Al Capone & More in Palm Springs

By: Blaine Newnham

So what's new in Palm Springs? What we found instead was old, a 20-year-old golf course and an 80-year-old resort. A course designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., and a resort fashioned by gangster Al Capone.

There are more than 100 golf courses in the Palm Springs-Palm Desert-Cathedral City-Rancho Mirage-Indian Wells-La Quinta-Indio area. They tend to be not as much about the desert as their comparables in the Scottsdale-Phoenix area, but all about great conditions and amenities. And, of course, sunshine.

We were looking for something a little different. Not just in the golf end of things but in the surrounding nature, as well as the accommodations. Was that possible without increasing the nation's debt ceiling?

We flew into the John Wayne Airport in Orange County because the No. 1 reason for the spring break was spring break. We were meeting up with the grandkids and their parents for two days at Disneyland.

The drive from Anaheim to Palm Springs takes a couple of hours. The time at Disneyland with the grandkids was bucket-list stuff for us. But it was time now to look across the landscape and ogle an isolated Joshua tree instead of the teeming crowds of Frontierland.

We spent a day at Joshua Tree National Park, entering the park near the city of 29 Palms. The park lacked the natural architecture of Bryce Canyon or Arches in Utah, but the Wild West feel of the one-mile walk through the Hidden Valley box canyon was wonderful.

Fiddling with the Internet - even the motel in 29 Palms had free wi-fi - I came across an old-fashioned hot springs in a town across the desert from Palm Springs called Desert Hot Springs, of all things.

The pictures on the Two Bunch Palms website were eye-opening: granite-rocked pools of hot water surrounded by an oasis of palm trees and a lushness that had little to do with the town. My wife worried more than I did that the place would be a safe haven for nakedness. I worried it would cost too much.

They were advertising a $135 room at the spa. I learned later that the resort - now owed by a bank - made far more money giving spa treatments than it did renting rooms that are a lot cheaper now than they used to be. Competition from the sparkling new spas across the desert in Palm Desert will do that.

We had a room built probably in the 1940s or '50s, with a large bath and a small kitchen, so near the steaming hot - but not smelly - waters of the grotto that we almost didn't need the white, cotton robes and slippers we were told was the dress of the day.

Or the evening. It was okay to wear them in the dining room, which looked across the valley to Palm Springs and the 10,000-foot-high Mt. San Jacinto Peak.

Desert Hot Springs, a modest, unassuming town, has more than 20 so-called spa-tels - hotels that make use of the abundant thermal flows of water that are cooled by snow runoff to a perfect poaching temperature.

But none of the others were the creation of Al Capone, who in the 1920s built Two Bunch Palms as a desert fortress and hideaway. They said it was a sight to see Capone and his fedora-topped gangsters leave the train in Palm Springs and make the trek across the valley to their "Sin City West."

It doesn't take much imagination to see Capone's boys surveying the desert from the turret room, or Capone himself moving via a tunnel from one of his apartments to another, perhaps to visit his mistress, silent film star Gladys Walton.

A day can be spent redoing mind and body, but at all times remembering to whisper, not talk, to leave the cell phones in the room, to have an Egyptian Clay Body wrap in the morning and a facial in the afternoon.

In all, the resort covers 50 beautiful acres and, for all the body rubbing and history, could be as conventional as you wanted. I wanted to play golf. The Desert Dunes course was only 10 minutes away. I played with a guy from Victoria, B.C., who got an Internet rate of $52 to play.

The course has hosted U.S. Open Qualifying and has been a recent home to the winter portion of the Canadian Tour. It is, especially in the wind, a test. The resort also recommends playing at a semiprivate club - Mission Lakes - even closer to the spa. Mission Lakes runs two shotgun starts a day. The course was the work of noted architect Ted Robinson.

I liked Desert Dunes because it was built on some interesting land that produced some interesting holes. Like a couple of doglegs on the front nine that required blind tee shots to what would produce a surprise look at the green. The dunes were actually dunes that were there before Al Capone was. I liked the abbreviated cart paths, often ending 100 yards or so off the tee to leave the rest of the hole unscarred by asphalt or cement.

There are dense groves of tamarisk trees defining two holes on the back nine. There is water on a few holes, and everywhere there are large greens begging to be three-putted. What there wasn't were free range balls, or GPS systems on the carts. Or adjoining homes. Not that I missed them. What you got instead was a $50-$60 green fee.

There was a monster double green for the finishing holes on the two nines, and a green with a sand trap in it. This seemed to me to be about as close to links golf as one could get in the desert, especially if you factor in the wind, which blows as hard here as anywhere in the valley.

Surely there are other courses better prepared and with better amenities - just like there are fancier spas across the valley. Desert Hot Springs doesn't have a lot of glitzy shopping or dining, but it was good enough for Al Capone and good enough for us.

There is plenty of great golf in Palm Springs, with or without gangsters. Most courses are looking for rounds, making reservations unnecessary. The best deals are had on the Internet, which often produce green fees 30 percent cheaper than the rack rates.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.