The faint trail snaked up the San Jacinto Mountains, finally reaching a rocky precipice that offered one of the best views of the city. Grass and palms blanketed square blocks below, interrupted only by parcels of stark, undeveloped desert -- a checkerboard of green and beige.
Our problem: We didn't know our next move. Which way back to the car?
I wanted to veer left. Todd insisted we go right. Our dog, Bailey, a lovable golden retriever-chow mix, diplomatically declined to choose sides. The two humans barked at each other until Bailey lay down in disgust.
The nervy mutt actually gave us a 10-minute timeout for our bad behavior. When Bailey finally stood, Todd suggested we let him follow our scent back. Sure enough, Bailey's nose guided us down the mountain, and within half an hour we were back at the car.
That, as it turns out, was a good strategy for an otherwise pleasant weekend last month in Palm Springs: Let our dog sniff out the best places to sleep, eat and play. He led us to fetching spots that even the pet-phobic would like, including a '60s motel renovated into a fun, tiki-themed playground, an unusual landscape nursery that houses outdoor artists' studios and a new dining complex called the River.
A time warp away
Palm Springs can feel like an entertaining time warp as you make the two-hour drive west from L.A. on Interstate 10. Exit at Highway 111 and soon you're scooting south along the mountains and onto Palm Canyon Drive, the increasingly eclectic downtown strip where even customers in hair salons seem to represent five eras, from Beehive to Mohawk Revival. The road speeds on, half a mile later bending east and landing in 1964.
That's the year the motor lodge at 411 E. Palm Canyon Drive was born. Like many a face in the desert, this motel sagged over the years. In 2001 new owners gave it a $2 1/2-million, tiki-tinged makeover and a new name, Caliente Tropics.
From the street, the 90-room motel doesn't look like paradise. Its personality begins to show at the pool, surrounded by lashed-reed fencing and guarded by a 6-foot wooden tiki with flared nostrils, a red tongue and a crazy crown of hair. At night, tropical torches illuminate the statue and others around the grounds.
The setting is kitschy, so I was surprised that our suite ($155 a night) wasn't an over-the-top Polynesian pastiche. The living room furniture was tame, the natural-fiber covering on the walls subdued and wood-slat blinds on the windows respectable. For every hint of a tropical theme (the faux palm plant, the bamboo motif on art frames and lamp stands), we noted details one might see in any good boutique hotel (down pillows, two 27-inch TVs). Everything was tasteful -- too tasteful if you're in the mood for an over-the-top Polynesian pastiche.
The restrained styling might explain the red Porsche Boxster S, black Mercedes C320 and white Hummer H2 in the lot. People who can afford more expensive accommodations apparently liked cheeky chic enough to choose a motel where standard rooms started around $100, on a weekend in peak season, including continental breakfast.
For the dogs
Most lodgings in town prohibit animals. Many others (including Motel 6, Hilton, Estrella and Givenchy) forbid large dogs or charge up to $50 a day extra.
Caliente Tropics has no size limitations and charged us only $15 extra per day. Pet owners are segregated in first-floor rooms in the back of the complex so other guests can sleep free of allergens and annoying barks, meows and the thump-thump-thump of paws. The upside for us was no traffic noise. Our suite included a clean bed for Bailey, food and water bowls and little plastic bags for when nature calls.
Call it did, but not, thank goodness, at Palapas of Araby Cove, a tropical-flavored commercial nursery with artist studios on site, a mile east off Palm Canyon Drive. The owners welcome leashed dogs, and when ours arrived, a staff member gave him a treat. That didn't make me any less nervous as we traversed rows of garden statuary on our way to thatched huts in back of the 14-acre property.
Here you can watch artists paint, sculpt, blow glass or write poetry, some of which is framed and hangs from trees. We admired a mosaic-topped table by Richard Stien, chuckled at the decidedly nonclassical nudes by sculptor Kay Henkel and would have stayed longer had Bailey not taken an intense interest in a terra-cotta terrier.
Now entering tikiland
We moved along, following Palm Canyon Drive back into downtown. Anyone swept up in tikis and palapas can get lost in Lotus Lane and Hello Bali, two maze-like shops with coconut birdhouses, bamboo chimes and other tropical trinkets.
Instead Bailey tugged his leash into Cold Nose Warm Heart, where owner Dan Belair doles out treats amid a dynamite collection of dog toys and gifts. The store's high-end offerings are amusing, including Italian leather dog collars studded with Austrian Swarovski crystals for $45 to $58.
Bailey was most interested in Belair's free tummy rubs and a Berber Fido Flyer, a toy that looks like a Frisbee-shaped potholder and costs only $7. Flyer in hand and wallet intact, we set out for treats of the human kind.
In Palm Springs, pets can accompany diners seated outdoors. So we plopped down at a sidewalk table at the Crosswalk Cafe and feasted on Southwest chicken sandwiches. The cafe has a doggie menu -- pancakes and bacon, chicken and rice, a doggie French dip, all 99 cents each. But we're cheap and, more important, Bailey didn't know what he was missing. He was content with free biscuits, courtesy of the cafe.
Another day he paused at a doggie water bowl outside Cafe Euro downtown, so we paused too. We sat at a patio table and ordered a turkey sandwich and an Italian panino, both fine. Desserts are the cafe's specialty, our waiter claimed, and, after splitting a warm apple tart mounded with a crisp crumble, Todd and I were believers.
One of our dinner favorites in town is the Blue Coyote Bar & Grill, where one outdoor table by the busy host's station is designated for pet owners. Todd and I chose enchiladas mole and pollo naranja, a chicken breast marinated in orange juice, chipotle, garlic and a hint of orange liqueur. The waiter brought margaritas for two, water for three.
For something new, we dived into the River, a year-old collection of restaurants, shops and movie theaters set by an artificial lake about 15 minutes east in Rancho Mirage. Jerde Partnership International Inc., the L.A.-based design firm behind Universal CityWalk and Horton Plaza in San Diego, designed this complex as well.
Made in the shade
Taking a pet to the desert can be tricky, even beyond the search for outdoor dining. According to Desert Animal Hospital in Palm Springs, visitors frequently rush in with animals suffering heatstroke (never leave a pet in the car, even with windows down), snakebites and burned paws.
We made sure Bailey had water, shade and rest -- which gave us an excuse to rest too. Caliente Tropics' fenced lawn was good for a snooze: shaded by palm trees and towering bamboo, with lounge chairs tucked inside three-sided thatched huts.
More diversions: the moderately difficult hike up Carl Lykken Trail, which starts at the western end of Ramon Road. A peek (minus dog) for me at the Palm Springs Desert Museum's new desert tortoise exhibit, where through Oct. 12 you can watch the threatened species (including a 1-year-old hatchling no bigger than a Ping-Pong ball) eat, hike and bicker just like silly humans. And one indulgence just for Bailey: the Palm Springs Dog Park, behind City Hall on Tahquitz Canyon Way.
The park is all but a doggie country club: fairway-green grass, cabana-like canopies and antique fire hydrants.
Bailey didn't appreciate such finer things, choosing instead to sprawl in the sun and lick dirt. At some point, though, he did get inspired to sniff a Great Dane named Horse and romp with two Labs, Sonny and Cher.
The scene, at times, was surreal. When the woman sitting by me let her puppy drink from a Crystal Geyser bottle, then promptly chugged some water herself, I took it as a final sign to leave. I leashed up Bailey, but he already knew where to go: the back seat of the car, where he curled up for the ride home.
Craig Nakano is an assistant editor in the Travel section.
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