The Willows: A hidden retreat in Palm Springs

Special to the Los Angeles Times

A decade ago, when my wife and I were honeymooning on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, we’d talked — maybe even vowed — to return there for our 10th wedding anniversary if we still liked each other. After all, it would be 10 years. That’s a pretty big number for a married couple in Los Angeles. The equivalent of 90 anywhere else.

But last May, when the date approached and it was clear that checking into our old $650 sea-view suite at Il Positano di San Pietro would have to be pushed deeper into the milestone wedding anniversary rotation (maybe they’ll hold it for our 50th), we found ourselves scrambling for a more doable but still aluminum anniversary-worthy contingency plan.

Italy aside, where could we mark our 10th in good form?

While cooking fish sticks and pooling air miles, we batted around some half-baked ideas that included a Cabo “Romance Package” and maybe just trying to get into Mozza at a reasonable hour.

Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn, 412 W. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; (800) 966-9597, from $275-$525 weekdays, $325-$595 weekends. The inn is closed in July and August.

Then we dropped off the kids at my brother-in-law’s for a couple nights, drove to Palm Springs and checked into the Willows.

If you don’t know about this time-warpish, eight-bedroom, Mediterranean villa-style splurge hiding behind a wall of bougainvillea, locked iron gates and mile-high palm trees just a few blocks (but otherwise a world and about 80 years apart) from the crowds of downtown Palm Springs, it’s probably because you’re not really supposed to know about it. Not unless you’re a guest.


But if you’re a guest at the Willows, it’s a bit like crashing at the private desert digs of someone’s super-rich great-grandparents who aren’t around anymore but have kindly left at your disposal a 24-hour innkeeper, a gourmet breakfast chef, a Spanish-tiled pool and a selection of old Bob Hope movies on DVD.

When we arrived on a warm Friday afternoon, the inn (sequestered at the foot of a sepia-brown mountainside behind the Palm Springs Art Museum) was discreet-looking enough to make us wonder whether we were at the right place. Finally, I pulled out my cellphone and called them. Uh, we’re here. I think.

“Welcome to the Willows. I’ll be right down to open the gate for you,” confirmed our innkeeper, who promptly ushered us up a winding set of stone stairs laced with trumpet flowers, daylilies, hovering orange dragonflies and the faint sound of a waterfall; past a frescoed verandah with Spanish-tiled hors d’oeuvres tables and lovely desert views; through a grand living room gushing with inlaid mahogany, a giant fireplace, a grand piano, wrought-iron candelabras and Billie Holiday piping softly through the walls; and into our private chamber — called Einstein’s Garden Room — furnished with various Art Deco-ish creature comforts of Jazz Age-era Palm Springs, including a claw-foot slipper tub in a chandeliered bathroom and French doors beside an antique king bed that opened onto a private garden patio —where the waterfall appeared, tumbling down a floral cliff.

Yeah. Never mind Italy. This would work for a 10th anniversary weekend.

“Did Einstein actually sleep in here?” I had to ask, like every prior guest who had checked into this room.

“Well, he was good friends with the original owner and slept in this house many times — but to be honest, I can’t say for sure that he stayed in this very room,” our host replied, almost apologetically. “But people do sometimes say that they wake up here feeling smarter,” she added, before moving on to more important matters. Would we prefer to be served our three-course breakfast at a waterfall-side table in the main alfresco dining area or alone in our private garden, where Einstein perhaps ate eggs?

Other famous guests who’ve crashed at this former private residence (originally the winter estate of a 1920s Manhattan power lawyer before its revival as a historic inn) include Clark Gable and Carole Lombard during their honeymoon, Joan Crawford, Shirley Temple and Jimmy Walker (the 1920s New York mayor, not Jimmie “J.J.” Walker from “Good Times”). There’s also a Marion Davies Room that comes by the name honestly.

Is there a more current A-list ensemble that has checked in here? Probably. But name-dropping at the Willows is as comfortingly Old World as the inn’s help-yourself DVD collection. Nothing much more recent than “The Big Sleep” or “Road to Singapore” in the pile.

We breakfasted in our private garden the next morning, lounging over coffee, fresh orange juice, granola parfait and stuffed French toast before the Palm Springs sun played its hand and we noticed our otherwise flawless secret garden’s one glitch. No umbrella.

“Unfortunately, it’s broken,” a perky morning shift attendant reported, before assuring us that the heat would be manageable that day (“Mid- to high 90s. Just where we like it.”) and then vanishing like a friendly ghost.

Retreating from the noonday sun, we skulked through the mansion’s empty rooms and hallways like lazy time travelers, checking out the frescoes and other nostalgia-inducing refinements before falling into a mercifully brief discussion about crown molding (Warning: This place inspires 10-year married couples to do this).

A short, eight-minute hike up a hillside garden path wound past chirping birds, scooting lizards and secluded lookout nooks to the estate’s loftier historic property, the O’Donnell House, where a sweeping terrace perched high above Tahquitz Canyon is often populated with wedding groups.

But thankfully, not this weekend. We had the whole place to ourselves — or at least it appeared so for the most part. Even for an intimate eight-bedroom inn with a clear emphasis on privacy, it felt private. Heading down to the lower pool deck one afternoon, we briefly encountered the only other guests we would see or hear at the Willows that weekend — a giggly couple who seemed to be celebrating something like their 10th wedding anniversary as well. Just without their respective spouses present.

Between breakfast and evening wine and hors d’oeuvres (included and prepared in-house), the inn’s fancy French-Cal restaurant neighbor, Le Vallauris, will whisk over an $18 smoked salmon club or an $85 caviar teaser with a room-service call.

Or you can walk five minutes into town, eat some CPK and line up for Ben & Jerry’s with the Palm Springs hoi polloi before retreating to another time and place, cracking a bottle of midnight Champagne in Einstein’s Garden and marking 10 years in good form.

We did the latter and still felt pretty smart.