More sophisticated than Las Vegas, more laid back than Los Angeles – and in winter, more reliably sunny and warm than either one – Palm Springs is one of those places that looks awfully good to an awful lot of people at this time of year.
Not that the weather is its only calling card. This vintage resort town has been sashaying its way back into the spotlight of late, with a new generation of entrepreneurs and vacationers rediscovering the iconic town. The industry is paying attention, too: Virgin America launched a weekly flight from New York, on Saturdays through next spring – and perhaps beyond. Here’s why to go now – and what to do, once you get there.
Accommodations for every taste
If you’re staying a week or more, especially if you're traveling with family or with friends, consider renting a mid-Century home. Summer rates can be as low as $700 per week, with winter rates more like $1400-1500 for a typical four-bedroom spread, although a recent January special offered a three bedroom home for $999 per week. There’s nothing like having a private pool, your own kitchen and other amenities all to yourselves. Acme House Co. and Desert Rentals are two of several agents specializing in mid-Century rentals. You can also find properties on sites like FlipKey.com. For shorter stays, I vote for the historic Willows Inn, formerly the home of a well-connected millionaire. Stay where Einstein and Clark Gable were guests, although there’s no evidence that they ever met in this hidden treasure just a short walk to town. The eight rooms are all different, and the abundant breakfast and evening snacks, included in your room rate, might be all you need to keep fed during your stay. Palm Springs has long been a retreat for gay men, and the classy Hacienda resort (free breakfast and lunch, a pillow menu, two pools) has long been a favorite. It’s just one of over a dozen resorts catering this demographic.
Philanthropists of note Walter and Leonore Annenberg used to welcome a Who’s Who of Very Important People up to Sunnylands, their 25,000-square-foot Mid-Mod palace, tucked inside 200 private acres over in Rancho Mirage. Nixon? Check. Reagan? Check. Gorby? You bet. Who wasn’t here, really – to the point that Sunnylands became known as the Camp David of the West Coast. This year, the house and its intensely pretty gardens opened to the public for tours, which cost $35 and should be booked in advance.
Yes way, Jose
When the Iron Chef-winning Jose Garces – Philadelphians will be endlessly familiar with his work – landed in Palm Springs this past winter, we, like all of Palm Springs, definitely sat up and paid attention, watching as the local culinary scene got quite the jumpstart. Opening not one, but two restaurants at the new Saguaro hotel, Garces is bringing both Spanish (at Tinto) and Mexican (El Jefe) small plates to a crowd starved for more sophisticated dining options. El Jefe’s fun Taco Tuesdays – $2 tacos, $5 margaritas – are a hit with locals and visitors alike.
A golfer’s paradise (and tennis, too)
There are 110 (count ‘em) world-class golf courses in Palm Springs and the surrounding desert communities. Those 2000 holes will keep even the most addicted golfer busy for weeks. The 2013 Official Greater Palm Springs Golf Guide has all the details, and is available on line. Before Palm Springs became famous for golf, however, tennis was the most popular outdoor pursuit. There are over two dozen public and “semi-private” tennis courts and clubs in the area.
From a multi-day adventure on the terrific and challenging Cactus to Clouds trail, to the relative walk-in-the-park vibe at pretty Palm Canyons Preserve, Palm Springs is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream during the cooler months. Cheats can ride the famed Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which ascends two and a half miles up Mt. San Jacinto, stopping at 8,516 feet above sea level to give visitors some time to get intimate with the sometimes heavy snows that cover the peak at this time of year. A short drive away, the Joshua Tree National Park offers other scenic hiking possibilities, although many visitors are content to just explore by car.
Smart breakfasts at Cheeky’s, classic cocktails at the very butch Workshop Kitchen & Bar, pizza and people watching on the patio at Birba’s, the sweet little Alcazar boutique hotel located next door – Palm Springs’ once-moribund Uptown neighborhood is giving visitors piles of great reasons to stop short of the rest of town and stick around for a weekend or more. The neighborhood, officially known as the Uptown Design District, contains some very good design and vintage shops tucked away in atmospheric courtyard shopping complexes that invite extended browsing; Raymond Lawrence is a fashionable new concept store that ought not to be missed. One of my favorite shops is Just Modern, which features custom-made reinterpretations of mid-century furniture and objects, but it’s just one of dozens of shops along North Palm Canyon Drive catering to those hooked on the genre.
A Mid-Century wonderland
Palm Springs and Mid-Century Modernism fit together like a glove – a fitted, very fashionable vintage glove, purchased from a high-end consignment shop. Each February (this year, it’s the 14th through the 24th), the city celebrates its style with Palm Springs Modernism Week, which means house tours, walking tours, parties, exhibits, lectures – did we mention parties? Check it out at modernismweek.com. If you’re not visiting during this event, take a fascinating tour of the city’s midcentury treasures with PSModernTours. A 150-minute exploration costs $75 per person and for many is a highlight of their trip. Be sure to reserve well in advance. In addition, the Palm Springs Historical Society offers weekly walking tours of downtown.
See some art
Carrying a torch for culture in the desert since the 1930s, the Palm Springs Art Museum has come a long way, baby. Lately, it’s been working hard to expand its role here in the Coachella Valley, most notably with this year’s debut of a new campus in nearby Palm Desert, featuring a sculpture garden – free to the public – and galleries in a LEED Silver-certified new building. Next up, they’ll be taking on the launch of a new architecture and design museum in a handsome mid-century bank building in downtown Palm Springs, but for now, the original article, with its diverse collection, rotating exhibits and free Second Sunday event, is definitely a great way to kick off a cultural tour of the valley and it’s 60+ galleries. For a good overview of the area arts scene, check out ArtsOasis.org.
Grab some wheels and go
The city’s spacious streets are perfect for exploring on two wheels; Bike Palm Springs rents everything from easy-does-it Townie fixies to Fuji mountain bikes; they’ve even got stylish tandems, perfect for a winter afternoon saunter down Palm Canyon with your best pal.
The Palm Springs Follies
It’s pretty amazing to see performers in their 70’s and 80’s kicking their heels up on stage, and if you haven’t taken the time to witness this spectacle then you haven’t been to Palm Springs. Now in its 22nd season, the Follies features famous guest stars and international variety acts along with their more “seasoned” performers, most of whom have had long histories on Broadway and in the movies.
In hot water
Mildew-scented hot tubs, nudists who ought to have the sense to cover up at their age, dated and depressing décor – there’s still plenty of that to go around in Desert Hot Springs, the take-the-waters enclave just a few minutes from the action in Palm Springs proper. But amid all that excitement, there are a growing number of re-imagined, intimate hot springs resorts that have guests raving. The 7-room Sagewater Spa (my current top pick) has fully equipped kitchens in each sleek, updated room. Book a watsu treatment in the mineral water-filled pool and feel the relaxation wash over you. Not that you have to go to Desert Hot Springs for a spa experience; The Saguaro has a cool little set-up, offering locally themed treatments such as a date shake wrap, while out on the other side of town, full-service resorts like the Westin Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage offer the type of spa you could gear a weekend around.
Truthfully, this is just scratching the surface of all there is to do, see, and savor in greater Palm Springs. For more information and a planning guide, visit Palmspringsoasis.com.
George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.