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Family Travel in Palm Springs

Veteran journalist Ron Donoho's holiday tradition brings bonding opportunities at Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa Rancho Mirage

Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa Rancho Mirage
Image Credits Agua Caliente Casino, Pívat Cigar Lounge, The Steakhouse: Courtesy of Agua Caliente Casinos Palm Springs Sign, The Red Jeep Tour: Ron Donoho

Palm Springs, pre-Christmas 2022. Five of us rendezvous in the downtown Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa Rancho Mirage for lunch at 360 Sports. Wall-to-wall TVs show college football and pro basketball action. It’s sensory overload, but we focus as entrées arrive at our bar table. My Honey Walnut Shrimp bowl comes with LeBron James-sized seafood, sweet sustenance for the mission ahead.

My family has just made the two-hour-plus drive from San Diego to the desert. The winter day temperature is a wholly agreeable 70 degrees. Perfect, because after lunch, we’re on a double-tracked shopping mission. Secret Santa and white elephant gifts must be acquired. Fanned out on the main drag of downtown Palm Springs, we’re multitasked with window shopping and looking over our shoulders for each other. It’s called Secret Santa for a reason! White elephant selections are also a hush-hush operation.

Chandler, Kevin, and Jack shopping on Palm Canyon Drive
Chandler, Kevin, and Jack shopping on Palm Canyon Drive

For the second year now — which officially makes it a tradition — my family has spent end-of-year holiday time traveling together. Last year, this same fivesome (my wife and her son, my daughter and her boyfriend, and I) did pre-Christmas on Catalina Island.

In lieu of Christmas gifts, I give my family a travel experience. It’s become a hit and is something anybody can do any time of the year. Destination weddings are already a thing, of course. Why not take the family on the road before a graduation, a special anniversary, or in the place of other gift-laden holidays? We start planning our Christmas trip in the summer, giving us all a chance to share in the anticipation. These excursions also give us a chance to unwind together, create collective memories, and deepen relationships, and can even be educational.

Our first-day tradition: the low-cost gift exchange. Upon arrival, we scout out local tchotchkes. There’s a time limit. It’s like a mission — which brings on minimal stress — but it’s also a fun starting point for getting to know the destination. On Palm Canyon Drive, there are plenty of mom-and-pop shops. Sure, there’s a West Elm. But that chain is offset by small business storefronts like Sazzy, Wabi Sabi, Find Your Feet, Running Wild, and block after block of vintage music stores. Game on.

There are three Agua Calientes in Greater Palm Springs: one downtown, a brand-new casino in Cathedral City, and the marquee casino-resort in Rancho Mirage. Shopping treasures in tow, we make the 20-minute drive from downtown to Rancho Mirage.

The 16-floor, AAA Four Diamond resort is an impressive and solitary outpost at the end of Ramon Road, just before the I-10. Agua Caliente has 77,000 square feet of gambling space. (My vice: There’s a small but active poker room in a back corner that stays busy into the wee hours with live games and daily tournament offerings.)

We’ve got a family dinner reservation at The Steakhouse, a softly lit, old-school, upscale meatery. I warn the 20-somethings not to fill up on bread, but it’s hard to resist warm pretzel rolls slathered with date butter.

The Steakhouse
The Steakhouse

Conversation zeroes in on the gift exchanges. Somehow, my daughter found a gag gift set of plates for the white elephant exchange…at posh West Elm? And of all the Palm Canyon Drive boutiques to choose from, my wife’s son and my daughter’s boyfriend both bought the same gift: Games Room Food & Drink Trivia from Out West Trading Company.

We give The Steakhouse a handful of thumbs-ups for a couple of 16-ounce ribeye steaks, freshly caught halibut, cedar plank-cooked salmon, and Colorado lamb chops. As a group, we’re obsessed with the gelatinous-but-oddly-sweet side of mint jelly that accompanies the lamb chops.

After dinner, we’re fired up by a unique Agua Caliente Rancho Mirage bonding experience: Pívat Cigar Lounge. None of us are stogie aficionados. Regular guests come to this luxurious den to nosh, order a smoky or single-malt scotch, or just while away time burning some ash. We slip down into a circle of brown leather chairs and reach a state of familial Zen as if we are scions of Winston Churchill. 

Pívat Cigar Lounge
Pívat Cigar Lounge

The on-property Sunstone Spa is highly ranked both in California and North America. The fam can’t wait to get into robes for a half-day spa experience. We fill up the chaise loungers at Sunstone’s private pool and take advantage of the co-ed whirlpool. My wife and daughter enjoy the eucalyptus steam room — even before they figure out how to turn it on. The young guys are infatuated with the vibrating massage chairs in the men’s lounge.

We then report to separate treatment rooms for a Desert Rain Massage. Heated stones and desert botanicals (sage and lavender) relax our muscles and settle nerves. I’m probably not the only one laying on a massage table wondering why we don’t do family travel more than once a year. 

The spa is a perfect amenity counterbalance to the bumpy morning tour we’d taken alongside the Indio mountains. We rode with Red Jeep Tours on the company’s San Andreas Fault “Bones of the Earth” experience.

The Red Jeep Tour
The Red Jeep Tour

Our guide, Cal, drove us in an open-air Jeep for three hours. He stopped and we disembarked to be fascinated by his explanations of how the native Cahuilla Indians interacted with the local plants, animals, and ever-shifting landscape. Fun fact: Seismologists can trace the location of the San Andreas Fault because shifting tectonic plates force water up to the ground surface, allowing a telltale row of palms to grow in the desert.

That night’s dinner, at colorful and popular Tropicale back in downtown Palm Springs, is another combo of good food and tasty table topics. Family style, we mix Holey Moley Nachos, Thai Lime & Chile Steak Salad, roasted tomato pizza, and other apps with fond recollections of Cal’s seemingly utter devotion to the natural wonders of the Coachella Valley.

Red Jeep Cal is now part of family lore. And, we’re already weighing our options on where the trail will take us for our next set of shared travel memories.


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