Palm Springs: Oasis of Fun in the Desert
When thinking of Palm Springs, images of tanned retirees and flawless golf courses often come to mind. But the city is a hub for everyone from Hollywood royalty to outdoor enthusiasts and art and design connoisseurs. No matter what your travel style, the land of endless sunshine and serene desert beauty should be on your radar. The preserved village atmosphere is punctuated with public art monuments to John F. Kennedy, Lucille Ball, a Native American woman and others, demonstrating the mix of quaint and quirky that personifies this small desert community. Winter daytime temperatures hovering around 65 degrees, plentiful restaurant choices and oodles of things to do make it a great spot for a weekend getaway or annual sojourn.
History and Architecture
The land that is now Palm Springs has been occupied continuously ever since the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians settled here more than 2,000 years ago. Geographical facets of the region—including North America’s largest natural fan palm oasis and nearby mineral hot springs—has meant that it has always been a coveted area for human habitation. Although the native population has dwindled, those who remain are the largest landowners in the city, possessing 6,700 acres of city property, much of it on leased Indian lands.
When Palm Springs was incorporated in 1938, it became a winter playground for Hollywood stars like Marlene Dietrich, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Loretta Young. Today, it is still a haven for glitterati seeking to escape the prying eyes of Angelenos, and this mutual admiration is commemorated with Palm Springs’ own Walk of Stars along the main drag, Palm Canyon Drive.
In 2006, The National Trust for Historic Preservation added Palm Springs to its list of a dozen distinctive destinations in the U.S. Even the casual observer can’t help but notice that many of the buildings in town seem to be frozen in time. The first building you see upon arrival from North Palm Canyon/Highway 111 is The City of Palm Springs Official Visitors Center, originally the tramway gas station. The building was designed by Albert Frey, a long-time Palm Springs resident who developed the characteristic style that became known as “desert modernism,” distinctive for its butterfly eaves, clean lines, inventive use of materials and indoor/outdoor spaces. Other architects who famously worked in the area are William F. Cody, John Lautner, Richard Neutra, The George Alexander Company and Donald Wexler.
For an easy daytrip and blast of alpine air, visit Mt. San Jacinto Wilderness, crisscrossed with 54 miles of trails for hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and year-round camping. To get there, hop aboard one of the world’s largest rotating tramcars, which carries passengers 2 1/2 dizzying miles to an altitude of 8,516 feet. Up top, stop for a meal at the mountain lodge or head straight out into the pristine beauty of the forested wilderness, where average temperatures are 30 degrees lower than in Palm Springs.
Back in the desert basin, an abundance of possibilities await for passing the time. The local art scene revolves around Palm Springs Art Museum. Open since 1938, the museum has a high-caliber rotating exhibition schedule and permanent collection including works of art by significant modern, contemporary and western artists, as well as an impressive collection of Cahuilla baskets. A full performing arts calendar and classes, lectures and symposia keep the place hopping with art-fueled activity.
There are also numerous galleries and artist’s studios to visit, as well as stores specializing in antiques and collectibles where the selection ranges from kitsch and bizarre to upscale and classic. Trawling through these treasures is certain to turn up a collector’s item, or at the very least a unique souvenir. If architecture and design is your yen, take a look at the plentiful examples of desert modernism on a self-guided tour, or visit at the end of February to catch Modernism Week. And every Thursday evening, Palm Canyon Drive transforms into an old-fashioned street fair for Villagefest, with musicians, arts and crafts vendors, food stalls and a farmers market. Businesses stay open late, and the museum offers free admission from 4–8 p.m.
Once the sun goes down and you’ve taken your pick from Palm Springs’ fabulous restaurant options suited to every palate and budget, head to one of the many nightclub options to finish your day with a song and a smile.
Where to stay:
Casa Cody Country Bed and Breakfast Inn The oldest operating hotel in Palm Springs, Casa Cody is a Southwest-style compound tucked away moments from downtown. Two pools, a Jacuzzi and included breakfast help make this a real steal. Choose from cozy single rooms to the two-bedroom adobe villa where Charlie Chaplin once relaxed. 175 S. Cahuilla, 760/320-9346, www.casacody.com.
Orbit In A hip modern boutique hotel featuring two environments with distinct personalities. Both are walking distance to town and feature iconic mid-century design objects. Amenities include a chlorine-free saltwater pool, deluxe Continental breakfast, cruiser bicycles, poolside service and spa treatments. Be sure to catch atomic cocktail hour each evening at the Oasis Boomerang Bar. 562 West Arenas Rd., 760/323-3585, 877/996-7248, www.orbitin.com.
Le Parker Méridien Palm Springs For supreme luxury, visit this hotel with décor designed by modernist darling Jonathan Adler. Guests can enjoy two indoor and two outdoor pools, red European clay tennis courts, Pilates and yoga classes, and a world-class spa, all set in a lush garden oasis. Ten minutes by car from Palm Springs. 4200 East Palm Canyon Dr., 760/770-5000, www.starwoodhotels.com.
Where to Dine:
Azul Eat a little, eat a lot from an extensive tapas-inspired menu featuring tantalizing world cuisine in slightly-bigger-than-bite-size portions. A lively patio, full cocktail menu and dinner served until 1:30 a.m. keep this place hopping. 369 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 760/325 5533, www.azultapaslounge.com.
Matchbox Vintage Pizza Bistro Wood-fired pizza baked in an authentic masonry oven with dough made fresh daily is the focal point here, but you can also choose from a full menu of equally tempting items like pan-seared snapper, pecan chicken or Dijon pork chop. Dine indoors or out in an atmosphere that is both sophisticated and casual. 155 S. Palm Canyon Dr., 760/ 778-6000, www.matchboxpalmsprings.com.