Basking in Palm Springs Sunshine — and History

March 1, 2010 at 11:40 am | Posted in California, culture and museums, festivals/celebrations, gay/lesbian travel, golf, history, lodging, resorts | Leave a comment
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by Emma Krasov

Twin Palms Frank Sinatra house Palm Springs CaliforniaCalifornia’s eternally sun-drenched desert resort is of course famous for a number of things, among them for being “the playground of the movie stars,” for its golf, its eponymous hot springs, its scorching summers, and its gay/lesbian resorts (even the current mayor plays on that particular team). All of which help make Palm Springs a tourism magnet —  its 48,000 population doubles in winter, while in July and August locals — mostly transplants from colder climes – have their oasis to themselves.

What I find particularly fetching is Palm Springs’ wealth of a special type of Americana – its distinctive mid-20th-century modern architecture. If that sort of thing floats your boat, you can explore it all with Robert Imber (below right), whose Palm Springs Modern Tours runs daily two-hour minivan tours (US$75* per person).

Robert Imber, Palm Springs Modern ToursIt all started, Robert explained to me, in the 1930s, when Hollywood contracts wouldn’t allow actors and actresses to venture farther than 200 miles (322 km) from Los Angeles. So a quaint, sun-drenched desert village with a serene mountain backdrop quickly evolved into a glam getaway for the likes of Gloria Swanson, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh.

You can get really up close and personal with the glamour epoch by staying at one of the first modern properties, the Movie Colony Hotel (below right; rooms from $99), with its clean lines and simple/practical layout (Jim Morrison famously jumped from his balcony into the swimming pool). The 16-room property was designed in 1935 by Swiss-born Albert Frey, whose lifelong mission was to reshape the face of the desert (today’s PS visitors center is in a futuristic onetime gas station designed by Frey, complete with hyperbolic paraboloid roof). Or how about the recently renovated, Spanish-Colonial-Revival Colony Palms Hotel (from $149), with its dense orange trees and azaleas, decadent poolside terrace bar, Moroccan-style spa, and décor of antique furniture, oriental rugs, and retro-style B/W photography?

Movie Colony Hotel, Palm Springs, CaliforniaYou can also stay or just stop by for a soak or a spin of the wheel at the Spa Resort Casino (from $184), built in 1963, its entrance and bathhouse by legendary architects Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison. The hot springs after which the town was named percolate directly into luxurious blue-tiled bathtubs, and its trademark “Taking of the Waters” treatment (from $40) is equally beloved of locals and visitors alike. Or rent Twin Palms, Sinatra’s old digs (top right), for just $2,600 a night.

On our group tour with Robert, he regaled us with accounts of how in the 1940s-50s John Lautner, a pioneer of “real architecture” (so called because of the use of new affordable materials) became enamored of concrete; how John Porter Clark strived to align the design of houses with that of automobiles; and how developers George and Robert Alexander left a legacy of 2,500 single-family homes whose designer Bill Krisel cleverly manipulated identical square floor plans to create diverse dwellings within the same style. If you can make it here in early December, more desert modern architecture is on display in an annual Walking Tour of the Inns, free to the public, and more popular every year. It usually starts at the Palm Springs Art Museum (home to quite the collection, including Moore, Remington, Tamayo, and Frankenthaler).

I learned quite a bit both about the springs, and about the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians who first discovered them, on another eye-opening excursion: one of the walking tours of Indian Canyons (from $11). Ranger Rocky Toyama leads groups on itineraries that range from a 90-minute Andreas Canyon loop to multi-hour hikes. Ancient artifacts found here date back at least two millennia, providing glimpses into the life of a well-structured hunter-gatherer society.

Another great thing to do in Palm Springs – especially in the scorching summer – is to take a ride ($16-$23) on the Aerial Tramway, soaring over the cliffs of Chino Canyon 8,516 feet (2,595 meters) up, where heat turns into celestial coolness. Designated a historic civil engineering landmark, it was built using helicopters back in the early 60s.

I should mention, too, that Palm Springs abounds with good restaurants, cafés, and cozy coffee shops, many concentrated in its 10-block downtown. A popular breakfast choice, Pinocchio in the Desert, serves humongous omelets, plate-size pancakes with all the trimmings, and generous mimosas, while lunch is always good at Jake’s Ready to Eat, with delightfully fresh salads and lick-your-fingers sandwiches. Come dinnertime, Copley’s Restaurant chef-owner Andrew Manion Copley turns out amazing Hawaiian ahi tacos, sweet and tangy roasted pumpkin ravioli, and tasty main courses using organic and sustainable ingredients. Meanwhile, Mindy Reed’s Zini Café Med serves the scrumptious Italian/Mediterranean likes of pappardelle with braised rabbit and smoked paprika, and couscous with sweet-sour lamb; Mindy’s international wine list is fabulous, and her staff versed in the vino.

Finally, for a relatively tiny town in the desert, there’s a surprising wealth of events going on year round. Modernism Week just finished up, and upcomers include the Festival of Native Film & Culture (March 10-14); Palm Springs Wild West Fest (March 12-14); Crossroads Old World Renaissance Festival (March 19-21); Dinah Shore Week (March 31-April 4); Coachella Valley Music Festival (April 16-18); Stagecoach Country Music Festival (April 24-15); and Elvis Honeymoon Weekend (May 1-2).

You’ll find Palm Springs a tonic, worth a trip even from afar; because among other things, even if you’re not a movie star, here it’s not hard to feel like one.

*at press time, €56 / £50 / CA$78 / AU$83 / NZ$143 / R572

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