A Feel Good Heritage

From the discovery of natural hot springs to today’s full-service spas, the desert has drawn as many visitors and residents seeking a healthier way of life as it has Hollywood stargazers.



Palm Springs Life Archives

From the long canyons of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, across the Mission Creek Fault Line, to the aquifers that trickle down from the snow-laden San Gorgonio Mountains, hot and cold mineral water distinguishes spas throughout the Southern California desert.

Native Americans marked the first known well site in Desert Hot Springs. In 1914, homesteader Cabot Yerxa “rediscovered” the spot when he noticed pottery shards at the base of two palms — a green shelter and visual oasis in the midst of desert isolation.

Yerxa noted the temperature of the well at 132 degrees, but it was another visionary, L.W. Coffee, who founded a spa in Desert Hot Springs on the southwest corner of what is now Palm Drive and Eighth Street. It is believed that more than 2,000 people visited Coffee’s Bath House on its opening weekend. The Desert Sentinel newspaper ran the headline “Story of Town Devotion and Confidence of Cure in our Baden-Baden of America.” People came from all over the country for the healing waters that were said to soothe arthritis and a variety of other ailments.

The water source for which Palm Springs is named remains culturally significant to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, whose very name means “hot water.” According to tribal history, Cahuilla shamans — known for their ability to heal sickness — used the spring as a source of their power. Early California writer J. Smeaton Chase referred to the medi-cinal spring as “a natural water source in an otherwise hostile environment.”

“Springs — and especially hot springs — were religiously significant to the Cahuilla,” says Richard Begay, director of tribal historic preservation for the Agua Caliente tribe. “They are sources of sacred power, especially hot or mineral springs. Many of these springs were used in healing rites for rejuvenating the health and spirit of tribal members. Cahuilla shamans believed that hot springs are connected underground with sources of power, which can be dangerous, but also can be tapped for healing purposes. In the olden days, if the people wanted to do anything to the water — to clean the spring or use the water — they gave offerings of food and prayed so they could do whatever they wished without any harm happening to them. Now the Cahuilla, especially the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, have tapped into these sources for economic development purposes.”

Today, the tribe’s Spa Resort Hotel sits on the only hot mineral water in city limits. “Taking of the Waters” in the spa includes eucalyptus inhalation and toxin removal. The menu of therapies also features a hydrating Desert Rain Facial and the deeply relaxing Phenomenal Foot Fest.

“The Coachella Valley is a relief point from the far more congested and environmentally unfriendly metropolitan areas to the west,” says John Soulliere, president and CEO of the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership. “The quality of our environment is part and parcel of our tourism industry, and the spa aspect adds a unique flavor. Spa enthusiasts are health-conscious and not only looking for relief from the hustle and bustle of life; they are looking for the Coachella Valley spa experience.”

A good example of that “experience” lies behind the front doors of The Swiss Health Resort in Desert Hot Springs. Amid the lush garden, rich with fig and lemon trees, a waterfall pours into a shimmering pond far below the terraced meditation area. Colorful koi dart in and out of the roots of a mango tree nestled deep into the pond. Incandescent hummingbirds fly from orange blossom to water lily. From this height, the distant windmills resemble a sea of white origami birds come to life. Owners Karl and Ursula Furrer of Switzerland bought this land in 1992 with the idea of bringing the finest European spa services to an area that has long been known for its mineral waters with mystical qualities.

“It was the view and the mountains that grabbed us,” says Karl Furrer, on the balcony overlooking the property. “In Switzerland, you could never have such an extraordinary view of open space. Things are so close together there. In the evenings, we take delight in the mountain sunsets, and during the day we celebrate the true meaning of ‘spa.’”

The word “spa” traces to therapies at ancient Roman baths called sanus per aquam (“health through water”). Though the origins are ancient, spas are being reinvented throughout the Coachella Valley — and there is truly something for everyone.

In Desert Hot Springs alone, there are more than 14 boutique spas ranging in size from the intimate Hacienda Hot Springs Inn, a tranquil garden retreat with six airy units, to Miracle Springs Resort and Spa, which boasts an array of hydrotherapy tubs, eight mineral pools of varying degrees, and 110 guest rooms. Destination resort spas in other parts of the valley continue to spring to life (or reinvent themselves) with significant infusions of capital.

The spa experience is perfectly expressed at such eclectic offerings as El Morocco Inn & Spa in Desert Hot Springs, where, from the minute you are greeted at the door, you are transported on a magic ride of the senses. An array of aromatic body treatments includes the Marrakesh Melting Massage and the Clay Body Mask made with Rhassoul clay from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco — a highly sought-after substance said to accelerate cell renewal.

Desert Hot Springs’ Two Bunch Palms Spa & Resort adds new therapies to its historical setting. The Wassertanzen treatment, or Water Dance, offers a fluid form of bodywork in which a therapist guides you on the pool’s surface, promoting deep relaxation through massage and gentle, dance-like movements. “The benefits of the lithium, magnesium, and calcium found in the mineral water enhance the client’s deep sense of calm,” says Health and Wellness Director Jerry Angelini. “Many people come back from the Water Dance in a semi-altered state, with a feeling of total relaxation.”

Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa in Indian Wells takes relaxation a step further — to a good night’s sleep. “Providing a comfortable night’s sleep is one of the most important aspects of the hotel/spa industry,” says Spa Director Kim Cadra. The resort has partnered with natural sleep guru Robert de Stefano to offer the Zen and the Art of Better Sleep workshop, which includes a 50-minute massage incorporating touch, sound, and aromatherapy designed to induce a night of blissful sweet dreams.

Desert Springs JW Marriott Resort & Spa in Palm Desert opened a new spa last year as part of its $19 million renovation. The 38,000-square-foot refuge fully embraces the “spa together” concept. The Spa Sanctuary, a 600-square-foot private suite, was designed to cater to VIPs, couples, and groups of up to eight people. Staffed by a personal butler, it features a private entrance, an indoor tub, and a whirlpool in the private courtyard. In addition to 48 treatment rooms, the spa includes a tranquil outdoor lap pool; state-of-the-art fitness center; hair and nail salon; and The Spa Bistro, which offers certified organic foods and smoothies.

Jennifer DiFrancesco, director of The Well at Miramonte Resort & Spa in Indian Wells, has been in the spa business for 18 years. “I have seen amazing growth in the industry,” she says. “It used to be an experience of solitude; and more and more, spa is an experience of togetherness. Eighteen years ago, there was hardly an idea of a couple’s treatment room; but in 2008, you would be foolish not to build a spa with a significant amount of togetherness space.” The Well focuses on “touches of distinction” — from organic herbal hydrosols sprayed on the sheets of the massage tables to the choice of music guests may select before beginning a treatment.

Michael Bickford, who bought the landmark Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel at the ripe age of 29 — and 20 years later bought the adjacent Miracle Springs Resort & Spa — has seen spas transform from “a small specialized business to a major hospitality juggernaut.”

“I still love going to work every day,” he says. “The people are wonderful, the services are top-notch, and there is the ongoing romance of bathing in our curative pools under the desert sky, be it day or night.”

One of the fastest-growing segments of the spa industry is the medical spa. Richard Foxx, M.D., located his practice in a spa setting at Hyatt Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells. “Our goal,” says the founder and medical director of The Medical and Skin Spa at Agua Serena, “is health and beauty, inside and out. These noninvasive cosmetic treatments, sometimes called ‘lunchtime’ procedures, can be accomplished in an hour with no downtime and no discomfort. And all of our clients receive complimentary use of the deluxe Agua Serena spa and its extraordinary facilities.”

What’s more, the Dell’Acqua Dental Studio in Palm Desert offers complimentary amenities along with its wide range of cosmetic and reconstructive dental services: hand and shoulder massages during cleanings and dental treatments, aromatherapy, a relaxation room with massage chair, heated wraps, candles, dimmed lighting, flowers galore, fresh-baked cookies, and even a hot-rock foot massage for those who really want a step above the typical dental experience.

With such attention to complementing the relaxing ambiance that makes the desert a great escape, Coachella Valley day spas, boutique retreats, full-service resorts, and members of the medical and dental professions stand ready to meet a growing wave of wellness-seeking clients.

Palm Springs Life

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