September 2012

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A reason to visit Florida

I’ve got a very good friend in Florida who is always telling me I should come visit him. “You’d love it here,” he says. “Particularly in winter. It’s sunny, warm, beautiful.”

Yes, I tell him, but I live in California where it is also sunny, warm, and beautiful.

“This is different,” he says. “You should give it a try.”

I told him that he could write a guest blogetorial about Florida and I’d let my readers decide whether I should go to Florida or not. So read what he has to say and let me know if you think I should visit:

“As you well know, my friend, traveling is perhaps the best way to unwind and relieve oneself of stress. It can also be a good source of inspiration for people who need to have some positivity in their life (and after reading your blogs about the Apache rodeo in Arizona, I think a little sunshine and positivity would be good for you). Go to Florida with your family and experience a great vacation filled with sunshine and adventures amongst the state’s many varied attractions.

“Family holidays to sunny Florida are getting more expensive. So it is important to look at sites such as Thomson to browse their range of sunshine holidays and make the most of your visit. And you can save some money by economizing in small ways every day. For instance, before you travel, make sure that you have taken all the necessary things you need on your holidays, like sun glasses, tanning lotion, batteries for games, etc. so that you don’t have to cut into your travel budget by buying things you have forgotten to bring.

“That said, clothes and some other travel items are much cheaper in Florida, so you may want to travel light and buy your holiday clothes there, if you have a set budget. Make a packed lunch and have a picnic, rather than buying lunch at over-priced cafés and restaurants.

“The heat will make you thirsty, so buy your canned and bottled drinks in a supermarket. It will be much cheaper than visiting cafés. If you are planning to see several top attractions it will be cheaper to buy a Go Miami card.

“You will get in 37 Admission attractions with this, and you can get it for 1, 2, 3, 5, or 7 days. Used wisely, this will save up to 55% of gate prices, money saved which you can then spend on other things. Here are some of the top attractions you might consider visiting”

Jungle Island in Florida

A liger looks kind of like a giant lion with stripes.

“I love this place and think It is well worth a visit to see all the wonderful rare animals there, like the liger, who is the world’s largest cat, the orangutan twins, capuchin monkeys, various parrot species and Aldabra tortoises, lemurs and the rare six-foot tall tame Cassowary called Mama Cass. It is set in lush and beautiful surroundings and there are several shows and presentations to help you find out more about the animals. Included in your Jungle Island ticket is a complimentary shuttle service to Downtown Miami and South Beach.

Everglades Alligator Farm & Airboat Ride

“Florida is synonymous with alligators, so seeing them on your trip is a must. The Everglades alligator farm has 2000 of the creatures. Step into an airboat and go on a guided tour through the river of grass to make friends with them.

Millionaire’s Row Cruise on the Island Queen

“Take a relaxing cruise along the Biscayne Bay on the Island Queen. You will see Miami’s coastal skyline, ‘Millionaire’s Row’ – the homes of the rich and famous and Fisher Island. You could also go on the Jungle Queen Riverboat and stop at the Jungle Queen Indian Village, and learn a bit about the history of the Seminole tribe.

“What else? The Miami Seaquarium is worth a visit just to see the dolphins, seals and sea-lions. And the Kennedy Space Center, where you can tour NASA’s launch and landing facilities, try one of the interactive space simulators. and maybe even meet a real member of NASA’s Astronaut Corps.

“I could go on and on but I think you get the idea—there’s a lot to do here. So what do you think? Want to visit?”

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Attempting to cross the creek in Anza-Borrego’s Coyote Canyon.

Change of plans. Instead of going to the old calcite mine, “Borrego” Paul decides he’s going to take us to Coyote Canyon which, he says, isn’t near an earthquake fault zone, “it’s directly on it.” That’s why there’s a year-round creek that flows here in the desert. The creekbed follows the fractured rock of the San Jacinto fault zone which separates the mountain ranges that run through Anza-Borrego, the San Ysidro on the southwest and the Santa Rosa on the northeast.

“Borrego” Paul’s intention is to show us this unusual riparian wetlands which support dense stands of willows as well as cottonwood trees, acacia, and California fan palms.

We’ve made two crossings through the creek without any problem, but it’s when Paul decides to attempt a third one, in water a little deeper and wider than the others, that his Jeep, Ol’ Paint, up and dies.

“Come on, baby,” he says, trying to sweet talk her into moving. But Paint will have none of it. Standing up to her headlights in murky green water, she wheezes and backfires but refuses to move. Meanwhile, water is quickly seeping into the car from underneath the doors. We are in the middle of nowhere, approximately 6 miles away from the nearest paved road, on a blistering hot day with a dead vehicle.

“Well, boys,” says “Borrego” Paul, jumping out of Ol’ Paint and into the bug-infested green water. “Looks like you’re going to get more of a desert adventure than you bargained for.”

While Dale and I scratch our heads and wonder what to do, “Borrego” Paul grabs his cell phone and heads back down the road a mile or so to a high point where he thinks he might be able to get reception. An hour or so later, Paul’s wife, Sandy, has come to our rescue, pulling us out of the creek. After letting Paint dry out for half an hour or so, Paul gives her another go and she starts right up. In a two-car convoy, we head out of the desert as the afternoon draws long. When we come to the creek crossings, “Borrego” Paul pats the dashboard and talks the Jeep through the stream.”

“Easy, Paint…Easy now…Easy. Good girl”

Ol’ Paint does just fine.

As we pull into Borrego Springs, the sun just setting, “Borrego” Paul idles up in front of a local bar and offers to buy us a beer. “Or,” he says with a mischievous grin on his face, “we could head out into the desert with the lights off and see what we can find.”

Ten minutes later we are flying across a dry sand wash heading for the open desert with no particular destination in mind. Another adventure about to begin.

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The old pool at La Casa del Zorro in Anza-Borrego.

On that trip to Anza-Borrego with “Cholla” Dale, I stayed in Room 162 in the Wisteria wing of La Casa del Zorro. I know because I still have the hand-written letter from the general manager welcoming me and inviting me to join him for a cocktail at the Fox Den lounge “at your convenience.”

That night I slept without the air-conditioning. Instead, I threw open the French doors of my bedroom but at daybreak the light and heat streamed in through my open doors even though it was not yet seven in the morning. So I got up and put on my bathing suit and quietly slipped into the pool in the courtyard, floating in the shadows cast by a honey mesquite tree.

There are few things more pleasant than swimming alone in a pool shortly after daybreak.

An hour or so later, “Cholla” Dale emerged from his casita, squinting at the bright desert morning. He came over and sat next to the edge of the pool in his bathrobe.

“How long have you been up?” he asked.

I told him. He nodded without saying anything. After awhile he went back to his casitas and came out in his swimsuit. He paddled around at one end of the pool while I made little ripples in the water at the other.

“Very civilized,” said “Cholla” Dale. “Very, very civilized.”

Around nine we ordered a pot of coffee and breakfast from room service. We ate next to the pool, not talking but just looking around at the papery bougainvillea and the spiky succulents and cacti in the garden as if we’d never seen plants like this in our lives.

“What’s the game plan?” “Cholla” Dale said when he’d finished his second cup of coffee.

“I think ‘Borrego’ Paul is picking us up around ten and we’re going to go explore an old calcite mine.”

“Cholla” Dale nodded his head. “An old calcite mine,” he repeated.

I nodded.

“What, exactly, is calcite?” he asked.

I told him I had no idea.

“Doesn’t matter.”


“Just going for a Jeep ride is good.”

I nodded.

“A Jeep ride in the desert.” He was quiet for a moment and then, looking around at our surroundings, said, ” I love the desert.”

“I thought you told me you weren’t really a desert person.”

“That was before,” said “Cholla” Dale. “This is now.”

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Borrego Badlands

“Borrego” Paul looking out over the Borrego Badlands at sunset.

Dale Conour, a travel editor at Sunset who is also an amateur astronomer, wanted to tag along on my trip to Anza-Borrego in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Perseid meteor shower. This was during my last trip there about ten years ago.

As Dale and I drove to Anza-Borrego he warned me that he wasn’t really a desert person. In fact, he said, the last time he’d spent any time in the desert, he went on a guided hike where he bumped into the painful barbs of a cholla cactus not once but twice.

“They seem to be attracted to me,” he said.

From that point on, I called him “Cholla” Dale. It seemed to suit him.

Nicknames are big in the desert. There was “Death Valley Scotty,” an eccentric from Kentucky who convinced a Chicago millionaire to invest in a gold mine in Death Valley and then build this odd two-story Spanish Colonial home in the desert called Scotty’s Castle. There was the prospector and horse thief, “Peg Leg” Smith, who traveled to the Borrego Badlands in the 1850s and supposedly found a gold mine in the Santa Rosa Mountains that people are still looking for. And then there’s “Borrego” Paul.

“Borrego” Paul used to lead Jeep tours out in Anza-Borrego. On this particular drip, “Cholla” Dale and I were sitting out front of Casa del Zorro about an hour before sunset waiting for “Borrego” Paul to come pick us up and take us out into the desert to look at stars.

“Borrego” Paul was telling us all about Peg Leg Smith when, without notice, he whipped the Jeep off the highway and down a dry sand wash, plumes of dust rising behind us. He was taking us to Fonts Point. After a few miles we parked at an informal parking spot in the desert and “Borrego” Paul led us across a smooth bluff where, suddenly, the most astonishing view appeared before us. Hundreds of feet below were the convoluted mud hills and sinuous, corrugated ridges of the Borrego Badlands, a landscape shaped from thousands of years of erosive wind and water.

There was no wind on this warm twilight eve, no distant sound of jets or cars, no barking dogs or singing birds. In fact, I’d say it was the most silent spot I’d ever been to.

“You go down there, you’ll find prehistoric shark teeth,” Paul said. “This all used to be part of the Sea of Cortez. A very long time ago.”

Not until the sun had completely set and the Badlands had all but disappeared into their dark shadows did we finally leave. We fishtailed in the Jeep through the soft sand, lights off, as the night cloaked the desert in blackness until Paul suddenly stopped the Jeep in the middle of nowhere. We unloaded folding chairs, opened a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, and with heads tilted back towards the moonless sky, watched awe-struck as meteors flashed and burned above us with such frequency that after a few minutes we stopped even bothering to count them.

“It’s like being at the beginning of time,” said “Cholla” Dale, happy as could be.

And it was.

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The death of La Casa del Zorro

A postcard, from 1999, of La Casa del Zorro in Anza-Borrego.

A postcard, from 1999, of La Casa del Zorro in Anza-Borrego.

From Tucson I drove west, out of the Sonoran Desert and into the Mojave, the smallest desert in the West, and then south to Anza-Borrego, two hours east of San Diego. There was a time, back in the mid- to late-90s, when Anza-Borrego was considered the new secret desert hideaway in California, during a time when Palm Springs was on the outs and nobody went to Death Valley anymore. In a period of about five years—from 1996 to, say, 2001—I was asked by a number of publications, including National Geographic, Los Angeles Magazine, Sunset, Westways, and the Los Angeles Times magazine, to write about this hot (literally) new getaway. And I’d always stay at La Casa del Zorro, partially because there weren’t a lot of options but also because I liked the desert glamour of the place.

It was relatively small (44 poolside rooms and 19 one-to-four bedroom casitas) and quiet and had a certain desert elegance to it (which was reflected in four-star, four-diamond rankings). Some very memorable things happened to me while staying at La Casa del Zorro. Some I wrote about; some I did not.

I had not stayed at the resort for ten years so I when I got in to Borrego Springs late yesterday afternoon, I was anxious to go out and see how the ol’ gal was doing.

Not very well, I’m afraid.

The entrance was blocked off by a chain-link fence with a No Trespassing sign hanging on it. Seems in the intervening decade La Casa had died.

Back at my hotel, the classic Palms at Indian Head, I had a beer at their restaurant, the Krazy Coyote, and asked the bartender what the hell had happened to La Casa del Zorro. Seems I’d missed a lot since I was last there. About four or five years ago, the Copley family, which had bought the resort (then unimaginably called The Desert Lodge) in 1960, sold the troubled property for something like $2.5 million to a developer who owned a golf course with upscale homes on it just down the road. He renamed it Borrego Springs Ranch.

The guy put another $7 million into the property in a major renovation effort. Bad timing. The economy tanked and the resort was closed in January 2010. And it’s been closed ever since. Supposedly the whole 38-acre resort, including the freshly renovated rooms, many of which were never opened after the renovation, is on the market for $3.3 million, which seems like a bargain to me. If I was a Gordon Gecko-type I’d buy it in a heartbeat. Not to restore it as a resort but just to use as an incredibly secluded desert hideaway. A place where I could float alone in the resort pool late at night, watching falling stars streak across the inky sky.

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