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Byline: Story by Eric Noland Travel Editor

DESERT HOT SPRINGS - The mud is black. It resembles primordial ooze: laced with peat moss, percolating with geothermal spring water, throwing off the pungent odors of magnesium and sulfur.

Into it you go. Naked. The full muddy.

It rises to your chin, and you expect to sink straight to the bottom of the rectangular, blue-tile tub. But an odd thing happens: The mixture is so dense that your body actually hangs there, suspended, like a peach slice in a mold of thickening Jell-O.

`"You'll get deep cleansing of the layers of skin,'' says therapist Kimmi Blesi as she props inflatable pillows under our heads, ``and it'll detox pollutants and impurities out.''

O ... K.

Later, after warm showers with mineral water, steam treatments, cool showers, warm towels and hourlong aromatherapy massages in private little huts, we're fully converted.

Now it's Two Bunch Palms that is under our skin.

It's a common progression. This is a funky, unpretentious little resort in the wind-swept and otherwise undistinguished community of Desert Hot Springs, far from the oh-so-grand resort palaces of Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert and Indian Wells.

But Two Bunch Palms has staked out its considerable appeal by offering a thorough decompression from the urban world.

A high premium is placed on serenity. Guests are urged to speak softly, ``just above an intimate whisper,'' according to promotional materials. Cell-phone use is prohibited in public areas. Humans under age 18 and pets of any age aren't allowed.

There is also a noted absence of bustle. No earnest attendants descending on you every five minutes to inquire if you need a drink, another towel or directions to the activities desk (there isn't one, by the way).

Two Bunch Palms gets out of the way, letting guests set their own pace or agenda - and with a spa menu of 45 different treatments, there are a lot of decisions to be made. It prefers to let its inherent attributes carry the day, and they are considerable.

Although the 45-room resort occupies 56 acres, it owns another 206 acres of open desert on its periphery. The expanse creates a blessed buffer against the development sprawl of Desert Hot Springs, such that guests aren't awakened by heavy trucks beeping in reverse gear or leaf blowers fouling the quietude just beyond their windows.

The mineral hot springs on the property are its greatest asset, though. The water averages 148 degrees when it is pumped from the artesian aquifers under this natural desert oasis. (The name was conferred unceremoniously - and unimaginatively - by Army surveyors, who passed through here in 1907 and noted on their charts the presence of ``two bunches of palms.'')

For the comfort of resort guests, the waters are cooled down. But only just. Two Bunch Palms' signature feature is its Grotto, two rock-lined lounging pools that are shaded by weedy tamarisk trees and three dozen mature palms (yes, they are vaguely divided into two bunches). One pool is maintained at 98 degrees, the other, about 2 feet deep, at 104 degrees. The water is circulated out continuously, eliminating the need for chlorine, acid and other chemicals.

Understandably, guests gravitate to this spot at all hours, reclining on lifesaver rings and foam noodles, sometimes imaginatively propping a book on a flotation device. Long, shallow ledges along the sides are also popular; folks stretch out here like lethargic amphibians.

The resort holds numerous other opportunities for winding down the body clock, though.

The grounds are interlaced with boulder-lined streams that tumble alongside flagstone walkways. A spring-water lake - where ducks bob and turtles paddle beneath the surface - has lounges set up on its grassy banks. Another lawn, bordering the exercise pool, has thatched umbrellas with flowering vines growing up the center posts and out the top.

A walk might take in Roadrunner Trail, where we were kept company by a cottontail rabbit and, yes, a couple of roadrunners. At a viewpoint, a row of Adirondack chairs overlooks a forest of wind turbines far below in San Gorgonio Pass, as well as the green swath of Palm Springs and the towering spine of the San Jacinto Mountains.

Nearby is a sun bin - one of several that dot the grounds - for nude sunbathing, but with its steep sides and artificial-turf floor, it more closely resembles a sweat box (OK, yes, we peeked in).

Despite the considerable charm of its low-key vibe, Two Bunch Palms was found to be in need of some upgrades during our visit in late spring, but some of that effort has already begun.

Following the nine-year stewardship of Sinclair Resorts of Texas, the resort was acquired recently by King Ventures, a San Luis Obispo development company that collects California hot-springs properties like bracelet charms (Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort in Avila Beach among them).

Already, said spokeswoman Jill Maya, Two Bunch Palms has gotten new pillow-top mattresses in all the rooms, along with Italian bed linens and plush new bath towels. Also, though we found the dining room fare to be very good, an overhaul of the food and beverage offerings is also planned, Maya said.

The resort shouldn't stop there.

We were disappointed that our room's windows and French doors did not have screens. So even after the sun went down and the temperature dropped, we couldn't allow that wondrously clear, dry desert air to vent through.

It was also perplexing that a resort built around mineral pools and spa treatments did not provide robes in guest rooms, but instead asked people to bring them from home. (This will be remedied in the future, reportedly.)

And though a Zen-like quiet is urged, some staffers - housekeepers, maintenance workers - seem not to have received the memo, and golden-oldies radio plays incongruously in the dining room at all hours, even during otherwise romantic dinners.

Resort management should get credit, however, for at least trying to set a standard of hushed tones. Especially where cell phones are concerned, it is swimming stubbornly against the tide of social mores. (Guests are asked to confine use to their rooms or vehicles).

Most people comply with these requests - welcome them, even - such that it's jarring when you encounter someone jabbering along a walkway or flipping open a cell phone by the pool.

``We do everything we can,'' said a front desk staffer with a sigh, ``but it's hard to get the message across sometimes.''

Added Maya: ``The most common problem is balancing the noise. Longtime guests don't want to hear any talking. Newer guests are excited and want to discuss their scripts or whatever. I've had to go and hush people, and it's the most degrading job imaginable. What I want is another hot pool, just for the talkers.''

When the quiet is maintained, it certainly creates an environment more conducive to Two Bunch Palms' extensive array of spa treatments. When we settled deep into the mud, in fact, the Clay Cabana was so still that the surface of the mud bath undulated slightly and rhythmically with our heartbeats. The view was through a screen of bougainvillea toward the San Jacinto Mountains, and a hummingbird flitting among the limbs of a tamarisk tree was our only company.

Remember when Hollywood mogul Griffin Mill, Tim Robbins' character in the movie ``The Player,'' momentarily escaped his demons with a trip to a desert hideaway and a plunge into the mud? It was this hideaway. It was this mud.

At one point, our therapist arrived with some powdery clay from the resort's well, mixed it with hot mineral water and invited us to slather it onto our faces as a facial mask. She kept towels handy so we could wipe the globs out of our eyes or the corners of our mouths.

The mud bath is heated to 130 degrees at the bottom of the enclosure in order to transmit the proper heat to the upper layers, so it's a good idea to remain suspended rather than wriggling lower. Through it all, you can't help thinking how much trouble you'd have been in if you'd pulled this stunt as a kid.

When, after a 15-minute immersion, the black ooze has been rinsed off and steamed out, a good follow-up treatment is the aromatherapy massage, conducted in a little octagonal hut with a thatched roof. Breezes waft in through screens and knotholes, and over the course of an hour, you'll likely be reduced to a pleasing state of vegetation, both physical and mental.

Afterward, don't be surprised if you don't feel like moving anywhere in a hurry. Or speaking at all.

At Two Bunch Palms, that's the point.

Eric Noland, (818) 713-3681



GETTING THERE: Two Bunch Palms is a six-mile drive from Interstate 10 in Desert Hot Springs. Take Palm Drive north to Two Bunch Palms Trail and turn right. The resort is a mile down on the right.

RATES: From $175 per night. Nearly half of the resort's accommodations are priced under $300 per night. At the upper end is a spacious spa suite, with private whirlpool tub and shared plunge pool, for $485 nightly.

SPA TREATMENTS: Decisions, decisions. Two Bunch Palms offers 45 different treatments - seven facials, five mud treatments, about a dozen massages. A river rock therapy employs hot and cold stones. The CrystalSonic uses sound vibrations from the playing of crystal bowls and a didgeridoo. A Watsu water therapy session involves stretches and other movements with a therapist while buoyant in a private pool. The resort's signature mud-and-steam treatment costs $65 per person for a 30-minute session; the hourlong aromatherapy massage is $90.

DINING: A breakfast buffet is included in your room rate. For fine dining in Desert Hot Springs, the options are pretty limited - and after a spa treatment or two, you probably won't want to drive anywhere. We found dinner here to be very good, with deliciously ripe tomatoes in the salads, perfectly prepared meats - filet mignon and New Zealand rack of lamb, for example - and such tasty side dishes as wild mushroom ragout and heart-shaped fried potatoes. For dessert, the hot-fudge sundae features fudge made fresh on the premises from a great brick of dark chocolate.

INFORMATION:; (760) 329-8791.


8 photos, box


(1 -- 3 -- color) Among the restorative spa treatments offered by Two Bunch Palms are a mud immersion, top, and Watsu therapy, above. The Desert Hot Springs resort is a serene place, exemplified by its own tree- shaded lake, above right.

(4 -- 7) Quiet and comfort await guests of Two Bunch Palms, whether they're lounging at the resort's signature Grotto pools, middle left, enjoying the semi-private pool of the Casa Blanca Suite, top left, wandering along one of many boulder-lined streams, above, or settling in for the Native American spa treatment, left.

LaFonzo Rachal Carter/Staff Photographer

(8) no caption (trees)


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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 10, 2005

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