The mood is mod and the art is amazing. And you don’t even need a car to enjoy it
Palm Desert: The Capital of Cool
David Fenton
A snapshot of midcentury Palm Desert

I’ve just suffered through two-plus hours of Inland Empire gridlock so that I can unwind in the desert, and I plan to ditch my car for the weekend (if not, alas, forever). Which is why I’ve come to Palm Desert. Not only does it do the whole midcentury modern thing perfectly, but of all California’s desert resorts, it’s also probably the most pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

I’m ready to enjoy the glittery shopping and dining street El Paseo, galleries, a collection of California landscape paintings at the Living Desert museum, and the Eric Johnson Memorial Gardens (named after the “desert landscape guru of the Coachella Valley,” who was also a former garden editor for Sunset).

Then again, I might just park myself beside the salt-water pool at my hotel and spend the rest of the afternoon meditating on the cerulean water.

Sculptures, cycles, and cactus

Not to worry. After a mind-clearing dip in the pool, it’s a sunset walk to downtown Palm Desert to scope out the town’s public art, beginning with freshly installed sculptures rising out of the El Paseo median against a backdrop of rust-colored mountains. The air is as dry as chalk, the fading desert light gallery-perfect for pondering a 25-foot-long piece pairing an iridescent hummingbird with a damselfly.

In the morning, it’s a five-minute stroll to Funseekers to rent a bike. Okay, it would have taken five minutes if I hadn’t diverted up the block to take a look at the black-and-white midcentury modern house of William Boyd (better known as Hopalong Cassidy) and then dropped in at the Desert Art Collection & Sculpture Garden, a very cool gallery with a large courtyard set with sculptures amid palm trees, cactus, and bougainvillea.

David Fenton

Blue-chip contemporary art at Imago Galleries.  

At Funseekers, I’m feeling conflicted. Not only does it have all sorts of bikes to rent, but it also offers Segways and mopeds. Still, I’ve pledged to be fume-free this weekend, so I opt for a hybrid bicycle and power a mile and a half up a bike lane along Portola Avenue to the Living Desert, where I’m just in time for the docent-led tour of paintings of woodlands, seascapes, and deserts. My favorite: Granville Redmond’s Cloudy Day at Monterey, from the early 1900s.

Later, I ride the length of El Paseo to the Eric Johnson Memorial Gardens, an oasis of curving paths that take you past gurgling waterfalls, cactus-covered sand dunes, and a shaded rock-wall canyon. If I could somehow get Laura to deliver one of her Mod-tinis here, I could just chill out all afternoon.

No matter. After dropping my bike off, I hoof it to Pacifica Seafood Restaurant, known for its fresh fish and its vodka bar―130 kinds from 19 countries―where vodka martinis are $6 all night long. Perfect. Even better, it’s a short walk back to the resort.

David Fenton

A bevy of barrel cactus at the Living Desert.

48 hours in Palm Desert

Friday: Enjoy a killer margarita on the patio at Armando’s Bar & Grill ($$; 73-260 El Paseo; 760/346-0744).

Saturday: Check out the Desert Art Collection & Sculpture Garden (free; 45350 San Luis Rey Ave.; Then rent a bike (from $25 per day) or a moped (from $62 per day) at Funseekers (73-865 State 111; 760/340-3861) and ride down El Paseo, making a stop at Imago Galleries (45-450 State 74; 760/776-9890), which, with its blue-chip artists, is practically the MOMA of the desert.

The nearby Palm Desert Visitor Center (72-567 State 111; 760/568-1441) is a good place to pick up bike-trail maps and explore the surrounding Eric Johnson Memorial Gardens (free), a multisensory setting of desert plantings.

The Gardens on El Paseo (73-545 El Paseo), an open-air shopping plaza, has a number of excellent dining spots, including Sullivan’s Steakhouse ($$$$; 760/341-3560), for steaks and jazz, and Pacifica Seafood Restaurant ($$$; 760/674-8666), for oysters on the half-shell and cheap martinis.

Sunday: At the Living Desert ($13; 47900 Portola Ave.; 760/346-5694), mornings are a good time to catch the young animals―like Maliki, a giraffe calf born in May―at their most active. But first check for the next docent-led tour (11 3; no set times) of 50 California landscape paintings.

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