Ultimate desert road trip

How one couple did Vegas, Death Valley, and Palm Springs in a week ― and made it swing, baby
Dale Conour

Late afternoon. A weekday. I am floating in a saltwater pool at Palm Springs' Orbit In with a sake cocktail in hand. Palm trees stretch to a blue curaçao sky. The rocky San Jacintos rise beyond, bronze in the day's last light. My gal, Red, idly reads in a white chaise longue. Tonight, a great dinner out. Tomorrow, we'll stop by Dino's house, then maybe Frank's.

At one time, we were just like everyone else. But that was before I told Red, Come fly with me, baby―let's get away from it all. Before we set out on our fast, crazy Las Vegas-Death Valley-Palm Springs road trip. Before we decided to live as large and gorgeous and audacious as the ever-swinging Nevada-California desert.

That was before we experienced the Snap.

Let me explain. You can't think about aroad trip to Las Vegas and Palm Springs and the desert between without thinking Rat Pack, Ocean's 11, '50s and early '60s Hollywood. This was the playground of the stars. And those great, great songs ... My friend Mark, a San Francisco crooner, says this about the perfect swinging tune: "It all starts with the Snap―yes, the Sinatra-cool finger snap, but more than that, it's the pull of the swing rhythm, which is at the heart of American jazz. There's a technical explanation, but it's easier to think of it as the thing that makes your insides feel like they're being twanged.

"Snap, baby."

Let's keep this party polite
Never get out of my sight
Stick with me, baby
I'm the fella
You came in with
Luck be a lady tonight*

*from "Luck Be a Lady Tonight," by Frank Loesser

We rumble out of McCarran International Airport in our rented muscle car and hit the Las Vegas Strip. We're spending some cash on this once-in-a-lifetime trip and have chosen the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino as our refuge. As we head down its drive, the buzz of Vegas dies away, and we buy into the resort's over-the-top, even theatrical, salute to the Old World romance of Venice. Well, more or less. Red shakes her head at the gondolas making their way through the resort's canals: "They're so cheesy!" (I vow to get her on one before we leave town.)

 

 

There are only a few things you have to do on a romantic getaway to Las Vegas: Get in some serious lounging-by-the-pool time, spend a night at a club or two, and enjoy an evening with a big dinner and a big show. Throw in a some shopping, gambling, and, yes, a little Vegas cheesiness, and it's mission accomplished.

We waste no time getting to the pool, where Red cheekily asks a neighboring Italian, resplendent in long sideburns and tattoos, how the Venetian holds up to the real thing. "You know, it's like New York New York is to New York," he says. "Italians might say, Why come here when we have Venice three hours from where we live? But it's the service," he says, then pauses, searching for the right words. "Las Vegas is fun, and then―stop," he adds, and laughs. The Venetian towers above us, its windows reflecting the drifting clouds so perfectly it seems we're looking through a giant façade to the sky beyond.

Item number two on our list takes some work. Finding the right nightclub in what's such an ephemeral scene gives you about the same odds as roulette. We're on the money with Treasure Island's Tangerine Lounge & Nightclub, which, we learn, follows the current Vegas dance club mode: Cordon off a lounge with a huge stylish curtain, pump up the music, and place a couple of dark-suited bouncers at the head of the line to jettison the rubes in white sneakers. Tangerine features more cute navels than a Riverside orange grove and offers a great view of the Sirens of TI show out front in the hotel's cove (which is sort of a good thing).

The next morning we make amends for our late night with a workout and a healthy breakfast at the cafe in the full-featured Canyon Ranch SpaClub at the Venetian. We wander the Strip for a few hours, indulging at the Bellagio's Jean-Philippe Pâtisserie chocolate shop and enjoying a nature break in the conservatory.

And then we head back to our hotel for, yes, a gondola ride. "I can't believe we're doing this," Red says as we get in line behind three women from Minnesota who are on a "husband break."

The Venetian has outdoor gondolas, which are okay if you just want some fresh air. But the ride through the resort's shopping district, a Disneyish version of Venice, is the way to go. Our gondolier is Francesca, born on the Adriatic coast of Italy, raised in Southern California. She encourages us to cuddle, noting that kissing under every bridge brings luck. "Just no make-a babies," she warns. By the time we've glided under the first bridge and begun our search for good fortune, Red, snuggling into my side, is clearly in a Venice state of mind. Francesca, in a deep, rich voice, serenades us in Italian. After she's done, she translates for us: "Above all that is precious, there is you."

"That's true, isn't it, honey?" Red asks with a smile.

"Of course," I reply.

"Now that's amore!" Francesca gushes.

We're feeling the Snap.

Before our dinner and show, we join a dozen others at the Venetian's Pit 2 for a craps lesson, and Randy―former dealer, now pit supervisor, and official throwback to classic Vegas―fruns us through the basics in his tough but good-hearted way. We learn to pick up the dice with one hand and one hand only, always keeping them over the green and in plain view of the camera. We learn that it's a check, not a chip, when rolling a seven's a good thing, and when it becomes a bad thing. And he imparts some wisdom that seems to have resonance beyond the craps table. "If the dealer puts money in front of you," he admonishes, "pick it up."

Fresh graduates of Randy's school of craps, we find a table with room for players and plunk down 40 bucks. I learn, quite soon, that I'm bad luck, a cooler. We plunk down another 60 bucks. And we ride it out for a good hour, conservatively milking our tiny stash as it grows and shrinks, watching others walk away after losing hundreds of dollars. But in the end we're down to one 5-buck check on a $10-minimum table. We leave it for the dealer and thank him for a good time.

Dinner is at Hubert Keller's Fleur de Lys. It's one of the newer examples of the "chefs gone wild" trend in Vegas. There's a prix fixe menu, so, aside from the pan-seared scallops to start, I leave it to the kitchen, and the meal becomes a journey itself.

The show is O by Cirque du Soleil, at the Bellagio. Like the group's other shows, it combines grand theater design, wizardly stagecraft, and amazing acrobatic performances―all taking place in, around, and above a mesmerizing indoor sea. Despite all the flash in Las Vegas, O is the one place we experience true wonder.

 

 

The next day we leave the city for Death Valley, heading north on U.S. 95 close to commute hour. The timing's a mistake: Traffic is slow for miles. We're heading into the red tile-roofed suburbia that has sprouted like desert wildflowers around Vegas. Once free of the city, our overstimulated brains let off pressure, like heat waves off the highway. "Las Vegas did me in," Red admits.

Hey, goomba, I love how you
dance the rumba
But take some advice, paisano,
Learn-a how to mambo*

*from "Mambo Italiano," by Bob Merrill

A couple of hours of quiet desert landscape, singing and snapping along to Dean Martin's "Mambo Italiano," then a pit stop in Beatty to pick up some of Gus's Really Good Fresh Jerky revives us.

We drive through foothills on State 374, following the pass downward. The land begins to open, and wind buffets the car. In the distance, giant dust devils rage across the valley floor. Red can barely open the door to check out the visitor information kiosk we encounter. Her long hair in a frenzy, she's stymied by the visitor permit machine and quickly retreats to the car. Dust is flying everywhere, pebbles patter the windshield.

We've reached Hell's Gate, the central entrance to Death Valley.

Death Valley National Park marks the beginning of our reeducation with the concept of "vast." The park is more than 3 million acres in size. Even obscured by dust, the valley stretches so far that estimates seem futile―10 miles? 50? It's halted at last by the Panamint Range, rising dark and dreamlike on the horizon.

We didn't plan far enough ahead to secure a room at the renowned Furnace Creek Inn; in fact, I only just manage to grab the last available room at the more economical, less upscale Furnace Creek Ranch.

The ranch is a collection of low-slung buildings that make up comfortable-but-nothing-fancy motel rooms, a market, and a cafe side by side with a lounge and steakhouse. There's a large lawn area (incongruously) and a pool. We enter our room and discover why it was the last available: separate beds. "Well, it fits our retro theme," I offer.

After dinner at the Wrangler Steakhouse, we drift out to the lawn, and lie down, beat, in the darkness. The stars flicker as bats flutter past and palms rustle in the wind. Sinatra's in my head, singing,

Fly me to the moon
Let me play among the stars*

and Red, as if hearing, holds my hand.

We rise early for a full day of Death Valley "don't misses," and experience sunrise at the Stovepipe Wells Dunes, a scramble into (and, more significantly, out of) Ubehebe Crater, a tour of Scotty's Castle, and sunset in Golden Canyon.

 

We leave Death Valley behind the next morning. But a landscape so huge that it swallows mountains keeps us occupied until we reach Baker, 120 miles south of the valley, a crossroads town offering food, gas, and the spectacle of the "world's tallest thermometer" at Bun Boy restaurant.

We've got a long way to go to make Palm Springs, so I let the car run. A desert dream flows past: Joshua trees stand sentry, jackrabbits bolt, rocky peaks rise like islands in a creosote sea.

As has happened with more than one Hollywood celeb, Palm Springs had its time, lost its shine, and is making a comeback thanks to a vibrant gay community in love with the retro charm.

We spend a morning at the fabled Two Bunch Palms Resort in neighboring Desert Hot Springs, enjoying a side-by-side couples massage and Roman tub soak. Our massage therapists are first-rate, but we're underwhelmed by the spa's facilities and decor―best described as Wild West bordello.

The afternoon is spent exploring Palm Canyon Drive's array of vintage furnishing and consignment shops, dreaming of a life in a pad that swings.

Dinner is at Riccio's. Oversize menus, vinyl banquettes, teamsters backslapping each other. We're talking old-school Italian. We cuddle in a corner booth until our dinners arrive. Red slides away from my arm to receive her Linguine alle Vongole. "No, no," protests our waiter, who's worked at Riccio's for 23 years. "Here," he says, and with the grace of a mago, shifts her tableware and places her plate right next to my Petto di Pollo Ripieno alla Toscana. "Ah, amore," he sighs, and leaves us to dine. Old school, friend.

On our last morning in Palm Springs, we pick up a map of celebrity homes from the visitor center. In quick succession, we check off the former hideaways of Elvis, Liberace, Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, and, on our way to the Palm Springs airport, Frank Sinatra.

And then, 700 miles behind us, we're at the airport, our trip's over, and the plane's rising up and away from Palm Springs. I look over at Red reading, and I realize it wouldn't have been nearly as great with anyone else.

"What?" she asks with a smile, noticing my attention.

"Oh, nothing," I say (because I'm a guy). But I'm thinking about a little piece of wisdom I heard recently: When the dealer puts money in front of you, pick it up.

I turn to the window to hide my grin, and watch the desert fade away. But one more tune of Frank's comes drifting up, and it makes my insides twang:

I've got the world on a string
Sittin' on a rainbow
Got the string around my finger
What a world, what a life,
I'm in love ...**

Snap.

*from "Fly Me to the Moon," by Bart Howard
**from "I've Got the World on a String," by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler