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In 5

Travel: Palm Springs In 5...

  • palmspringsac.jpg

     (Visit Palm Springs)

  • Ace Hotel Palm Springs

    Ace Hotel (Photo by Kathy A. McDonald) (Kathy A. McDonald)

Palm Springs, California is one resort town that lacks attitude. Perhaps the year-round sunshine makes everyone a bit sun-baked, while the many laid-back retirees-in-residence keep the pace unhurried. Visitors looking to chill out and relax will soon appreciate the low-key, casual vibe. Natural assets are plentiful from the seasonally pleasant weather (however, summer is a scorcher) to palm trees everywhere to the restorative desert air and brilliant star-filled night sky.

There are so many ways to experience life outdoors: you can bike, spa, play tennis or golf or just nap by the pool. Just remember to slow down and you’ll fit right in.

5…Check-in at the Palm Springs Visitor Center and Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Once a landmark gas station on the outskirts of town, the spiffy Palm Springs Visitors Center tells you much about the city’s current revival. Designed by architect Albert Frey, the building’s soaring roof seems to bring the desert in. Here you can get a quick history of the desert oasis from Indian times to today’s revitalization of many of the city’s fine mid-century modern buildings. You’ll find tons of information, helpful staff, and a handy map for a self-guided architecture highlights tour.

Four miles up from the visitor’s center is the famed Aerial Tramway (One Tram Way, 888/515-8726, adults $23.25, children $16.25), which takes you to the heights of Mt. San Jacinto State Park and wide-open views of the desert below. The ride up via revolving gondola brings you to an elevation of more than 8,500 feet and into a quiet, often snowy world full of pine trees, bird song and sometimes deer. There’s a cafeteria and more formal restaurant on the peak. Wintertime, you can rent cross-country skis or snowshoes; summertime, day hikes and walk-in campgrounds are close.

4…Stroll Palm Canyon Drive

Downtown Palm Springs is mostly low-rise buildings; its broad main street, Palm Canyon Drive, is one-way with extra-wide sidewalks and outdoor café’s that provide excellent opportunities for entertaining people watching. Folks seem to love to promenade accompanied by their pooches—sometimes pushing them in baby strollers, canines dressed to the nines.

Thursday night Palm Canyon Drive is closed to cars and becomes a weekly street fair with live music at every intersection, arts-and-crafts and vintage vendors and plenty of sweet snacks. To get a view of the action, stop-in for drink at Las Casuelas, downtown’s open-air Mexican restaurant—or grab a nosh at the fire-lit patio of Matchbox—a local favorite for happy hour.

On the northern end of Palm Canyon Drive, the newly designated Uptown Design District is a mix of art galleries, vintage shops and trendy clothing stores. At the dog-friendly Courtyard there’s a welcoming grassy area hidden from the street where customers from Koffi sip their gourmet brews. Bargain hunters make time for the Angel View Thrift Shop (in a mid-century storefront) a must-stop for recycled designer-wear and kitschy bric-a-brac. With its covered outdoor patio and farmers’ market-fresh ingredients, Cheeky’s restaurant has a line almost all day, and is the current darling of Palm Springs’ foodies.

3…Stay in a star’s former hideaway

Palm Springs’ ties to movie stars goes back to the silent film era. The enclave has long been a getaway for Hollywood’s elite and visitors can’t miss that storied connection. One development is even called the Movie Colony—from its days as a playground for stars from the 1930s to the 1960s. There’s even a knock-off of the Hollywood Walk of Fame installed on downtown sidewalks. And all Hollywood links are noteworthy: Cary Grant’s former guesthouse, centered around a fountain-filled patio, is now the popular eatery Copley’s.

Not only can you eat where the stars once partied, you can also sleep where they once did. Former homes of famous personalities are available for nightly stays including manses once owned by Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and Elvis Presley. (Not to be confused with the Elvis Presley honeymoon house, a private home often featured on celebrity home tours). The Spanish-style “Lucy House” has a grand remodeled kitchen, comfortable living room and large oval pool with towering palms behind high hedges.

At the Parker Palm Springs hotel, guests can book former owner Gene Autry’s home that is secluded within the lushly landscaped grounds. Some of the cowboy film star’s (and former California Angels owner) furniture remains in the sleek, one-story adobe brick-and-glass building that has a retro-styled living room that opens to a private patio.

2…Hike an Indian Canyon

You can’t miss Palm Springs’ most awe inspiring natural feature: the monumental San Jacinto mountains, which form the town’s eastern border. On Aqua Caliente Cahuilla Indian tribal land, the Tahquitz Canyon trail is a two-mile, moderate hike (suitable for children over five to able-seniors) that loops up-and-around a historic mountain canyon and sacred place to the Cahuilla, whose ancestors inhabited the sheltered space as early as 2,000 years ago.

Hikers climb up a well-worn path to the hidden Tahquitz Falls waterfall surrounded by sandstone and hillsides dotted with mesquite. Bighorn sheep are sometimes spotted amongst the boulders at the canyon’s edge. Self-guided and ranger led hikes are available; fees for both are $12.50 for adults and $6 for children. A small visitor center and gift shop (500 W. Mesquite, 760-416-7044) marks the entrance with archeological and nature displays.

As with all outdoor activities in the desert, once the temperature heats up, it’s advisable to begin hiking in the early morning hours, dress appropriately and carry a lot of water. Serious hikers and fans of wide-open vistas should consider a day trip the nearby high desert and Joshua Tree National Park.

1…Dive into the hotel pool experience

Although not as lavish as Las Vegas or Miami Beach hotel pools, Palm Springs does have its share of chic spots to lounge poolside. Summertime escape from the heat is a must; in winter, hotel pools are heated and inviting, often paired with a bubbling Jacuzzi. The setting is quite impressive: tall swaying palms, clean, dry air and those mighty San Jacinto mountains in view. Even chain hotels have upgraded their pool decks to hold poolside bars accompanied by bumping--borderline annoying—pop soundtracks.

Boutique hotels have really pushed the envelope for poolside diversions. At the Ace Hotel (once a roadside motel), the pool scene includes live DJs and free mud masks for guests on weekends. Kicky round day beds inspire cozy conversation. Dine and drink poolside under a shaded canopy or book a spa treatment in fashionable yurt. On the opposite end of town, also recently renovated, the Riviera has curtained cabanas and fire-pits that surround the vast heated pool. Kick back on one of the hotel’s rafts and feel the day floating away. You’ll realize you’ve adjusted to life in Palm Springs.