Historic Hollywood at La Quinta

Somewhere between the second and third martini by the fireplace at Morgan's, or perhaps it's the poolside moment the warm wind hits you with the fragrance of orange blossoms -- wherever it eventually happens -- you can feel what it must have been like to be Hollywood royalty escaping to the desert oasis that was and is La Quinta.

A resort for peace-loving sun-worshippers was built here by Walter H. Morgan in 1926, decades before a city was established. Morgan, who gained his fortune in the oyster business in San Francisco, traveled to this location to fight his tuberculosis. Amid the backdrop of the Santa Rosa Mountains, he discovered tranquility in the year-round warmth of the Coachella Valley.

A native cactus garden at La Quinta Resort. (Photo by Scott Bridges)

The doors on the casitas were painted blue -- an homage by Morgan to the native Cahuilla tribe, who believed that the color blue provided protection against evil spirits. He also wished to honor the Catholic Spanish heritage of the area, and so named each casita after a saint.

The Morgan's tiny resort eventually evolved into La Quinta Resort and Spa (now under the Waldorf-Astoria banner). And along the way, historic figures found respite on these verdant grounds. General George Patton used the grounds as his headquarters during World War II, and President Dwight Eisenhower spent time here immediately following his final term in office, golfing (for one dollar a round!) with his brother, who lived down the road.

Seasonal flowers color the monochrome desert landscape. (Photo by Scott Bridges)

Hollywood stars soon flocked to the resort, situated at the edge of the 100-mile zone that their contracts allowed them to escape to. Director Frank Capra was one of the early visitors, and after writing It Happened One Night here with screenwriter Robert Riskin, he developed a lifetime love affair with the place, eventually moving in. His body is buried nearby; his typewriter remains in the room in which he came to call home.

Stars seeking a reprieve from the limelight also came. Greta Garbo's room is still intact, for instance, and Ginger Rogers slipped away here to marry in front of the fountain. A long list of stars continued to trek east and found relaxation in this hideaway.

Typewriter on which Frank Capra wrote It's a Wonderful Life. (Photo by Scott Bridges)

A lot has changed over the years, though. Today, the resort also boasts a world-class spa and PGA golf courses (no one dollar rounds these days, sorry). More than 40 pools are scattered across the 45 acres, as well as 53 hot tubs. And in addition to the movie stars who still find solace here, pro tennis stars come for the nearby Indian Wells tournament, and can be seen practicing on any of the 23 courts.

Dining has always been part of the allure of the resort, and remains so. Morgan's in the Desert is a restored version of the original eatery, but is now a farm-to-table gem helmed by a James Beard-award winning chef and offers a thoroughly modern menu and vast wine list. Twenty6, meanwhile, is an updated incarnation of the classic American bistro, and is the place to go for craft beers and mixology cocktails.

Oysters at Morgan's in the Desert. (Photo by Scott Bridges)

These days, stars aren't the only ones who need to get away from it all. Modern life provides reason enough to seek a little privacy and pampering in the desert.