THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

All sorts find themselves in hot water here

The understated 11-room Spring Resort & Spa feeds off one of the town’s hottest wells and the 170-degree water is cooled to varying temperatures in the spa’s three pools. The understated 11-room Spring Resort & Spa feeds off one of the town’s hottest wells and the 170-degree water is cooled to varying temperatures in the spa’s three pools. (Beth D’Addono for The Boston Globe)
By Beth D’Addono
Globe Correspondent / February 28, 2010

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DESERT HOT SPRINGS, Calif. - Cruise along Palm Drive, the main drag, dotted with fast food joints, pawn shops, and check-cashing services, and the notion of coming here for a relaxing spa getaway seems bizarre.

But dig deeper and you’ll find a variety of naturally fed mineral spring resorts, attracting the stressed from all walks of life. Located 20 minutes from glitzy Palm Springs and about a half-hour from Joshua Tree National Park, this place exudes a quirky appeal despite its warts.

Rhoni Epstein, a native of Newton, has been a self-described desert rat for nearly three decades. Epstein and her partner, Cristina Pestana, opened the seven-room Sagewater Spa in 2001. “This place just called to us,’’ said Epstein, who keeps an apartment two hours away in Los Angeles, where she represents photographers. “It’s not the most practical thing we’ve ever done, but it felt right.’’

Sagewater, a study in low-key Zen decor, Frette linens, and fully equipped kitchenettes, delivers striking mountain views and mineral-rich waters, cooled to 90 degrees in the pool and 105 in the communal spa tub.

“We attract a lot of writers,’’ said Epstein. “Deals get done here.’’ A few years ago the founders of Facebook bought out the place to entertain an East Coast investor - a two-day soaking that resulted in the launch of the social networking site.

Around the corner at The Spring, owner Maria Lease has her own connection to Hollywood. A script supervisor for television shows like “Boston Legal’’ and “The Practice,’’ Lease found the town in 1999. “I came here for the water,’’ said Lease, who believes that soaking in the hot springs is good for body and spirit. “There haven’t been double blind scientific studies done, but the water makes you feel better, whether you have arthritis, Parkinson’s, whatever. People have been sitting in this mineral water for thousands of years.’’ The Spring feeds off one of the hottest wells in town, a scalding 170 degrees year round, cooled to varying temperatures in the resort’s three sparkling pools. The understated 11-room resort, set against the backdrop of the San Jacinto Mountains, is an oasis of bougainvillea, hummingbirds, and quiet.

First-timer Britta Puschendorf was taking a respite from her telecom job in Sunnyvale for the weekend. “My acupuncturist recommended this place,’’ she said. “I’ve had an aloe vera hair treatment and scalp massage, reflexology, and the Zen breeze facial. I feel amazing.’’

Mark, a Portland, Ore., veterinarian in the area for a horse show, preferred not to give his last name. “My colleagues all thought I went home, but I came here instead.’’ He likes the Spring’s simple setting. “Sometimes spas are so fancy, it gets in the way of really relaxing,’’ he says. “That misses the whole point for me.’’

Lease sees the town as the land of opportunity. “We need basic services, more restaurants. There is so much potential here.’’

As growth and development spun off Interstate 10 along Route 111 south, the town was left in the dust. There is a sense that you could drop off the map here and nobody would notice. For years this town of some 25,000 had been one of the poorest and most crime-ridden in the desert, a haven for gangs, and at one point, home to 65 percent of all parolees in the Coachella Valley, despite having just 5 percent of the valley’s population.

A new city manager, Rick Daniels, a newly elected Town Council, and a concerted law enforcement crackdown on gangs, drugs, and violence called Operation Falling Sun has made a dramatic difference in the past few years. Despite the flagging economy and the state’s dire financial straits, Daniels secured a multimillion dollar redevelopment bond to be used for upgrading the town’s infrastructure, building facades, and streetscaping.

Lease supports the changes and is considering opening a much-needed restaurant on Palm Drive. “This is the only spot with the waters,’’ she said. “People just keep coming.’’

John Santucci, whose family has run the no-frills Capri Italian restaurant in the center of town for more than 30 years, says, “I’ve seen more good happen in the last two years than in my whole life.’’ Across the street at Playoffs, a friendly watering hole and sports bar, facade improvements are proceeding, but at a snail’s pace, thanks to a recent spate of torrential rainstorms. “But things are moving in the right direction,’’ said Santucci.

At present, the town isn’t much of a dining destination. Capri is one of a just a handful of local restaurants, kept company by a few taquerias, a Thai restaurant, a Korean place, and on the outskirts of town, the Sidewinder Grill, an old-school diner in the desert festooned with fascinating pictures of Desert Hot Springs and Palms Springs from the early 20th century. Since not all of the resorts have full-service restaurants, guests can cook in with supplies from the town’s lone supermarket, or head to Palm Springs, where a glut of restaurants awaits.

“I love the vintage vibe at the Capri’s lounge,’’ said Robert Imber, a Palm Springs resident. “I have to get there at least a few times a year.’’

“We tell our guests to order the man-can [homemade manicotti and cannelloni] and the steaks at Capri,’’ said Bruce Abney, co-owner of the El Morocco Inn & Spa with his partner, John Aguilar. With its Casablanca-inspired setting, complete with imported furnishings and a genuine sultan’s tent in the garden, El Morocco stands out from the crowd. “We came here to get out of the snow in Kansas City,’’ said guest Kathy Brown. “We threw a dart on the map looking for sun, and wound up here. The couples massage we just had was incredible.’’

The best known of all the resorts in town has to be Two Bunch Palms, a storied hideaway sprawled over 56 acres of natural desert beauty. With a past that includes gaggles of celebrity guests and a purported tie to Al Capone - supposedly he and his gang hid out from the law here in the ’20s - Two Bunch is the queen of this desert. Thanks to its well-worn aura of shabby chic, even the non-celebrities in the crowd feel comfortable.

Maybe it’s the bathrobes. Everybody wears them, to meals at the Casino restaurant, around the Grotto pool, and to and from the spa (a former brothel), which includes a handful of ramshackle treatment rooms shaped like Quonset huts and bathrooms done up in ’70s pink tile. Only the signed George Hurrell movie star portraits and a reminder that autograph seekers are not welcome point to the steady stream of A, B, and C, list celebs.

Chatting above a whisper is discouraged, especially at the Grotto, where guests float weightlessly in the heated spring. Besides an array of massages and facials, you can sink into a mud bath, work with a breath therapist, or surrender to a practitioner of watsu, an underwater ballet of stretching and shiatsu.

“There’s no pretense here, zero,’’ said spa director Tony Calsolaro. The guest rooms range from motel-like rooms in the oldest part of the resort to a comfortable two-bedroom villa on the hill with patio and hot tub.

“We really didn’t know what to expect,’’ said Elaine Livengood, who along with her husband, Emmanuel, took a detour to Two Bunch after visiting their daughter in LA. “The waters are really uplifting, detoxifying.’’

Beth D’Addono can be reached at bethdaddono@comcast.net.

If You Go

Where to stay

The Spring Resort & Spa

12699 Reposo Way

760-251-6700

www.the-spring.com

From $179.

Two Bunch Palms Resort

67425 Two Bunch Palms Trail

760-329-8791

www.twobunchpalms.com

From $185.

Sagewater Spa

12689 Eliseo Road

760-220-1554 (-251-1668)

www.sagewaterspa.com

From $195.

El Morocco Inn & Spa

66810 4th St.

760-288-2527

www.elmoroccoinn.com

From $179.

Where to eat

Capri Restaurant

12260 Palm Drive

760-329-6833

Entrees $13.50-$34.95.

The Sidewinder Grill
66121 Pierson Blvd.

760-329-7929

Entrees $9-$15.

South of the Border

11719 Palm Drive

760-251-4000

Entrees $9-$14.