By Sharon Whitley Larsen
Nothing is more spectacular than watching colorful hot air balloons taking off in the gorgeous desert sky. I was in Rancho Mirage (just east of Palm Springs) — the former home of President Gerald Ford and other notables, including celebrities Lucy and Desi, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Others were Leonore ("Lee") and Walter Annenberg — the renowned billionaire publisher (TV Guide and Seventeen), philanthropist and former U.S. ambassador to Britain's Court of St. James's — who owned the famed Sunnylands estate (more about that later).
Normally not an early riser, I didn't want to miss the hot air balloon launch, so with a cup of steaming coffee in hand I joined others at a chilly 6:30 a.m. to watch the excitement of the Sixth Annual Cathedral City Hot Air Balloon Festival, held on the grounds of the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa, where I was staying for two nights. I was here to spend a relaxing 48 hours — and that I did.
On its vast property with two championship golf courses, three pools, seven tennis courts, a spa and numerous dining options — including its signature Italian restaurant, Pinzimini — the Westin tempts guests to just stay put. I could have done that, but following a heavenly massage in the spa and an hourlong first-ever golf lesson I ventured out to enjoy some of the area's other treats.
The first — in the evening — was stargazing at the amazing Rancho Mirage Library & Observatory. Opened on March 25, 2018, the impressive observatory, adjacent to the library, educates kids of all ages on astronomy with telescope-viewing and stargazing. Knowledgeable guides point out gems in the dark sky and answer questions — and it's free.
My next stop was for dinner, joining friends at the family-run Shabu Shabu Zen, a small and delightful restaurant where we experienced "omotenashi"— Japanese food hospitality. It was a culinary adventure for the seven of us — in between sipping flights of sake — to intently concentrate on cooking tableside our various meats, fish (I loved the shrimp!) and vegetables in the individual pots of savory broth. Our charming server explained the history and custom and answered questions about the foods, including tapas, and described the sauces and the extensive sake selection.
A trip to Rancho Mirage isn't complete without a stop at the magnificent 200-acre Annenberg Sunnylands estate, which broke ground in 1963, was completed in 1966 and opened to visitors in 2012. Technically a one-bedroom, 25,000 square foot "house" (with three guest cottages, a private golf course, tennis court, swimming pool and 11 man-made lakes), it is a must-see. This mid-century design by architect A. Quincy Jones is renowned for its signature pink roof, marble floors, exquisite art (many original paintings were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, replaced here with incredibly realistic digital copies), sculpture (including the atrium centerpiece, Rodin's "Eve"), unique furnishings and priceless dinnerware. Throughout the years the Annenbergs hosted world leaders and politicians (eight U.S. presidents, including the Reagans, who celebrated 18 New Year's Eve parties here), celebrities (Frank Sinatra wed his fourth wife, Barbara, here), film stars (Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, Helen Hayes) and royalty (including Princess Grace of Monaco, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and Prince Charles, who reportedly exclaimed, "You left this to go to England?").
In fact, following his resignation, Richard Nixon signed the guestbook on Sept. 3, 1974: "When you're down you find out who your real friends are. We shall always be grateful for your kindness and your loyal friendship."
My favorite room, hands down, is the intimate Room of Memories, with its jaw-dropping collection of rare and autographed books, framed photos (signed by many famous folks), awards, memorabilia and correspondence — including letters from Queen Elizabeth II. My favorite display is a wall of framed Christmas card photos from the Queen Mum (Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother) between 1972 and 2001.
The Annenberg Foundation Trust, established in 2001, today continues the vision of the Annenbergs, who wanted the property to become the "Camp David of the West" — and it has, hosting national and world leaders for meetings and retreats to discuss a range of issues from education and medicine to science and politics — to promote world peace in this magical setting.
As Nancy Reagan once observed, "There's no other place like it, anywhere!"
The Gardens and Visitors Center — which features an interesting 20-minute film, "A Place Called Sunnylands" — are free to the public and do not require reservations.
I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend visit. Perhaps next time I visit Rancho Mirage I'll even take that hot air balloon ride!
WHEN YOU GO
The Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa: www.westinmissionhills.com
Rancho Mirage Library & Observatory (check website for tours and programs): www.ranchomiragelibrary.org/observatory.html
Shabu Shabu Zen: www.shabu-shabu-zen.com
Sunnylands: www.sunnylands.org/historic-house-tour. Online reservations are necessary for the 90-minute house tour (Wednesday through Sunday, $48 entrance fee; check website for updates and information on outdoor tours).
Sharon Whitley Larsen is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com
Sunnylands, the former Rancho Mirage, California, mega estate of Walter and Leonore Annenberg, is a popular tourist draw. Photo courtesy of Sharon Whitley Larsen.