Sunnylands: historic estate and gardens in Southern California

Slow down the pace at Sunnylands gardens

 

Often called “the West Coast Camp David,” Sunnylands, the estate of billionaire Walter and Leonore Annenberg, should be on every Southern California visitor’s list of ‘things to see.’ Open to the public as of March 2012, it has quickly become one of Rancho Mirage’s most popular attractions. The 200-acre property encompasses a desert botanical garden, a visitors center with art gallery, gift shop, café and the 25,000 sq. ft. historic home.

From the mid 1960s until Mrs. Annenberg’s death in 2009, Sunnylands was a private home. Walter, who died in 2002, made his millions in the publishing industry, and later became an ambassador to the United Kingdom. He and his wife hosted Hollywood celebrities, several U.S. presidents and foreign diplomats at their desert modernist home, designed in the 1960s by architect A. Quincy Jones. Even today, Sunnylands continues to be the site of many political retreats and diplomatic summits. A recent one brought politicians and government officials to discuss U.S.-Mexico relations.

Now the public may tour the home on a limited basis. Tickets are only released on the first and 15th of each month except July 15 and August 1st at a cost of $35 per person. Because tickets sell out quickly, and well in advance, we weren’t able to tour the home on our visit, but we did have the chance to see the gardens and visitors center. These are open without a charge. Hours are Thursdays through Sundays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A bright, spacious lobby area greets guests as they enter the visitors center. It’s evident in the lobby, a fusion of sunlight and building materials was carefully mapped out by architects. They followed the vision by the Annenbergs who sought to allow as much sunlight as much as possible throughout their home. This has extended to the design of the visitors center.

Late fall blossoms at SunnylandsAt Sunnylands, the use of sunlight comprises so much more than simple daylight or sunshine. Architects were clearly ‘leading edge’ with their innovative use of sustainability practices, eco-friendly design and construction. Sunlight becomes an artistic medium for aesthetic expression.

Arizonans who make the three to four hour drive to Sunnylands from Arizona for either a long day trip or as part of a weekend getaway to the Palm Springs-Coachella Valley area, should allow extra time to walk the well-planned and manicured gardens. Those who are frequent visitors at Desert Botanical Gardens and Boyce Thompson Arboretum already know this: you don’t want to zip along through these nature paths. That’s why there are so many benches — to stop and take it all in. And there are a multitude of images to absorb at every turn.

After a tour of the gardens, peruse the lobby with its wide spans of plate glass. I recommend watching the two short videos describing the Annenbergs’ lives, their vision for their estate and their legacy. It’s fascinating to learn how the house design and construction evolved. What’s most notable about the Annenbergs is not their home or their beautiful property — it’s their efforts in philanthropy. The Annenbergs, through the Annenberg Foundation, have made very generous gifts in the areas of education, arts and healthcare. Plus, their vision to establish their estate as a site for stabilizing international relations continues.

Sunnylands visitors will see a sampling of the Annenberg’s art collections in the center galleries. Many famous artists from a variety of periods are represented. Consider ending a visit to Sunnylands with a browse through the gift shop or a relaxing lunch at the café’s outdoor patio.

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Galleries display silver-gilt dinnerware from the Annenbergs' collection

Sunnylands gardens and visitors center

Interactive, educational gallery exhibits

Sunnylands visitors center

 

San Jacinto Mountains provide a nice backdrop for Sunnylands gardens

 

 

Relaxing Palm Springs not just for golfers

westin mission hills

Relaxing Westin Mission Hills Resort Villas

Within four hours, it’s possible to drive from Phoenix to a popular vacation destination with world-class resorts, spas, golf, shops, attractions and outdoor recreation. And no, I wasn’t referring to a rush-hour marathon, moving at a snail’s pace to Scottsdale. Rather, I was remembering a recent road trip-vacation to Palm Springs, California.

 

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Not all water features are golf course traps at Westin Mission Hills

Sometimes it’s necessary to actually leave Arizona to feel like you’re really “away from it all.” Sure, it’s nice to splurge at a Scottsdale or Phoenix resort for the occasional “staycation,” but traveling to Palm Springs and its environs gives you that “clean getaway” feel. It’s just far enough away so you feel like a tourist, but close enough so you feel like a weekender. One major downside: the drive is a bit tedious. Except for a couple of mildly interesting mountain passes and the Colorado River crossing; it’s mostly mile after mile of monotony. Bring plenty of music or audio books.

tram

Allow time to see the views from the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram

Before I had discovered Palm Springs as a weekend getaway destination, I’d thought there was no reason to stop between Phoenix and the Pacific coastline, except maybe a quick pullover at some place like Palm Springs or Blythe, Calif. for a gas fill-up or a Thirstbuster. As an Arizona newcomer in my 20s, Palm Springs to me was just a bunch of shopping centers, golf courses and retirement homes. Oh, wait….

So I have to confess: when we booked our week at nearby Rancho Mirage, Calif. at the Westin Mission Hills Resort and Spa, I was skeptical. But now I admit: we were impressed at check-in. Front desk and concierge staff were friendly, helpful and efficient. Our one-bedroom villa was clean and spacious. Our balcony easily accommodated a full dining patio set so we could enjoy dawn and dusk overlooking a lush garden area with meandering stream. The main resort facility boasts several open-air dining options for guests’ easygoing breakfasts and casual lunches. The Fireside Lounge bar and outdoor fireplace lures patrons to linger longer. And what better says, “Palm Springs” than to be relaxing in a warm swimming pool or waiting for your next putt while gazing at snow-capped peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains?

palm canyon

Make time for side trips such as hiking in Palm Canyon

If you vacation in Palm Springs — whatever resort you choose — you may get so relaxed and comfortable, you’ll be tempted to abandon those other  activities. Be strong! You can do it all! Just allow an extra day or two for hiking into Palm Canyon, riding up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, visiting the Living Desert Zoo and touring Joshua Tree National Park. (Better make that three or four extra days.) Or you could meld into the stereotype: golf, eat, drink, shop. There’s nothing wrong with that either!

Consider spending one day for a cruise past examples of desert modernism architecture, because Palm Springs is the prime location of these post-World War II sleek, angular structural designs.  And if you’re a fan of TV’s “Mad Men,” you’re quite possibly in the best place to channel your “inner Don Draper” with a tour of 1950s and 60s-era homes, hotels and office buildings. Or course, that would mean leaving your Old Fashioned drink and your comfy spot in the cocktail lounge.

Readers: What are your favorite southern California getaways? I would love to get your comments… you can also follow me on Twitter (@azgetawaytravel) or ‘like’ me on Facebook. Read other Southwest Travel blogs at AZCVoices/Travel.