Bright blue sky, lacy, swaying palm trees against a beige desert background – Palm Springs looks like the bright crayon drawing of a child or the photo shopped work of a photographer.
This desert oasis, less than two hour drive from Los Angeles, has long been a place for sun seekers and golfers; but now you can add architecture lovers and culture mavens. For Palm Springs has gone through stages as vivid as its landscape.
There were the movie colony years, when the likes of Frank Sinatra (his centennial was celebrated last year) made the town their party central, with cocktails around the pool (his was piano-shaped) and legendary escapades. Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh were here; Cary Grant moved here in 1954. Today the film star aura lingers – there are movie colony tours (amazing how many of the homes are within walking distance). And there’s a walk of fame downtown where you can hopscotch over names of stars like Loretta Young and Lauren Bacall. There are retro chic bars and restaurants: the Tropicale serves up-to-date locavore dishes, while a musical trio plays old standards.
The movie stars never left, but their heyday was followed by a less lively era. This was the Palm Springs of golf, gated communities and the elderly.
In the 1990’s, the sedate town that Palm Springs had become was given a new incarnation by the discovery, led by an influx of gay men, of the architectural treasures Palm Springs had long taken for granted. Like the discovery of Deco in Miami the word went out: there were more mid-century modern buildings here than anywhere else in the US, perhaps the world. From basic bungalows with butterfly-shaped roofs and car ports to elegant motels that redefine the very concept of motel, to an airport where you walk outdoors on a palm dotted path to reach the luggage area, mid-century modern is Palm Springs’ signature.
With the revival, and the return to downtown, came a newly vivacious main street, Palm Canyon Drive, dotted with low-rise buildings, with everything from inexpensive boutiques’ to irresistible sweets. Brandini Toffee is a local success story, started by a teenager. And I can never resist See’s Candies, long a California favourite, with their delectable myriad of chocolates and caramels. Walk in and you are offered a chocolate.
On Thursday nights, Village Fest turns the main street into an outdoor street festival, with more than 200 booths offering food and handicrafts.
The backdrop of desert, dramatic sunsets, mountains and cacti is the Palm Springs view, everywhere you look. To get deeper into the hilly desert, I took an off-road jeep tour and headed for the hills. Our guide, a retired electrician from Massachusetts, showed us plants such as mesquite, used by the local Cahuilla Indians for food, medicine and tools.
The tour is called San Andreas Fault, and on it we learned about the tectonic plates that could cause the cataclysmic earthquakes that Californians fear. With good reason: The Fault runs for 200 miles, all the way up to Mendocino, and one mile below is molten lava. Running alongside it are fan palms, the only palm tree native to California. The trees indicate faults but also water, and knowing this saved the life of many a newcomer to the region.
In the off-road jeep, we passed the Coachella Valley Horse Rescue farm, which cares for abused and neglected horses and serves as an adoption centre.
Nature, buildings, and of course food – the new vitality of Palm Springs has brought an expanding foodie culture: restaurants with local ingredients (some from greenhouses, others from Los Angeles) and pedigreed chefs.
The Workshop Kitchen is located in an historic 1926 building, while the industrial-looking interior – 27 foot ceilings and concrete booths – gives the space a contemporary edge. In 2014 it won the James Beard award for restaurant decor. The robust and the adventurous menu is based around seasonal products from local farms and is overseen by Chef Michael Beckman, who apprenticed at Lameloise, a 3 Michelin star restaurant in France. I was impressed by the tasty complexity of the wood-oven roasted heirloom carrots, with dates, goat cheese, walnuts, chermoula and green onions. And who could resist the fries served with braised pork cheek, red curry, smoked shaved Brussels sprouts and pickled radish. There’s a sous-vide station where they cook everything from meat to octopus carpaccio.
The restaurant is located in one of the coolest areas of North Palm Canyon Drive, the Uptown Design District. Here you will find boutiques, high concept design shops and housewares stores, many selling the signature mid-century modern items.
Every year the whole town turns into a design district, when Palm Springs celebrates Modernism Week, starting Feb 11. From tours of famous homes to Tiki-themed bars to martinis by the pool, this popular event offers the essence of Palm Springs Retro Cool.
What’s next for this desert oasis? The word is that millennials are discovering the place. People tired of the Los Angeles pace are attracted to its natural beauty, restaurants and variety of places to stay.
A huge draw is the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which has become one of the major music festivals in the US Last year it sold nearly 200,000 tickets. Held for two 3-day weekends, it starts on April 15 and hits the high notes, with the likes of Guns ‘N Roses, LCD Soundsystem, Ellie Goulding and David Guetta.
Where to Stay
Staying in Palm Springs is part of the fun; you get inside the vibe, lounge by the pool and gaze out at the desert.
There are retro motels (renovated, of course) where Frank Sinatra and Al Green mellow music is piped in poolside. Hotels are being built but the past is very much cherished. The Riviera Palm Springs, with its large outdoor poolside terrace, was a popular hangout for the Rat Pack; it was featured in the 1963 film, Palm Springs Weekend, with Connie Stevens. No matter how many renovations it goes through, it maintains a certain flashy wit and daring. The same can be said about Palm Springs itself.