July 19, 2020

A Tiki-cation from the 'New Normal': Caliente Tropics Resort, Palm Springs

In April 2011, I weekended in the desert—taking a tour of Keys Ranch in Joshua Tree National Park, kayaking the Salton Sea, and spending two nights at the Caliente Tropics Resort.

I mean, when I first moved to LA, I took little road trips nearly every weekend—at least, while I still had a job.

My preferred place to stay in Palm Springs had been the Ace Hotel and Swim Club, but it quickly became too popular—and too pricey—for me to book another room there (ever again, in fact).

So I chose the next-best-thing, just a couple of doors down—Caliente Tropics.

And that turned out to be the better thing.

During my first stay there, I remember sitting by the pool and wondering why the adjacent restaurant space stood empty. Surely it was the perfect location for a tiki bar?

I didn't know then, but there had been an establishment there—with art by Bamboo Ben—open 2006-2008 called Hawaiian Bill's. Apparently its owner had stripped it of all its tropical decor in 2009.

That space was also the former location of the Congo Room's cocktail lounge, reportedly popular with the Rat Pack, when Caliente Tropics was known simply as the Tropics Hotel. Just one outpost of a mostly Southern California-based chain, it operated as a Best Western before becoming Caliente Tropics.

Built in 1964, the Ken Kimes-designed "motor hotel" celebrated its 55th anniversary last year. And considering that a tiki bar had opened in that old vacant space in 2017, it was time for me to return.

Even if I was in the middle of a pandemic.

I had to get away. I had to get away from myself—and what's considered "normal" now but is like some science fiction-based disaster movie with a slow build-up and too many sequels.

I called it my "tikication"...

...because unlike all my other trips to the desert, all I planned to do was sit by/in the pool, bake in the hot sun, and fill my belly with tropical delights.

After all, it's the biggest swimming pool you'll find at a Palm Springs hotel. With a 100,000-gallon capacity, there's plenty of room to keep some physical distance from others.

I actually didn't expect it to be very crowded, considering the above-100-degree temperatures in June and the health risks of traveling. I felt safe enough driving two hours in my car—and apparently others did, too, including families with small children.

I mean, I knew the risks—and I'd weighed my options. But I figured the scale tipped towards the mental and emotional benefits of one night away rather than the risk of exposure to the virus. If the UV rays and heat didn't kill the damn germs, hopefully the chlorine would.

And I had plenty to keep me there at the motel, fully engaged and entertained with my tropical surroundings. After all, while some of the signage is contemporary—contributed by tiki artist Bosko in recent years—many of the actual tikis are original to the opening of the motel.

Inspired by the islands of the South Pacific, artist Ed Crissman had been working out of a shop inside Oceanic Arts in Whittier, California—but came to Palm Springs to carve a total of 24 tikis out of palm trunks onsite at The Tropics.

Just 26 years old at the time, Crissman gave his tikis "root ball hairdos" (using an upside-down palm tree trunk, with root on top), which are unique to Southern California carvings...

...and not exactly authentic to Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, or Tonga.

Fast forward to the year 2001, Caliente Tropics was under threat of getting a tiki-ectomy—and in an effort to save it, a partnership of tikiphiles launched the enormously popular Tiki Oasis convention at the resort.

It ran there for five years before outgrowing the space and moving to San Diego—but the tiki crowd still flocks to Caliente Tropics for smaller-scale events (like during Modernism Week) and, in my case, for a little getaway.

Thank goodness the A-frame porte cochère remains...

...and the new operation of The Reef can manage to survive serving yummy food and libations poolside and on the patio, even with restrictions tightening back up (for now).

I did eventually get a bit nervous about those eight hours I'd spent in my room, breathing in recirculated, air-conditioned oxygen as I slept. And I'll admit that I spent the next 14 days keeping a watchful eye out for symptoms—which did nothing to keep the hypochondria that runs in my family at bay.

But nothing serious ever seemed to manifest—and for that I am grateful.

Does that mean my tikication was safe? Eh, it's hard to tell.

Was it a good idea?

I think so.

For fabulous vintage photos, visit Peter Moruzzi's Mid-Century by clicking here

Related Posts:
A Tropical Escape In a Time of Adversity: Mission Tiki Drive-In
Photo Essay: The Warehouse Restaurant, A Marina Eatery for 50 Years and Counting
Photo Essay: California's Last Location of Don the Beachcomber, On Perhaps Its Last Day (Updated)
Photo Essay: Riding a Ghost Train and Bunking Up In a Caboose (Or, This Is What A Traincation Is All About)

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