- 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.

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