The California Bucket List: Your daily guide to the best adventures and experiences in the Golden State

Palm Springs: An oasis within a desert oasis

Special to The Times

My friend Todd, a New Yorker, abhors fruity martinis. He can spot wood veneer at 50 paces and gets antsy around imperfect service. This is not to say that Todd is demanding; let's just say he's an arbiter of taste.

Todd likes Palm Springs, though, and that's where we met up in January. We agree that it offers much of the best of Southern California: native history and natural beauty, gourmet and gourmand, spa and pool, timeless and midcentury, gay and straight, tanned retirees and pasty out-of-towners. And new downtown developments mean that all these mingle within reach of one another.

Todd stayed with friends. I checked into Hotel Zoso, which opened in December, a sane combination of price, panache and proximity. At 163 rooms (the building once housed the Marquis Hotel) it's no boutique, but the accommodations are contemporary and fun: geometric black carpeting, cube-shaped end tables that looked as if cut from tree trunks, French press coffeemakers and flat-panel TVs.

Chocolates in a gauzy red sack topped the pillows on my cushy bed, and my balcony overlooked the pool and mountains. The lobby bar boasted a futuristic pool table and comfortably diverse buzz. Although the Zoso remains a work in progress (the spa, fitness center and restaurant are to open this spring), the staff made up for it by being efficient, friendly and not chirpy.

I also considered the Parker Palm Springs, opened in fall 2004 and already a destination, but rooms were more than twice the price, starting at $399 a night. Instead, Todd and I went for a peek and dinner.

Ceramicist-turned-designer Jonathan Adler's "Happy Chic" interior was accented with a suit of armor; shelves of Adler's stoneware pots; and a lounge with mood lighting, a stovepipe fireplace and shag carpeting, baby. The Parker's spa, with the tongue-in-cheek name Palm Springs Yacht Club, is a showplace in nautical blue, rope motifs and porthole windows. Staff uniforms: white sailor suits meet hoodie terrycloth robes.

At our table at the Parker's restaurant, Mister Parker's, Todd proclaimed, "I L-O-V-E love this. I could live here." We decided that a young Mick Jagger could have made this clubby-cool spot his bachelor pad. A tiny red satyr, the sprite of pleasure, accented each plate, and a piped-in Melanie warbled "Brand New Key." We browsed Mister Parker's clever wine list, subdivided into "crazy," "sexy" and "cool."

We wrapped strips of tarte flambée (wafer-thin crust topped with smoked bacon, onion and goat cheese) around an accompanying salad, and Todd's admirably tender pork tenderloin came crowned with roasted whole cipollini onions like domes on an Eastern Orthodox church. Dessert, Charlotte aux pommes, was slices of brioche fashioned into a shell around a baked Gala apple.

The next morning I enjoyed oatmeal brûlée (with vanilla sauce, bananas and crisped bits of brown sugar) at "eat. at the desert," the Zoso's casual restaurant, before meeting Todd for a guided hike through Tahquitz Canyon on the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. The excursion began in the midcentury-style visitors' center with a film about Tahquitz, a shaman of the local Cahuilla Indians whose spirit is said to appear as a ball of fire and who prowls earthquakes, storms and traffic accidents in search of souls to steal.

Thankfully, the canyon was considerably less foreboding. Actually, it was beautiful. A ranger pointed out flora that has served as the Cahuillas' pantry and apothecary for millenniums: creosote, honey mesquite, desert apricot, encelia, cholla and Mormon tea. At the midway point, sycamores framed a gushing waterfall, and pairs of ravens soared overhead. Some of our group tarried, others chatted, but eventually we all went silent to admire the falls.

Tyler's, across from the Zoso, was a fine lunch break; you have to love a burger stand where the magazine rack boasts Wallpaper and the Robb Report. A quick walk away, the Palm Springs Art Museum has recently replaced some long-standing but unadventurous exhibits in favor of the more cutting edge, for instance a show of contemporary desert photography, which closes next Sunday.

The evening's entertainment was Cirque Dreams, a Cirque du Soleil-style show (though not affiliated) that opened in January in the Palm Springs Pavilion Theatre, a semi-permanent tent across from the museum.

Cirque Dreams was a solid hour-and-a-half of clowns clowning, spinners spinning and trapezists trapezing, against black light and polyphonic music. The acrobatics were astonishing, particularly the duo that balanced on a stack of four cylinders — turned on their sides. "That is not right," Todd mused.

Dinner after the show was at Copley's on Palm Canyon, which opened in December 2004 on the onetime estate of Cary Grant (also once an acrobat). Andrew Manion Copley's California cuisine with a Hawaiian twist has won him awards in Hawaii and San Francisco. Examples from this menu: ahi tacos with tuna tartare, and Muscovy duck breast two ways: seared and in spring rolls.

Sunday morning I dropped by More Than a Mouthful Café, which has an entire menu of eggs Benedict (I got the Marilyn Monroe, with artichoke hearts). After that I needed a workout, and the Zoso referred me to the well-equipped fitness center at the Cahuilla-owned Spa Resort Casino, a block away. For a little extra, I availed myself of the "Taking of the Waters."

After such a high-flying weekend, the Taking of the Waters was refreshingly froufrou-free. The men's side starts in a locker room (including a lounge with sports on TV) and progresses through five stages: steam bath, dry sauna, eucalyptus sauna, individual bath from the natural mineral springs for which the city is named. It ends in a "tranquillity room" with a trickling fountain, where a professional tucks you between soft white sheets. If you're like me, you'll fall right to sleep and dream of returning.

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