More sophisticated than Vegas, more laid back than Los Angeles -- and in winter, more reliably sunny and warm than either one -- Palm Springs is one of those places that looks awfully good to an awful lot of people at this time of year.
Not that the weather is its only calling card. This vintage resort town has been sashaying its way back into the spotlight of late, with a new generation of entrepreneurs and vacationers rediscovering the iconic town. The industry is paying attention, too: Virgin America launched a weekly flight from New York, on Saturdays through next spring -- and perhaps beyond. Here's why to go now -- and what to do, once you get there.
Resorts for every taste
Imagine the lobby of New York's hipper-than-you Ace Hotel on any given evening, except that you're by a pool, in the sunshine and the crowd is better looking. That sums up the scene at the Palm Springs Ace Hotel & Swim Club, breathing new life into a defunct Howard Johnson's. The vibe may be all fun, but it's also plenty grown up: there's yoga by the pool, good food at the King's Highway -- the nicely updated motor lodge coffee shop space -- and a small spa. The only thing you can't count on here, at least on busy weekends, is a ton of sleep. But if you'd like something more restful, and much more luxurious, I vote for the historic Willows Inn, formerly the home of a well-connected millionaire. Stay where Einstein and Clark Gable were guests, although there's no evidence that they ever met in this hidden treasure just a short walk to town. The eight rooms are all different, and the abundant breakfast and evening snacks, included in your room rate, might be all you need to keep fed during your stay. Palm Springs has long been a retreat for gay men (and women to a lesser extent), and the classy Hacienda resort (free breakfast and lunch, a pillow menu, two pools) has long been a favorite. It's just one of over a dozen resorts catering to this demographic.
Philanthropists of note Walter and Leonore Annenberg used to welcome a who's who of very important people up to Sunnylands, their 25,000-square-foot Mid-Mod palace, tucked inside 200 private acres over in Rancho Mirage. Nixon? Check. Reagan? Check. Gorby? You bet. Who wasn't here, really -- to the point that Sunnylands became known as the Camp David of the west coast. This year, the house and its intensely pretty gardens opened to the public for tours, which cost $35 and should be booked in advance. Learn more at their website.
Yes way, Jose
When the Iron Chef-winning Jose Garces -- Philadelphians will be endlessly familiar with his work -- landed in Palm Springs this past winter, we, like all of Palm Springs, sat up and paid attention, watching as the local culinary scene got quite the jumpstart. Opening not one but two restaurants at the new Saguaro hotel, Garces is bringing both Spanish (at Tinto) and Mexican (El Jefe) small plates to a crowd starved for more sophisticated dining options. El Jefe's fun Taco Tuesdays -- $2 tacos, $5 margaritas -- are a hit with locals and visitors alike.
Take a peek up Marilyn's skirt
Go ahead, everyone else does. She wasn't the biggest hit during her residency on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, but when the 26-foot statue of Norma Jean Baker -- sorry, Marilyn Monroe -- landed on Palm Canyon in downtown Palm Springs, the crowds couldn't stay away. "Forever Marilyn," a 34,000-pound beauty designed by sculptor Seward Johnson was finally somewhere that felt more like home. The rather formidable work of art has become quite the attraction in the city's slowly-changing downtown -- afterwards, hang at the smart Espresso Cielo just a block and a half to the south, where locals come out to gossip and show off their impossibly cute dogs. (245 S. Palm Canyon Dr.)
From a multi-day adventure on the terrific and challenging Cactus to Clouds trail, to the relative walk-in-the-park vibe at pretty Palm Canyons Preserve, Palm Springs is an outdoor enthusiast's dream during the cooler months. Cheats can ride the famed Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which ascends two and a half miles up Mt. San Jacinto, stopping at 8,516 feet above sea level to give visitors some time to get intimate with the sometimes heavy snows that cover the peak at this time of year. A short drive away, the Joshua Tree National Park offers other scenic hiking possibilities, although many visitors are content to just explore by car.
Smart breakfasts at Cheeky's, classic cocktails at the very butch Workshop Kitchen & Bar, pizza and people watching on the patio at Birba's, the sweet little Alcazar boutique hotel located next door -- Palm Springs' once-moribund Uptown neighborhood is giving visitors piles of great reasons to stop short of the rest of town and stick around for a weekend or more. The neighborhood, officially known as the Uptown Design District, contains some very good design and vintage shops tucked away in atmospheric courtyard shopping complexes that invite extended browsing; Raymond Lawrence is a fashionable new concept store that ought not to be missed. One of my favorite shops, Just Modern, features custom-made reinterpretations of mid-century furniture and objects, but it's just one of dozens of shops along North Palm Canyon Drive catering to those hooked on the genre.
A mid-century wonderland
Palm Springs and mid-century modernism fit together like a glove -- a fitted, very fashionable vintage glove, purchased from a high-end consignment shop. Each February (this year, it's the 14th through the 24th), the city celebrates its style with Palm Springs Modernism Week, which means house tours, walking tours, parties, exhibits, lectures -- did we mention parties? If you're not visiting during this event, take a fascinating tour of the city's midcentury treasures with PSModernTours. A 150-minute exploration costs $75 per person and for many is a highlight of their trip. Be sure to reserve well in advance. In addition, the Palm Springs Historical Society offers weekly walking tours of downtown.
Museums and galleries
Carrying a torch for culture in the desert since the 1930s, the Palm Springs Art Museum has come a long way, baby. Lately, it's been working hard to expand its role here in the Coachella Valley, most notably with this year's debut of a new campus in nearby Palm Desert, featuring a sculpture garden -- free to the public -- and galleries in a LEED Silver-certified new building. Next up, they'll be taking on the launch of a new architecture and design museum in a handsome mid-century bank building in downtown Palm Springs, but for now, the original article, with its diverse collection, rotating exhibits and free Second Sunday event, is definitely a great way to kick off a cultural tour of the valley and it's 60+ galleries. For a good overview of the area arts scene, check out artsoasis.org.
Grab some wheels and go
The city's spacious streets are perfect for exploring on two wheels; Bike Palm Springs rents everything from easy-does-it Townie fixies to Fuji mountain bikes; they've even got stylish tandems, perfect for a winter afternoon saunter down Palm Canyon with your best pal.
The Palm Springs Follies
It's pretty amazing to see performers in their 70's and 80's kicking their heels up on stage, and if you haven't taken the time to witness this spectacle then you haven't been to Palm Springs. Now in its 22nd season, the Follies features famous guest stars and international variety acts along with their more "seasoned" performers, most of whom have had long histories on Broadway and in the movies.
In hot water
Mildew-scented hot tubs, nudists who ought to have the sense to cover up at their age, dated and depressing décor -- there's still plenty of that to go around in Desert Hot Springs, the take-the-waters enclave just a few minutes from the action in Palm Springs proper. But amid all that excitement, there are a growing number of re-imagined, intimate hot springs resorts that have guests raving. The seven-room Sagewater Spa (our current top pick) has a fully equipped kitchens in each sleek, updated room. Book a watsu treatment in the mineral water-filled pool and feel the relaxation wash over you. Not that you have to go to Desert Hot Springs for a spa experience; The Saguaro has a cool little set-up, offering locally themed treatments such as a date shake wrap, while out on the other side of town, full-service resorts like the Westin Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage offer the type of spa you could gear a weekend around.
Truthfully, this is just scratching the surface of all there is to do, see and savor in greater Palm Springs. For more information and a planning guide, visit Palmspringsoasis.com.
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Above photo of the Kaufmann House by Slim Aarons