Where to go, what to do and where to stay in this perfect desert oasis that was once Hollywood’s favourite playground.
Hanging out in Palm Springs in the Sixties meant encounters with Hollywood royalty were an everyday occurrence. You could have been twirling seafood spaghetti in Frank Sinatra’s favourite restaurant, Johnny Costa’s – Ol’ Blue Eyes doing the same in the next booth. Or perhaps you would have found yourself shoulder to sharkskin-suited shoulder with Sammy Davis Jr. and his fellow Rat Packers in a piano bar. You might even have spotted a loved-up Elvis and Priscilla, who honeymooned here after their 1967 wedding.
Nowadays, visitors have to be content with following these A-listers’ footsteps and forkfuls, sampling their favourite dishes and touring their former homes. Surrounded by the Coachella Valley – famous for its star-studded music festival each April – located in the Sonoran Desert and sheltered by the San Bernardino mountain range, the Californian city really does feel like an oasis. Or rather, a chic, modernist mirage.
No wonder it became a prime playground for Hollywood stars, especially being less than two hours’ drive from LA. Sinatra, Liz Taylor, Liberace and Dean Martin had homes here, while Elvis and Priscilla leased their ‘Honeymoon Hideaway’ from 1966-67, using it for entertaining and generally escaping the glare of fame. A Walk of Stars in downtown has the names of famous residents etched in pink and gold squares. The Palm Springs Historical Society has walking tours around Hollywood homes and mid-century modern architecture, characterised by flat lines, large glass windows and open designs. Look out for Bob Hope’s home, shaped like an oyster shell. Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate is available for private tours and rentals for the truly monied – rates start at $2,600 per night. Guests do have the privilege of swimming in his piano-shaped pool, though.
Those with shallower pockets can wander around the Presleys’ Honeymoon Hideaway, also known as the ‘House of Tomorrow’ thanks to futuristic touches like the space-age conical chimney flue and kitchen appliances built into the worktops. Comprised of four perfect circles with glass and peanut brittle stonework, it was built by lauded developer Robert Alexander, who shaped the city’s modernist architecture with his father George.
Thankfully, there are still opportunities for avid star spotters to encounter a star or two. Coachella Festival attracts hip young things from Rihanna to Taylor Swift, while the International Film Festival each January has brought many big names to town, including Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio and Dakota Fanning.
And of course the city is also a movie star, providing the location for Sean Connery’s Bond classic Diamonds Are Forever and, more recently, Ocean’s Eleven. It is still a Hollywood playground, after all.
Where to go:
Aerial Tramway: The world’s largest rotating tramcar glides two and a half miles up the sheer cliffs of Chino Canyon, taking riders from Mexico to Alaska in the space of 15 minutes. At 8,516 feet above the arid desert floor, the temperature plummets by between 30 and 40F. At the top are 50 miles of hiking trails, regularly dusted with snow. www.pstramway.com
Joshua Tree: Arriving at this national park, less than an hour’s drive from Palm Springs, you could be forgiven for thinking you have somehow landed on another planet. Named for the twisty, bristly Joshua trees, which seem frozen mid-dance, and scattered with bizarre rock formations that could have been sculpted by the surrealists, it’s certainly other-worldly. The landscape is even more ethereally beautiful at night against star-carpeted skies. www.nps.gov/jotr/
Uptown Design District: On North Palm Canyon Drive is a dream cluster of boutiques, tiny galleries and high-concept design stores, embracing the city’s kitsch image but polishing it with a glossy coat of chic. Pick up tchotchkes you never knew you wanted, invest in pop art and statement lighting at Just Modern, and prepare to lose hours in Trina Turk’s trio of boutiques.
Palm Springs Art Museum: With 28 galleries and two sculpture gardens, it’s easy to lose a few hours in this impressive art museum. The permanent collection includes works by Roy Lichtenstein, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, with sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. There’s also a fascinating array of ancient Mesoamerican figures from pre-Columbian times. www.psmuseum.org
Where to stay:
Parker Palm Springs: This luxe resort sits just on the edge of downtown Palm Springs, and has plenty to keep guests occupied on site. Two saltwater pools, for example, including the adults only Gene Autry pool, open until 2am. There’s even a lemonade stand and fire pit in the grounds. Rooms are far from standard, with vintage furnishings and Peruvian weavings. Book a Lanai or Patio room for private poolside lounge areas with basket chairs and hammocks. Rooms start at $370 per night. www.theparkerpalmsprings.com
Alcazar: Perfectly placed for exploring the boutiques and galleries of the Uptown Design District, ground-level rooms surround the saltwater pool and courtyard – think retro motel style, given a glossy upscale makeover. Rooms are blazingly white, from the Italian linen sheets to the walls, with cushions and framed wall art providing pops of colour. Some have verdant private courtyards and Jacuzzi tubs. On-site restaurant Cheeky’s is a popular brunch spot and locals’ hangout. Rooms start at $222 per night. www.alcazarpalmsprings.com
Arrive: The Arrive property was co- founded by one of Facebook’s original employees, Ezra Callahan. And the hotel’s ethos is as millennial as one might expect, with check-in at the bar and services requested via text message. In the Design District, its midcentury- modern design at once catches the eye and seamlessly blends with its desert backdrop, ringed by skinny palm trees and the San Bernardino mountains. Rooms start at $496 per night. www.arrivehotels.com