- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2007

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Once, General of the Armies John J. “Black Jack” Pershing attracted all the attention while strolling between the terra-cotta villas and towering palms of this historic bungalow hotel in Palm Springs. During my weekend visit, it’s a sarong-wrapped Lindsay Lohan and a high-heeled Paris Hilton absorbing the stares.

Hey, they don’t call the Viceroy Palm Springs “Glamour Under the Sun” for nothing.

Rest assured, Australian-born hotelier Jonathan Heath sees to it that Hollywood celebrities and everyday guests like me are pampered equally at this boutique desert hideaway of 68 sparkling villas and suites surrounded by lush gardens, a luxurious indoor-outdoor Estrella Spa, a very hip Citron restaurant and bar, and pillow-packed cabanas around three cooling pools.

Mr. Heath was appointed general manager of the Viceroy 19 months ago, having managed and supervised spa designs for several hotel properties around the world. When I meet him, he’s wrapped in a chef’s apron, orchestrating a mouthwatering barbecue of meats, seafood and vegetables for a group of guests in the Presidio Courtyard.

“I welcome all opportunities to cook,” Mr. Heath says. Indeed, prior to joining management, he was the executive chef at several international properties, including the famous Serai resort in Bali, where he met his future wife, also a chef. He started on the cooking path when awarded the first-ever scholarship of Commercial Cookery at the Hotel School in Australia, and he later led his nation’s culinary team to Toronto to compete in a world culinary contest.

Surely, I suggest, the executive chef of the Viceroy’s Citron Restaurant is intimidated by his presence.

“Not Stephen Belie,” Mr. Heath says. In fact, the well-seasoned Mr. Belie previously cooked under Michel Richard at the celebrity-heavy Citrus Restaurant in Hollywood — that is, until the renowned chef moved from California to Washington and made Georgetown’s Citronelle his flagship restaurant. (Citron, Citrus, Citronelle — see a pattern?)

While his dinner guests pass baskets of piping-hot beignets for dessert, Mr. Heath says the great-grandson of Pershing was a guest of the Viceroy earlier this year, carrying in his suitcase memorabilia going back to the property’s bungalow beginnings in 1933, when his World War I ancestor invested in the Palm Springs property.

The Viceroy Palm Springs, and its impressive sister property the Viceroy Santa Monica, are part of the Kor Hotel Group, a prominent entity in the contemporary boutique hotel scene, with a portfolio of properties stretching from Beverly Hills and West Hollywood to Miami and South Beach and beyond.

Fortunately, the Viceroy Palm Springs emerged from a recent renovation with its original Regency-style charm intact. Which is not to say that Beverly Hills interior designer Kelly Wearstler didn’t pour her magic into every villa: floor-to-ceiling coats of thick, glossy-white paint, complimented with lemon-yellow and black accents. Her color scheme is so refreshingly cool that I forget about the lizards lounging outside my patio door in the 106-degree heat.

My villa, as the others, has a separate bedroom, living room, dining room and utensil-stocked kitchen, fitted with custom-designed fabrics, carpets and wallpaper (Wearstler designs, of course). Guests stay cozy on chilly desert nights next to white-brick fireplaces, above which hang abstract paintings by California artist Joshua Elias, a favorite of the designer. Mr. Elias says that traveling spirits act as his guides, moving to the rhythm of each canvas as it comes to life.

I would further contemplate his brush strokes, but I’m due for a treatment at the Estrella Spa — a “nourish facial,” to help relieve the Washington stress — and as quickly as I change into my Italian-designer bathrobe and strut past Miss Lohan beside the pool, I enter a sanctuary of slate-gray walls, soothing music, flickering candles, and more fireplaces. Given my single reservation, I’m unable to experience one of Estrella’s more popular treatments, the couple’s massage in a spa cabana. But I do bring my feet back for a reflexology session.

Apart from the full range of spa treatments, the Estrella’s yoga terrace comes alive in the cool of the late afternoon and early evening. There is also tai chi, Pilates, water aerobics, and morning fitness hikes along the base of the San Jacinta Mountains, the breathtaking backdrop for the Viceroy.

Being a bit adventuresome, I grab one of the Viceroy’s bicycles, and wind up exploring a quiet neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes surrounding the resort.

You’d never know, given its privacy, that the Viceroy is a short stroll away from the many shops and restaurants of downtown Palm Springs.

Between the basking, rubbing and biking, I’ve worked up a thirst and an appetite. In comfortable fashion, Citron restaurant and bar are incorporated into the rear of the hotel lobby, both painted vibrant yellow and white (Ms. Wearstler’s fingerprints again), with French windows opening to the main courtyard patio and pool.

Given the intimate setting, Citron’s outgoing bartenders often assist in greeting arriving guests with a chilled Viceroy fresh, the resort’s hydrating blend of orange, lime and grapefruit juices, with lemon grass, lime leaf and crushed mint. After you unpack, however, be sure to try the bar’s signature drink, the Citron bleu martini, served in a sugar-rimmed glass with a wheel of lemon.

Mr. Belie’s eclectic dinner menu includes sauteed oyster mushrooms, seared foie gras with maple-scented sweet potatoes, lump blue-crab cakes, sweet soy-braised short ribs with Brie and chive mashed potatoes, and panna cotta with Tuscan melon soup.

Poolside one evening, when I’m literally immersed in candlelight, I enjoy a chef’s tasting: caviar, Tuscan melon soup, New Zealand mussels with fiddlehead ferns, brown-butter skate wing with yellow carrots, steak and frites with white asparagus, and, for dessert, a chocolate caramel tart filled with figs and gelato.

Lunches are purposely light, given the climate and the resort’s many activities, and range from elegant salads to salmon burgers and grilled lobster tacos. For breakfast, I skip the popular buttermilk pancakes and lobster benedict and order a generous plate of California fresh avocado, with tomatoes, olive oil and Italian bread.

It is written that Pershing “accomplished the near impossible by whipping an ill-prepared American military into an effective and disciplined World War I fighting machine.” He’d be proud to see the handsomely restored Viceroy Palm Springs today and mightily impressed with the service he would receive from the well-trained and attentive staff.

But who, he might ask, are these two ladies everybody is making a fuss over in the courtyard?

•••

The Viceroy Palm Springs is 10 minutes from Palm Springs International Airport and two hours by car from Los Angeles and San Diego.Reservations 866/891-0948; visit viceroypalmsprings.com.

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