Obama, Xi latest leaders to escape to California desert retreat

RANCHO MIRAGE, California Sat Jun 8, 2013 3:51pm EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) walk the grounds at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California June 8, 2013. The two-day talks at a desert retreat near Palm Springs, California, was meant to be an opportunity for Obama and Xi to get to know each other, Chinese and U.S. officials have said, and to inject some warmth into often chilly relations while setting the stage for better cooperation. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) walk the grounds at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California June 8, 2013. The two-day talks at a desert retreat near Palm Springs, California, was meant to be an opportunity for Obama and Xi to get to know each other, Chinese and U.S. officials have said, and to inject some warmth into often chilly relations while setting the stage for better cooperation.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

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RANCHO MIRAGE, California (Reuters) - Frank Sinatra married his fourth wife here, Richard Nixon visited to nurse his wounds after resigning the presidency, and now the names of Barack Obama and Xi Jinping are added to the long list of celebrities and political leaders who have trekked to this desert getaway.

The late philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg intended their Sunnylands sanctuary to be something of a "Camp David of the West," a reference to the presidential retreat tucked away in the Maryland mountains near Washington.

And over the years, it has seen its fair share of headliners, as big names of American culture have escaped here for a respite from winter. Ronald Reagan was a frequent visitor as president, actor and California politician, spending New Year's Eve at the Annenberg estate a total of 18 times.

Nixon wrote his final State of the Union speech at Sunnylands in 1974 and returned months later after the Watergate scandal drove him from office. Frank Sinatra married his fourth wife, Barbara, here in 1976.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip came in 1983. Streets around the 200-acre (81-hectare) complex hark back to the area's storied past. There's a Dean Martin Drive, a Dinah Shore Drive, even a Gerald Ford Drive, and Sunnylands itself is on Bob Hope Drive.

The summit between U.S. President Obama and Chinese President Xi unfolded beneath the pink-roofed modernist estate at Sunnylands, in the Coachella Valley's Rancho Mirage about two hours' drive from Los Angeles.

The place lives up to its name. This far from the ocean, the desert surroundings are breathtaking, and extremely warm in the summer, with June temperatures soaring past 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius).

And the desert can be known to encroach on the manicured gardens of Sunnylands. A large lizard was found by a member of the U.S. delegation in a bathroom. The reptile that was promptly retrieved and sent on its way.

Built in the 1960s as the Annenbergs' winter home, the estate is now run by a non-profit organization and is becoming a place for top-level meetings like the Obama-Xi summit.

For the two-day summit, the estate was transformed from its normally laid-back state.

Armed Secret Service agents with radios in hand secured the sprawling grounds, dashing around in golf carts or taking up position in whatever small bit of shade they could find.

While Xi and his delegation took up residence at a local hotel and arrived in a long motorcade for each day's talks, Obama and part of his entourage overnighted at Sunnylands.

The president stayed at a luxury cottage with 1960s-style decor and furnishings. Speculation was that he would make use of the estate's private golf course before leaving for Washington on Sunday.

Obama's Chinese visitors marveled at the scenery but, like everyone else, could only shake their heads about the stifling heat as temperatures topped 100 degrees F (3.7 C) for both days of the summit.

"It's magnificent here but it's really too hot," one Chinese journalist said. "Thank God you Americans have good air conditioning."

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Sandra Maler)

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