With the completion of designer Jonathan Adler's first hotel project—Le Parker Meridien Palm Springs—all eyes are on California's desert oasis. David A. Keeps looks at the modernization of this retro-modern town.
Catherine Ledner

Designer Jonathan Adler, whose dotty ceramics and mod pillows launched a hip home-décor brand, has always favored Palm Springs for a little R&R. In his case, that means research and reconnaissance. "I have uncovered layer upon layer of vintage shops," the 38-year-old New Yorker says. "Just when you think you've seen it all, you discover a place that sells used lingerie, and that's where you'll find a vintage Givenchy silk shirt."

There was one Givenchy, however, that it took a while for Adler to get his hands on. That was Merv Griffin's Resort & Givenchy Spa, an extravagant bit of architecture—even for Palm Springs—with an exterior that looked like a Versace version of Versailles. Opened in 1959 as California's first Holiday Inn, the hotel became singing cowboy Gene Autry's Melody Ranch until fellow crooner Griffin revamped it in the 1990's as a luxury resort that played host to Robert Downey Jr. (in his wilder days) and Barbra Streisand (who had a wall demolished to link two villas). "I had driven by it many times," Adler says, "and always thought, What the hell is that?"

He found out when hotelier Jack Parker commissioned him to turn the Givenchy into Le Parker Meridien Palm Springs. Now, standing between the breeze-block valet parking area and the orange-lacquered lobby doors, Adler tells me the design mantra that guided his makeover of this grande dame of desert getaways: "To unite happiness and chic."

Once a decadent weekend retreat for the wealthy and the well connected, Palm Springs now welcomes some 2 million visitors a year. Winter-weary Northerners and real estate investors are fueling a tourism-and-development boom that rivals those of South Beach and Las Vegas, while design mavens from Seattle to San Diego are making pilgrimages to this Modernist mecca and snatching up tract ranches with asymmetrical rooflines. Over the past decade, I have watched Palm Springs undergo a regentrification, as newcomers connect with the glamour of another era and the fifties' futurist vision of resort life.

In a city where the Walk of Stars in the downtown shopping district has plaques for local cosmetic surgeons, the most noticeable face-lifts these days are on buildings. Every time I make the 110-mile drive from Los Angeles, I hear about the renovation of another historic hotel. Along with the Parker, L'Horizon—built in 1952 by desert architect William F. Cody for the actress Bonita Granville—is reopening this month as the Horizon Hotel. Interior designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard has been tapped to redo Colony Palms, a Spanish-style property, circa 1935, that the original owner, Purple Gang mobster Al Wertheimer, equipped with a basement casino, a speakeasy, and a brothel. And L.A. home-store owners Brad Cook, of the company Show, and John Bernard, of Room Service, have renovated and designed a number of vacation houses for rent.

The city's social complexion also appears more youthful (the average age of residents, once 58, is now 47) and more liberal, having crawled out from under the weight of Republican mores imposed by the late Sonny Bono, who became mayor (1989-93) on the promise that he would halt spring break by cracking down on those who dared to wear a thong in public. Now, the mayor and a majority of the city council members are openly gay.

Unofficially, Palm Springs, part of the Coachella Valley, stretches from the Desert Hills Premium Outlets in Cabazon (at least 130 stores and, it often seems, only slightly more parking spaces) to the date plantations of Indio, where I have driven 45 minutes just to get a date milk shake. Between the two lies Palm Springs, with its broad boulevards, mountain vistas, proud Spanish-Mediterranean buildings, and landmark Modern masterpieces in upscale neighborhoods like Las Palmas and the Movie Colony. For all of its attractions—unimpeachable weather, rugged yet ethereal landscapes, six casinos, and a Follies that stars the oldest living showgirls in the world—Palm Springs remains at heart a small-town resort dressed in big-city drag. It isn't for those who suffer from an irony deficiency.

The first visitors came around the turn of the 20th century to soak in the hot mineral-spring baths and recuperate from respiratory ailments in the dry desert air. The real action began in the 1920's, when Palm Springs became a Hollywood hideaway filled with Mediterranean villas like the Ingleside Inn (which still boasts that "Garbo slept here") and the Racquet Club, built by silent-film star Charles Farrell, where, it is said, Marilyn Monroe was discovered. From the rowdy rich who wined, dined, and gambled in the local haunts to the randy clientele who gamboled at "clothing-optional" resorts, Palm Springs became iconic as the place to get away from it all and to get away with anything. By the seventies, however, it had become a movie-star retirement home set on the back porch of the Wild West, with all of the jarring eccentricities that combination implies. Kirk Douglas Way, a major Palm Springs thoroughfare, was christened in October 2004.

Perhaps it's the collision of old Hollywood with new bohemia, perhaps it's the low, open spaces cradled between ancient mountains and the desert ecosystem, which reduces the four seasons to two—hot and hotter—but Palm Springs has always felt like a place suspended in time. In the mid-eighties, upon seeing the streamlined stone houses with yards landscaped in boulders, rocker Billy Idol remarked, "I thought I'd set foot in an episode of The Flintstones." I have come to see it that way too, to appreciate the baffling "modern Stone Age" contradictions that make Palm Springs an oasis of surrealism. Strolling past Q-tips (thin women with white puffs of hair) on the 1930's plaza, with its crystal shops and a salon called P.S. I Love Your Hair, and encountering a bronze statue of Sonny Bono dressed in desert casual, I feel as if I've just stepped through a seam in the space-time continuum. The community has been only too happy to embrace that image, turning the architectural treasures into an industry. The Visitor Center provides maps of famous buildings by Richard Neutra and Albert Frey, and such atomic age hotels as the Orbit In have rebounded like boomerang coffee tables. Though it often seems that the entire town has been painted orange, lime green, and swimming-pool blue, the design-driven renaissance in Palm Springs also includes Southwestern inns, Italian villas, and boutique hotels like the Moroccan-themed Korakia Pensione and the Viceroy, which is steeped in black-and-white movie-star glamour. Adler's redesign of the 144-room Parker is perhaps the most ambitious attempt to restore the luster of Palm Springs, the one that will likely be the benchmark for the luxury resorts that follow.

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.

Parker Palm Springs designer Jonathan Adler never knows where he might find inspiration. Here, his top local spots:

PRINTS CHARMING "Trina Turk [891 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/416-2856] has the clothes that everyone should wear on vacation: colorful and groovy. It's also the place to find out what's going on in town. Trina has her finger on the pulse."

PALM SPRINGS DIET "The magic of Melvyn's [200 W. Ramon Rd.; 760/325-2323; dinner for two $100] is that white-linen experience. They know their way around a steak and a cocktail, so it appeals to ninety-year-old swingers and twenty-year-old swinger wannabes."

ART TROUVÉ "There are miles of malls with consignment stores, but the Estate Sale [4185 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/321-7628] has a great art section. On a good day, you can find a needlepoint portrait of Liza Minnelli. I did not put that in the Parker. I took it home."

MALL WITH IT ALL "I love all the vintage shops at the Palm Canyon Galleria [457 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/323-4576], but Patrick and James at Bon Vivant have the best eye and a sort of missionary zeal to get things into the right people's hands at reasonable prices. My own personal passion is the pieces they get by Danish ceramist Bjoern Wiinbladd, but they also have an incredible collection of major California crafts."

Once a desert resort with two distinct seasons—warm with chilly nights (winter); dry, hot, and somewhat deserted (summer)—Palm Springs is becoming a year-round getaway, with direct flights from many major cities. Though it's only 110 miles from Los Angeles, driving time varies during rush hour.

Horizon Hotel
DOUBLES FROM $189. 1050 E. PALM CANYON DR.; 760/323-1858; www.thehorizonhotel.com

Korakia Pensione
DOUBLES FROM $129. 257 S. PATENCIO RD.; 760/864-6411; www.korakia.com

Le Parker Meridien Palm Springs
DOUBLES FROM $395. 4200 E. PALM CANYON DR.; 888/450-9488 OR 760/770-5000; www.lemeridien.com

Orbit In
DOUBLES FROM $179. 370 W. ARENAS RD.; 877/996-7248 OR 760/323-3585; www.orbitin.com

Room Service
THREE- AND FOUR-BEDROOM HOUSES FROM $400. 760/318-9331; www.roomservice-la.com

HOUSES FROM $350 A NIGHT. 323/644-1960

DOUBLES FROM $219. 415 S. BELARDO RD.; 800/670-6184 OR 760/320-4117; www.viceroypalmsprings.com

DINNER FOR TWO $100. 196 S. INDIAN CANYON DR.; 760/778-0017

Melvyn's Restaurant
DINNER FOR TWO $100. 200 W. RAMON RD.; 760/325-2323

NOW, Never on Wednesday
DINNER FOR TWO $80. 476 N. PALM CANYON DR.; 760/327-0550

BUFFET $14.99 PER PERSON. 190 N. SUNRISE WAY; 760/778-7630

BRUNCH FOR TWO $50. 701 W. BARISTO RD.; 760/327-3446

Modern Tribal
1301 N. PALM CANYON DR., SUITE 306; 760/778-3896

2755 N. PALM CANYON DR.; 760/320-5455

111 Antique Mall
2500 N. PALM CANYON DR.; 760/202-0215