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Beyond Los Angeles: A guide to Palm Springs

By: Maxine Sheppard

April 10, 2019

Midcentury architecture © Scott Baxter

Midcentury architecture © Scott Baxter

Cool, classy and crammed with modernist masterpieces: the city of Palm Springs is the USA’s ultimate desert resort

Cosmopolitan oasis

Encircled by mountains and just two hours east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs was once known as a stomping ground for golf-loving retirees.

But over the past couple of decades – following a quiet period of reinvention in the 1980s and 90s – the city has lured an entirely new crowd: these days you’re as likely to collide with desert hikers, hip young urbanites and a sizeable upmarket LGBT community as you are with legions of leisurewear-clad seniors. And don’t knock the oldies either, for these are the very people who’ve kept the city’s indomitable midcentury spirit alive all these years, playing a major role in matters of development and preservation, and propping up the same type of kitschy venues that now attract nostalgic, retro-seeking visitors.

Midcentury modern architecture

In the post-war years, Palm Springs became a playground for the Hollywood elite, due to the ‘two-hour rule’ stating actors must stay within two hours of the studio in case of last minute shoots. This international jet set helped fuel the city’s growth by commissioning avant-garde homes from an innovative clique of designers, who left a modernist architectural legacy that remains unparalleled in its influence.

Celebrated for its use of glass, angular rooflines, open-plan interiors and a streamlined indoor/outdoor approach that takes advantage of southern California’s warm climate, the Desert Modern style came to define Palm Springs. Highlights include architect John Lautner’s concrete-canopied Elrod House, used as a location in Diamonds are Forever; Frank Sinatra’s 1947 Twin Palms Estate; Elvis and Priscilla’s futuristic honeymoon getaway, and architect Richard Neutra’s landmark Kaufmann House.

One of the best ways to understand Palm Springs’ distinctive styles and neighbourhoods is on local designer Lyle Boatman’s midcentury modern architecture tour, which gives historical context to these iconic structures, mixed with juicy titbits about Rat Pack-era stars and their lives in the desert. You’ll learn how Palm Springs came to have the greatest concentration of midcentury modern architecture in the USA, about the maverick architects and designers who developed Desert Modernism, and how the style spread beyond residential enclaves to include civic buildings, country clubs, banks, resorts and hotels.

The two-hour tour runs twice daily, costs $100 and takes place in an air-conditioned van. Properties are viewed from the outside and for extra context you’ll get an individual digital tablet pre-loaded with aerial photos and vintage interiors and exteriors. Visit MidMod Design Tour for more details.

Separately, daily tours are also available of the Alexander Estate – otherwise known as the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway or the “House of Tomorrow” – where Elvis and Priscilla lived and honeymooned in 1966 and 67.

The Alexander Estate, otherwise known as the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway © Genoa Aleman

cool hotels, restaurants & bars

Many of Palm Springs’ hotels are a destination in their own right, capitalising on their mountain views and home to some of the best restaurants, bars and spas. But in a town where almost every building oozes kerb appeal, choosing where to lay your head is no easy task.

Topping the style stakes since it opened in 2004, the Jonathan Adler-designed Parker Palm Springs underwent a major renovation in 2017. With its whimisical rooms, reinvented public spaces, chic lemonade stand and giant gold banana sculpture, it remains the benchmark against which other hotels are judged.

Still, plenty of venues give the Parker a run for its money. Opened late last year, the boutique, Spanish-influenced Villa Royale has an exclusive feel, with a dense perimeter hedge shielding an impossibly blue pool and terracotta-tiled deck. Book one of the 38 mahagony-panelled rooms, or gather round the firepit for tapas and crafted cocktails at Del Rey.

Over in Downtown Palm Springs – a district just revitalised to the tune of $400 million – the seven-storey Kimpton Rowan is setting the scene. Anchoring the neighbourhood, the new hotel is the tallest in town and offers everything an Instagram-loving millennial could ask for, from glass-walled suites with wraparound balconies to a rooftop pool and bar overlooking the San Jacinto mountains.

If you’re looking for something more low-key, head to pretty Los Arboles on North Indian Canyon Drive. Surrounded by palm and cypress trees, this family-run, Mexican-inspired property offers warm service and cosy rooms, some with fireplaces or Talavera-tiled Jacuzzis. The hotel is home to the string-light bedecked El Mirasol, one of the best authentic Mexican restaurants in the desert.

Elsewhere, we still love the rainbow-hued Saguaro off Palm Canyon Drive, a 1965-built resort that was once a gloomy khaki-green Holiday Inn. The serotonin-boosting property can only be described as euphoric, with a vivid colour palette reflecting the indigenous flowers of the southwestern desert. Also created from the bones of an old motel, the Ace Hotel & Swim Club is just along the road from the Saguaro and remains one of the hippest hangouts in town, despite celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Rooms range from bright, simple doubles adorned with magazine cuttings to large patio suites with ‘curated’ vinyl collections. Even if you’re not staying, stop by for breakfast at King’s Highway: a self-proclaimed ‘roadside diner’ offering an upmarket twist on typical diner fare.

If you simply want to dine in style, few spaces wow like the Moorish-inspired Purple Palm at the Colony Palms. Named after Purple Gang mobster Al Wertheimer who built the hotel in the 1930s as a front for his gambling business, the restaurant sits directly above the old speakeasy. Come in time for Sunset Hour cocktails (3–6pm) and stick around for globetrotting chef Nick Tall’s innovative modern American fare.

Missed out on happy hour? Turn your night on its head at Bootlegger Tiki, where the second happy hour of the night runs from midnight until 2am. Set in the same space as a former Don the Beachcomber restaurant – a popular chain of tiki venues in the 1940s and 50s – the bar carries on its tropical traditions with a menu of handcrafted classics. And because one tiki bar is never enough, make time for Tonga Hut too – an offspring of the L.A bar of the same name. Wrap up the night with a Mai Tai and a flaming pupu platter, and don’t forget to ask to see the secret room…

Parker Palm Springs © Great Palm Springs CVB/Parker Palm Springs

Kimpton Rowan © Greater Palm Springs CVB/Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group, LLC

El Mirasol © Los Arboles Hotel

Saguaro, Palm Springs © Maxine Sheppard

Ace Hotel & Swim Club © Greater Palm Springs CVB/Ace Hotel

Purple Palm Restaurant & Bar at the Colony Palms Hotel © Greater Palm Springs CVB

Bootlegger Tiki © Greater Palm Springs CVB

adventures in the desert

Amid all the glamour and cocktails, it’s easy to forget that Palm Springs sits on the western edge of the Coachella Valley; an area once occupied by the ancestors of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. This is an outstanding area for hiking – especially in and around the Indian Canyons located on Agua Caliente tribal land – and one of the best ways to discover the landscape is with Desert Adventures’ Red Jeep Tours, who offer 3-hour naturalist-led drives into the canyons as well as off-road 4WD trips into the San Andreas Fault Zone.

Looking for a more adventurous or challenging hike? Trail Discovery offer a range of longer expeditions, including four- to eight-hour treks through shadowy slot canyons and distant oases, plus trips into the Mt. San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area which begin with a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.

One of the desert’s major attractions, the tramway is the largest rotating tram car in the world and an essential experience when visiting Palm Springs. You’ll travel two-and-a-half miles up the craggy cliffs of Chino Canyon, passing through four different ecosystems along the way and emerging at an elevation of 8,516 feet into temperatures 30 degrees cooler than the valley floor.

Desert Adventures’ Red Jeep Tours © Greater Palm Springs CVB

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway © Chris Miller

shopping and culture

One of Palm Springs’ most interesting commercial areas continues to blossom north of Downtown. Once a forgotten strip of vacant shopfronts, the Uptown Design District is now an eminently chic and walkable neighbourhood stuffed with drool-worthy furniture showrooms, vintage home decor stores, independent fashion boutiques, art galleries, coffee shops and cafes.

Running along a stretch of North Palm Canyon Drive between Alejo Road and Tachevah Drive, the district is a happy hunting ground for modernism junkies doing up holiday rentals, or savvy travellers looking for inspiration to take home. Kick things off with a coffee on the back lawn at Koffi before checking out the art and photography books on offer at Just Fabulous, the exquisite furniture and lighting at a La Mod, Modernway, Pelago and Just Modern, and the gallery dedicated exclusively to the works of the artist Shag.

For vintage shopping and antiques, head to the Sunny Dunes Vintage District in the south of the city. Retro emporiums like Bazaar Delar and Little Shop of Treasures are full of collectable finds, from old carnival popcorn makers to cut crystal vases and rhinestone jewellery. Across the street, more than 40 independently owned shops are squeezed into 6,000 sq ft of warehouse space at Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall. Swing by for vintage comic books, classic secondhand vinyl, covetable objets and home decor.

In Downtown Palm Springs, the 1938-founded Palm Springs Art Museum houses a vast permanent collection including major works by western, contemporary and glass artists, alongside temporary exhibitions from internationally acclaimed artists. Its Architecture and Design Center at the Edward Harris Pavilion showcases the streamlined style of famed desert architects like Donald Frey, Richard Neutra and the building’s own designer, E. Stewart Williams.

Finally, we’d be remiss not to mention the Palm Springs Air Museum, a treat for all aviation geeks like us. The museum is home to one of the largest collections of airworthy WWII planes in the world, including the P51D Mustang “Bunny” which served as a bomber escort and tactical fighter bomber and is available for pleasure trips at $1,895 per ride. One for the true enthusiasts!

Uptown Design District, Palm Springs © Genoa Aleman

Palm Springs Art Museum © Scott Baxter

Virgin Atlantic operates daily direct flights from London Heathrow to Los Angeles, from where it’s a straightforward two-hour drive to Palm Springs.

For more tips and travel ideas, head to the official tourist board at www.visitpalmsprings.com.

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Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.