Since the beginning of its recorded history Palm Springs has been a sanctuary. It started with the underground springs that fed the earth and supplied cool, desperately sought-after water to desert-parched throats, while hot mineral springs bubbled out solace for tired bodies. The mountains protected the place from fierce winds and gave it shade. The Indian tribes that lived there grew their crops in the valley and when the summer heat grew intense they found cooler shelter in the canyons and on the mountains' higher slopes.
The valley's fertility attracted the first European-American settlers, who began to transform the desert into farmland. From all over the states well-heeled convalescents came to breathe the dry air and soothe their aches in the waters. Boarding houses and hotels were built to accommodate them. Then, in the 1920s, the freshly burgeoning movie industry made Palm Springs its secret hideaway. A new breed of celebrity, the movie star, needed a place for weekend recreation and romance. Bound under contract to stay within 100 miles of their studios, the stars happily drove the 97 miles from Hollywood to ride, to golf, to play tennis, to drink, to gamble and to relax together, away from too inquisitive eyes.
By the middle of the century, Palm Springs wasn't quite so private, and fun became more family-oriented. Lucille Ball, Liberace, Dinah Shore, Elvis, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra built homes in the desert and architects designed sleek and chic modernistic residences for them. Marilyn Monroe jump started her career here, posing for photographers beside the Racquet Club pool and later, as a star, she reportedly returned to rendezvous with John F. Kennedy, well away from any cameras.
Palm Springs still combines an escape from the world's stress and a pursuit of its pleasures. The feeling of calm begins as soon as new arrivals to Palm Springs become aware of the protective presence of the San Jacinto mountain range. For those coming in from the elegant Mid-century modern airport, it happens as they exit the facility and approach the center of town. For travelers arriving by car it takes hold when they turn off the I-10 freeway and drive down Highway 111, passing the Mid-century gas station that now houses the Palm Springs Visitor Center.
Many visitors are content to spend the scorching days poolside, but there's plenty to do away from the Olympic-sized oases. Whether you're taking in Hollywood history, playing an adrenaline-packed game of tennis or round of golf, appreciating Mid-Century architecture, hiking one of the mountain trails or relaxing at a new age spa, adventures abound in Palm Springs.
Business travelers, golfers and family vacationers typically gravitate toward large resorts — La Quinta Resort & Club and The Westin Mission Hills Resort & Spa — in neighboring cities. Within Palm Springs city limits, the quintessential stay is at a spa hotel like the Avalon Hotel Palm Springs or at an inn of Mid-century Modernist design such as Orbit In or the Movie Colony Hotel. If the names Bertoia, Breuer, Eames, Frey, Nelson, Neutra, Noguchi, or Saarinen mean anything to you, you'll be in your element. If you want a touch of Palm Springs' more lurid history, try the lavishly renovated Colony Palms Hotel, first opened as The Colonial House in 1936 under reputed mob control, with an underground speakeasy and brothel — both now gone. In addition, the newer, larger hotels near the city center — including the Parker Palm Springs or the splashily updated Riviera Palm Springs — have added a bit of big city style. The Saguaro, a splashy-hued hotel and former Holiday Inn, is Palm Springs's newest hip and haute destination for the desert bound.
PALM SPRINGS DAY 1: Celebrity Tour, PS Modern Tours and the Palm Springs Art Museum
You'll need your strength to explore the sizzling desert getaway. Start the day off with a solid breakfast. Many smaller inns include breakfast in the room rate. For stylish creations, check out Norma's at the Parker or Olivz at the Hotel Zoso. Further north on Palm Canyon, try Zini Café Med to start the morning with a Spanish flavor or a French flair, or line up for Cheeky's, where offerings range from a simple "workman's special" (bacon, two eggs, potatoes and a cup of joe,) to Blondie's eggs Benedict (with sautéed arugula on a cheddar chive scone). Thus fortified, immerse yourself in old Hollywood. The easiest way to see it is on a Celebrity Tour, a narrated ride past the one-time homes of Hollywood royalty. You'll see the former lavish spreads of Dinah Shore, Richard Nixon, Alan Ladd, Nelson Rockefeller, Barry Manilow and Mary Martin — and that's just on one block. If these names were part of your adulthood, you'll have plenty of company on the tour.
Young and art-minded visitors might prefer a private tour of Mid-century architecture such as those offered by PS Modern Tours, which sweeps inquisitive crowds away for a 2½-hour-long encyclopedic whirl through the town's architecture. Budget-conscious travelers could see a selection of these same buildings by picking up a brochure and map from the Palm Springs Visitor Center. You'd miss the tour leaders' anecdotes and enthusiasm, though.
The establishment and the artsy crowd rub elbows with celebrating local families at Spencer's, where chef Eric Wadlund offers classic and sophisticated choices to a broad based clientèle. Order the lobster club sandwich, the wild mushroom ravioli or one of Wadlund's own additions to the menu and admire the stonework indoors, or respect the stone wall facing the patio outdoors—actually the foot of Mt. San Jacinto. The piano man tickling the ivories might be playing I Write the Songs or Moon River.
The centrally located Tyler's serves up the best burgers in town. Jake's Ready-To-Eat offers a simple but ample menu full of bold flavors, enjoyed in the charming little courtyard or the (even smaller,) well-designed and lounge-like indoor sitting area. If you'd prefer a picnic in the sun you can select from their creative variety of sandwiches and salads.
Escape the oppressive afternoon heat inside the Palm Springs Art Museum (formerly the Palm Springs Desert Museum). The permanent collection showcases Mesoamerican antiquities and works by artists of world renown — Dale Chihuly, Ed Ruscha, Sam Francis, Louise Bourgeois and many more. The museum, with cutting edge exhibitions and elegantly employed space, demonstrates just how good a small art space can be.
For an after-dinner drink, the bar at Melvyn's at the Ingleside Inn has been famous since Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw put it on the map when they were turned away by owner Mel Haber for showing up at the opening party wearing jeans and riding a Harley.
Continue to Day 2