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At Indian Wells, a family resorts to desert luxury

At Indian Wells, a family resorts to desert luxury
A 1-foot-deep wading pool is popular with toddlers. Guests at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort & Spa in Indian Wells have a choice of six pools. (Nora Zamichow / LAT)
We don't get out much.

We have a 2-year-old.

When I recently proposed an overnight trip to Indian Wells, half an hour east of Palm Springs, my husband arched his eyebrows. But he was game.

Our idea was to pamper ourselves with a one-night splurge at a luxury resort. Mark and I immediately started fantasizing: We'd lounge poolside. We'd get kneaded by masseuses. And, oh yes, we'd have a great toddler-friendly adventure for our daughter, Zia.

Friends mentioned romantic bed-and-breakfasts. But because our getaway was meant for three, we figured the amenities of a larger facility would be more suitable. Hey, would you want to be the only couple in a hushed, candlelit dining room with a child banging her fork on the table?

We chose the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort & Spa, long considered one of Coachella Valley's best resorts. The Hyatt recently underwent a $65-million renovation, adding more than 100 rooms, installing one pool and creating a 30,000-square-foot spa. Was the spiffed-up resort worth the steep rates? And could a family find respite in a one-night getaway?

We booked at the last minute, and the least expensive room available was $269 a night plus tax and a $10 resort fee. A reservations agent agreed to throw in coupons for free breakfast when I asked about a AAA discount. (I did not tell them I was a journalist.)

Although the check-in time is officially 4 p.m., the hotel staff said we could get our room at 11 a.m. Translation: poolside by noon.

We set out on a Saturday morning earlier this month after loading our car with Zia's favorite tunes, a red tote bag containing the essential eight stuffed animals and a bag with snacks. Zia was delighted by the windmills we passed along Interstate 10 near Cabazon.

Our spacious room held a king bed and a sunken sitting area that opened onto a small balcony. The décor was bland — or exactly what you might expect from a large chain. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the obligatory coffeepot came with coffee as well as herbal and caffeinated tea. Two terry robes hung in the closet. And the staff hadn't blinked at our request for a crib.

Zia was smitten with the mini-bar, which I'd opened to refrigerate her milk. Imagine being a toddler and discovering that somewhere in the world there was a refrigerator not only scaled to your size but also placed at your eye level. This small fridge had all sorts of tiny bottles, seemingly designed for tiny hands. So as we waited for our luggage, Zia rearranged the mini-bar. (At checkout, we learned it operates with motion sensors, so we had some explaining to do.)

Our promised "garden view" turned out to be of the hotel entrance and palm-lined driveway. But we did have a nifty view of a classic red Jaguar.

Some services proved disappointing. The bellman showed up empty-handed and explained that he thought we were departing, not arriving. That evening, there was no turndown service. And breakfast took ages to arrive. In our little world, none of this mattered. But as my husband pointed out, when you pay top dollar, you expect more.

We jumped into our swimsuits and sought refuge at the hotel's six pools. We went directly to the 1-foot-deep wading pool. For a toddler, life doesn't get better than this. Zia splashed to her heart's content while Mom and Dad sprawled in chaise longues. The weather was perfect — warm sun cooled by mild breezes.

We ate lunch (hot dog, French fries and Big Daddy burger) by the wading pool and set out to explore. Adjacent to the toddler pool sits another pool, which was popular with the 4- to 12-year-old crowd. This 3 1/2-foot-deep pool had a one-story corkscrew slide, slick with warm water. Intrepid youngsters reported that lying down ensured the fastest ride. Zia was happy to watch. She went down the slide once with her father, but that was as much excitement as she wanted.

We spent the afternoon going from pool to pool and trying the whirlpool. Then we roamed the lush grounds, which hug an artificial lake and make the area feel very undesert-like. We startled a huge heron and, fortunately, we had rice cakes to feed the ducks. Zia dashed along the sidewalks winding through the gardens. In one nook, we came upon two alligator-sized lizard sculptures — perfect for toddler climbing. Around a bend, we found the playground. And as the sun set, splashing hues of purple and orange across the desert sky, we discovered — to Zia's delight — another pool, though it was the one intended for adults.

During the day, this pool touts cabanas tended by a separate staff. Each cabana has its own refrigerator, telephone with data port, television with remote, ceiling fan and water mister. For half a day in winter, they cost $45.

The adult pool was built as part of the renovation. The resort used to be known for its tennis center, boasting 16 clay, grass and hard courts. No more. A parking lot replaced the tennis center. Three hard courts remain on the grounds, though others are available at a nearby facility.

Despite efforts to cater to a tony clientele, this is the kind of place where no one glares when your child rolls a ball down a lobby ramp. Many guests come for the 36 holes of golf. But we saw as many children as golf bags being toted.

Although we hoped for evening massages, this service was not offered after 7 p.m. Instead we went for dinner at the hotel's Santa Rosa Grille. Our waitress quickly gave Zia crayons and a children's menu — all items from $3 to $6 — and served up chocolate milk. When she saw Zia's dismay at the cheese pizza (too gourmet), she hustled out some macaroni and cheese at no charge.

I started with the Santa Rosa salad, mixed greens with grapes and crisp wonton slivers inside a basket of cucumber ribbon. My entrée was gemelli pasta, blanketed with artichokes, tiny tomatoes, olives, peppers, basil and a good dose of garlic. My husband dived into the prime rib special. Our meals were satisfying but not knock-your-socks-off. The most impressive aspect was the toddler-friendly service.

After a dinner stroll, we retired to our room for the night. I awoke just after 4 a.m. The Coachella Valley seemed so still and dark; the stars shone bright. But what was that noise? I listened carefully. A wild animal? Machinery gone awry?

It was the snoring of our neighbor, through the walls.

A great spot for the kids

In the morning we left for the Living Desert, a 1,200-acre zoological garden in nearby Palm Desert that is a must-see for anyone traveling with children. In November the complex opened Gecko Gulch, a $700,000 desert-themed playground that includes giant spider webs for climbing. A giraffe and ostrich exhibit opened a year earlier. General admission is $10.50, but as members of the Los Angeles Zoo, we got in for half-price. Children younger than 3 are admitted free.

We arrived in time to catch one of the park's two daily shows (11 a.m. and 2 p.m.) at the Tennity Amphitheater. The 20-minute show features animals of deserts throughout the world. The animals are close, you learn their names and habits, and you see them in action. For our family, it was a hit. Bubo the barn owl soared over our heads. Sonora the red-tailed hawk zoomed to the hill and back. Rosie the bighorn sheep leapt nimbly. Monti the coati — a raccoon-like creature — padded along a split-rail fence several feet away.

Zoo officials say visitors can spend four hours covering the entire complex. We didn't figure our toddler would last that long. We strolled to the east, home to the gazelles and camels. Although Zia has always insisted on walking, she fell in love with the zebra strollers, shaped like small jeeps, and we rented one ($3).

Before spotting any animals, we came across a model train display, a series of miniature villages and scenes that cover an acre. The exhibits include the just-completed Rocky Mountains with a suspension bridge that crosses a giant waterfall. One favorite was the turn-of-the-century logging camp, where a tiny figure corrals miniature floating logs as another logger sends wood through a circular saw. Zia was agog. We circled the display twice.

We pried her away to see the wart- hogs, zebras and giraffes. But it was the ungainly long-necked African bird that captured Zia's heart.

"Mom," Zia asked, "can we get an ostrich?"
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