one of our nation’s sunshine resorts. My family is not among them. I seriously doubt yours is either. Don’t book the random timeshare. There are times to stick with the names you know.

THE RIVIERA Come morning, my wife—she handles logistics, spending, and reasoning—hopped on her iPhone and devised our escape. This would involve some migration around PS, but I chose to feel like exiled royalty rather than a band of vagabonds. First stop: The Riviera.

With its 1959 bones dating to Palm Springs’ Rat Pack Moderne glory days, and a $70 million makeover from the Noble House hotel group, the Riviera felt like a place where the Hunger Games ruling class might hang out. No matter. I happily splashed in the establishment’s multiple pools, drank its oceanic Negroni, and rolled a few balls on its mirrored billiards table. When you’re traveling with two kids, you’re happy for civilization in any form, even if it might actually be decadence. My boy loved that pool table, the Chiki Pool, and the Bikini Pool. The sprawling hotel was packed with happy families having an excellent time. The Riviera saved us.

THE ACE But three more nights at the Riv might have required a discreet plasma sale, so on Day Three we trundled off again to the Ace Hotel Palm Springs, the bohemian-desert-rat incarnation of the Portland-based mini-chain/alternative universe.

Spring break weekends get pretty crazy at the Ace, which partially explains why we didn’t book there from the beginning. But for our newly reconfigured Sunday-Wednesday jaunt, the room rate was quite reasonable, and we caught only the final fumes of the debauchery before Monday brought the great chill-out.

The Ace pool deck is, indeed, a distilled vision of a strange (but sort of wonderful) new America. By Monday afternoon, a substantial portion of Portland’s childrearing creative class was on the scene. Many of the lunatics were gone—just enough remained, y’know—and my son and my daughter effectively had the run of two pools.

Sure, there were moments. You look up and your firstborn has befriended a troupe of mustachio’ed, Pabst-drinking lads, and they’re all playing pool-volley with a beach ball emblazoned with the words DIRTY HOR TROLL (sic). But those guys are totally nice! And these kids might as well know what they’re getting into.

HOTEL CALIFORNIA Meanwhile, my father-in-law, in the midst of one of those endless roadtrips the semi-retired get to indulge in, took up residence just across the street, at the uber-cute (and pleasingly quiet) Hotel California. This is a great set-up for parents who want to hang out with the beautiful people at the Ace but still recruit older family members, for whom a DJ with a giant Native American hawk tattoo on his chest spinning dub cuts is not a vacation priority.

FOOD This made for cozy scenes on our room’s balcony, the sun blazing out over the San Jacintos, with solid take out from Thai Smile or Appetito on the table. Palm Springs is a fine family dining destination—the kind of place where you can easily find pinot grigio and breaded chicken fingers on the same menu. Check out Lulu for dinner, and absolutely, absolutely, hit Cheeky’s for breakfast.

FUN Gramps gamely took on the awesome baked lost world of the Palm Canyon trail, located on Aguas Calientes tribal land about 10 minutes from the Ace, thus providing one of America’s more jarring juxtapositions. He also presided over the six-year-old’s first-ever mini-golf ace at the phantasmagorical Boomers arcade/park. All told, it was intergenerational magic. Yes, there was that time that I broke down in tears. But that is, after all, part of what vacation is for: catharsis, in the company of those you love.

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