Luxury at Every Turn

Luxury at Every Turn

Rancho Mirage was on its way to becoming an oasis for relaxation long before its incorporation as a city. First, there were ranches and then came the country clubs with star-studded membership rosters that included celebrities, captains of industry, and even presidents. It seemed everyone who was anyone came for the warm weather, dreamy landscapes, and fun in the sun. They helped put the city on the map, making it a destination for other wide-eyed newcomers and visitors.

In lockstep with this growing appeal, luxury hotels were next on the scene — including major brands that continue to thrive: The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage; Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa, and The Westin Rancho Mirage Golf Resort & Spa. Most recently, the exclusive wellness retreat Sensei Porcupine Creek opened as a sister location to its property on the secluded Hawaiian island of Lana’i.79_The Ritz Carlton pool_aerial facebook - Copy

However, the rise of Rancho Mirage as a resort destination was hardly an overnight transformation.

In the 1950s, elite visitors could land their private plane at — or, of course, drive to — Desert Air Hotel & Resort, which featured its own private airstrip. It was located at the site of today’s Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa and offered a picturesque desert playground on 320 acres.

Here, guests enjoyed the pool scene, horseback riding, and barbecues as well as the onsite restaurant and bar, The Compass Room, where it was common to find oneself dining and drinking alongside celebrities who made Desert Air their home base here. The property was also used as a backdrop for the sitcom The Bob Cummings Show in the late 1950s.

In 1968, the hotel was razed to make way for Omni; the 1977 groundbreaking was a hot ticket, drawing Cary Grant, Roy Rogers, and Bob Hope among the attendees.

While Marriott’s Rancho Las Palmas (now Omni) paved the way for the resort scene in Rancho Mirage. A decade after the groundbreaking, Mission Hills Resort (now The Westin Rancho Mirage Golf Resort & Spa) opened, followed a year later by The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage (only the seventh Ritz-Carlton property in the world at the time).

In the decades that followed, these properties saw renovations, expansions, name changes, and, in the case of The Ritz-Carlton, closures and re-openings. The three properties’ amenities focused on the resort experience with designer golf courses, world-class spas, and fine culinary delights.

In 2008, the opening of Agua Caliente Casino added a hotel, restaurants, gaming, and entertainment to the city’s offerings. The property includes The Show, an entertainment venue that books top entertainers throughout the year.

The newest property in town, opened in 2022, is Sensei Porcupine Creek, located in the foothills of the Santa Rosa Mountains. An exclusive boutique property with only 22 room keys, including three- and four-bedroom villas, Sensei distinguishes itself with its next-level, transformative wellness experience.

The city’s award-winning portfolio of resorts offers everything from kid-friendly water parks to world-class golf and dining experiences.

76_Splashtopia OmniRanchoLasPalmas - CopySplashtopia, the onsite water park at Omni Rancho Las Palmas, features two, 100-foot waterslides, a 425-foot lazy river, sandy beach, and a water-filled play area — a refreshing amenity in addition to the resort’s three nine-hole golf courses, each with ample water features, bunkering, and mountain vistas.

Back inside, the Spa Las Palmas offers a menu of more than 50 relaxing and rejuvenating treatments, some with native California plants elevating the aromatherapy experiences. Rounding out the amenities are the California cuisine and live entertainment at the resort’s signature restaurant, BluEmber. The property also offers 37,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor venue space for conferences, meetings, and weddings.

Guests of The Westin Rancho Mirage Golf Resort & Spa are enjoying the fruits of a $15 million renovation, but one of the 365-acre, AAA four-diamond property’s most distinguishing amenities is still the Pete Dye–designed golf course, a challenging championship layout where players tee off to views of the San Jacinto Mountains. The resort also has three tennis courts and 12 pickleball courts. The state-of-the-art spa features an extensive treatment menu and 14 treatment rooms for relaxation and wellness. At the pool, families appreciate the dual, 125-foot water slides and cabana rentals. Inside, a bowling alley and arcade occupy kids for hours. Pinzimini, the resort’s signature Italian restaurant, serves from a large menu of mouth-watering classics.

79_RCRM EntranceLuxury prevails at The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage. Since its 1988 opening, the resort rebranded for about five years as The Lodge at Rancho Mirage before closing in 2006 and reopening under The Ritz-Carlton banner in 2014 with the elevated experience befitting the brand. Its location — 650 feet above the valley floor in the Santa Rosa Mountains — might be its greatest amenity. Here, unrivaled service is a constant, whether guests are relaxing by the pool, enjoying fine dining at The Edge Steakhouse, or indulging in a treatment at the spa, where the treatment rooms have private terraces that open to the mountains.

The $400 million expansion of Agua Caliente Casino Rancho Mirage completed 2008 included a monumental, 16-story hotel tower, world-class entertainment venue The Show, and award-winning Sunstone Spa and fine dining restaurant The Steakhouse. The spa is one of only two in California to earn Forbes Travel Guide’s prestigious five-star rating for its guest experience, facilities, and amenities including grounding chairs, infrared treatment tables, and quartz-infused oils. The Steakhouse earned Forbes’ four-star rating and awards from AAA and Wine Spectator.

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In the past five years, the casino added the 360 Sports bar and restaurant and expanded the Pivat Cigar Lounge to include gaming, a cocktail bar, and a walk-in humidor with more than 50 brands of cigars.

The casino, of course, also features 45,000-square feet of table games, slot machines, and high-limit play plus The Show, a 1,000-seat venue with a never-ending schedule featuring some of the biggest names in music, comedy, and entertainment. In its first 15 years, The Show has hosted Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Tyler, Sting, Tony Bennett, and Priscilla Presley. Comedian Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias makes it a point to perform at The Show each year around Cinco de Mayo.

Incidentally, the tribe opened Agua Caliente Fuel across the street from the casino in 2021. More than a 24-pump gas station, this 7,580-foot pit stop offers onsite gaming and a Java Caliente café.

The resorts of Rancho Mirage have become synonymous with luxury, wellness, and hospitality. The attractive qualities that drew the who’s who of Hollywood, business, and politics to this desert destination prevail, making Rancho Mirage a playground for all types of visitors from around the globe.

Sensei Porcupine Creek

The addition of the exclusive and intimate Sensei Porcupine Creek in 2022 propelled Rancho Mirage into a new world of wellness. The luxurious, six-star boutique resort offers spa, nutrition, and movement programs similar to those at Sensei Lanai, the company’s original location in Hawaii. The Rancho Mirage retreat, named the world’s No. 1 wellness hotel by Travel + Leisure, is situated on a 230-acre private estate owned by Oracle founder Larry Ellison, and it goes far beyond the typical health and wellness offerings.sensei-porcupine-creek-tanveer-badal-interiors-21 cc

The Coachella Valley has long been known as a destination for rest and relaxation, and by extension, health and wellness. The warm, dry climate and ample sunshine lend themselves to outdoor activity, whether one is more sports-inclined or prefers morning yoga and meditation under the sun.

Ellison and physician David Agus, a professor of medicine and biomedical engineering at USC Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles, founded Sensei in 2018. Their mission is to help their clients live longer, healthier lives following a lifestyle philosophy called The Sensei Way, which focuses on the paths of “move,” “nourish,” and “rest.” Additionally, Sensei uses fitness trackers, thermal body mapping, and biomarker blood tests to benchmark progress and optimize results. Guides, wellness practitioners, and golf and tennis professionals then focus on the guests’ goals, from destressing with a mind and body reset to improving their pro-level golf game or overall wellbeing.

Sensei also brings world-class amenities, including its Sensei by Nobu dining menu; private tee times at its secluded, 18-hole golf course; and distinctive spa experiences such as its four-handed massage with shirodhara, a traditional practice from India that dates back more than 3,000 years. However, the Nobu cuisine and all the resort’s amenities are available only to guests staying overnight.

With its boutique, exclusive offerings and bespoke retreat experiences, Sensei Porcupine Creek elevates Rancho Mirage as a premier wellness destination.

Luxury Automobiles Roll In

Back on March 17, 1946, Jack and Helen Dykema Dengler drove from Pasadena to Rancho Mirage for their first look at the 10 acres of sand and some shacks they purchased from Col. and Mrs. A.E. Hainer. “Grandma,” their prewar Dodge Westchester woodie wagon, had no air conditioning, although the front side-windows rolled down. In her account White Sun: Memoirs of a Desert Guest Ranch, Helen says no more about Grandma. What’s obvious, though, is that their trip represents the routine connection from Los Angeles and its suburbs to Rancho Mirage before even a post office bore the name.

If only the car had been preserved as the Denglers proceeded to build White Sun Guest Ranch, the relic would betoken intricate interdependence between Rancho Mirage and the automobile.

Yes, the city gives back as much as it receives. For example, there are two versions of how the Ford Motor Company came up with the iconic “Thunderbird” name for its new “distinguished kind of personal car,” as brochure copy put it in 1955.

84_Thunderbird HeadlightThunderbird Country Club lore has Ernest Breech, a founding member, chairman of Ford Motor Company, receiving permission to use “Thunderbird.” Douglas Brinkley, author of a Ford history, lays the name at the feet of one Alden Giberson, a little-remembered stylist in Dearborn, Michigan. He had once lived in the Southwest, amid endemic Thunderbird imagery, and the name spilled over his lips. “[Ford design chief Franklin Q.] Hershey loved the name and so did Ernie Breech, who had just returned from a golf vacation at a California country club named Thunderbird when he weighed in on the subject,” Brinkley recalled.

Thunderbird Country Club’s claim as namesake is cemented by the fact that Ford gave a 1955 T-Bird to golf pro Johnny Dawson.85_Dawsons_Thunderbird Auto cc

Over the years, Rancho Mirage would emerge as an automotive powerhouse, particularly in the luxury and high-performance categories.

Desert European Motorcars planted its flag in the city in 1999, bringing an honor list of brands including Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Land Rover, Porsche, Maserati, and Lotus. The dealerships along Highway 111 — launched and operated by principals David Murphy, Jerry Johnson, Gene Whisenhunt, and Frank Hickingbotham, and Gary Whitaker — have since shined as one of the city’s most distinguishing features and top sales tax generators.

In 2013, Houston, Texas–based indiGO Auto Group acquired Desert European, and Chairman and CEO Todd Blue quickly began expanding and upgrading the 10-acre Rancho Mirage campus. In 2017, indiGO was acquired by Pon Holdings, the largest mobility group in the Netherlands. Three years later, Blue retired and was succeeded by Kelly Wolf as indiGO’s chief executive officer. Today, Desert European Motorcars is a top destination for auto aficionados, having added more luxury and high-performance brands including McLaren, Lamborghini, and Rimac.

Ferrari of Rancho Mirage, owned by BBB Automotive Group, opened beautiful showroom next to the indiGO campus in 2018.

The city is positioned for growth and innovation, with raw sites available for dealerships as well as progressive policies to accommodate the growing number of electric vehicles on the roads. In 2012, Rancho Mirage was among the first cities in the Coachella Valley to train its building department on permitting EV charging stations. In 2015, it became the first city in the valley to require all new commercial development to install EV charging stations as a condition of approval.

Rancho Super Car Wash

The historically designated “elephant car wash” is an icon, an attraction, and Instagram hot spot that even sells merch!

The giant pachyderm perched above Highway 111 near the intersection of Indian Trail has unofficially welcomed visitors — and dirty cars — to Rancho Mirage since the late 1960s.

73_Racho Super Car Wash_SFunkThe neon sign, which received a historic designation from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission in 2023, dates back to 1951 in Seattle, where brothers Dean, Archie, and Eldon Anderson opened the first hands-free, automated car washes and parked splashy pink elephant signs outside their locations to attract attention. (The original iconic rotating version in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood was removed late last year and donated to the Museum of History and Industry.)

Richard Fromme, whose wife was a daughter of one of the Anderson brothers, launched his own location in Rancho Mirage in 1966 using one of the same signs first designed by Seattle’s “Queen of Neon” Bea Haverfield.

Today, Corvette buff Randy Barnes and his wife, Lorraine, own the Rancho Super Car Wash. After he retired from the food service distribution industry in Portland, Oregon, the couple moved to the desert and bought the car wash in 2008, becoming the third owners in its 55-year-old history.

Rancho Super Car Wash still offers several services for automobiles, including hand waxing and custom detailing.

The First Golf Cart

Another historic Rancho Mirage claim concerns creation of the electric golf cart. Sports Illustrated rendered an account of this development in 1959, when it counted 11 desert golf courses and 729 golf carts. The report referred to “a golf world that is so completely mechanized that the resort might … refer to itself as The Golf Cart Capital of the World.” The magazine contended that another Thunderbird pioneer member, D.B. McDaniels, of Houston, created “the first golf cart … about nine years ago, coinciding with the beginning of the golfing boom in the area.”89_1st Golf Cart with Desi_pink

A two-cycle gas engine powered McDaniels’ six-passenger, three-wheeled crawler. The racket and smoke irritated everybody. Nevertheless, Thunderbird’s future-facers “were quick to see prospects in this monster.”  

Thunderbird’s version of the history asserts that, in 1951, another golf pro, Eddie Susalla “came up with the idea for the first golf cart after seeing a man tooling around on the sidewalks in Long Beach in a gas-powered cart. Susalla promptly purchased the same vehicle and had it shipped back to Thunderbird to equip it for golf.”

Coincidentally, the Autoette Electric Car Company, of Long Beach, started making three-wheel electric runabouts as early as 1948. Susalla used Thunderbird as the Autoette’s proving grounds. “I put a rack on front to hold the clubs, and it was on the course every day,” he said.

On Thunderbird’s opening day, Jan. 9, 1951, golfer-turned-developer Johnny and Velma Dawson were seen on the course with an electric cart nicknamed “Thunderbus.”

Electric Car Distributors, founded in 1959, distinguished itself as a seller of golf carts. Owner Robert W. “Bob” Thomas won 1973 Outstanding Dealer for Cushman turf-care equipment and golf carts. His son, J.R., started in the business four years thereafter. Today he operates JR Thomas’ Golf Cars. As seen in the dealership’s name, Thomas makes a distinction about his products: “A car is something that’s driven. A cart is pulled or pushed.”  His golf cars sell for as much as $32,000 and come with touchscreen entertainment, overhead cooling, and configurable storage.