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

How About a Theme With That Cruise?

February 24, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, cruising, gay/lesbian travel, Mexico | Leave a comment
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by Marcia R. Levin

Sixthman Elvis Presley cruiseEven as more ships turn into floating theme parks these days, savvy cruise line execs continue to look for new and ever more imaginative ways of keeping ’em coming back for more. Hence the ever-growing number of cruises organized around some kind of theme, whether art, health/fitness, history, photography, golf, politics, finances, baseball, comedy, singles, mystery novels, poker, wine, religion, the arts, nudism, paranormal activities, Star Trek, Twilight, and above all music. The single biggest niche of all may be gay and lesbian cruises, with numerous sailings all over the world and quite a few agencies and companies — like Atlantis, RSVP, and Olivia — dedicated solely to this market segment. Of these, the highest-profile is Rosie O’ Donnell’s  R Family Vacations aboard the Norwegian Dawn (subject of an Emmy-nominated HBO documentary in 2009); NCL’s Pride of America will host R Family’s “Hawaii Spring Break Cruise” to four islands March 27-April 3 (from $1,079 each for the first two persons in a cabin, $299 for the third and fourth).

No matter what their orientation or interests, theme cruises are popular with increasing numbers of passengers who find that sailing with people who share their interests really enhances their vacation experience.

Not that such offerings are new. Even back in the 1980s, Norwegian Cruise Line was offering sports-themed cruises with major-league ballplayers and other jocks mingling with passengers. Sports nuts loved hanging out and talking about batting or goal-line stances, golf clubs, or hoops technique.

These days theme cruises are just more numerous and diverse, whether organized by the lines themselves or put together by retail travel agents or special-interest groups with the assistance of travel agents. Sometimes an entire ship is chartered by a sponsoring group, but in most cases the theme-cruisers are part of a subgroup blocking space on a regular sailing. Either way, they’re big business — Howard Moses’ lists more than 500 a year.

Occasionally they can even be a little controversial (even apart from Royal Caribbean’s September 19 “Tea Party Cruise”). Remember the recent dustup when Carnival hosted a cruise for “cougars” — older women prowling for younger men — and their fresh-faced male admirers? When the line declined to host another, Royal Caribbean International stepped in and said, “here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson,” agreeing to Singles Travel Company‘s “2nd International Cougar Cruise” May 16-23 aboard Mariner of the Seas — from Los Angeles to Los Cabos, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta, starting at $659.

MSC cruise Suzanne Somers, Marcia Levin, Rick SassoI myself recently spent five days with 500 passengers on a women’s health and lifestyle cruise through the Caribbean aboard MSC Poesia where the marquee draw was actress/health guru/entrepreneur Suzanne Somers. Her daily presentations were packed with folks from all over the world, many of them lugging copies of her latest book, Knockout. I thoroughly enjoyed myself — and if there was anybody who didn’t get her picture taken with Suzanne at some point, I never met her (here at right is Suzanne with MSC North America president Rick Sasso and moi).

A quickie sampling of some other theme cruises hitting the high seas this spring:

Music Jazz, classical, polka, opera, rock, hip-hop, country — you name it, it’s afloat. “An Elvis cruise” (pictured at top right), says Andy Levine of Sixthman Cruises, “is always sold out.” Levine first booked a music cruise on Carnival Jubilee in 2001 and discovered that band devotees love hanging out with other fans in the convenient, laid-back environment cruise ships offer. On April 15,  Sixthman’s four-night “VH1 Best Cruise Ever” on Carnival Inspiration will sail from Tampa to Grand Cayman with rates starting at $799, and its “malt shop” cruise is slated for May 11-16 on the same ship out of Tampa, featuring Frankie Avalon, the Drifters, and Leslie Gore (also from $799).

Sports MSC regularly offers cruises with former pro baseball players who participate in trivia games and offer clinics — how about rubbing bats with the likes of Stan Bahnsen, Tony Taylor, Rico Petrocelli and Goran Thomas? MSC Poesia’s next baseball cruise leaves April 3 from Fort Lauderdale, with early-booking rates from $599 per person for seven nights. Others are scheduled for November 14 and December 5.

Health/Fitness How about a “Holistic Holiday at Sea”? Costa‘s Costa Fortuna sets sail March 21 from Fort Lauderdale through the Eastern Caribbean (USVI, Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos)  with some two dozen presenters including Marilu Henner, Dr. Neal Barnard, and Christina Pirello.

Antiquing The 11-day March 29 sailing of the Celebrity Equinox serves up “Dr. Lori, art historian and antiques media maven,” providing free appraisals for passengers’ old stuff (Celebrity will provide a list of items guests cannot bring on board). Fares start at $1,049.

Film The Queen Mary 2’s six-day transatlantic crossing beginning April 29 will feature two film documentarians as part of Cunard’s “Insight” program: Dori Berinstein (The Road to Broadway) and Judd Ehrlich (Mayor of the West Side). Fares start at $907 per person.

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