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This Seemingly Apocalyptic Desert Lake Is Alive with Art

If an acid trip was a place, this magical barren landscape would be it.

An armchair in the middle of Bombay beach
An armchair sits alone in the desert. | Mika.laujin/Shutterstock

Despite first impressions, the Salton Sea is far from lifeless. The apocalypse has, in fact, not visited this often-overlooked section of Southern California, but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise—what with the rotted beach houses, discarded boats, and piles of dead fish (we’ll get there).

If your California dreams lean more Tahoe villa than desert oasis, you probably haven’t experienced the largest lake in California. Located about 60 miles south of Palm Springs, the Salton Sea was created in 1905 when the Colorado River flooded the Imperial Valley, which sits 227 feet below sea level (not the first time this valley flooded). The sudden appearance of a lake ushered in resorts, fancy houses, and even The Beach Boys. The area was dubbed the “Salton Riviera” back in its 1950s heyday, netting more annual visitors than Yosemite.

Bombay Beach Marina
Bombay Beach once attracted beach-goers from all over the world. | J Carr Photo/Shutterstock

By the 1970s, however, the lake was drying up. The accidental water mass had no natural outflow, and thus no stabilization system. It soon grew saltier than sea water. The runoff started killing off the fish, and those ever-present vacationers finally said, “Maybe let’s go to Yosemite instead.” The Salton Sea has since become legend among abandoned places enthusiasts, seemingly tempting fate even further by straddling the San Andreas Fault.

But here’s the thing: The Salton Sea still has a local population—a point driven home by Estamos Aquí, a documentary made by young residents. From the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians who have always been there to transplants who settled there more recently, the Salton Sea is no ghost town. Somehow, despite the fact that the lake continues to shrink—and solutions to mitigate the resulting toxic dust just aren’t coming together—life is flourishing.

trees in the Salton Sea
Keep an eye out for the Salton Sea’s striking blue water. | Judd Irish Bradley/Shutterstock

Enter Salton Sea’s thriving arts scene. If you dig an oddball desert aesthetic that’s less corporate than Coachella and less tech bro-ey than Burning Man, the Salton Sea promises to deliver. Head south on California 111 past the date farms, keep an eye out for the sparkling blue water, ignore the dead fish smell, and immerse yourself in this bizarro little piece of the world. Here are just a few of the wonders that await.

Bombay Beach Drive In
The Bombay Beach Drive-In” looks like a post-rapture drive-in theater. | RMF/Shutterstock

Bombay Beach

Bombay Beach is basically the Art Basel of the Salton Sea. The community of 215 is littered with large-scale art, thanks to the Bombay Beach Biennale, a yearly (yes, the name contradicts that) three-day celebration that brings more than 150 art installations to town. Festival founders Lily Johnson White, Stefan Ashkenazy, and Tao Ruspoli—the latter of whom runs the coolest Airbnb at the Salton Sea—created the event, which includes everything from sunrise opera performances to a banned-book library.

An abstract art plane fuselage at Bombay beach
“Lodestar” by Randy Polumbo arcs into the sky. | Paul Briden/Shutterstock

You can visit Bombay Beach anytime to see the art that lingers long after the festival. One of the most captivating installations, “The Bombay Beach Drive-In” by Stefan Ashkenazy, Sean Dale Taylor, and Arwen Byrd, consists of rusted cars facing a blank screen (like a drive-in movie theater, but post-Rapture). Another must-see is “Lodestar” by Randy Polumbo, a crashed plane that kind of looks like a carnival ride.

Head down to the beach and you’ll see a swingset out in the water. It’s “The Water Ain't That Bad, It's Just Salty” by Chris “Ssippi” Wessman and Damon James Duke. (Side note: A lot of people wade out to this and take thirst traps.) Back on the sand, among all of the fish bones, you’ll find “The only other thing is nothing” by Michael Daniel Birnberg—also known as MIDABI—a metal sign that says exactly that.

Welcome to the Ski Inn, the lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere. | Ski Inn

There are many other installations, including a 40-foot-long fish/aircraft (“Da Vinci Fish” by Sean Guerrero, Royce Carlson, Juanita Hull-Carlson, and John Murphy) and a door that leads nowhere (“The Open House” by Keith Jones and Lee Henderson). After checking them out, grab a cheap drink at the Ski Inn—the lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere—before moseying along.

Salton Sea History Museum
The colorful North Shore Beach & Yacht Club in 2013. | Salton Sea History Museum

The North Shore Beach and Yacht Club

Bombay Beach’s dried-up lake bed is scattered with discarded boats that have been reimagined as canvases, but a little less than 20 miles in the opposite direction lies an under-the-radar attraction for architecture buffs. The North Shore Beach and Yacht Club originally opened in 1959 as a ritzy hangout and a fixture of the Salton Riviera scene. But like much of the area, it became battered by both time and the elements, ultimately throwing in the towel in 1981 and sitting empty for decades, gathering dust and graffiti.

Today, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and, following a multimillion-dollar restoration process, it’s been reimagined as the Salton Sea Museum and community center. So why all the attention for what could have otherwise been the abandoned shell of a marina? Because it was designed by Albert Frey, the father of desert modernism (think retro motels with breeze blocks or those Mad Men episodes where Don goes to California). Designed to look like a submarine, the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club is outfitted with nautical porthole windows similar to the ones Frey installed in one of his own homes. People pay for architecture tours in Palm Springs without realizing that one of Frey’s coolest designs is hidden in plain sight over at the Salton Sea.

Entrance sign to Slab City
melissamn/Shutterstock

Salvation Mountain and Slab City

Located 20 miles south of Bombay Beach, Salvation Mountain stands tall, looking like what people who’ve never dropped acid probably imagine an acid trip to be like (we guess). The rainbow-painted, 50-foot clay mound is outfitted with a yellow staircase, flowers, birds, hearts, and colorful stripes (Fun fact: Kesha filmed a music video here). Salvation Mountain was created by Leonard Knight, a Korean War veteran who found Jesus while reciting the Sinner’s Prayer in a van in San Diego.

A colorful artificial mountain
Kevin Key/Shutterstock

Knight originally wanted to spread the Good Word via hot air balloon, but upon discovering the California desert, he instead decided to build his own colorful mountain. He toiled away at the mess of paint and clay during the day and slept in his truck at night until his work was complete. Knight passed away in 2014 at the age of 82, but Salvation Mountain lives on, still bearing the words of that prayer he spoke in the van all those years ago: “Jesus, I'm a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.”

Salvation Mountain and a sign that says Respect the Art
The local community is fiercely protective of their creations. | Grindstone Media Group/Shutterstock

Venture beyond Salvation Mountain and you’ll find yourself in Slab City, the self-proclaimed “last free place in America.” This rogue settlement rose up from the parched desert after World War II marine base Camp Dunlap was demolished, leaving behind the concrete slabs that give the settlement its name. The sprawling and extremely unofficial town is populated by snowbirds, artists, and dedicated desert rats who all have one thing in common: A desire to live very, very off the grid.

Historic motel on the north shore of the Salton Sea
An abandoned motel beckons passersby. | Bob Reynolds/Shutterstock

Residents—technically squatters—have no running water and no access to electricity. Some say they have no laws. What they do have, however, is a vibrant community situated in a harsh, unforgiving environment. Summer temperatures can soar above 110 degrees while winter winds bring an unholy chill, but the people remain. These days, there’s even a library, a hostel, and a solar-powered music venue. If the Salton Sea gives you apocalyptic vibes, Slab City is proof that even in a post-apocalyptic landscape, art, human spirit, and creativity can flourish.

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Krista Diamond is a freelance/fiction writer who lives in (and often writes about) Las Vegas. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, HuffPost, Eater, Business Insider, Fodor’s, and Desert Companion.

Talus – A Bold New Vision of Community, Hospitality & Sustainability

Courtesy of Christine Loomis, Desert Golf & Tennis

Planning a getaway to the Coachella Valley? May we suggest late 2022 or 2023—that is if you want to be among the first to experience the newly imagined TALUS La Quinta, an ambitious rebranding of a resort and residential community that aims to set an extraordinary new standard in desert hospitality. To say there’s a high level of anticipation and excitement surrounding the long-delayed development at SilverRock is an understatement.

NOTE: You must have one of our team accompany you on your first visit or introduce you in order to retain your right to your own representation to look after your fiduciary best interests. Contact Sheri Dettman & Associates for information.

Phase 1 of the 525-acre development includes two luxury hotels, spas, private residences, a new golf clubhouse, extensive dining options and more. The luxury Montage Hotel will feature134 casita-style guest rooms, while the Pendry Hotel, a “lifestyle” brand, will offer 200 guest rooms. In between the two will be a 70,000 square-foot conference center, which will open concurrently with the Montage Hotel.

Randy J. Duncan, general manager and director of golf at SilverRock, says the completed project will elevate golf across the desert. “SilverRock opened on Valentine’s Day, 2005. Since then, it’s been a golf course, clubhouse, golf operations and some F&B, all surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of acres of undeveloped land. When this project is complete, it’s going to be the mecca of the desert. The quality and high standards Montage brings to the community will have a positive impact on the golf experience. I’m excited about the future.”

Work is moving full steam ahead. The Montage is slated to open in Spring 2023, while the Pendry will welcome its first guests in 2024. Both properties are part of Montage International. Jeff Yamaguchi, VP of real estate with TALUS, says the first of the 29 single-family Montage-branded homes will be ready in November 2022. Delivery of the first Pendry-branded condos is scheduled for February 2023. These 55 condo units will be built in 11 three-story buildings, five residences or “stacked flats” per building.

The design aesthetic across TALUS celebrates Desert Modernism, a low-profile style that welcomes the desert landscape in. Montage staff will manage the homes and owners can opt to put residences in a short-term rental program, providing another option for out-of-town guests wanting more than a hotel room for their Coachella Valley stay.

The new golf clubhouse is scheduled to open at the start of the next fall season. Golf and F&B operations will move to the new clubhouse, leaving historic Ahmanson Ranch House ready for its transformation into an exciting new dining venue.

What won’t change is the Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, which completed a significant renovation several years ago. It will remain open to the public—and to hotel guests when they arrive. And residents of La Quinta, wherever they live in town, will still have the La Quinta Resident Program available to them. Duncan says retaining the resident program was always in the plan. “Elements of the program may change,” he notes, “but the program will remain.”

TALUS La Quinta has been described as a community-focused around wellness, activity and sustainability, within the context of respect for and enjoyment of the natural desert landscape. “TALUS is your wellspring in the desert, alive with opportunities to nourish body, mind and soul,” it says on the website. Another spot proclaims, “You feel powerful, yet unusually peaceful as you connect with the cadence and rhythm of the land. It’s the next chapter of SilverRock, a place to truly be alive and well.”

It may be marketing hype, yet the passion of developers for this project makes one wonder if a community, this community, actually can offer all that up in a tangible, meaningful way. Yamaguchi says TALUS absolutely can and will. “There’s a distinct energy derived from the mountains and the land. ‘Talus’ is defined as a gathering of rock fragments at the base of a mountain, and that was the inspiration behind the name change. Our goal is to create a gathering place and a unique assemblage of experiences for every family generation.”

When asked about the more esoteric goals of the project, Yamaguchi’s passion is clear. In terms of sustainability, he says solar energy is a core element of the residences. And though recycled materials won’t feature in construction until after Phase 1, he points out that they’ve reduced concrete and steel in the residential construction in favor of expansive use of glass, which simultaneously helps connect residents to the outside environment and reduces energy costs. “Glass helps keep homes warmer in winter by allowing heat in, and in summer, the double-paned glass will make the homes both cooler and more energy-efficient,” he says.

The health of residents and visitors was also a consideration in construction and hospitality practices. “We’re putting in an air purification system attached to HVAC, which filters out particles down to .03microns,” Yamaguchi notes. “Given the events of the past 18 months, air quality is a huge consideration for everyone. We want to create an extra level of confidence for residents and their guests by providing a safer, healthier living environment.” Most exciting is the vision for a farm in the next development phase. “We’re hoping to create a farm where we’ll grow products for culinary and spa programs, and also create an opportunity for organic composting,” Yamaguchi says. “Additionally, we want to curate a farm-to-table culinary experience that will be available to residents, hotel guests and people in the local community. “Agriculture,” he continues, has been integral to the Coachella Valley’s history and identity. With the evolution of plant-based palates and dietary requirements, we think it’s time to make it a priority going forward.”

Another goal is to-take wellness to the next level by establishing regimes and protocols that tap into the spiritual aspects of wellness. There are no concrete plans on that yet, but Yamaguchi says they’ll likely come toward the end of next year.” In the end, he says, “We want TALUS to be a sanctuary, a place where you not only connect with the land, the sky and the mountains but also where you reconnect with family and rejuvenate your soul.”

That’s a tall order for a desert golf resort. But TALUS La Quinta is focused on setting a new standard altogether. “To be able to bring this level of luxury hospitality to the valley is really exciting and really important,” Yamaguchi says. “The Coachella Valley has never had a 5-Diamond, 5-Star resort; given the history of this destination, that’s hard to believe. We believe TALUS will change that.”

Hype? Maybe. But our bet—and hope—is that TALUS La Quinta will live up to everything it’s meant to be.

Contact Sheri Dettman & Associates for a private introduction to the Talus La Quinta homes and development.

Pickleball Is Hot in the Valley

By Morgan Evans

Once upon a time, there were four pickleball courts in the Coachella Valley desert. Cahuilla Park in Palm Desert was one of the early oasis facilities. Fast forward eight years and the growth of the game can be seen in every park, country club, and gated community. The valley became a hotbed of pickleball activity, culminating with one of the world’s leading sports venues, The Indian Wells Tennis Garden hosting the Margaritaville National Pickleball Championship.

If you are already an avid player wondering where to get your fix or perhaps a tennis player looking to relive former glory then here’s a handful of the top destinations around the desert.

In the category of public parks, there are really only three hotspots that most pickleball junkies frequent. In the Palm Springs area, Demuth Park on Mesquite Ave is the place to go. With 12 courts and a delightful crowd of locals, you’ll be sure to get a good game and plenty of laughs along the way. Heading east on Country Club Drive is the famous Freedom Park. This eight-court public facility was the evolution from the original offering in the Desert, Cahuilla Park. The city recently made some very welcome upgrades to allow for more seating, extra room around the courts, and most importantly, some of the best lighting you’ll find outside of Indian Well Tennis Garden. During peak season from approximately 8 am - 11 am each and every morning and after 5 pm in the afternoon you’ll find an eclectic bunch battling for bragging rights. South of Freedom Park, nestled near the La Quinta Cove is the last little gem in the public arena, Fritz Burns Park on 52nd Ave boasts 8 courts, and much like Freedom Park, it attracts a nice mix of newcomers and seasoned players alike.

There is no shortage of private and semi-private pickleball options around the desert, the old adage ‘If you build it they will come’ is alive and well. Pickleball is now a staple part of every major country club and gated community from Palm Springs to Indio and beyond. All of the most exclusive clubs have courts and member play, however, there is a handful that stand out for having more active programs and tuition available.

Indian Well Tennis Garden can’t really be mentioned in the same light as the others, although it does host the national championships in November. Its pickleball courts only exist for that period and therefore can’t be considered a club, per se. Let’s start off on the eastern part of the Valley with PGA West in La Quinta, CA’. Known predominantly for its world-class golf courses, PGA West has 16 Pickleball courts and a drop-in fee for guests of members. If you’re in the market for something closer to the heart of the desert then Desert Horizons Country Club, off Hwy 111 is certainly worth checking out. This little gem is also home to Kim Jagd, one of the game’s best Senior Pro players and this writer’s first- ever mixed doubles partner. Tennis and Pickleball lessons are available with the resident coach Caroline Vis, former top WTA player. Speaking of great players, Sherri Steinhauer, former LPGA great and budding senior pro pickleball player is an honorary member and wonderful ambassador to the game and her stomping grounds, Mission Hills Country Club. With 12 courts, and lessons available from former WTA player, Anna Maria Ruffles, as well as veteran Ric Moore, Mission Hills caters to most levels and also has league play.

Toscana Country Club offers a luxury setting, befitting of its exclusive membership in all its sports offerings, pickleball being no exception. With six courts, superb lighting, and competitive league play, Toscana is a great experience, especially for night play. Just north is another pickleball haven, Indian Ridge Country Club. Legend of the Desert, Randy Berg and newly appointed head professional, Mathew Yavorsky handle programming with ease and sunny disposition. Indian Ridge CC has seven courts and offers lessons, competitive play, and entertaining exhibition matches. Right next door is the former home to Marcin Rozpedski, The Lakes Country Club. As the world’s number one singles player during the years 2015 - 2017, Rozpedski grew the program leaps and bounds. Donnie Felich, a 5.0 player and top instructor now runs the program with nine permanent courts used year-round.

We have saved the best to last because let’s be honest, if you were just told about Palm Desert Resort Country Club at the beginning, then you may not have kept reading. PDR, as it’s referred to, is the best of both worlds. It’s a private club, for the public, offering yearly, monthly, and even weekly memberships to one and all. With 24 courts and over 700 members, PDR is truly the heart of Pickleball in the Valley. Regular league play, round robins, clinics, camps, and private lessons are all available. The best of the best come to practice with their peers and you’ll find some of the best teaching alongside a team of highly qualified coaches, all under the watchful eye of the incomparable Charis Romano.

The Coachella Valley has always been known for golf and tennis. Slowly but surely, and thanks to the variety of people and facilities like those aforementioned, it’s also become one of the world’s most endearing pickleball meccas.

Morgan Evans is a Selkirk Pro and Team Coach. He is also a commentator for the Professional Pickleball Association and the co-founder of coachmepickleball.com.

DesertGolf&tennis • AprilMAy2022 31

 

‘Pickleball Is the Wild, Wild West’: Inside the Fight Over the Fastest-Growing Sport in America

Why Palm Springs Airport is a pandemic economic success story

 A jet takes off from Palm Springs International Airport, which has defied COVID-related slowdowns by increasing flights and passenger traffic during the pandemic. Photo by Shutterstock.

With spring just around the corner, many travelers looking for relaxation will be heading to Palm Springs. The return of visitors means Palm Springs International Airport will be humming with action in the coming weeks.

But Zócalo Public Square commentator Joe Matthews says business has actually been booming for a while at the local airport. He calls Palm Springs International a pandemic economic success story.

Opinion column by Joe Mathews:

If you’re heading to heaven, you really should fly out of Palm Springs.

Pandemic-era air travel is a miserable combination of unhappy passengers and unreliable service, except in Palm Springs. There, flying still feels like something miraculous.

The airport is small and easily navigable. And after you speed through security, you emerge into an outdoor desert garden that might be the best waiting room in American aviation. If we're lucky, sun-splashed, open-air PSP — the airport’s code — will become a model for post-pandemic flight across California, and especially in the smaller airports of our growing inland regions.

PSP is already the people’s choice. While the pandemic has grounded the travel ambitions of other places, PSP has soared. 2021 was the busiest summer in the airport’s history. Since last June, the airport has set seven new monthly records for passengers. PSP now serves more than 2 million people annually.

Those records may keep falling. Southwest Airlines started service in Palm Springs in 2020 and now flies from there to eight cities, including Sacramento and Oakland. Other airlines have added flights to destinations from Philadelphia to Fort Lauderdale. The 13 passenger airlines serving the airport now offer 35 different routes, creating competition that lowers fares.

In local news reports, airport officials have expressed surprise at this pandemic surge. They hadn’t projected a return to pre-COVID numbers until 2023. But PSP, a former military base converted six decades ago, has long found ways to succeed in hard times.

PSP has prospered ever since the Great Recession, even as other Western airports stagnated. One reason: all the Canadian snowbirds buying Coachella Valley properties after the collapse of the housing bubble.

To serve that growing Canadian colony, the airport established non-stop service to Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg. In the process, PSP set new records for passengers in six of the seven years between 2012 and 2019.

The airport’s growth has been supported over the last two decades by careful and sustained investments, including a new control tower and terminal, a ticket lobby expansion and a better baggage handling system that have not cost the airport its small and convenient feel.

But Palm Springs can’t take all the credit for its growth. The awfulness of flying in and out of LAX and the horror of driving anywhere from it have driven customers to find alternatives. And Ontario Airport, the nearest Inland Empire rival to Palm Springs, has been badly mismanaged, shedding flights and passengers for most of the 2000s and 2010s.

When COVID hit, PSP, with that outdoor space, felt like a safe place to visit — not unlike Palm Springs. The Coachella Valley’s great weather, and its tradition of indoor-outdoor living has made it a popular place to pass the pandemic.

I made my maiden voyage recently on a late afternoon flight from PSP to Oakland after a tiring day of reporting around the valley.

For the first time I can remember, an airport refreshed me. I made it through security in two minutes, having to wait only for a very polite family of five, all wearing Toronto Maple Leaf sweatshirts. I lay down on a shady bench in the garden before heading up into the Sonny Bono Concourse to grab a sandwich at an open-air restaurant. While eating, I took in fabulous views of Southern California’s two highest mountains, Mt. San Gorgonio and Mt. San Jacinto. It felt a bit like visiting a desert spa.

Marveling at the scene, I told an airport worker that the only thing missing was a swimming pool. She quickly corrected me — there is a pool, but it’s in the general aviation part of the airport for those who fly privately.

I’ve heard people compare the look of the airport with attractive canopies and all that light to the sets in the NBC show “The Good Place,” a comedy that offered a sun-splashed view of the afterlife. Of course, we mere mortals have no way of knowing whether PSP really looks like heaven. But Palm Springs does have one advantage over that other paradise: an airport that makes it easy to get in and get out.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

Open Season

How the former tennis champion Peggy Michel landed BNP Paribas as title sponsor of the Coachella Valley’s signature sporting event.

Courtesy of Ellen Alperstein, Palm Springs Life

Indian Wells Tennis Garden opened in 2000, hosting the Tennis Masters Series Indian Wells presented by Newsweek.

It dawned cool and a bit cloudy in Paris that day late in September 2008. But four visitors from the Coachella Valley had a sunny outlook about their meeting at the formidable banking power, BNP Paribas. Charlie Pasarell, Raymond Moore, Steve Simon, and Peggy Michel were top executives of the tournament held each year in March at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Since 2002, it had been the Pacific Life Open, but the California insurance company had concluded its sponsorship. The IWTG suits were seeking a new title sponsor for an event that had grown since 1976 from a pro-tour byway in Rancho Mirage to a sporting spectacle drawing more than 330,000 fans in 2008 despite a history fraught with financial instability and the cannibalistic intentions of other sports impresarios.

The tournament brain trust hoped the meeting would culminate in a boffo deal that Michel, assistant tournament director and VP of sales and sponsorships, had been cultivating for months. BNP Paribas had long supported tennis worldwide, including the French Open, one of four Grand Slam tournaments. Partnership with Indian Wells would strengthen the IWTG’s financial footing and protect the tournament from poachers. It would juice the global prestige Indian Wells had been building long before its owners broke ground on the facility at the turn of the millennium. Michel, long regarded for her decency and sales wizardry, was this close to the biggest get of her life.

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peggymicheltennis
Peggy Michel won three Grand Slam titles with Evonne Goolagong.

Then somebody saw a news flash: The U.S. stock market was in freefall. Trading would close that day, Sept. 29, with the largest one-day drop in history, dumping more than 
$1.2 trillion of value. Banks around the world were in shock, and those were the lucky ones. Some collapsed. On this day, four desert denizens were knocking on the door of Europe’s largest bank, hands out to support a place where the median household income was more than double the national average.

Margaret “Peggy” Michel was born in Santa Monica in a close-knit family of six kids. She was named for her mother, Margaret Duguid Michel, who, in the 1930s, was UCLA student body president, the first female to hold that office at a Southern California coeducational university. “Dugi” inspired her children to pursue their dreams.

Peggy pursued tennis. A two-time U.S. collegiate doubles champion and twice a finalist in singles, she was the consummate serve-and-volley player who is as rare in today’s game as snow in the desert.

missionhillscountryclub

The BNP Paribas Open played under different names at venues in Indian Wells, La Quinta, and Rancho Mirage before landing at its forever home, Indian Wells Tennis Garden, in 2000.
After graduating with a degree in education, she went to Australia to work with renowned coach Vic Edwards. He paired her with Evonne Goolagong, and the two won three Grand Slam doubles titles in the mid-1970s — the Australian Open twice, and Wimbledon once. In Oz, Michel learned not only the finer points of the pro game, but how to navigate gracefully among big talent and equal expectations. “Mr. Edwards,” she recalled recently, “said, ‘When you’re playing doubles with Evonne, she’s going to get the accolades for winning, and you’ll be blamed for losing.’ So, I said to him, ‘Well, we’re just not gonna lose.’”
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indianwellstennisgardenconstruction

The attitude served her well on tour, and when she retired into a business career that continues today. A career in which she moves among giants, avoiding the limelight many in her position find so nourishing.

In 1976, the American Airlines Tennis Games was a men’s tournament at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage. By 1981, its host was the La Quinta Hotel (now La Quinta Resort & Club), where Pasarell was director of tennis and part of a real estate development group whose appetite for growth was whetted by the modest success of what was called the Grand Marnier Classic, with prize money of $175,000 and three commercial sponsors whose names today no one would recognize.

Pro tournaments are operated by their owners, but their dates are sanctioned by the sport’s governing bodies — the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) for men and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) for women. They are keen to hold the strongest tournaments with the best dates in the biggest markets. The ATP had been making noise about moving this plucky little event in a perceived California backwater to the tennis Valhalla of Florida.

HyattGrandChampions

Hyatt Grand Champions

By the mid-’80s, the tournament had outgrown La Quinta. Former pro players Pasarell and Moore formed PM Sports to produce a top-tier tournament at an equally lofty venue. With financing to build a luxe hotel, followed by a big stadium in Indian Wells, they needed someone to sell hotel rooms at the incipient Hyatt Grand Champions (now Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort & Spa).

Peggy Michel was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her parents wanted her back in Southern California. One day, her father, Walter James Michel, was chatting with Pasarell, a fellow member of the board of directors of the Southern California Tennis Association. Pasarell knew Peggy from their days on the tour. He asked Walter what she was up to. On a handshake deal that was her contract for 24 years until PM Sports sold the tournament, Peggy was hired to sell hotel rooms, tennis packages, and a tennis fantasy camp in Indian Wells.

“Once we opened the new facility,” she said, “Charlie said he thought it would be better if I came over to the tennis tournament. ‘You’re very good at sales, so I want you to sell sponsorships and the suites.’”

Over the next couple of decades, Pasarell, Moore, and Simon were the visible movers and shakers, and Michel was a secret weapon, the big-brand escort into one of the Coachella Valley’s signature sporting ventures. Not a lot of people knew her, but they recognized Hugo Boss, Coke, Hertz, Enterprise, Baccarat ...

evonnegoolagong

Peggy Michel, Charlie Pasarell, and Evonne Goolagong (Michel's former doubles partner) at the former Hyatt Grand Champions, an early host of the Indian Wells tournament.

The tennis world paid increasing attention and respect to the well-run, player-popular tourney, but it suffered from an identity crisis. Between 1985 and 2002, the name changed 10 or 12 times, depending on how deeply into the sponsorship weeds you want to wade. (Are The Matrix Essentials Evert Cup [’92-’93], The Evert Cup [’94, ’99], and State Farm Evert Cup [’95-’98] one or three?) The tournament upgraded venues twice in that period; it faced more financial challenges and one notable player controversy that took 14 years to resolve.

In 1989, women joined the competition when the WTA sanctioned a lower-tier event the week before the ATP’s, and PM Sports strengthened the tournament’s stability by partnering with IMG, the entertainment management powerhouse.

In 1996, attendance reached 140,890 when men and women’s play were combined into one event — one of only six such tournaments in the world. A year later, both were series 1000 events, which rank just below the four “majors,” or Grand Slams. The numerical designation signifies the points winners earn to determine world rankings.

Apart from the majors, most people thought the Grand Champions was the pinnacle of pro play. But PM Sports lusted after a large plot of land just east of the Hyatt. In 1999, the ATP signed a deal with global marketing firm ISL to infuse $1.2 billion into the men’s tour over 10 years. Indian Wells’ share reportedly was $110 million for the term, and PM Sports/IMG purchased the property and developed the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Its Stadium 1 would seat 16,100 people, second largest in the world, with a multitude of outer courts and concessions over 54 acres.

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womenstennis
Women began competing in 1989 when the WTA sanctioned a tournament prior to the men’s event. The competition merged into a combined event in 1996.
womenstennisassociation

It opened in 2000 with the Tennis Masters Series Indian Wells presented by Newsweek. More than 187,430 people came to watch tennis where Mount San Jacinto loomed in the west and palm trees paid obeisance to the occasional wind. Forty-four suites ringed Stadium 1; Michel had sold 32 of them.

Attendance in 2001 topped 200,000 for the first time. But drama ensued. Claiming a knee injury, Venus Williams defaulted to her sister Serena minutes before their semifinal match. The capacity crowd and much of the media were loudly displeased. Serena was booed as she beat Kim Clijsters for the title, and her father, Richard Williams, called it racist. Neither Williams would return to Indian Wells until 2015.

IWTG was a huge hit, but so was the size of its debt service. The owners were forced to consider selling their sanction again when ISL declared bankruptcy. PM Sports/IMG had $40 million left on the stadium loan, plus all the other tournament and site expenses. Interests in Shanghai were lobbying the ATP for sanctioning rights. A few years later, Doha, Qatar, also with deep-pocketed promoters, was another suitor.

Some relief arrived with Pacific Life’s sponsorship in 2002, and by 2004, attendance was 267,834. Still, operating expenses the next year were $5.7 million when tournament revenue was $3 million. IMG, with 50 percent ownership, was committed only through 2006, and was receptive to the foreign offers.

“We thought we were going to be sold to China,” Michel recalled. “Then Raymond [Moore] got help from other businesses and the USTA. … We just kept fighting to save the event.”

IMG’s equity was assumed by outside investors including tennis stars (Pete Sampras, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King), the U.S. Tennis Association, the publishers of Tennis Magazine, and the city of Indian Wells. By 2008, the last year of Pacific Life sponsorship, attendance at the Coachella music festival was 151,666 compared with 331,269 at the tennis garden.

“We thought we were going to be sold to China,” Michel recalled. “Then Raymond [Moore] got help from other businesses and the USTA. … We just kept fighting to save the event.”

In early summer, Michel went to BNP Paribas’ New York office to court the bank as title sponsor. Executive Michele Sicard was receptive to Michel’s proposal and wanted to visit a venue she’d never seen. Michel warned about the extreme summer heat and how dead the IWTG would be.

“She said she loved the desert,” Michel recalled, noting there would be no deal recommendation to Paris without a site inspection.

Michel’s team spent a month sprucing up Stadium 1 and its suites. It hung BNP Paribas signage around the court as if in mid-tournament and tarted up the lighting for a post-sundown command performance.

A couple days before the audition, Sicard canceled.

In her office, Michel cried, thinking, “Oh, they’re not interested.”

Two days later, Sicard called. The visit was back on. Michel’s show got rave reviews, and the tourney team booked their trip to France. In Paris, Peggy Michel seated herself across the conference table from Antoine Sire, then BNP Paribas head of group communications. She fingered the one-page pitch she had crafted on the advice of Sicard.

indianwellstennisgardenerial

Sire opened the meeting: “You do know that you’re here looking for a sponsorship knowing what’s happened in the United States in the stock market? But go on, go on.”

If anyone could put lipstick on a pig, it was Sire, whom Michel found to be “the nicest gentleman, very genuine; he had a warmth to him.” After about an hour, Sire said that it would be very difficult, but that they would think about the sponsorship and get back to the Tennis Gardeners.

They walked back to their hotel in a glum mood.

That night, in a final appeal, Michel wrote a letter to Sicard, and stuck it under the door to her hotel room.

On Sept. 30, in a cab heading for the airport, Steve Simon’s phone rang. It was Michele Sicard. We’re in, she said.

More than 13 years later, as head of company engagement at BNP Paribas, Sire recalled that day, and Michel’s role: “Despite the very unfortunate timing of their visit to Paris in 2008, Peggy played an instrumental role in selling the tournament to us. Her experience — having been a player, and with the tournament since the beginning — was an important factor, but it was her optimism, vision, and ‘can-do attitude’ that really convinced us.”

The BNP Paribas Open contract has been renewed twice and expires in 2024. In 2009, assured that the tournament would remain in the desert, PM Sports sold it for a reported $100 million to tech magnate Larry Ellison. He has spent an equal amount on improvements to the IWTG. By 2015, the tourney hosted 456,672 spectators, more than the French Open.

“Yes, we’re the fifth largest [tournament],” Michel says, “but we’re … not in a major market, we’re in Indian Wells, California. It’s one of the most beautiful places to have an event … but [it] will always be very difficult.”

IWTG does not disclose contract terms, but title sponsors typically cover the prize money, and sometimes more, which appears to be the case here. The 2022 total prize money is slightly more than 2021, thanks to a contribution from the ATP: $17,748,393. Michel remains the BNP Paribas point person.

“Peggy is completely committed to the tournament,” said Jean-Yves Fillion, U.S. CEO, BNP Paribas, “but also to the sponsors and clients that she manages. It is this dedication and dynamic that has driven our successful partnership.”

She and Fillion are two of a kind — kind, aware, engaged.

Again, this month, Michel will escort Fillion around the tennis garden. He greets the ball kids, the officials, the player transport drivers. Last year, Michel reported, “He sat there and talked to every [volunteer] who was handling credentials and thanked them for all of their time and effort, told them he knew how hard 2021 was.”

Ya think? Rescheduled for October because of the pandemic, the tournament was COVID-canceled in 2020, the year after Michel sold all 44 suites for the first time. She called every sponsor and suite-holder and offered credit or refunds. Most took credits, and all returned in 2021, even though several of the sport’s biggest stars were absent and attendance dropped by about half. Still, unlike many other tournaments, the prize money remained at 2019 levels, and Michel sold three-quarters of the suites.

As always, this year Michel and Fillion will promote sport and education in the Coachella Valley in ways most people won’t notice. As always, Michel will be hustling for sponsors and suite-holders with the charm and integrity that have described her 37 years on the job.

“Yes, we’re the fifth largest [tournament],” she says, “but we’re … not in a major market, we’re in Indian Wells, California. It’s one of the most beautiful places to have an event … but [it] will always be very difficult.”

 

Where to Stay in the Desert in 2022

Glow Up

One-of-a-kind amenities and design flourishes — from dramatic flower murals to itty-bitty bowling alleys — make these Greater Palm Springs hotels a cut above the rest.

Courtesy of Derrik J. Lang Palm Springs Life

AZURE SKY

Palm Springs

Built in 1959, the midcentury hotel will be reborn in April as Acme Hospitality’s first property in Palm Springs. The company behind such spots as the Santa Barbara restaurants Loquita and The Lark as well as the hip Nevada County hotels Holbrooke and National Exchange modernized the boutique’s 14-room property, which features a 4,500-square-foot pool and fit pits.In the rooms, chic updates include built-in beds with tufted blush-colored headboards. azureskyhotel.com

tracyturcodesign

PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVEN CLARK
The Tiki Hotel has 11 rooms, which are available as a buyout.

TIKI HOTEL

Palm Springs

After opening the splashy Art Hotelin 2020, designer Tracy Turco turned her attention to the property next door, transforming the former Carlton Hotel into a celebration of all things Polynesian. The 11 rooms, which are available as a buy-out, are embellished with rattan furniture, vintage finds like masks, and Tiki-print wallpaper. A gift shop in the front sells — what else? — Tiki mugs and other tchotchkes, as well as jewelry, handbags, and other wares by Turco. tracyturco.com/tiki-hotel

westin rancho mirage

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY THE WESTIN RANCHO MIRAGE GOLF RESORT & SPA
A major renovation at the Westin Rancho Mirage Golf Resort & Spa includes expanded outdoor recreation and entertainment spaces.

THE WESTIN RANCHO MIRAGE GOLF RESORT & SPA

Rancho Mirage

This behemoth 365-acre resort recently emerged from a massive $15 million renovation with several updates, including refreshed rooms, 12 new pickleball courts, an outdoor concert space (dubbed The Backyard), and an expanded pool area with 30-foot double-barrel waterslides. The most fun addition is Pinz & Pints, a new family-friendly arcade-style venue with two lanes of pint-size duckpin bowling and scads of games, including air hockey and claw machines. westinmissionhills.com

FleurNoirehotel

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY FLEUR NOIRE HÔTEL
Fleur Noire Hôtel sets the mood with bold statement walls.

FLEUR NOIRE HÔTEL

Palm Springs

Since welcoming its first guests last August, everything has been rosy for this 10-cottage property in the Uptown Design District formerly known as Burket’s Trade Winds Hotel. Before reopening, Fleur Noire co-owners Chris Pardo and Corey St. John tapped artist Louise Jones to slather each of the Spanish-style buildings with images of bright blooms on a black background. The flower power extends inside with wallpapers and fabrics designed by Ellie Cashman. fleurnoirehotel.com

ON THE HORIZON

Here’s a glimpse at other accommodations arriving soon-ish in Greater Palm Springs

BodePalmSprings

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY BODE HOTEL
Bode Palm Springs keeps it modern.

BODE PALM SPRINGS

After launching in Tennessee with properties in Nashville and Chattanooga, the apartment-style accommodation brand — think: vacation rental meets boutique hotel — is constructing its first West Coast outpost in downtown Palm Springs. bode.co/palmsprings

MONTAGE AND PENDRY

Talus, formerly known as SilverRock, in La Quinta will be home to a pair of new resorts: a 134-room Montage and 200-room Pendry at the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains adjacent to the Arnold Palmer–designed golf course. They’re poised to open next year. taluslaquinta.com

THOMPSON PALM SPRINGS

The long-delayed project on the border of downtown Palm Springs and the Uptown Design District is now expected to open by the end of the year and be branded as one of Hyatt’s posh Thompson hotels. (It was originally meant to be an Andaz.) thompsonhotels.com

TRIXIE MOTEL

RuPaul’s Drag Race: All-Stars champ and cosmetics icon Trixie Mattel is werking on turning the old Ruby Montana’s Coral Sands Inn in Palm Springs into a seven-room pink palace — and the drag queen is documenting the process for a Discovery+ series. trixiemattel.com

blackhaushotelpalmsprings

A rendering of Blackhaus Hotel.
BLACKHAUS HOTEL

Down the street from Bode Palm Springs, Arrive and Fleur Noire mastermind Chris Pardo is building a similar Airbnb-style property. The hotel will feature four separate structures, each with five rooms and their own pool, patio, and parking spaces.

 

Desert Circuit Equestrian Events

January 2022 Desert Circuit

The Desert Circuit Equestrian Events | Jan. 19-23 & 26-30 | Desert International Horse Park, Thermal The Desert Circuit is eight weeks of USEF Premier-rated Hunters and 5*/6* Jumpers running from mid-January through mid-March with one week off in mid-February. The circuit draws thousands of equestrians to the premier Southern California show grounds.

Click here for details

 

Where to Go Surfing Next Year in the Palm Springs Area (Yes, Palm Springs!)

Three wave pools, including one designed by champion surfer Kelly Slater, are due to open in the Coachella Valley in 2022 and 2023.

BY KATHRYN ROMEYN

Seeking waves in the parched California desert sounds like the delusion of a stereotypically stoned and sun-bleached surfer, but it’s about to be reality, thanks to three high-tech wave pools coming to the Coachella Valley. This should come as no to shock to Chris Hemsworth, Shaun White, Diplo, and Oscar-winning Free Solo director Jimmy Chin, some of the lucky few who have already had the privilege of surfing 100 miles inland, at Kelly Slater’s invite-only Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California (not far from Fresno).

Surf Ranch is the prototype for Slater’s newest project: a wave pool at Coral Mountain, a community planned for La Quinta, California, that will include a 150-room hotel, wellness spa, and single-family homes starting in the high $2 millions. “Coral Mountain is meant to be a well-rounded sports and wellness community for the entire family,” says Michael B. Schwab, founder of Big Sky Wave Developments, which, with Meriwether Companies, is behind the 400-acre project. “A surf destination will complete the surrounding golf, tennis, event venues, and hiking and biking trails already existing in the area.”

Designed by Kelly Slater Wave Company, Coral Mountain’s half-mile wave basin — projected to open in 2023 and powered by green energy — hopes to create the world’s tallest and longest human-made wave. It also will have extended bays for surfers who are far from professional. “A novice can learn to surf on the same day a professional surfer has one of the best surf days of their life,” says Schwab. (While wave pools lose significant water to evaporation, developers point out that they use significantly less H2O annually than golf courses.)

Whereas Coral Mountain will be reserved for residents and hotel guests only, The Palm Springs Surf Club — set to open in June — represents a democratization of the wave pool. “We cater for everyone,” says creative director Jamo Willis. “We want all people to come and learn to surf and get that first wave or that first barrel and just be so excited because they had that experience that might [otherwise] take years. In two days of surfing, you get more waves than in half a year, and that gives you the confidence to get out there in the ocean.” According to Willis, there are 1.2 million surfers living within a two-hour drive of Palm Springs.

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Pro surfer and wave pool developer Kelly Slater at his Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California (located near Fresno); Surf Ranch’s pool. ALLEN J. SCHABEN / LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES (2)

The upscale surf resort, with a vibe Willis describes as a blend of Mykonos, Tulum, and the Sahara desert, will feature not only the pool — which uses pneumatic air-chambered Surfloch technology to create waves — but also restaurants, bars, cabanas, lap pools and a beach club. “We wanted to build something a wave park has never had before,” says Willis, “and that’s creating more of a lifestyle experience around the pool, not just for surfers but for everyone.” He likens the beginner section to a green run at a ski resort, with double-diamond-like waves for advanced wave riders

DSRT Surf is the third concept proposed for the area, featuring waves in a diamond-shaped pool by The Wavegarden Cove, a boutique hotel, skate park, recovery center, restaurants and access to Desert Willow golf courses, projected to open on 18 acres in Palm Desert in 2023. The pool will also have dedicated hours for stand-up paddle-boarding, kayaking and bodysurfing.

The appeal of these pools — beyond the obvious perk of consistently flawless waves — is that there are “no crazy tides, no sharks and no dangerous reef. Everything people worry about, it’s not there,” says Willis. And unlike in, say, Malibu or Manhattan Beach, “there’s nobody dropping in on you, which takes a lot of the stress out.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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