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Weekend Escape: Desert Hot Springs : Two Bunch Balm : The Famous Mogul Hideaway Lives Up to Its Script: Pricey, Private and Profoundly Relaxing

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We were exhausted. We were up to here with the deadlines, the obligations, the pressure. If we had to read one more sensitive-male-bonding script . . . no, wait, that was that whiny girlfriend on “The Player,” the movie we were half-watching on our VCR.

“I wanna have a massage,” she was moaning into a movie exec’s ear. “I wanna have a long soak in a hot mineral tub. And I wanna have margaritas administered intravenously.”

My husband and I exchanged meaningful glances. Our sentiments exactly.

Thus did we find ourselves on the phone the following week to the folks at Two Bunch Palms, the pricey desert spa that has made its name as the local hot springs to the stars. If it was good enough for the Hollywood barracudas we had seen in that movie, we figured, imagine what it could do for us.

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Well, we won’t kid you. It was a fantastic experience, and profoundly rejuvenating. But we also dropped a bundle, in part because it was our first visit and we were hellbent on experiencing every stress-antidote the place had to offer. Now that we know what works--and what’s not worth the price--we are already planning our return, which we believe will relax us just about as much for substantially less money.

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Located about two hours east of Los Angeles in the desert beyond Palm Springs, Two Bunch Palms has been a restorative oasis for more than a century. In the ‘20s, the gangster Al Capone reportedly drafted the place into service as his hide-out. But Capone, of course, went to prison and, as nearby Palm Springs became the desert’s in-spot, Two Bunch Palms languished until a multimillion-dollar renovation in 1978 put it back on the map.

There was a time, locals say, when Two Bunch Palms was almost a bargain, with its cozy, funky overstuffed rooms furnished in lurid period antiques and cooled with ceiling fans. But in recent years--and especially since the release of Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire, “The Player"--the resort has been in record demand. Altman features Two Bunch Palms as a hide-out for studio execs and movie stars, and one of the movie’s most memorable scenes features Tim Robbins, the movie-exec-run-amok, peering out of a mud bath as the authorities try in vain to keep him from getting away with murder. Articles about the resort report that Goldie Hawn, Mel Gibson, Meryl Streep, Bruce Springsteen and others are frequent visitors. It’s not hard to see why Two Bunch Palms draws a celebrity crowd--the place is so private that you can go for hours, even days at a time without crossing paths with another human being. But first, of course, you have to get in, which isn’t easy. The resort has only 44 units, and--except during the scorching summers--they are booked weeks in advance.

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We called on a weekday afternoon in late March, for instance, and were told we wouldn’t be able to get a room until April 15. The cheapest units are tiny studios with queen-sized beds at $105 per night; the most expensive are a $412-a-night suite with a private Jacuzzi and patio and the $395-a-night Capone suite, which features an antique bar and a bullet hole in one mirror.

On our weekend, we had two options--a $194-a-night poolside room in one of the older buildings, or a $298-a-night villa in the resort’s new Casa Blanca building, a gated four-plex surrounding a shared hot tub. The reservations clerk diplomatically recommended the newer unit, which we opted for. The clerk also advised us to book massages at least two weeks in advance, noting that weekends tend to fill up quickly, especially for their more popular “treatments.” Moreover, the clerk noted that “most visitors” book three treatments a day. We also had to reserve our table for dinner on Saturday night at the resort dining room, which, as it turned out, offered not only a very good spa cuisine, but also a broader selection of more fattening food, and a decent wine list.

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We pulled in late on a Friday night, just in time to collect our keys from a guard at the stone security gate and stagger in to bed. Our room, which had Oriental carpets and a Spanish-tiled floor, had an airy sitting area with wicker furniture, a kitchenette, a modern four-poster bed, a TV and two private patios.

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Saturday morning dawned to a complimentary--and excellent--continental breakfast of fresh strawberries and cantaloupe, granola, muffins, coffee and juice served buffet-style in the gracious, Deco-style dining room. Our first spa appointment wasn’t until 10 a.m., so we took a desert hike, but it soon became clear that this place was not really built for exploratory treks. Although the grounds of the resort are venerable and plush, the neighborhood that in recent years has grown up around it is of the pitbull-and-double-wide variety--a community, we later learned, of young low-income families and fixed-income retirees who come to the area because its hot springs soothe arthritis.

After a half-hour walk, we donned bathing suits and bathrobes and headed for the resort’s centerpiece, a collection of private redwood decks equipped with outdoor showers and rectangular, blue-tiled mud baths. As we sunk into our secluded tubs of what appeared to be steaming, sulfurous potting soil, we could hear birds twittering in the palm fronds, and gaze at the sun as it streamed through pine boughs and bougainvillea. The mineral-rich warmth gently tugged all tension from our limbs; periodically, a pleasant attendant would press icy washcloths to our hot brows. Afterward, we showered in cold water with that peppermint soap hippies used to use. Then there was a steam bath and hour-long massages--mine, a Shiatsu that focused on pressure points, my husband’s a deep-tissue massage that is one of the hallmarks of the place.

The whole treatment lasted about two hours and cost $127 for me and $140 for my husband, plus tip. We didn’t regret a penny; in a single morning, we were as relaxed as if we had been on vacation all week. We later decided that, were we to do it again, we would limit our spa time to one treatment a day. We also felt that one of the resort’s most popular treatments--a sort of glorified bath they call the “salt glo and herbal steam"--was not as rewarding at $98 as the price would imply, and the facials were pretty standard fare. The $42 scalp massage, however, was a real bargain.

We also decided upon closer inspection that we had been too hasty in ruling out the less-expensive rooms. Even the smallest and funkiest of the older units seemed quiet and very comfortable. We also found that some of the best things about the place were free--the gorgeous blue pools of steaming mineral water, for example, which are surrounded by a free-form stone patio, shaded with a jungle of palms and flowering vines.

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But the best potential bargain revealed itself at the end of our stay, when the clerk informed us that, if we returned within two years for a midweek stay, we would get a 30% discount on the price of our room and a 20% discount at the spa. Or, he said, we could wait a couple of months and pay half-price--if we could stand to come to Desert Hot Springs in July. (The place shuts down altogether in August.)

Budget for Two

Gas from Los Angeles $ 25

Casa Blanca wing, two nights 655

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Spa treatments 770

Meals 137

FINAL TAB $1,587

Two Bunch Palms Resort and Spa, 67-425 Two Bunch Palms Trail, Desert Hot Springs, Calif. 92240; tel. (619) 329-8791 or (800) 472-4334.

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