I must confess: Though I grew up in Southern California, I have never found lolling poolside like a basted egg the slightest bit relaxing. I am a pasty, blue-eyed Calvinist with nervous energy to spare. Exploring a bustling city on foot or hiking through a fog-kissed forest—now those are good ways to unwind. The desert and specifically Palm Springs, that hideaway for martini-soaked celebrities in the land of a thousand golf pros, have never before held much appeal. I don't know a 5-iron from a flatiron, and had no desire to hide, no need to retreat.
That is, until last fall. As summer doldrums turned to autumn terror in September, I found myself searching for a soothing destination within a day's drive of home. What I needed was a quick dose of optimism. What I needed was a weekend in Palm Springs.
Just a hundred or so miles southeast of Los Angeles, tucked beneath towering Mount San Jacinto, Palm Springs is a genuine oasis, a desert resort with heart. Sure, it's home to fabulous spas (from French indulgent to desert aesthete), great golf (more than 100 courses in the vicinity), and legendary tennis (400 courts). There are also 30,000 pools in the neighborhood—clearly somebody likes to loll.
But fun-in-the-sun stats reveal only a tiny part of the city's charm. The open-air cafés and shops that line Palm Canyon Drive in the center of town (the walkable half-mile stretch of Highway 111 that serves as the village square) are filled these days with a polyglot mix of old and young, blue haired and green haired, golfers, artists, and couples of every gender. There's a vitality in this town—a mix of passion and whimsy—that you won't find in its newer neighbors. I went to the desert seeking calm, but was pleased to also find in Palm Springs the invigorating spark of a historic town rediscovering itself. The resort has a long tradition of bubbly optimism reflected in the architecture and even in the varied landscape.
Titans of Hollywood and American industry first made Palm Springs their playground in the 1920s and '30s, drawn by the clean desert air and an unspoken agreement between media and studios in the early days that stars should be afforded some privacy in their downtime, "off the lot." In the next few decades, leading young architects, among them Richard Neutra, John Lautner, and Albert Frey, followed the money, happily constructing their eccentric vision of the atomic age on the desert sand.
Here, as elsewhere, "modern" means clean lines, brash angles, and a dedication to function-inspired form. But desert modernists seem to have added an extra smile to their rationalism, with upswept curves and an open-air design that plays with the elements. "You have to have your fantasy going, too," Albert Frey once wrote. "After all, that's what life is." All over Palm Springs, butterfly rooflines, circular walls, and similar details give the town an anything-is-possible, space age Jetsons feel.
Frey's Tramway gas station, a spare and lyrical monument to 1963 modernism welcomes visitors at the northern entrance to town on Highway 111. It was rescued from vandalism and neglect three years ago and converted to an upscale sculpture gallery by former San Franciscans Montana St. Martin and Clayton Carlson. This may be the sweetest of Frey's 200-plus architectural contributions to the city. The wedge-shaped building's roofline, a cantilevered kite of galvanized steel, seems ready to soar up above the 10,000-foot peak behind it. Carlson says he and St. Martin were tickled to get advice from Frey as they renovated the place, just prior to the architect's death in 1998. "We added a rising wall of Venetian plaster and marble dust—dense and smooth—in the front of the building to help shift the focus from the highway to the mountains, and to give us enclosed space for the sculpture garden," Carlson says.
Carlson and St. Martin are just two members of a passionate set of Palm Springs preservationists who, in the last few years, have expended a lot of love and money on restoring private and commercial buildings. One of the earliest treasures, a 1936 example of streamline moderne known as the "Ship of the Desert" for its nautical lines, was severely damaged by arson in 1999 but has now undergone painstaking restoration. Another important home, designed in 1947 by Richard Neutra for wealthy Pittsburgh retailer Edgar Kaufmann and immortalized in the black-and-white photography of Julius Shulman, has recently been fully restored to its original, colorful roots.
Not all the rejuvenated structures are in the modern style; a Mediterranean villa built in the 1920s for wealthy East Coast attorney Samuel Untermeyer was recently transformed by two young physicians into The Willows, a warmly elegant Four Diamond inn built snugly against the hillside two blocks from the center of town. Albert Einstein, a good friend of Untermeyer's, often visited the home for weeks at a time, and longtime locals say he liked to watch the sun set from a perch above the property (the bench is still there).
If sleeping where Einstein snoozed isn't cool enough, how about nodding off in the powder-pink bedroom of Marilyn Monroe? You can do that at Ballantines Original, one of two vintage properties revitalized by two 1950s buffs from Great Britain, Sarah Robarts and Fraser Robertson. The Marilyn suite is pink to its core, from the chenille bedspread to the rotary phone. It's easy to picture the mercurial diva lounging in a plush robe on her private patio or primping at the rose-lit vanity before a swanky dinner with Dean, Frank, and their Rat Pack pals at the Racquet Club.
Re-creating the class and style of Palm Springs' glory years is obviously great fun for Robarts and Robertson, and the town's architecture is indeed inspired and inspiring, they say, but it's not what brought them to the desert. "We're outdoors people, and we were looking for a beautiful place where we could hike and run year-round," Robarts says. "Palm Springs is amazing for that." After a day surveying man-made creations, I too was ready for a dose of nature. At Robarts's suggestion, I headed off to Indian Canyons, a park on the southern edge of town run by the Agua Caliente band of California's Cahuilla Indians.
The temperature contrast was sharp and immediate. Two-hundred-year-old stands of desert fan palms (the only palms native to California) crowd along the canyon floors, fed by natural springs. The result is a sheltering oasis for birds, animals, and humans. The morning I was there, a roadrunner and coveys of quail scurried through the mesquite and creosote underbrush, and lizards sunned themselves on granite boulders, as a tribal ranger led several visitors on a hike through the lower portion of Palm Canyon. He paused to point out sights along the way—fragrant white sage, for example, used by early Indian hunters to cover their scent when tracking rabbit or other game.
Afterward, I hotfooted it back to town to beat the crowd to Tyler's, a great local hangout famous for crisp fries, juicy burgers, and bottomless glasses of lemonade. I considered taking a nap or a swim, but decided instead to check out another Palm Springs landmark—the Aerial Tramway. Dubbed "Crocker's Folly" when it was conceived by electrical engineer Francis Crocker in the 1930s, the tramway consists of an elaborate system of towers, cables, and hanging cars that have safely transported more than 12 million visitors from the desert floor to an alpine meadow two miles up. A year ago, the system was completely overhauled, its early cars replaced by new cabs that have rotating floors, affording passengers a smooth 360-degree view as they ascend the mountain in less than 15 minutes. Up top, in a magical forest of sweet-smelling pines, the air is 30 or 40 degrees cooler than it is in the desert beneath. From mid-November to mid-April, snow conditions permitting, tramway visitors can rent snowshoes and cross-country skis to explore the 54 miles of trails in Mount San Jacinto State Park. Kids may prefer to rent an inner tube for easy sliding, while parents can catch their breath at the nearby warming hut.
During my fall visit the mountain was a mellow 68 degrees, the sunlight dappled and waning. Any remaining tension slowly drained away as I followed the gently sloping Desert View Trail from vista to vista. There was something about gaining altitude over the world, being able to take in with one glance desert, mountain, and Salton Sea, that soothed this ruffled spirit and inspired deep sighs. Squirrels squabbled in the treetops and a nesting crow weighed in with a throaty bellow, but at least for a little time, in a small part of the universe, all things human were at peace.
Photography by Scott Van Dyke
This article was first published in January 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
All phone numbers are area code 760 unless otherwise noted.
Ballantines Original, 1420 N. Indian Canyon Dr., and Ballantines Movie Colony, 726 N. Indian Canyon Dr., (800) 780-3464, www.ballantines-original-hotel.com. Themed rooms with vintage accents, all dressed up in lollipop colors.
412 W. Tahquitz Canyon Way, (800) 966-9597, www.thewillowspalmsprings.com. A Mediterranean villa with an updated spin on '40s posh.
St. James at the Vineyard,
265 S. Palm Canyon Dr., 320-8041. Cozy bar and lively restaurant with exotic curries.
Johannes Cosmopolitan Cuisine, 196 S. Indian Canyon Dr., 778-0017. At this romantic gem, Austrian-born chef and owner Johannes Boucherer makes the flakiest apple strudel outside of Vienna.
El Mirasol, 149 E. Palm Canyon Dr., 323-0721. Best Mexican food in town.
Tyler's, 149 S. Indian Canyon Dr., 325-2990. When only the perfect burger and fries will do. Great soups, salads, and other comfort foods, too.
Mountain Station Restaurant, atop the Aerial Tramway, Mount San Jacinto, 325-1449. Enjoy hearty fare and the star-spangled desert sunset through the lodge's panoramic windows
Don't Miss This
Aerial Tramway 1 Tramway Rd. (off Hwy. 111), (888) 515-8726, www.pstramway.com. Climb nearly 6,000 feet in less than 15 minutes.
Indian Canyons, southern end of Palm Canyon Drive, (800) 790-3398. Picnic spots, hiking and horse trails, and ranger-guided tours.
Living Desert, 900 Portola Ave., Palm Desert, 346-5694, www.livingdesert.org. Zoo, botanical garden, educational center, and nursery. Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, 864-6514, www.psfollies.com. Nationally acclaimed showcase of vaudeville acts and Broadway numbers performed by silver-haired seniors who can really move.
Tee time, desert style Find a detailed listing of all courses in the area at www.palm-springs.org, or ask the tourism bureau for the region's "Desert Golf Guide."
More information Contact the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism at (800) 927-7256 or www.palm-springs.org.
Photography by Scott Van Dyke