Why the heck would anybody want to come here, and miss out on a Minnesota winter? Well, try 350 days of blinding sunshine, spotlighting a palm-studded oasis. Hiking mountain trails. Jeep cruising through sandstone canyons. Gallivanting past hip enclaves of modern art and a mecca of Midcentury Modern houses, once home to bold-name movie stars. Glam boutique hotels and bistros at penny-pinching prices. An airport 10 minutes from Downtown. Oh, and a gay scene that just doesn’t end. (Rumor has it that a hetero hunk once was spotted in Palm Springs, but that’s probably just idle talk.)
Because Palm Springs has so much to offer, you may be hard-pressed to find time to lounge by the pool.
Hollywood stars flocked here in the nifty ’50s to chill out under the jagged canopy of mountains that each day brightens from mushroom to saffron, then fades to sunsets of sky-blue pink. Streets are named for former residents: Gene Autry, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Howard Hughes, Jack Benny, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Clark Gable, Liz Taylor, Elvis, and Liberace. Celeb sightings were as common as cactus.
Today, you can tour their homes. Even better: Sign on for style-o-phile Robert Imber’s guidance—visit <[email protected]>—through the richest cache of Midcentury Modern buildings in the entire country, starting with “the architect’s architect” Albert Frey’s 1965 gas station, now the Tourist Center, with its iconic flat roof thrusting toward the highway. “The entire city is a living museum of architecture,” Imber swoons with contagious passion. It’s constructed of brawny industrial materials—steel, glass, concrete—in muted desert tones. The formula is simple: garage>breezeway>window>wall, a formula that soon swept America—far more Bauhaus than Beaver Cleaver.
Tour the iconic Mid Mod-built Art Museum of 1970—a bold, muscular silhouette that, inside, houses an equally robust modern collection that sprints from Picasso to Warhol, with the Henry Moores and Deborah Butterfields you’ll recognize from the Walker’s Sculpture Garden, plus a shimmering, eat-your-heart-out collection of Chihuly glass (break it—it’s yours). You’ll find actual affordable Mid Mod home furnishings—antiques and repros—in the Uptown Design District, crowded with tony cafés like Trio, all glowing orange to flatter the gay blades dining on beet salad, salmon with pomegranate-chili sauce, and even good ol’ Yankee pot roast.
Oh, you’re missing the snow already? No problemo, masochists. A rotating ride on the Aeriual Tramway vaults you 8,516 feet skyward through mountain chasms veiled in powdery drifts, to alight at a station from which spread 54 miles of hiking trails (or, in my case, lunch with a primo view).
Another 10-minute sprint from Downtown—most hotels provide bikes—offers a more temperate trek through Indian Canyons, solo, or led by a tribal ranger such as Rocky Toyama, who distills the story of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla tribe who lived here before recorded history. Guiding us past boulders big as Volkswagens, past gushing streams and stands of California Fan Palms—the only native palm—he introduced us to the pharmacy of the Indians: mesquite to desert mistletoe, and a litany of cacti. Hummingbirds fluttered above signs warning of rattlesnakes (maybe save the flip-flops for another day).
Desert Adventures specializes in jeep tours along the famed San Andreas Fault. (Feeling lucky? The next big quake is overdue.) Eric, our driver/guru, coached us in the workings of the earth’s tectonic plates that meet here, wresting sandstone into deep canyons ringing palm-fringed oases and trickling streams. He schooled us in the ecolife of its animals (more rattlesnakes) and plants (more mesquite)—a don’t-miss experience.
If it leaves your weary body wishing for the healing secrets of the ancients, sign on for the signature Taking of the Waters program at Downtown’s Spa Resort Casino, where steam, sauna, and eucalyptus aroma treatments are followed by soaks in private, sunken tubs filled by the same soothing mineral-water spring that healed the Agua Calientes in times past.
If it’s Thursday evening, it’s time for the weekly Villagefest, a stroll among booths of crafts vendors and food stalls to the beat of live music. Better yet: Dine first at Johannes, a quietly-elegant café offering a classic Wiener schnitzel or avant duck breast with roasted pears, backed by an award-winning wine list.
Or nearby Zini Café Med, whose forte is small plates, tapas-style. It’s right next door to a perennial favorite, the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, in its 20th season of showcasing Broadway revue numbers with a cast clad—just barely—in sequins and feathers, all former Broadway chorines and dance captains, now age 65 or better. Dick, at 81, doesn’t let a triple bypass keep him off the boards.
Old Hollywood Elegance built this town, and a peek into its many boutique hotels spills the story. The Viceroy, wafting a ’20s flavor in shiny white with black and lemon accents, housed Clark Gable back in the day. Today, it’s Mylie Cyrus. Koraki, another romantic inn from the ’20s—this time, with a Moroccan spin—won’t name names. But the walls whisper.
Orbit is the exact opposite—its nine rooms offer a retro return to the Mid Mod ’50s, with aqua kitchens, pink tiled baths, and faux-leopard chairs. Casa Cody—where Charlie Chaplin formerly performed—started as an adobe cabin occupied by a cousin of Buffalo Bill. Ace, my abode, is the last word in “glamping”—glamorous camping—with rooms styled as elegant safari tents.
Zosa, anchoring Downtown, abuts the street where the gayest of gay bars bloom. And the enclave called Warm Sands boasts 28 men’s hotels—clothing optional, partying essential—ranging from Inndulgence, a ’60s property appealing to the over-40 fellas, to Hacienda, high-end and gorgeous, and Desert Paradise, eclectic and full of funk.
Lunch heartily at Tyler’s, with outdoor “drive-in”-style tables where burgers reign. Head to Las Casuelas for filling Mexican fare.
But for One Last Meal, make it Melvyn’s—a throwback to the ’20s glamour scene, where waiters still wear white jackets, and toss salads tableside. Melvyn Haber bought the place in 1975, and loves to tell a tale or two. Most sensuous woman guest? Dinah Shore. Most challenging? Frank Sinatra. “Scary. When he walked in, I walked out.” Haber once tossed out an unrecognized Steve McQueen for not suiting up to Melvyn’s dress code. The actor missed a great Cobb salad.
For information contact Palm Springs Visitors Center at 800-347-7746, or www.VisitPalmSprings.com. Request its GLBT map.