Palm Springs forever

The desert is calling, with new hotels and a terrific lineup of design boutiques.
Who knew the '50s could be so much fun?

David Lansing

Palm Springs travel planner: hotels, restaurants, sights, and more

Slip out of the dry desert heat into the breezy lobby of the Del Marcos Hotel, and there to greet you from behind the orange-topped registration desk is none other than Ol' Blue Eyes himself, looking quite debonair. Not literally, of course. But the Warhol-ish painting certainly evokes the proper dooby-dooby-do era.

Meanwhile, just blocks away at the Atomic Age-inspired Orbit In, where the rooms are furnished in midcentury-modern furniture, two women sit poolside at the lava lamp-lit Boomerang Bar, playing gin rummy and discussing Albert Frey's second house, a modest glass-and-metal box perched on the edge of the chocolate-colored hills above the hotel. "My grandparents had a house just like that when I was a kid," says one of the women wistfully. "I loved it. It was just so ... "

"Cool?" suggests the other woman.

"Exactly!"

The desert heats up

Think of Palm Springs as a cocktail: Mix one part Rat Pack glamour, a shot of desert beauty, fill to the top of the glass with balmy days, and stir up the perfect desert midwinter getaway. That it's only about 110 miles east of Hollywood has long been reason enough for Angelenos to claim it as their private hideaway, but in the last few years, as it has blossomed with boutique hotels and ― finally ― some decent eateries, snowbirds from Seattle to Salt Lake City have claimed it as their own as well.

"We've always had the Hollywood notoriety," says Steve Rizzo, general manager of the Orbit In. "Now people from all over have taken notice of the modern architecture."

And the desert is particularly alluring this month. Rain is unlikely, the temps are heating up but are still bearable (averaging 72°), and there's a plethora of outdoor activities, from touring the Indian Canyons to cool hiking from the 8,500-foot top of the aerial tram.

But for anyone who is a fan of 1950s and '60s home design, a trip to Palm Springs is truly a must. Why here? Well, because of the love for the early Hollywood glamourati who made their homes here, and the rock stars of midcentury-modern architecture ― Albert Frey, Richard Neutra, William F. Cody ― who built those homes.

Ultimate desert road trip
Palm Springs hideaway
Boutiques showcasing swanky cocktail dresses and loungewear (think Jackie O meets Marcia Brady) and former garage-sale items like Melmac dishes are as ubiquitous as the palm trees along the main drag, Palm Canyon Drive. And hotels ― like the Horizon and Parker Palm Springs ― have gotten into the act as well ― or maybe they led the way; there's much discussion as to which came first, Corbusier adulation or Eames envy.

Celebrate local architects

The rise of the glam boutique hotel would probably come as a surprise to the godfather of desert modernism, Swiss-born Albert Frey (pronounced "fray"). His most famous Palm Springs design, the soaring, wedge-shaped Tramway Gas Station on the edge of town, was almost torn down in the name of revitalization just before his death in 1998. Today, it's the much-celebrated home of the Palm Springs Visitors Center (and close to where the famous ― and utterly worthwhile ― aerial-tram tours depart). Here you can pick up "Palm Springs: Brief History and Architectural Guide," a $3 booklet that lists some three dozen architectural gems and a map to find them.

Take a break from design with a jaunt to the Living Desert in nearby Palm Desert (a 20-minute drive) to see botanical gardens representing plants from the Sonoran Desert and palm oases. Hike or ride a horse through the Indian Canyons with their year-round streams. Then, in the afternoon, wander around downtown, perhaps stopping to take your picture sitting next to the life-size bronze statue of Sonny Bono at the Mercado Plaza. And watch the street scene unfold from the second-floor balcony of the Falls Prime Steakhouse while sipping one of its excellent martinis and nibbling on rum-drunk shrimp.

You'll want to save at least a half-day for exploring the city's shops, many of which are bunched around the northern end of Palm Canyon Drive in a neighborhood called Uptown.

One of the best is Retrospect, which carries a wide range of midcentury furnishings, like Bertoia Diamond chairs and a Jens Risom Amoeba coffee table. As owner Laine Scott says, "It's ironic because 20 years ago, the city thought the best way to revitalize Palm Springs was to tear down all these midcentury-modern buildings. Now they realize that it's people's love for this style that's going to save this city. You walk into a place like the Del Marcos Hotel and you can just feel the Rat Pack-ness of it. And that makes the city feel so hip again."

But has our love for the era peaked?

If you have any doubts, head to nearby Desert Memorial Park and look for the final resting place of Francis Albert Sinatra. There, on white stone, it says it all: THE BEST IS YET TO COME.