Weekend Escape: Borrego Springs : In the midst of reddened cliffs, granite boulders and a silent landscape--an oasis

The first view of the Anza-Borrego Desert is dramatic in a way that seems almost impossibly stark to the city-dweller's eye.

Sixty-two miles from the freeway, after the twists and hills of California 79 and San Diego County highways 2 and 22, you climb to a mountain pass and then, as the road drops beneath you at an 8% grade, there is the desert, all exposed granite boulders and iron-reddened cliffs, deep-blue sky and surprising green scrub--huge and silent and empty.

Well, nearly empty. Scattered about the valley floor is the hamlet of Borrego Springs. Borrego is a simple little town: a few blocks of shops, real estate offices, banks and motels along a single street--Palm Canyon Drive--and, beyond that, a scattering of homes, from tiny, charming new adobes to weathered desert denizens.

We arrived in town around 1 p.m. on the Friday of Presidents' Weekend. Since Temecula, our daughters, ages 7 and 6, had been asking for lunch, but none of their familiar favorites were to be found after we left Interstate 15 behind. So after a quick survey of the handful of options along Palm Canyon, we settled on Sandrita's, a Mexican restaurant and meat market in The Mall (one of Borrego's two shopping centers), for chicken tacos and taquitos. The highlight of a very satisfying meal was a homemade salsa slightly smoky from tomatoes grilled over charcoal.

It was cool, in the high '60s with a thin layer of white clouds, and we had a few hours before check-in time at our hotel, so we backtracked a quarter-mile or so to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitors Center, which offers displays explaining the geology, history and climate of the 600,000-acre park.

All of which severely tested Ariel and Miriam's patience. All they really wanted to do was go swimming, but it still was too early to go to the hotel. We pulled water bottles and hats out of the car and wandered down the half-mile loop trail from the visitor's center. Just when it seemed the girls were going to turn as prickly as the varied cacti along the path, a jack rabbit hopped by. Ariel turned tracker, and both girls excitedly launched into a comparison of the desert hare with their pet rabbits at home. Maybe, my daughters allowed, this trip wouldn't be so horrible after all.

Five miles southeast of the main strip, we pulled up at La Casa del Zorro. The Copley family of San Diego, publishers of the Union-Tribune newspaper, has built the Casa into a Southwestern-style oasis of luxury in the otherwise low-key desert. The buildings are cool adobe, with red-tile roofs and rich wood detailing. A koi-filled brook winds through the property; flowers line the paths, and African daisies spread beds of orange along the roadsides.

Our suite was as attractive as any hotel room I've ever stayed in: high ceilings of rough-hewn, exposed beams; Mexican paving tiles on the floor of the large bathroom; a tub with Jacuzzi; a fireplace all ready to be lit; wet bar, and wood louvers on the doors leading out to a poolside patio.

All this beauty came at a price. The deluxe suite, at $210 a night, was the only accommodation available when we booked three weeks ahead. Presidents' Day, it turns out, is the start of the high season at La Casa, with the desert wildflowers due within a week or two. With considerable advance planning, a perfectly comfortable hotel room, either with a king-size bed or two queens, is available at $98 a night on weekends. Suites without fireplaces are $170 on weekends; for larger groups or greater luxury, there are casitas--stand-alone buildings, some with spas or pools--that go for $210 to $495 per night. All rates are lower on weekdays, and prices plunge as the temperatures climb after May 18, when a casita can be booked for as little as $85 a night weekdays.

We shared the family pool and spa outside our door with the guests in 23 other suites, but there were never more than 10 people in or around the water. (I know, because we were there a lot.) Just across the way was an identical pool-spa area set aside for adults. The main pool, next to the lobby and restaurant, features bar service, and there was a jazz group performing during Sunday brunch.

For all its luxury, La Casa del Zorro's hallmark is a cozy warmth. The staff's friendliness went a long way toward overcoming the glitches in service and lapses in quality that seemed to be a function of this being the first busy weekend of the year. Our meal Friday night in the main dining room was as lovingly presented as it was disappointing. Pam's salmon, described on the menu as seared, was overcooked and dry. My black-bean soup, though served with a flourish of table-side sherry-pouring, was bland, and the prime rib came to the table lukewarm. The girls were delighted with their fish sticks--and, indeed, pronounced everything they ate at La Casa wonderful. The kids' menu has breakfasts, lunches and dinners at $2.50 to $3.50, which makes the regular dinner menu--with entrees ranging from $14 for a vegetable curry to $29 for rack of lamb--a little less intimidating.

Back at the room, we looked forward to a romantic evening of sleeping children and a roaring fire--and promptly set off the smoke detector. La Casa teased us with the promise of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and milk, only to have the kitchen call to apologize that the oven was broken.

We made big plans to hike first thing Saturday morning, but rose to a day of record-setting heat that dissolved ambition. After a light breakfast in town at the Coffee & Bookstore (the only vaguely trendy place we spotted anywhere near Borrego Springs, in The Center on Palm Canyon), we settled for a bike ride ($2.50 per hour) around the hotel grounds and a day of basking, reading, swimming and soaking. The kitchen did fine with a poolside lunch of sandwiches and salads. Pam indulged in a massage; I worked out in the fitness room and read a biography of William Mulholland, the great engineer who brought water to Los Angeles--a fitting subject for contemplation in the arid Borrego basin.

Following a forgettably bland dinner in town at Little Italy, we drove to the Borrego Palm Canyon state campground for a campfire program on the fossils of the desert. As the naturalist conjured up visions of the mastodons, camels, zebra and saber-toothed tigers that stalked the area before the San Ysidro Mountains thrust upward, blocking the rains, we stared into a sky bursting with stars and started planning a return camping trip.

Our true desert adventure came Sunday morning. The front desk booked a three-hour excursion with Big T's Desert Tours (619-765-1309). Our guide, T. Curtin, pulled up at 8:30 a.m. in his Isuzu Trooper, and we set off on a bumpy, exhilarating journey along the interstate system of washes and trails that crisscrosses the Anza-Borrego. We stopped to smell creosote and cheese plant, peer at the huge stalks of the agave cactus, poke at coyote scat and marvel at the bright red flowers of the ocotillo. For $60 and a tip, the half-day with Curtin was a bargain-priced introduction to the desert and perfect preparation for future explorations on our own of the continental United States' biggest state park.

Notes for next time: Book earlier, be prepared to cook some meals--and open the doors before starting the fire.

MORE DESERT: See Hiking, L18.


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Budget for Four

Two nights, La Casa del Zorro: $438.90

Lunch, Sandrita's: 19.25

Dinner, La Casa, including wine: 92.02

Breakfast, Coffee and Book Store: 9.46

Room-service lunch, La Casa: 16.59

Dinner, Little Italy, including wine: 50.00

Picnic breakfast and lunch: 15.00

Gas: 13.20

Massage, one hour: 60.00

Bike rentals, one hour: 7.50

Desert tour, three hours: 69.00

FINAL TAB: $790.92

La Casa del Zorro: 3845 Yaqui Pass Road, P.O. Box 127, Borrego Springs, Calif. 92004; tel. (619) 767-5323 or (800) 824-1884

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