Palm Springs is the USA’s ultimate desert resort. Encircled by mountains and just two hours east of Los Angeles, the city has long been the stomping ground of golf-loving, condo-dwelling retirees, but they’re no longer the overwhelming demographic in town.
Over the past decade or so – following a quiet period of reinvention in the 1980s and 90s – the city has lured an entirely new crowd: these days you’re as likely to be mixing with desert hikers, hip young urbanites and a sizeable upmarket gay community as you are with legions of leisurewear-clad seniors. And don’t knock the oldies either, for these are the very people who’ve helped keep Palm Springs’ indomitable mid-century spirit alive all these years, playing a major role in matters of development and preservation, and propping up the same type of kitschy venues that are now such an attraction for nostalgic retro-seeking visitors.
We’ve just returned from a trip to Palm Springs, so read on for our favourite sights and experiences in and around town. The city celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and the milestone will be marked throughout the year with a whole host of special events and festivals – all the more reason to plan a visit quick sharpish…
In the post-war years, Palm Springs was known as a playground for the international jet set. An ever-increasing circle of Hollywood’s elite helped fuel the city’s growth by commissioning avant-garde homes from an innovative clique of designers, who left a modernist architectural legacy that remains unparalleled in its influence.
Celebrated for its abundant use of glass, straight lines, angular rooflines, open-plan interiors and a streamlined indoor/outdoor approach that capitalised on southern California’s warm climate, the Desert Modern style came to define Palm Springs. Highlights include architect John Lautner’s concrete-canopied Elrod House, used as a location in Diamonds are Forever; Frank Sinatra’s 1947 Twin Palms Estate; Elvis and Priscilla’s honeymoon getaway, the ‘House of Tomorrow’, and architect Richard Neutra’s landmark Kaufmann House.
Without a doubt, the best way to get to grips with the city’s distinctive styles, neighbourhoods, architects and buildings is by taking one of Robert Imber’s twice-daily Palm Springs Modern Tours, which give an expansive overview of the 1920s-1970s period with a focus on the glamorous 50s and 60s. Robert is an architectural historian whose encyclopedic knowledge and palpable enthusiasm for his subject brings the past to life in glorious detail – his enlightening commentary gives historical context to these extraordinary structures and is liberally sprinkled with juicy tidbits about Rat Pack-era stars and their lives in the desert. You’ll learn how Palm Springs came to have the greatest concentration of Mid-Century Modern architecture in the USA, about the maverick architects and designers who developed ‘Desert Modernism’, and how the style spread beyond residential enclaves to include civic buildings, country clubs, banks, resorts and hotels.
Tours takes place in Robert’s air-conditioned minivan, last approximately 3 hours and cost $US75 per person. Note that they do not include interior visits, but true enthusiasts can time their visit to coincide with the annual Palm Springs Modernism Week – held every February – when a number of home tours are available. This year’s event runs from 14-24 Feb.
Many of Palm Springs’ hotels are a destination in their own right, capitalising on their mountain views and housing some of the city’s best restaurants, bars and spas. But in a town where almost every building oozes kerb appeal, choosing where to lay your head is no easy task.
Our no.1 choice is the Saguaro just off Palm Canyon Drive; a 1965-built resort which, until its recent transformation, was a gloomy khaki-green Holiday Inn. Now the seratonin-boosting property – opened in February 2012 – can only be described as euphoric, with a vivid new colour palette reflecting the indigenous flowers of the southwestern desert.
We loved how the early morning sunshine streamed into our zingy, purple-carpeted room, which overlooked the enormous sunbed-scattered pool deck and the mountains beyond. Adding to the sense of buzz are two highly-rated venues: Tinto wine bar and restaurant which takes its culinary cue from the Basque region of northern Spain and southern France, and Mexican-inspired El Jefe; home to mean margaritas and laid-back lunchtime tacos. Double rooms available from $US143.
Created from the bones of an old motel, the 2009-opened Ace Hotel & Swim Club is just along the road from the Saguaro and remains the hippest hangout in town. While we were there a photo shoot involving kooky-looking models and a large inflatable flamingo was taking place against a backdrop of the hotel’s whitewashed buildings, while a low-key indie soundtrack pumped from the pool area’s speakers.
Rooms range from bright, simple doubles adorned with magazine cuttings to large patio suites with ‘curated’ vinyl collections. Even if you’re not staying, stop by for breakfast at King’s Highway: a self-proclaimed ‘roadside diner’ offering an upmarket twist on typical diner fare. Double rooms from $US149.
Other cool choices include the stunning Parker Palm Springs, with its bouganvillea-filled gardens and fabulously kitsch lobby (rooms from $US249); the Albert Frey-designed Movie Colony Hotel (rooms from $US124), and the brand new Curve – which you won’t believe used to be a Travelodge (rooms from $US59).
Eco adventures in the desert
Amid all the glamour and cocktails, it’s easy to forget that Palm Springs sits on the western edge of the Coachella Valley; an area once occupied by the ancestors of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. This is an outstanding area for hiking – especially in and around the Indian Canyons located on Agua Caliente tribal land – and one of the best ways to discover the landscape is with Desert Adventures Eco-Tours, who offer 3-hour naturalist-led jeep tours into the canyons for $US125.
You’ll hike a short trail up into Andreas Canyon under a canopy of shaggy California fan palms, learning about the culture and history of the Cahuilla people and their incredible use of desert plants. Before too long you’ll arrive at the rim of Palm Canyon, with panoramic views over the largest natural palm oasis in North America. Other tours include the newly-launched Wonders of Coachella Valley, plus a chance to experience the remarkable scenery of the San Andreas Fault Zone and Joshua Tree National Park.
Looking for a more adventurous or challenging hike? Trail Discovery offer a range of longer expeditions, including four to eight-hour treks through shadowy slot canyons and distant oases; a full moon discovery hike through the foothills of Palm Springs, and trips into the Mt. San Jacinto wilderness which begin with a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway – passing through four different ecosystems on the way up.
Uptown Design District
Palm Springs’ most interesting commercial area has continued to blossom north of Downtown over the past several years. What was once a forgotten strip of vacant shopfronts is now an eminently chic and walkable neighbourhood stuffed with drool-worthy furniture showrooms, vintage home decor stores, independent fashion boutiques, art galleries, coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Running along a stretch of North Palm Canyon Drive between Alejo Road and Tachevah Drive, the Uptown Design District is a happy hunting ground for modernism junkies doing up holiday rentals, or savvy travellers looking for inspiration – not to mention the hottest destination for restaurateurs looking to make their mark in the city.
Kick things off with a coffee on the back lawn at Koffi before checking out these emporiums of style. We loved the range of art and photography books on offer at Just Fabulous; the exquisite furniture and lighting that we could never afford at a La Mod, Modernway, BLVD and Just Modern, and the art gallery dedicated exclusively to the works of the artist Shag. Dining-wise, make a beeline (and a reservation) for Trio, a large, buzzing restaurant dishing up a contemporary American menu. Or book a table on Jake’s al fresco courtyard for great fish tacos and lunchtime salads, or a slap-up weekend brunch.
As we mentioned above, the city’s 75th anniversary means a full calendar of events this year. Highlights include the American Documentary Film Festival in early April; Palm Springs Restaurant Week from 13 May – 16 June, and Palm Springs Pride Festival in November – or check out the complete list at palmsprings75.com.
For more information about Palm Springs, visit the official tourism website at www.visitpalmsprings.com.
Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to Los Angeles from London Heathrow and flights to Las Vegas from London Gatwick. Palm Springs is a two hour drive from L.A or a four hour drive from Las Vegas. Virgin America also fly direct to Palm Springs from San Francisco.