Only two hours east of LA, Palm Springs is the Boca Raton of California, the place where older people of some means go to either live out their golden years or own second homes. It wasn’t always this way. This desert oasis, a valley surrounded by desert mountains which, when the sun hits them at dawn and dusk, imbue the entire city of an otherworldly light, was initially a hideaway for Hollywood celebrities. Away from the prying eyes of the city, they could cavort and relax and, lest we forget this glamorous past, many of the city roads are named after entertainment titans such as Bob Hope or Bing Crosby.
With the resurgence of ’50’s architecture in the last dozen years, a trendy younger and gay crowd has also moved in, along the old folks who still dine at Melvyn’s and the Old Creek Inn, bringing an element of hipness to a previously stodgy locale. The two atmospheres seem to cohabit side by side, making for an interesting mix – getting a decent meal doesn’t require a monumental effort anymore and a week-end in Palm Springs will reward you with balmy weather, wonderful hikes and some interesting shopping and dining. Don’t forget to check out that pink light when the sun sets. Like every desert sunset, it’s unforgettable.
September to May is the ideal time to go. I find the Summer absolutely unbearable, although the locals seem to manage just fine.
The place to stay and be seen at has to be the Ace Hotel (with sister properties in NY, LA and other main US cities). I spent the Thanksgiving week-end in a private home but I went on a fact checking mission at the Ace and, although I tend to stay away from the too trendy, this hotel is a very good deal. Clearly a former motel that has been refurbished, it offers rates between 135 for a queen to 250 for a suite (and these are the hotel published rates so you know that they can be had for better prices).
The rooms are relaxed, cosy and informal – decorated more like a friend’s apartment than a hotel room. My favourite were the patio rooms on the ground floor – not much of a desert view but they have lovely private patios with a fireplace (and are dog friendly).
The hotel will keep you busy with dj’s, concerts, sassy bingo, karaoke, yoga, pool aerobics and a lot more, enticing never to leave. The day I visited, the pool was jammed with the trendy and the beautiful but also some very regular looking families. And I was very impressed to see that pastel colored scooters are for rent to hotel guests.
The same owner (joie de vivre hotels) also refurbished another motel, pretty much across the street from the Ace, and renamed it The Saguaro. Very bold colors, inside and out, it’s slightly cheaper than the Ace and probably a touch less trendy. A very good deal.
What used to be a virtual no man’s land, the north end of Palm Canyon Drive, is now THE place to be. For breakfast, lunch or brunch, my favourite was Cheeky’s, a small, no reservations, very reasonably priced hip place with organic coffee and food, house baked goods and killer eggs. The drawback is the lines so it pays to go at funky hours. The owners, Tara Lazar and Marco Rossetti, recently opened Jiao, also on North Palm Cyn, featuring an Asian fusion menu.
A couple of doors down from Cheeky’s is Jakes, with a lovely indoor/outdoor patio and an inviting menu which I didn’t get to try but is on my list for next time.
If you want an old Hollywood throwback experience, get a reservation at Melvyn’s. A lounge lizard will most likely be singing, the room looks straight out of a movie set and the crowd will be between 70 and 90, with plenty of plastic surgery to go around. But the food is decent and, after a couple of camparis, you will feel like a movie extra.
King’s Highway, a spruced up diner which is part of the Ace hotel, is fun for brunch and burgers.
There was a time when the only drinkable cup of coffee in town was, alas, Starbucks. Until Koffi opened. They have two locations, always jam-packed. Some of their coffees (also for sale) are organic, pricey but definitely good. The house made granola is also excellent, either by itself or as part of the yogurt parfait. Tellingly, Starbucks, a few blocks up, is now semi-empty.
KEEPING BOREDOM AT BAY
I suppose lounging by the pool, with a weather that lets you do just that 360 days a year, is always an option. As is golf. Or taking the aerial tram to the top of the mountain with a million other tourists. But my favourite thing to do is hiking. And there are some exquisite trails. Tahquitz Canyon, which reopened about 10 years ago, supposedly home to ancient spirits and sightings, is ever popular. It leads to a pretty oasis with a waterfall but it’s only a couple of miles long, just an extended walk really.
I have been hiking the trails at the South end of Palm Canyon for years and never got bored. The trails climbs up immediately into the barren mountains and can be walked for miles, basically circling the whole town. The Indian Canyons, inside the Indian reservation (all of Palm Springs is built on Indian land) are plentiful and wonderful, especially in Spring, when the desert is in bloom. There is an entrance fee of $9.00 but then you are free to roam around for the whole day.
A very pleasant surprise, this time around, was the Palm Springs Art Museum. I was drawn because of a furniture exhibit by Fernando and Humberto Campana and I found some other interesting contemporary art.
And, finally, if you are a mid-century aficionado, the North side of Palm Canyon Drive is brimming with furniture stores. There is not much in terms of clothing, other than Trina Turk and Mr. Cox. For a smaller version of Rodeo Drive, you can always check out El Paseo in nearby Palm Desert.