Insider: Palm Springs, Oasis Once Again
Published: May 2009
By Dave Gardetta
Palm Springs' modern Renaissance
A half-century ago, Palm Springs was a bacchanalian escape from Hollywood for Grant, Gable, and the Rat Pack's good-time boys. Cut to the mid-eighties, when the desert town, its celebrity credit spent, became known as God's Waiting Room. Shabby in spots, over-served by low-rent T-shirt shops and overrun by spring break debauchery, Palm Springs was a place to avoid. But today, thanks in part to the return of Tony Bennett and the martini, all things mid-century are suddenly chic—and no place is more flamboyantly retro than Palm Springs. Grab your clubs and follow us to the newly swinging land of the piano-shaped pool and the giant-golf-ball mailbox.
In 1924, a Scottish painter with a love for North Africa landed in Palm Springs and built a grand Moorish house. Hotelier Doug Smith turned the whitewashed escape into a hotel, Korakia, and these days photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Bruce Weber make pilgrimages there (257 S. Patencio Rd.; 760/864-6411; doubles from $119). • A framed 1947 photograph in the lobby shows that the Villa Royale Inn (1620 Indian Trail; 760/327-2314; doubles from $125) used to be the last property on the drive south out of Palm Springs. It's still a refreshing outpost, with quiet brick courtyards shaded by palms and cooled by gurgling fountains. • Once the estate of William Randolph Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies, the Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn (412 W. Tahquitz Canyon Way; 760/320-0771; doubles from $275) has recently been restored to its mahogany-beam and stone-fireplace grandeur; guests can spend the night in the very rooms that Albert Einstein, Clark Gable, and Carole Lombard slept in. The Willows' "back-yard" patio is just the spot to sip wine at dusk when the hills turn 85 shades of purple. • The U.S. Army Camel Corps "discovered" the Two Bunch Palms oasis in the 1920's; legend has it that Al Capone built a hideout there. Today, however, it's burnt-out Hollywood refugees who hide at Two Bunch Palms Resort & Spa, strolling the hushed 52-acre compound in white robes, meditating beside koi-filled ponds, and trying Native Americanthemed spa treatments (67-425 Two Bunch Palms Trail, Desert Hot Springs; 760/329-8791; doubles from $175).
After a stint in North Carolina, acclaimed chef Michael Hutchings is now back in California—specifically, in the kitchen of St. James at the Vineyard (265 S. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/320-8041; dinner for two $90). He still serves North Carolina jumbo crab cakes, but most of the menu reflects the restaurant's French-Algerian interior: house specialties include "bouillabaisse Burmese" and North African lamb curry. • In 1958, Florencio and Mary Delgado opened a small storefront Mexican diner. Thirty years and four restaurants later, the family owns one of the busiest restaurants on Palm Canyon Drive, Las Casuelas Terrazza. Sit outside under bougainvillea vines and pick over Las Casuelas's signature camarones Florencio while nursing a margarita made with one of the restaurant's more than 20 tequilas (222 S. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/325-2794; dinner for two $45). • Escape noisy Palm Canyon Drive at Johannes, a tangerine-colored room with just 18 tables (196 S. Indian Canyon Dr.; 760/778-0017; dinner for two $80). Start with the Malay meatballs in spicy coconut milk and move on to scallops tucked beside a blanket of citrus-infused couscous. • Palm Springs' latest runaway success is Muriel's Supper Club, a Disneyesque riff on fifties nightclubs—think percolating water columns and burnished aluminum tables (210 S. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/325-8839; dinner for two $100). On weekends, legions of swing kids follow I-10 out of L.A. to jump and shake to bands like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies. Try a mango cosmopolitan while you're waiting for your steak.
Little survives of the Palm Springs that Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford lorded over like kings. For a cigar-scented whiff of those times, stop into the fauxGreco-Roman lounge of Melvyn's at Ingleside Inn (200 W. Ramon Rd.; 760/325-2323). The bartender knows how to make a real martini, and the classic sounds of Tommy Dorsey are always on the hi-fi. • The patio bar at the Ritz-Carlton in the hills above Rancho Mirage is a quiet, tree-shaded refuge on a rocky outcrop (68900 Frank Sinatra Dr., Rancho Mirage; 760/321-8282). Order a Campari on ice and contemplate the distant hills of Joshua Tree National Park—at dusk, they turn as blue as curaçao.
These days Palm Springs' consignment stores are as popular as the town's golf courses on a Sunday morning. Take a walking tour of North Palm Canyon Drive's shops by starting at Palm Springs Consignment (1117 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/416-8820), where owner James Claude's kitschy taste is on full display—Red Skelton clown oils, furniture covered in orange terry cloth, black-and-white glass lamps. Ä Hundreds of vintage cocktail glasses fill Bandini Johnson's shop (895 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/323-7805)—obviously stemming from a childhood fascination with his parents' extensive barware collection. But lately they're being crowded out by other funky objects like early-sixties fondue pots. Ä Amoebas, kidneys, boomerangs—these are the shapes that haunt John Hall's head, as well as the floor of his consignment shop. John's Resale Furnishing Mid-Century Modern (891 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/416-8876) is a mecca for Prada-wearing pilgrims looking for a Saarinen Grasshopper chair, a George Nelson Starburst clock, or just about anything in Lucite. • If you can't afford the originals, cross the street to Lunacy (768 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/416-2158), a shop filled with high-end remakes and knockoffs (a newly minted Starburst remake goes for around $280). The mid-century mines of Palm Springs are, after all, only so deep.
An hour's drive northeast, Joshua Tree National Park is a Dr. Seusslike landscape filled with hiking trails, rock-climbing spots, and seas of wildflowers after the first spring rains. • Rivaling Joshua Tree in springtime color, the southern valley town of Borrego Springs is all abloom and overrun by Leica-snapping gawkers in February and March. • Escape the Leicas (and the heat) by riding the Palm Springs Aerial Tram to the top of San Jacinto Peak, where lonely alpine trails skirt the cliffs and bighorn sheep clack across rocks. • Palms and boulders (and more palms and boulders) crowd the mountain stream that pools through quiet Palm Canyon, not 20 minutes out of town. • Take Highway 111 to the Salton Sea, an eerie inland ocean lined with dying desert towns, an hour south of Palm Springs. Train your eye on the existential landscape, then stop at one of the many drink stands for a frothy date shake.
While the T-shirt shop is Palm Springs' native art gallery, the last two years have seen a few more cosmopolitan options open along Palm Canyon Drive. At Galeria Dos Damas, owner Robert Menifee showcases new and emerging California and Mexican artists. Most of his clients are recent émigrés and weekenders from Seattle (388 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/416-2186). Randall Erickson left an executive position at Disney two years ago to open his self-named gallery, where current works by Canadian, Japanese, and Latin American artists grace the walls (436 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/416-9660).
Clothing isn't an option—except on the chilliest days—at Desert Shadows Inn Resort & Villas, a nudist retreat built on the site of Errol Flynn's old hotel and Doris Day's former estate. Anyone can check in, try out the nude yoga and nude spa treatments, and dine alfresco (in every sense of the term). Visit the gift shop as you leave and pick up a nude world order T-shirt to ease your reentry into the land of the clothed and the inhibited. 1533 Chaparral Rd.; 760/325-6410; doubles from $135.
A year after Palm Springs' Givenchy Spa opened, it placed third in the Robb Report's spa ranking—possibly because of an in-house seaweed product harvested off the Brittany coast, or the 450 varieties of roses blooming in the garden. Merv Griffin, the game-show king, had already purchased it and changed the property's name (it's now Merv Griffin's Resort Hotel & Givenchy Spa). You can still enjoy the marine mud wraps, sudation gels, and hydro-jet massages, all in Francophile splendor. 4200 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 800/276-5000; two-night spa packages from $775.
Much of Palm Springs' current popularity is based on the trove of classic buildings dating from the late forties through the sixties, the golden era of California Modernism. Here's a short tour of some of the highlights, recommended by John Hall of John's Mid-Century Modern: Start at the Tramway Gas Station, at the corner of North Palm Canyon Drive and Tramway Road—a perfect melding of high design and consumer efficiency, by architect Albert Frey. Continue south on North Palm Canyon Drive, turn right on Vista Chino Drive, and head west toward the mountains to see Richard Neutra's famous Kaufmann House, whose granite façade rises out of a garden of boulders. Next door, you'll catch a glimpse of the home Frey fashioned for industrial designer Raymond Loewy—creator of the Coca-Cola bottle and the Greyhound bus. Return to Palm Canyon and turn on Alejo Road to find Twin Palms, the house Stewart Williams designed for Frank Sinatra. Finally, from Palm Canyon, turn onto Tahquitz Canyon Way and look west into the mountains to see the aerie Frey built for himself—a glass and aluminum beacon at sunset.