Not long ago my stereotypical images of Palm Springs involved polyester-clad duffers puttering around on electric carts or over-tanned B movie stars boozing it up poolside, interrupted only occasionally for a shoot. Granted, these folks were swathed in an endless sunlight, but that wasn’t enough to get me to join them anytime soon.
But after hearing so much about the emergence of Palm Springs as an evolving tourist Mecca and a once-again trendy vacation spot, I opted for an overdue visit during a post-Easter week when a plane ticket fortuitously was plopped into my lap by a dear friend, who was to join me of course.
Alaska Airlines flies directly from Seattle into Palm Springs’ gorgeous garden airport. A sea of green appeared below us as we landed and taxied to the new Jetsons-like terminal. Palm Springs takes pride in its reputation as the “capital of modernism” and much of the recent publicity on the area has focused on the outstanding displays of vintage modern architecture and design.
Stepping off the 737 my senses were instantly seduced. I expected to feel a blast of heat of course, but the air has a silky, almost aromatherapeutic feel, a harmonious blend of millions of year-round blossoming flowers and fruit trees. I was instantly impressed by a vision of an oasis in the desert, and a town blanketed with thousands of gardens. They are fed mostly by the underground springs which contribute to the town’s name and satisfies nearly all of the water needs.
During the short wait for my luggage I watched putters on the airport putting green. Then I was suddenly in a cab for a five minute ride to my destination, the Hacienda at Warm Sands. The warm sands area is an enclave of inns near the heart of town. Spring is considered high season and there had been only one room remaining when we’d booked many weeks in advance.
We were greeted warmly by general manager Steven Siehl and escorted to our suite past tropical landscaping and two glittering pools. Without gushing I am hard-pressed to describe entering this oasis for the first time. Our suite featured stunning pieces of exotic hardwood furniture, including rare old teak, two brushed-cotton sofas, full entertainment centers in both the living room and separate bedroom, and high-speed wireless internet. There was a complete kitchen, plantation shutters which open onto the pool, and cool sautillo tiles (which also cover the entire pool areas) and a wonderful dining room with fireplace. That night we discovered the most divinely comfortable king bed, luxuriantly adorned with chenille blankets, down pillows (chosen off a pillow menu!) and comforter.
Okay, so I was willing to spend the entire trip right there, but I had no say in the matter, as my friend and tour guide spirited me off to the Village, mere blocks away, for the weekly villagefest – a Thursday night street fair featuring hundreds of vendors, artists, and musicians, held on famous Palm Canyon Drive, and an absolute smorgasbord of people watching and shopping. We easily walked from warm sands, which is near the Historic Inn district and many of the town’s most appealing locales. The Desert Museum, the brand new Spa Hotel and Casino, fine restaurants and clubs, nightlife, hiking and bicycle rentals, can all be found within a short walk.
During our stroll we passed quaint shops along with the tacky T-shirt emporiums one expects to find in a tourist town. But Palm Springs has obviously made an effort. Numerous historic buildings remain, and recent additions appear to keep in line with a code of Spanish and desert aesthetics.
After purchasing some locally grown lemons and a few trinkets at the fair we headed back to a Mexican restaurant we’d noticed while meandering – a wonderful open-air street side affair called the Blue Coyote – and settled in for a marvelous evening of tostados, fajitas, and margaritas. Hand-holding gay-couples, of which there were many, breezed by the most conservative-looking tourists without notice. Gentle misters kept us cool and refreshed. As night fell, millions of twinkling stars appeared in the desert sky. Palm Springs boasts a stringent lighting code to keep the magical night vistas alive.
Before bed we went for a midnight swim. The Hacienda is clothing optional and it was easy to sneak a few peeks at the hot tub. This was my cue to unburden myself from all restrictions, including my shorts. There is something so primal about swimming nude under that desert sky.
In the morning we rose to a brilliant sun. After a delicious breakfast in the courtyard we rented a convertible at a nearby car rental office (convertibles are everywhere) and we were off to Palapas, the famous art gardens. Located in picturesque Araby Cove Palapas is a unique hands-on artist colony. It is also the area’s oldest nursery. Tricking waterfalls and colorful foliage provide an ideal setting, and Palapas has become a premiere destination. But this day we had it practically to ourselves, and we enjoyed watching the artists demonstrate glass-blowing, weaving, marble-sculpting, and oil-painting, I was fascinated with one sculptor who created sinks and fountains out of boulders. On display was one finished example of a large bathroom sink which he had spent weeks creating.
After Palapas we returned to the Hacienda for an appetizing catered lunch and spent the remainder of the day lounging by the pool making new friends That evening we ate at St. James, an absolute world-class Cal-Asian eatery downtown. We finished the day just a block away at Hunters, a popular pub on Arenas Street, the main club drag-then strolled leisurely back to our room.
The next day, our final one, began with another dazzling sunrise. We planned to spend the entire day at Indian Canyons, the ancestral homeland of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla (pronounced Kaw-wee-ha) Indians. For centuries they developed complex communities in the Palm, Murray, Andreas, and Tahquitz canyons above Palm Springs.
Many remnants of their society are still visible, including rock art, house-pits and foundations, dams, reservoirs, and trails. Today, the remaining members of this tiny tribe (only about 300 members) thrive in the area, through savvy business management of real estate and gambling interests.
After picking up picnic supplies we found the auto entrance at the south end of Palm Canyon Drive, which also accommodates hikers, bikers, and those on horseback. Just past the tollbooth (6 dollars per adult) the road forks and you’ll have to choose between Andreas or Palm Canyons. If you’re not planning on doing serious hiking however, you can mosey around the base of both canyons in a single afternoon. We began at Andreas, where a free informational tour was being given by a ranger. We were shown rock art, bedrock mortars, and metates used for preparing food. Our guide took us on a short trek where we got a feel for what it might be like to climb the magnificent canyon. He explained that not much further up were giant waterfalls and swimming holes (where locals know to go) created from the melting snow above. He pointed out indigenous flora and fauna, and excited us with the possibility of seeing wild horses, bighorn sheep (an endangered species) and mountain lions.
Next we drove the short distance to Palm Canyon. Standing beneath towering nearly-Redwood-size trees we learned we were in the largest natural grove of palm trees in the world – a grove over 2000 years old. Fifteen miles long, the canyon, with its lush rich palms, winds up into the mountains as far as one can see. A footpath leads to a stream near the trading post where dozens of hummingbirds swarmed a feeder. While enjoying our picnic at one of the tables beneath the monstrous trees we became awed by the beauty and wondered why this otherworldly place was rarely mentioned when Palm Springs was discussed.
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