At Norma's, one of the hotel's two restaurants, breakfast is the most important meal of the day—and, in the case of the caramelized chocolate banana waffle napoleon, also the most important dessert. I'm sitting there with Adler while he describes his vision, which rejects mid-century formulas and high-concept design. "Boutique hotels focus on theatricality. Usually guests are wowed at first and then, during the course of their stay, their appreciation of it decreases. I was hoping to create the opposite trajectory, where you become more engaged and see the different textures."
Adler's approach embraces a world of influences. In the ambitious rooms, there are Peruvian weavings, an Edwardian chair in which you can curl up and read a Jacqueline Susann title (thoughtfully provided on a side table), and a minimalist canopy bed inspired by the artist Sol Lewitt. Sipping his iced tea, Adler arranges, rearranges, and then re-rearranges a pair of Danish Modern-style, bird-shaped ceramic salt and pepper shakers he made specifically for the hotel. "I can't decide which way they look cutest," he says, feigning exasperation. Don't believe him. From the lobby, decorated with suits of armor and wire-based Warren Platner chairs, to the Moroccan-inspired "hookah chill-out zone," everything in the Parker is just so. Adler walks me through what will soon be a new restaurant and bar, Mr. Parker's. "It's a clubby little lair for Mr. Parker but with lurid psychedelia, because he's a little dissolute, as if Mick Jagger had bought a castle in seventy-two." The hotel features many pieces of the pottery that made Adler a household design name; he also created the ceramic frieze that hangs below the concierge desk and reads EAT DRINK AND BE MERRY FOR TOMORROW YOU SHALL CHECK OUT.
It would be tempting to hang around, but it is First Friday, the one night of the month when the stores on North Palm Canyon Drive stay open late. I drop in at an opening at Modern Tribal, Palm Springs' first African art gallery. The curator, Bob Weis, and his partner, Larry Lazzaro, are former East Village residents who have lived here since 1998. "When we first moved here, there were mid-century houses boarded up with plywood," Weis says. "Now Palm Springs has lost some of that Twilight Zone feel, as more and more urban transplants wearing 21st-century fashion replace the oldsters who still sport golf pants. Every now and then the two worlds collide. That's when the fun usually begins."
Over the years, the duo has met artists and writers here, building a circle of comrades who hope to transform Palm Springs, as Weis puts it, "from a cultural backwater to a creative center." Among the friends and patrons at their gallery are a couple who worked for the British pop singer Eric Burdon in 2003 and lived in the mountains north of town, and a pair of elegant sisters who share a tastefully decorated double-wide in a 55-and-over adult community. "We just threw a trailer-trash party," they mirthfully chirp.
At the opening there is wine and cheese, for which I am thankful, because the food in Palm Springs is not for the faint of heart or high of cholesterol. When in Rome, I would eat risotto. Here, the closest approximation to native grub is country-club cuisine. At Spencer's, I enjoy a Maine-lobster club sandwich and watch members playing at the adjacent tennis club, hoping to burn the calories by transference. I try the restaurant Never on Wednesday—on a Saturday—and Johannes, the most admired spot in town. One can eat only so many servings of ahi tartare, however. There are times when even the most dedicated traveler needs something down-home. I met my Waterloo at Simba's, set in a former bank, where the menus are pointless, since most people come for the soul-food buffet—which features everything from jambalaya to ambrosia.
There are ample opportunities to exercise in Palm Springs, from tennis to golf to pétanque (at the Parker). Mostly I do what the majority of people do here: I lie in the sun, float in the pool, and tool around in my soccer-mom Volvo V-40. Of course, I also power shop. At Modernway, there are discoveries: bedroom suites (and credenzas) by Pierre Cardin and custom furniture by Arthur Elrod, Palm Springs' most prominent interior designer. I poke through the department store-sized 111 Antique Mall and find a Paul Laszlo dresser just like the one I have at home, which appears to be worth more than I thought.
Much as I enjoy its showmanship and artifice, its stunning design and great shopping, I also go to Palm Springs to experience its natural wonders. Home to the Cahuilla tribe for thousands of years, the mountains and hot springs that surround the town echo with the primal connection between man and land. It took millions of years of tectonic shifts along the San Andreas Fault to create this gorgeous geological sink. The purple mountains that ring it are snowcapped in winter, yet the desert floor remains warm and dry all year.
Sometimes it seems that Palm Springs itself moves just as slowly, clinging to its bygone glamour and architectural legacy like a Rat Pack widow clutching her frozen daiquiri. There's nothing wrong with that. I enjoy the rich dichotomy in what Jonathan Adler calls "a place to go to feel a lot groovier than I actually am," and revel in a spot where the discards of one generation are so highly prized by the next—and so affordably priced. Change, however, is inevitable. The old Palm Springs is dying off, and I can only hope that the new breed of inhabitant stepping in to revive its glory is mindful of the one thing that really matters.
Once in a while you need a little distance to appreciate what that is. It takes only a 15-minute journey on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to gain this perspective, and I have never indulged in it, too busy searching for something fabulous when it's right there, towering over me. The ride, in a gondola with a motorized rotating floor high above Mount San Jacinto State Park, is as thrilling and nerve-jangling as any amusement park attraction. Looking through coin-operated binoculars from the observation terrace of the Mountain Station (elevation 8,516 feet), I spy a patchwork quilt. A vast stretch of beige appliquéd with emerald golf courses, red-tiled rooflines, and turquoise swimming pools, Palm Springs shimmers in the afternoon sun like a village preserved in amber. At last I can see it for what it really is: a mirage.
DAVID A. KEEPS is the Los Angeles correspondent for Travel + Leisure.