In Palm Desert, riding out a wave of steamy heat

In Palm Desert, riding out a wave of steamy heat
A giraffe is one of the few nonnative species on display at the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens in Palm Desert. (Glenn Koenig / LAT)
Odd as it is, I've always enjoyed the desert in the summer.

When I was a boy, my family made its annual reverse "Grapes of Wrath" trip each summer from California to Oklahoma to visit relatives, driving across the scorching Arizona and New Mexico highways in our Buick. Memories mostly involve stopping for grape Nehi sodas and swimming in Travelodge pools at night.

This year, my family and I watched the Oakland A's play the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants during spring training and found the games remarkably pleasant, even in the dry, 100-plus heat of Phoenix.

That said, here's a tip if you are planning a summer desert trip: Spend a few minutes with the Weather Channel first.

Our recent family weekender to Palm Desert showed that even the arid Coachella Valley can get hit with a burst of stifling humidity.

Tropical moisture from the Pacific turned what should have been tolerable heat into an unpleasant steam room. The local paper, the Desert Sun, called it "a monsoon season" and suggested "staying inside when possible."

We could have done that at home. Fortunately, a resort with two nice pools and an off-season price eased the discomfort.

The 254-room Marriott's Shadow Ridge is part of the hotel company's Vacation Club time-share division. With plans to expand to nearly 1,000 rooms, it's set to become the company's largest time share in the U.S.

Even if you have no interest in buying a time share, the development is noteworthy: Guest rooms not occupied by owners are rented out on a nightly basis, just like a traditional hotel, through Marriott central reservations.

That's good news for many, because the Palm Springs area has become a popular summer weekend trip despite temperatures that regularly hit triple digits. The dirt-cheap bargains once abundant are increasingly harder to find, at least for Friday and Saturday nights.

Gary Sherwin, vice president of marketing at the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority, attributed the change to the area's transition from the days when hotels were owned by sole proprietors who often closed for the summer so they could go on vacation.

A boom in large-scale, year-round resorts that started about 20 years ago, Sherwin said, led to the aggressive marketing that has lured people to the area even in the summer, if only for a weekend.

"There are some hotels that sell out even in the middle of summer," Sherwin said. "They do a strong weekend business."

If you don't mind carrying your own bags and not being able to order room service at 11 p.m., a time share can be a smart — and affordable — alternative.

For $159 a night plus tax, we had a large one-bedroom suite, the equivalent of which probably would have cost $200 or more at a conventional hotel, even during the off-season.

It had a king bed, a sofa bed for the kids, a kitchen, a fireplace (that for obvious reasons we didn't use), daily housekeeping service and a few minor flaws, including a broken lock on a sliding door between the bedroom and the bathroom. The air conditioner, which had to be on all day, was a little noisy.

A spacious balcony overlooked a golf course designed by Nick Faldo, the six-time majors winner from England. (This place also houses the impressive-sounding Faldo Golf Institute.)

The room was a five-minute walk from the resort's pools. A complimentary pool shuttle ran every half hour, had we wanted it.

Nearby was a newly planned section humming with construction. The noise was at times annoying, but guests could take comfort in looking at the workers and knowing there were others more miserable in the heat.

Other time-share players in the region that rent to nonowners include Club Intrawest (, Club Sunterra (; click "The Americas," then "go rental!" ) and Westin (, which has a big property in Rancho Mirage.

One tip: If you try your luck online, watch out for unexpected fees. One property offered a rate similar to what Shadow Ridge charges plus a $75 nonrefundable cleaning deposit for a two-night stay.

Time shares had been a turnoff for me because I envisioned having to attend mandatory est-like meetings where organizers won't unlock the doors until you agree to purchase two weeks of resort ownership a year.

At Shadow Ridge, it was a very soft sell — just a letter waiting on the kitchen counter inviting us to a 90-minute sales pitch and tour. Points toward Marriott's frequent-guest program or a gift certificate for the resort's restaurant, spa or golf course were the incentives. We passed.

Big pool, short food line

The highest temperature I saw was 109, although the local paper said highs were to reach 116 in some places.

With that kind of heat, coupled with the humidity, we planned a simple Saturday, starting with pancakes and waffles at the IHOP in Rancho Mirage and returning to the pool for most of the day.

Shadow Ridge's main pool was spacious and not crowded. A smaller pool for young kids was off to the side. Lounge chairs were always available, and lines were short at the Chuckwalla Pool Grill snack stand. The food was basic: We got fruit salad, nachos, ice cream bars and smoothies — slightly pricey, but less than at a full-service resort.

Occasional breaks took us to the adjacent air-conditioned game and crafts building, where we shot pool and played air hockey. The biggest excitement was a visit by paramedics to the nearby golf course, which appeared to have a heat-related incident.

One drawback of the 312-acre resort is that guests must drive a bit to reach restaurants and night life. We ended up playing miniature golf at Boomers in Cathedral City, about 10 minutes away. The late-afternoon temperature was still in the 90s, and the humidity didn't let up. I cursed myself every time I five- or six-putted, knowing the game would take that much longer.

Afterward, the kids raced cars on Boomers' kart track while my wife, Denise, and I watched the action. Michael, about to turn 16, NASCAR-ed his way to the front of the pack. Jeanette, 14, held her own in her debut race.

Afterward, during an air-conditioned respite in Rancho Mirage, we had burgers and sundaes at one of the most spacious Ruby's diners I've seen.

Animal hide-out

Sunday morning, after a Denny's breakfast, we visited the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens in Palm Desert. It's something of a cross between a zoo and botanical garden.

Through Aug. 31, the park opens an hour earlier (8 a.m.) than usual and closes 3 1/2 hours earlier (1:30 p.m.) because of the heat. General admission, usually $10.50, is discounted to $7.95.

There wasn't much life in the Living Desert on this day. At times, walking through felt like crossing the open Mojave. One air-conditioned oasis of a building allowed us to get a close look at a tarantula and to touch a harmless king snake.

In another area, a mountain lion lay against the glass window, barely moving. Most of the time you had to take it on faith that the animals were present because they usually were hiding in the shade.

Besides rattlesnakes, coyotes, Gila monsters and Mexican wolves, a few nonnative species such as giraffes and cheetahs are here too. The Gecko Gulch play area recently opened for kids.

One exhibit showed the air temperature as 109. The ground temperature: in the 120s.

As if we needed a reminder.



Budget for four

Expenses for this trip:


Marriott's Shadow Ridge,

two nights with tax $346.62


IHOP $48.17


Chuckwalla Pool Grill $36.09

Shadow Ridge game room $6.00

Boomers games $23.95


Ruby's $43.41


Denny's $39.09

Living Desert admission $31.80

Gas $24.95

Final tab $600.08


Marriott's Shadow Ridge, 9003 Shadow Ridge Road, Palm Desert, CA 92211; (760) 674-2600 for information, (888) 236-2427 for reservations, .

Boomers, 67-700 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Cathedral City, CA 92234; (760) 770-7522, springs.

The Living Desert, 47-900 Portola Ave., Palm Desert, CA 92260; (760) 346-5694,