By Greg Aragon
Did you know there is an historic and lavish presidential retreat just outside of Palm Springs, in the small desert town of Rancho Mirage? If you didn’t know about this, then you are not alone. Until my last visit to the area, I had never heard of it either.
But this all changed when someone told me about Sunnylands, a sprawling and beautiful garden oasis in Rancho Mirage that US presidents and world leaders have been visiting for decades. I knew I had to investigate.
My getaway began at the luxurious Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa (www.westinmissionhills.com/), where a friend and I checked into a gorgeous suite overlooking the property’s championship golf course. Highlighted by soothing taupe tones with textured accents, the room featured a comfortable, king-sized “Westin Heavenly Bed;” a large flat screen TV; office station with complimentary Wi-Fi; mini-fridge and microwave; a bathroom area with double sinks and a rain forest shower head; and a private balcony overlooking said golf course.
After unpacking, we explored the rest of the hotel. Set on 360 acres, the resort showcases Mediterranean architecture, picturesque mountain views and a secluded natural desert landscape. Listed as one of Golf Digest’s Top 75 Golf Resorts in North America, the hotel features two championship Troon golf courses, The Pete Dye course and the Gary Player Signature Course.
Other hotel amenities include an array of gourmet dining options; three pools – one with a 75-foot waterslide; a state-of-the-art workout facility; and the relaxing Spa at Mission Hills, where we enjoyed a rejuvenating body treatment. The rubdown we selected was a memorable, 50-minute honey massage. Using the resort’s own honey, the treatment included a warm beeswax thermal mask used on the back to “balance the vital energy of the body.” It was a sweet and relaxing experience.
After wonderful day at the Westin, it was time for a presidential trip to Sunnylands (www.sunnylands.org), a West Coast “Camp David,” where US presidents and world leaders meet in seclusion to party in the desert, while mixing in a little work.
Also opened to the public, the retreat was created in the mid-1960s by philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg. Sunnylands covers more than 200 acres of lush, tree-filled lawns, ponds and stately residences, designed by Los Angeles-based architect A. Quincy Jones (1913-1979) in a classic midcentury modernist style that fits in with existing Palm Springs area structures.
Signatures of Jones’ openness in design are seen in the many overhangs that shield interiors from direct sunlight, and glass walls that in turn, take advantage of the desert sun. The exposed theme continues with visible trellises, steel beams, and coffered ceilings. Some of the most dramatic architectural features can be found at the main house, where the Annenbergs lived between 1966 and 2009. Here, where Mayan accents add flair, there is a large, pink pyramid roof and a tall Mayan monolith fountain out front.
Inside the 25,000 sq-ft residence there is majestic sculpture of Eve by Auguste Rodin in the center of the atrium, surrounded by hundreds of priceless paintings, sculptures and art pieces from around the world, and scores of pictures and letters from all the presidents and world leaders that have visited the estate. And judging from the amount of Ronald Reagan pictures and letters, it seems he was a favorite guest of the Annenbergs. His notes and images dot numerous walls throughout the place. In fact, I read that he celebrated New Year’s Eve at Sunnylands 18 times.
In all, seven presidents were regulars to the estate. The most recent was President Obama, who last year met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, played golf, and enjoyed a dinner cooked by Chef Bobby Flay. Other celebrities to escape to Sunnylands include British royal family, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Ginger Rogers, and more.
Famous art at Sunnlylands includes works by Rodin, Yaacov Agam, Harry Bertoia, Jean Arp, Emile Gilioli, and Pablo Picasso, along with important works of Chinese porcelain, Meissen vases, Steuben glass, and English silver-gilt objects.
Sunnylands’ Visitor Center is open to the public Thursdays – Sundays. Visitors can enjoy interactive educational kiosks, informational panels and videos, an orientation film in the theater, and paths that wind throughout Sunnylands Gardens. March tours of the estate are sold out, but April tour tickets go on sale March 15. For more info visit: www.sunnylands.org. For more information on visiting Rancho Mirage, visit: www.visitgreaterpalmsprings.com