We attended a lovely house party in old Palm Springs and want to tell you all about it. The weather was perfect. Our hostess, Harmony, greeted us and we were swept to our room at The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn, an elegant Mediterranean Villa dating to 1924. Harkening back to the graceful, gracious days of the early 20th century, today The Willows is an intimate luxury hotel that offers a step back in time to the glamour of that bygone era. The past is present but improved under the loving care of its present owners, Tracy Conrad and Paul Marut.
Having been carefully restored with a perfectionist’s attention to detail and an obvious love of The Willow’s history, we thoroughly enjoyed falling under its spell. On arrival we were immediately drawn into the atmosphere of a relaxed but elegant house party. Music from the past enveloped and the invitation for wine and hors d’oeuvres was accepted and served in the Great Room, which centers around a carved limestone fireplace circa 1925, a piano, and a terrace. We knew it was the mood we wanted.
Our room, Loft, was reached by a winding staircase and located between and above Einstein’s Garden Room and the Marion Davies Room. Before drinks, we slipped into pristine white robes and drew our bath. Not just any bath, but an inviting claw foot tub with a view to a waterfall. The Willows is tucked into the base of Mt. San Jacinto and a cascading, bougainvillea strewn, 50-foot waterfall provides the Inn’s backdrop. The exquisite tiles, limestone, carved fireplaces, mahogany woods, antiques, music, and history all combine to add to its essence and allure. Fascinating and glamorous owners and guests from the past and present mirror the individuality of The Willows. Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, Marion Davies, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Quentin Tarantino, past Presidents, Einstein, and and and… are all a part of its history. Unique the guests and so, too, the rooms. Einstein’s Garden Room is Art Deco inspired with French doors opening to a private balcony and the sights and sounds of the waterfall. The Marion Davies Room, named for the actress and paramour of William Randolph Hearst who owned and resided here during one grand period, is a front guestroom with a Romeo and Juliet balcony. The spacious, beautifully tiled bathroom is complete with a swooning sofa, which is necessary as one comes to quickly understand how an extended soak in yet another one of the Willow’s claw foot tubs could necessitate a languish. The Library room is lush with antiques, a large fireplace, an ornate desk, rich woods, and a coffered ceiling. The name of each room aptly describes its individual décor: The Acanthus room, The Palm room, The Waterfall room, and The Rock room complete the eight very distinctive accommodations.
The influence of The Willows on its guests was noted when arriving for drinks in the Great Room, we appreciated the flowing entrance of the current guest of the Marion Davies room resplendent in a very dramatic caftan. Perfect. Like attracts like and conversations were up to the ambiance. Fascinating and thought-provoking.
Speaking of thoughts–on our first morning, we awoke early to walk the path behind the waterfall. Destination? Einstein’s bench. Einstein was a frequent guest of his good friend Samuel Untermyer, who owned the villa during its first incarnation. Mr. Untermeyer was at this time the world’s highest paid attorney and the first to command a fee of one million dollars. He used The Willows as his winter estate and often entertained Einstein, who, when visiting, would sit on this particular bench with its panoramic views, where, we choose to think, he contemplated profound thoughts, of course. We decided to take a seat on his favored bench and think profound thoughts, too. Our thoughts? Why, it would be a most excellent idea to return back to the villa for a delicious three-course breakfast. This thought though perhaps not profound, proved true. It was Gordon, our morning host, who greeted us with a smile and warm, “Good Morning.” We were served on exquisite china with silver service in a room filled with antiques, which opened onto the dramatic waterfall. A Spanish fireplace opposite boasted original tiles. We picked up some newspapers, but quickly chose conversation with Gordon, who is one of those people you immediately want for a best friend. Other guests strolled in and the easy conversation of a weekend morning continued.
We gently explored Palm Springs and dined at Le Vallauris. Steps away and opposite The Willows, we needed only to cross the street. As we were still unwinding from a very busy week, Le Vallauris was a perfect choice. Think classic, like their Grand Marnier Soufflé, and familiar. No need to assume the perfect diner posture and demeanor as is often the case in many French restaurants. It is French but inclusive of Mediterranean and Californian influences. Nightly specials are handwritten on a board and presented on an easel for your perusal over a cocktail, or we’d suggest, wine. Chateau Petrus, Latour, Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, or maybe Patz & Hall or Frank Family are a range of possibilities. Our blackboard menu was headlined with Petrossian or Kolikof Russian Ossetra Caviar. The staff is seasoned, knowledgeable, and very relaxed. No edge, no attitude, nor over familiarity, just right for the easy mood of our weekend. We dined in the cosseted patio of Le Vallauris under a canopy of softly, beehive-lit ficus trees. Romantic as in “it’s our special place” sort of way. Tony, the brother of owner Paul Bruggeman, moved easily from table to table to offer that “looked after” feel. We were happy and comfortable. Some dinner choices were the ever expected, roast rack of lamb, Caesar salad, crispy half duck, house smoked salmon, but many surprised with an interesting twist: baked Maine lobster, vanilla butter, and corn lobster bisque; asparagus with quail egg caviar and chervil crème fraiche; tourte de canard in a truffle Cabernet reduction; roasted branzino with turmeric, garlic, lemon, olive oil over eggplant puree and tomato concasse; or duck foie gras truffle crème brulee, baby frisee and dry figs.
Dinner is served from 5:00 to 10:00, lunch is served on Friday and Saturday from 11:30 to 2:00, and Brunch is served on Sunday from 11:30 to 2:00. Executive Chef Jean Paul Lair and Pastry Chef Laurent Dellac are continuing a series of cooking demonstrations on the second Monday of the month until May.
The Palm Springs Art Museum is a next-door neighbor of The Willows and should be your destination stretch after a late brunch as it opens at noon. Good for the body, better for the soul. We found it a calm and quiet oasis. It felt like ours. We quite liked the feeling of having most of the 150,000 square feet to ourselves. With a very easy flow and expansive environment, we visited every gallery and had some interesting conversations with the museum’s docents. We wandered past Chihuly, Chagall, Picasso, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Calder, Moore, and more. This wide though not deep collection of modern and contemporary art, glass, photos, and American and Western art has been loaned or donated by many of Palm Springs prominent residents. Art lovers we, the museum was an enchanting surprise. We added retail therapy to our list and purchased unique baubles in the museum’s gift store. Now the question was, where, oh where to wear our new purchases to lunch?
We power walked back to The Willows and hopped in a golf cart. Decorated in our new arty pieces, we decided on Spencer’s (located at the historic Palm Springs Tennis Club) for lunch, where we valeted our cart and entered. Spencer’s is old school, tried and very true. Unpretentious. We were in keeping as were the guys sporting shorts on the patio. American cuisine with Pacific Rim influence, Spencer’s continued our “easy does it,” relaxed theme. The menu was predictable, but in the good way. Some choices were: crab cakes, lobster pot stickers, tuna tartare; soups as in three onion soup and chilled gazpacho with Maine lobster; and salads such as Cobb, Greek, and chopped. Garnering a Best of Award of Excellence 2016 from Wine Spectator, it was their wine list that we focused on: French Bordeaux from Lafite to Petrus, Opus One in magnum, Montrachet “Marquis de Laguiche” Drouhin, or for dessert? Chateau d’Yquem. To understate, in a tennis club kind of way, “nice.”
Our next stop was The O’Donnell House which is also known as “Ojo del Desierto” or “Eye of the Desert”. This Mediterranean Revival-Monterey home is today a registered historic site. Perched mountainside, above and behind The Willows, it is a perfect venue for weddings or events for up to 125 people with its large terrace offering stunning desert vistas. All rooms faithfully restored to the authenticity of its 1930s past, it is also available for guests to sojourn. A meander down the same path we had used earlier to reach Einstein’s bench will find you back at The Willows. As the O’Donnell House and The Willows are adjacent, sister properties together, they provide 12 very unique guestrooms for the occasion of your choice: weddings, holidays, fundraisers, or just because you can. We think it a splendid place to recreate parties celebrating bygone eras.
In a perfect world (and why not?) one should take over both locations invite bffs or family members holding favored status and do so concurrently with one of Palm Springs special events. Borrowing from the Palm Springs Villager in 1948, “It’s lovely here” and borrowing again from a book found in our room, EINSTEIN DREAMT HERE, “What was true then remains so today. Truly it is lovely here.” Yes, The Willows was a lovely choice for our lovely, albeit too brief, Palm Springs weekend.
The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn: (800) 966-9597
Le Vallauris Restaurant: (760) 325-5059
Palm Springs Art Museum: (760) 322-4800
Spencer’s: (760) 327-3446
The O’Donnell House: (800) 525-7634