If you're not careful these days, you can fall victim to a mind-altering infection. I call it the Price Perception Plague. It has already made consumers of wine, fine art, spa treatments and designer fashion think a high price equals great quality. I found the latest outbreak at the 56-room Colony Palms Hotel in Palm Springs.
A room here can cost $300 a night, a rate that usually suggests high levels of staffing as well as designer surroundings. Alhough the 10-month-old Colony Palms is quite beautiful and a welcome addition to the desert city, the price is unwarranted, at least based on my January stay.
For that money, I expect (but didn't find) valet parking, a bellman, a concierge, evening turndown service and food service in the room, the pool and the bar. I also expect service that can address guests who are outside the hotel's apparent target market: rich, childless travelers.
Fresh from a $16-million renovation, the hotel joins the Parker Palm Springs and the Viceroy Palm Springs as recently rehabbed upscale properties that are giving the resort city a fresh appeal. Rooms can cost $209 to $1,099, plus an $18 daily resort fee, which puts the Colony Palms on the high end of local lodging. (More local competition is coming as a Mondrian, a Hard Rock Hotel and a Westin are expected to open within a couple of years.)
The Colony Palms was built in 1936 as the Colonial House by mobster Al Wertheimer, he of Detroit's Prohibition-era crime syndicate. He reportedly had a fine time with the in-house brothel and speak-easy. Years later, it was operated by the Cluff family (owners of the Oaks at Ojai) as the Palms at Palm Springs.
In 2004, after a 24-year run, the family sold the property to real estate developer Steven Ohren.
He then took it down to the studs in a three-year renovation that added 10 casitas with mountain views and private hot tubs, three suites, lovely Moroccan-Mediterranean interior design, Wi-Fi access (included in the resort fee), landscaping, scads of expensive structural upgrades, ceiling fans and an upscale restaurant, the Purple Palm.
Were it not for the vinyl banner advertising the Purple Palm, I might have missed the hotel, which is on a tricky stretch of North Indian Canyon Drive. Minus a valet stand, a valet attendant or even a bell to signal one, I chose not to park in the unmarked driveway in front of the hotel and stuck my car in a space around the side -- an uncovered and unlighted space.
It's a short walk to the lobby of this two-story hotel, unless you're carrying your own bags. After I checked in with a pleasant desk clerk, I was told, "Our engineer is our bellman, poor thing."
And sure enough, a man weighted with tools retrieved a buried cart and toted my bags along an awkward route of stairs, gates and ramps. He set up the folding luggage rack in the middle of the room, sideways.
My cozy, deluxe queen room, $299 a night, was decorated in a modified Middle Eastern theme. Tall, padded headboards upholstered in a vivid Turkish embroidery anchored two queen beds. The almost decadently plush, pillow-top mattresses were covered in silky sheets and a white cotton duvet stuffed with down and anchored with a wide bolster that matched the striped curtains. The room was quiet, blissfully so at night.
Behind wide double doors, a big bathroom beckoned with a marble-framed sink, oversized shower and Essential Elements bath products. Although I usually welcome uncarpeted, nonallergenic floors, when I dropped an earring on the bathroom tile, I felt dirt. A lot of it came up on a white bathmat when I rubbed it on the painted cement floor too.
The 15-by-17-foot main room didn't have space for a desk or dresser, but it held a deep leather club chair, built-in mini bar and a single nightstand with a lamp. I pity the maids because the beds were shoe-horned to fit within 10 inches of the wall.
The flat-screen TV, a small-but-efficient 24 inches, was hung like a painting alongside one bed. Don't bring your DVDs because there is no player; instead, you'll find the usual cable programming, music channels and an iPod docking station.
Do, however, bring your best drinking buddy. The mini bar was well equipped, with eight sets of glassware for cocktails made with the 375-milliliter bottles of mostly top-shelf booze.
I had one little problem, about 4 feet 2 inches to be exact. I had brought my 8-year-old son, Eli, for his last weekend of school vacation. Several other families had the same idea. The little ones, all 8 and younger, splashed happily in the spacious, 57-foot-long heated pool and large hot tub. We parents were parched; no one came to offer a drink, so I went into the adjacent Purple Palm and hunted down a waitress. It wasn't serving, she said.
A father of young children I met poolside had similar experiences with the service and with the menu meant for adventurous palates. His family, in town for the Palm Springs International Film Festival, realized there was no bellman only after he had unpacked the car. He repacked, reparked and toted every bag up a flight of stairs himself.
As we parents swapped stories, owner Ohren appeared and greeted guests. Maybe I should have told him how I had searched in vain for a room service menu that morning. I had read online that the Purple Palm offered its exotic food in the rooms, beside the pool, at the outdoor bar and, of course, within its walls for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I actively sought such service and came up empty every time.
Raves about the Purple Palm made me eager to stay at the hotel. Yet I immediately felt out of place with a child in this romantic, fine-dining establishment. One look at the menu with a $29 wild boar entree and a $14 veal marrow appetizer and I sensed trouble. Was there a children's menu? No, the waiter said. Could my son order a hamburger? No, again, but he could have side dishes from the dinner entrees. The waiter offered no guidance when I tried to envision the taste profiles -- or how anyone, including a child, would like such sides as purple Thai rice with the litchi-Merlot-black truffle glacé.
"It's a new menu," he said. "You'll have to take a leap of faith."
Later, I discovered that the hotel indeed offered room service and that it and the restaurant lunch menu offer burgers and kid-friendly food, which sounded better than what I ate.
An Edward Scissorhands crew slices pretty plate garnishes, but my $30 entree was an odd collision of Arctic char, scallops, okra pods, orange segments, Ezekiel bread, mole and bitter clusters of basil leaves.
I could go on and on about the restaurant's overemphasis on presentation, but gussied-up gastronomy seems to be a Palm Springs tradition that won't die. Still, the restaurant was doing a bustling business and was booked with festival parties.
A spa and fitness center are to open in the spring, and they may add to the overall sense of value. If the hotel can find its footing -- and a real bellman and valet -- it has a shot at snaring and keeping big-spending guests who want a smaller hotel with big ambitions.
If not, maybe they'll have to bring back that brothel.