RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- The California desert rose to fame as a hideaway for Hollywood stars of a certain era who are now memorialized with street names (where else can you find a Dinah Shore Drive?).
President Obama has visited the California desert three times in the past year and has done what so many people do when they visit: played a lot of golf.
Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughter Malia are staying at the home of White House decorator Michael Smith and his partner, James Costos, the U.S. ambassador to Spain.
Obama's trip is occurring under the specter of increased violence in Iraq, and the president has been criticized by Republicans for taking a long weekend while the country descends into further violence. On Sunday, al-Qaeda-inspired militants posted photos on Twitter that purported to show them executing dozens of people, and the Associated Press reported that a string of explosions rocked Baghdad, killing at least 15.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Sunday that Obama spoke with national security adviser Susan E. Rice on Saturday night and Sunday morning.
"She provided him the latest information about the situation on the ground in Iraq and kept him appraised of the ongoing discussions among the members of his national security team about the range of options available to respond," Earnest said.
He said the update included news that the State Department is relocating personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to the cities of Basra and Irbil and the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan. He added that Obama asked Rice to remain in "close touch" and provide information as it comes in.
The long weekend far from Washington comes as Obama has, in the past few weeks, stated his desire to burst out of the White House bubble.
"The bear is loose," he exclaimed twice in the past month after leaving the White House grounds -- once to stroll across the Ellipse en route to a bill-singing ceremony at the Interior Department and again during a walk to a nearby Starbucks, where he ordered tea. Some of Obama's walkabouts are loosely connected to policy "theme" weeks the White House has adopted. Others, like this, are less scripted, including his answer to what he plans for what he envisions doing on his first post-presidency days: being "on a beach somewhere, drinking out of a coconut."
Although there's a lot of sand here in the desert, there aren't any coconuts; there is, however, a lot of golf. Let's take a look at presidential trips here.
Obama arrived in Palm Springs on Friday evening after visiting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation in Cannon Ball, N.D. He did attend to some work, appearing at a fundraiser in Laguna Beach, Calif., and delivering the commencement speech to the University of California at Irvine's Class of 2014.
Then there was golf. The president played 18 holes after the speech Saturday at Sunnylands, a onetime estate of former diplomat Walter Annenberg, which is now run by a nonprofit. Obama played with partners Joe Paulsen and Marvin Nicholson for a little more than three hours in the 102-degree heat.
On Sunday, Obama hit the links again with the same crew, this time at the Porcupine Creek Estate, which is owned by Oracle founder Larry Ellison.
The president's frequent visits are catching notice: One of the local papers reported about speculation that the Obamas are looking to buy a house here.
It hasn't been all play in the desert: Obama hosted King Abdullah of Jordan at Sunnylands, a location chosen to facilitate informal conversation. Obama announced that he was looking for additional ways to provide humanitarian support in Syria and ways to pressure President Bashar al-Assad's regime to help stop the brutal conflict.
“We don’t expect to solve this anytime in the short term,” Obama said.
Although there was business, of course there was some R&R. Obama golfed and caught up on the television series "House of Cards."
Obama hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at Sunnylands, where the two held hours of private meetings and dinners at a two-day summit. Obama said the two countries must have a "firm understanding" of how to regulate cybersecurity and cyberattacks, which Obama described as "uncharted waters." The men also discussed other contentious issues, including human rights and climate change.
The meeting was billed as a "short sleeve" summit between the two and was a way for Obama to try to cultivate a personal relationship with the Chinese president.
Obama gushed about the place in its guestbook.
"Thank you for the extraordinary hospitality -- both for the U.S.-China summit, and for the extra day. It could not have been better!" he wrote.
The real star of the show here in the desert is Sunnylands, a 200-acre estate and home that is a temple to California midcentury-modern design. It has been touted as the Camp David of the West. It has hosted seven presidents. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first to play golf there. Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz had a standing New Year's Eve golf game at Sunnylands for years. "A very special New Year's at Sunnylands," Reagan wrote in a photo snapped on New Year's Eve 1980.
George H.W. Bush used to fish in lakes stocked with trout and bass. He held a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu at Sunnylands in March 1990.
Bush wrote to the Annenbergs when he got back to the White House.
"Happiness is a visit with the Annenbergs at 'Sunnylands.' With family love and many thanks," he wrote.
Richard M. Nixon came to the estate after Watergate. According to the Richard Nixon Foundation, Nixon wrote his 1974 State of the Union address there, and a golf ball bearing his name is now on display. Gerald R. Ford also vacationed there; he and his wife later bought a house in Rancho Mirage.
The Sunnylands estate, which is decorated in Lenore Annenberg's favorite colors of yellow and pink, has also hosted the British royal family and legions of celebrities. One of Frank Sinatra's weddings took place there in 1976. The dusty rose sheer-sleeved dress that Barbara Sinatra wore is on display at the visitor's center. Given all of that, it is only appropriate the estate sits at the intersections of Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra drives.