You have been driving for hours through some of the most forlorn real estate in America, with maybe a bar or gas station every hour or so as the Mojave Desert seems to enclose on all sides and become more and more desolate with every mile. You follow California-190 west into Death Valley National Park, past sagebrush and forbidding, barren canyons and mountains, with temperatures outside your car creeping into the three-digit range and still climbing.
Is there no respite? No break from this seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape, where only the hardiest of plants and animals (and, yes, some humans) dare to even try to survive.
Then you turn a corner, and it appears: the figurative and literal oasis… in this case, The Oasis at Death Valley. A four-diamond hotel incongruously situated next to white rock outcroppings that do little all day but bake beneath the unforgiving sun.
But you have found it: a high-end, luxurious respite from the heat and the bleakness. Somehow, here awaits sumptuous meals created by highly trained chefs, even though the nearest market is well over 100 miles in any direction. This is where you can be pampered and relax.
And where, thank god, the air conditioning works.
Victoria and I were met at the front door of the Inn at Death Valley, first built in 1927, by a friendly fellow, who helpfully walked our luggage into the reception area. Check-in was a similar affair, with front-desk staff helpfully reminding us this was not the kind of place where the restaurant and bars stay open late. The nearest “town” of any sort is over an hour in any direction, and thus staff stay at the Oasis for days at a time, and when they sleep, excepting an emergency of some kind, there likely won’t be anyone to fetch food or drink for guests in the small hours.
The lobby area featured shelves of books that were both new and decidedly retro, with comfy sofas in front of the windows were one so inclined to sit back with a tome and a view of the desert or with a cocktail. It was almost like being inside a day in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The Inn recently underwent a $100 million renovation project to add new suites and more modern amenities – and could be seen in our room, which was cozy and featured a generous bed and huge-screen TV. Internet service was spotty when I did get connected to the Wi-Fi, but again, there is absolutely zero competition, meaning you either use the hotel’s wireless or none at all. (Side note: Cell coverage throughout Death Valley can be dicey, so keep this in mind when setting out for a day drive — and keep extra water in the car too.)
But what really made the room special was the spacious balcony, which provided an amazing view of the desert from the raised plateau upon which the Oasis was built. From here, we could also see the pool and most of the grounds of the property. I made a mental note to come out here later, after dinner, for a cigar and a nightcap… once the temperatures would have at last receded from the triple-digit range for a few hours.
Welcome to the Oasis at Death Valley – North America’s only true desert oasis…
After changing, we headed to dine at the Inn’s restaurant. It was elegant and lovingly decorated in a Spanish Mission motif, with room-length windows allowing for views out onto the desert beyond our air-conditioned sanctuary. Everything from tables and chairs, to the wait staff attire showed why this place was a favorite of stars like Marlon Brando back in the day.
Victoria and I were immediately served delicious walnut and date walnut bread with butter, impossibly fresh so far from any dairy. For appetizers, I had to try the blue cheese-stuffed dates, which all but made me scream “oh yeah!” like the Kool-Aid Man. This we complemented with the shrimp cocktail that came with tequila lime cocktail sauce.
The entree menu itself was surprisingly diverse for a kitchen so far from any farmers market. The organic jidori chicken cutlet served with tomato and cucumber relish, cherry curried couscous and herbed yogurt sauce did not disappoint, and paired nicely with the recommended Scale “Savvy B” from Oakville, California, in the Napa Valley.
After dinner, we walked down to the pool and hot tub — nearly getting lost in the Inn’s topiary garden along the way. Because the Oasis is so far from a city of even modest size, the stargazing poolside was unbeatable, with a veritable blanket of starlight above us. We toasted our good fortune, seemingly without a care in the world.
The next morning we went back to the restaurant for iced tea and coffee. Victoria enjoyed the Oasis Classic of two eggs any style, potatoes and toast, while I selected the Southwestern Omelete of chorizo, grape tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, cilantro and queso fresco. It was just the right bit of spiciness and filling, thereby setting me up for a day of exploring Death Valley.
Our first stop was the nearby Badwater Basin, which, at 285 below sea level, is the lowest point in the United States. White sands and funky salt sculptures extend for miles, but make sure that before you walk too far, you have ample water and sunblock, for with no clouds and triple-degree temperatures, sunburn and dehydration can set in very quickly.
Our next stop was the nearby Devil’s Golf Course, which is the last place on earth you wouldd want to tee off considering the ground is absolutely riddled with salt structures. It’s great to look at, but we had to be careful walking as the salt structures can be sharp and injuring if misjudged. We also drove up to the hiking trail leading into Natural Bridge, which may look familiar to fans of the original “Star Wars” as the canyon where R2-D2 rolled on his way to meet the Jawas. We then popped by the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to learn more about the geological and human history of the area, and also where an outdoor temperature gauge told us it was 108 degrees.
Back at the Inn, we sat in the area with the bookshelves and tables to enjoy a cocktail course at the surprisingly well-stocked bar. Higher-end bourbons, whiskeys and vodkas were all on offer, and our barman paid exceptional attention to us as we sat near the windows.
That evening, since it happened to be my birthday, Victoria and I indulged in Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut to celebrate my big day. I just had to try the creole rabbit stew with andouille sausage, which offered a punchy, smoky flavor. To cap off dinner, I indulged in an elegant chocolate mousse served in a wine glass and complemented by a Sambuca, while Victoria enjoyed a glass of pinot noir from the Carr Vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County.
Not a bad way to ring in my fifth decade.
We then walked down to the pool and hot tub to enjoy the starfields above before turning in. On our final morning at the Inn we enjoyed breakfast of chilaquiles and croissant with ham before packing up our room, where we had spent two incredibly restful evenings.
We left the Oasis to hit up a few more of Death Valley’s prime spots, including the Artists Palette, Zabriskie Point and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Then, heading west on CA-190 out toward the Sierra Nevada, with no sign of human activity in the rearview mirror, it seemed almost impossible to realize that somewhere, back in that far distance, amid such forbidding country, an Oasis sat there, awaiting its next visitor.