Steeped in showbiz heritage, feted for its modernist architecture and famed for its indie-music festival, Coachella, Palm Springs has been a sizzling desert hotspot since the 1940s. 100 miles east of the City of Angels, I recently had my first fling with this retro-chic retreat. The first thing you’ll notice is the rise in temperature.
Being a desert climate, by day, it’s generally a few degrees warmer than Los Angeles, although as is typical with deserts, it can also be starkly chillier overnight. The Greater Palms Spring area is informally called The Valley, shorthand for the Coachella Valley, whose name has a most unusual backstory. The valley developers had proposed the name “Conchilla” because of all of the little shells in the area.
In 1901, the prospectus of land for sale was sent to the printers, but a major typo by the printers saw the prospectus published with Conchilla spelled as Coachella. Rather than delay the grand unveiling of California’s new real estate development, the developers stuck with the mangled name, emblazoned across the prospectus. Without wishing to tempt fate, curiosity got the better of me, and I made a date with the San Andreas fault line.
It’s Southern California’s biggest ticking time-bomb, increasingly overdue to rupture. Visit the Coachella Valley Preserve and the signposting will guide you to the San Andreas Fault, where you straddle both the North American and Pacific Plates, marked by vertical rock uplift and slot canyons. For the extra-curious, you can follow the fault line’s path on a 4WD tour from Palm Springs.
The valley is surrounded by mountain ranges on three sides and Palm Springs is dramatically backdropped by the lofty peaks of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains, towering above the city. As you enter the valley on Highway 10, the elevation is 2600 feet, fast falling to 400 feet in Palm Springs, and further south near the Salton Sea, you’re actually below sea level at -227 feet.
The best way to get a sense of the wildly contrasting terrain is to jump on-board the Aerial Tramway, allegedly the world’s largest rotating cable car, for the ride up Mount San Jacinto, through the craggy Chino Canyon. Ascending 6000 feet miles in ten minutes, through five distinct vegetation zones, the 2.5 mile climb represents the average temperature change if you drove from British Colombia to Mexico City.
Alighting from the cable car at 8500 feet, the mountain peaks and surrounding pine forests are often dappled in snow, while the sprawling wilderness is invitingly laced with scenic hiking trails. Fifty years ago, nearly every major American entertainer owned a home in Palm Springs, transforming it into a buzzing winter playground for Hollywood royalty.
In more recent years, the region has often been derided as God’s waiting room for moneyed retirees in golf attire. After all, there’s over 100 golf courses in The Valley. But Palm Springs is absolutely back in vogue, where are whole new generation is falling in love with its trademark mid-century architecture. With no previous affinity for modernism – I was soon seduced by the glamtastic, Jetsonian designs in Palm Springs.
Modernism is to Palm Springs what art deco is for Miami Beach. You’ll meet George Jetson at the town entrance, with the local visitors centre now housed in the former Tramway Gas Station, a dramatically angled structure that was rescued from the wrecker’s ball.
Grab a map or download the app of over 80 significant landmarks sprinkled throughout the city, many of which line the main artery of Palm Canyon Drive, fittingly fringed by swaying palms. www.psmodcom.org Prime specimens include the blue-tiled Bank of America building, City Hall, the sensual curves of St. Teresa’s Church and the upside-down arches of Washington Mutal Bank.
It’s also fabulous fun getting lost in the winding streets of the ritzy Las Palmas and Little Tuscany neighbourhoods, at the foot of the mountains. Nicknamed Movie Colony, you’ll notice the streetscapes and grassy frontages are immaculately groomed with Beverly Hills-standard precision.
Here you will find dozens of ranch-style modernist mansions and their kidney-shaped pools, faithfully preserved in their space-age glory. Liberace’s Spanish-style casa in Belardo Road is still adorned with his trademark “L” symbol, while Twin Palms in Alejo Road, the Sinatra House, is where Ol’ Blue Eyes lived and fought with Ava Gardner.
Officially described as Desert Modern, the 1947 house set the new standard for Hollywood glamour, serving as a sensational backdrop for celebrity gatherings, passionate romance and the ever-important cocktail hour. You can arrange a private tour of the house.
Another superb mid-century gem is the King’s Love Nest, Elvis Presley’s Honeymoon Hideaway. Located in the leafy cul-de-sac of Ladera Circle, and officially known as the Alexander Estate, this mid-century modern classic with its sprawling butterfly roof was built in 1962. Consisting of four circular rooms built on three floors, glass and stone accents feature throughout the house.
Built by Robert Alexander, his entire family were killed in a plane crash in 1965. The King moved in a year later, and in 1967, the famously honeymooned here with Priscilla. The house has been authentically restored and you can book a walkthrough.
Alongside the spoil of specialty art stores, antiques dealers, designer boutiques and superb independent retail offerings, Palm Springs is a foodies’ favourite, spanning all tastes and budgets. Grazing from the bewildering array of options, here’s a couple of picks that certainly hit the spot for me.
Sometimes, you just feel like a burger and Tyler’s Burgers is a blast. This cash-only burger joint is located in a reclaimed 1930s’ Greyhound bus depot. Las Casuelas Terraza is a signature dining destination, sprawling across a remodelled 1920s’ Palm Springs casa. A perennial favourite with locals and visitors alike, the Delgado family has been serving authentic Mexican food for nearly 40 years from this downtown address. Whether you dine inside or on the Palapa patio, you’ll feel right at home.
It’s a regular award-winning establishment for Best Mexican food. Market-fresh food doesn’t get any crisper than at Villagefest, a weekly fun street fair that shuts down several blocks of Palm Canyon Drive. Staged every Thursday, graze from the fabulous farmers’ market for a good-to-go picnic, the arts and craft stalls and enjoy live music. It brings the locals out by the truckload. www.visitcalifornia.com