Daytime highs reach into the 70’s F (21C) during the winter, making this the best time to visit the Palm Springs Desert Resorts in Southern California’s Coachella Valley. The region is a recreational mecca comprised of eight distinctively charming cities: Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Indian Wells, Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and last, but not least, Palm Springs — the “Superstar of the Desert Empire.”
Started as a retreat for 1920’s screen stars, Palm Springs is still a magical place with perfectly manicured landscapes, intriguing public artwork, colorful flowerbeds and a serene ambiance. Such peaceful surroundings are a soothing salve to life’s everyday hassles. This is one destination where you’ll be pampered like the movie stars who still frequent this American desert oasis.
Wake up in romantic Villa Royale Inn (1620 Indian Trail; 800-245-2314). Framed by spectacular mountain views, this enchanting desert hideaway recalls an ancient Tuscan estate. Its tranquil courtyards are filled with blooming bougainvilleas, fragrant jasmine and gentle fountains. Winding brick paths lead to a large Jacuzzi, tucked away in a quiet corner of this little resort. Its 31 unique guest rooms — most are actually more like private little condos with kitchenettes, fireplaces and private patios — are variously themed with special décor to resemble different areas of the Mediterranean.
Have a complimentary breakfast, fast cooked to order, poolside under waving palm trees while humming birds buzz around you. Built in 1947, past and present stars of the silver screen like Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Eddie Murphy have stayed at Villa Royale, which was until recently owned by Tony Shaloub (“Men in Black,” “Spy Kids”) and Amy Aquino (“White Oleander,” “E.R.”). This secluded full-service boutique hotel, where guests have all their needs provided for, may lull you into just spending the day by the pool. But try hard to resist and get ready to explore!
A one-hour narrated Celebrity Tour (4751 East Palm Canyon Drive, Suite D; 760-770-2700) will give you a good overview of Palm Springs (population 42,350). You will ride past 60 to 90 homes of Palm Springs’ rich and famous, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Greta Garbo and Spencer Tracy.
The town has close connections with Hollywood. During the Great Depression, famous radio stars and silver screen personalities discovered that they could escape the tabloid paparazzi and find privacy in the Coachella Valley.
Sitcom celebrity Charlie Farrell and movie star Ralph Bellamy (“Rosemary’s Baby,” 1968) founded the Palm Springs Racquet Club in 1932 ? a celebrity haven for the next 40 years. It was the site of many glamorous parties and star-studded romances by the pool. Today, celebrities like Goldie Hawn and Arnold Schwarzenegger still maintain lavish homes here.
Palm Springs is like a little sister to Hollywood with its own “Walk of Stars” along Palm Canyon Drive, honoring celebrities who lived, loved and played in the desert oasis. Many movies were filmed in the area, such as “Ocean’s 12” with George Clooney and Julia Roberts. If you’re lucky, you might just run into a Hollywood star.
Tyler’s (149 South Indian Canyon Drive; 760-325-2990) is your destination for lunch. This former bus depot piles up the tastiest and most juicy burger patties in Palm Springs — the burgers are famous for their cheese or chili topping. There are also garden patties for vegetarians. And don’t forget to order their famous cole slaw prepared in a black pepper and sweet cream sauce.
Now that you’ve enjoyed a close-up of Palm Springs in the morning, how about a bird’s-eye view next? Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (1 Tramway Road; 888-515-8726) will take you to the 8,516-feet (2,595 m) high mountain station on Mount San Jacinto. During the spectacular 10-minute, 2.5-mile (4 km) aerial trip, you’ll pass through five unique live zones from the Mexican Sonoran Desert to an Alpine Wilderness. The Swiss-built tram is an engineering marvel and claims to feature the largest rotating cars in the world. The cabin floor slowly turns twice per trip so that you do not miss out on any angle of the view.
On a clear day you can see the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the west and the Salton Sea, the largest body of salt water in California (226 feet or 69 m below sea level) to the south. The north end of the Coachella valley is home to a wind farm containing more than 4,000 separate wind turbine generators, the largest standing 150 feet (46 m) tall, with blades half the length of a football field. Looking through the tramway’s window, they look like children’s toys from this high vantage point.
Up on top of Mount San Jacinto, more than 54 miles (87 km) of wilderness and hiking trails await. Take a warm jacket. At this time of year in December, snow is not uncommon and locals even bring their cross-country skis.
It’s early for dinner, but you will have a show to catch. So pick one of the many restaurants on Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs bustling Main Street. Del Rio’s (155 South Palm Canyon Drive; 760-320-9100) dispenses sumptuous and tantalizing Mexican fare with a twist. The Cedar Creek Inn (1555 South Palm Canyon Drive; 760-325-7300) serves delicious American and Caribbean fare. (Try their apricot bundt cake.) And if you just can’t decide on a geographical region of the world to sample tonight, then the Deck Restaurant (262 South Palm Canyon Drive; 866-534-6464) may be the right place for you, offering an eclectic global menu of American, Asian and Pacific cuisines.
The “Fabulous Palm Springs Follies” await you at the historic Plaza Theatre (128 South Palm Canyon Drive; 760-327-0225) at 7 pm sharp. Their sensational revue makes the music and dance of the 1930s and 40s come to life with a cast old enough to have lived it. The youngest company member of this year’s season is 56; the oldest is 87. But grandmother Beverly Allen, according to Guinness World Records the “World’s oldest still performing showgirl,” is still kicking up her heels and manages a perfect “splits” on stage.
Pack a picnic lunch and plan for a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park (74485 National Park Drive, Twentynine Palms; 760-367-5500). The shortest route is an hour’s drive (60 miles or 96 km) from Palm Springs if you take Interstate 10 to the north entrance at Twentynine Palms.
If you don’t mind a scenic detour, then take Highway 111, then 195 to the south entrance by the Cottonwood Visitor C center. This way, you’ll go past Oasis Date Gardens (59-111 Highway 111, Thermal; 760-399-5665 ), a 175-acre (0.7 km²) working date ranch founded in 1912, where you can sample the sweet Medjool Date and many more delicious varieties. Try their delicious date shake — made from real dates finely chopped and seeded, then mixed with vanilla ice cream and milk. There are also daily demonstrations about how dates are grown and harvested at 10:30 am and 2:30 pm.
Two deserts and their distinctly individual ecosystems come together in Joshua Tree National Park — a spectacular wonderland of unique geological features and hardy plants. The Colorado Desert encompasses the eastern half of the Park, which lies below 3,000 feet (914 m). The Low desert is dominated by the abundant creosote bush, a shrub with small resinous leaves that can live to be a hundred years old, and the cholla (pronounces choy-ya) cactus. The cholla appears to be covered with soft, silvery bristles. This is why the plant is sometimes called “Teddy Bear cactus.” But beware: Don’t make the mistake of touching it. Each of the spines is tipped with a microscopic barb, causing it to detach and stay with you.
The western part of the park is occupied by the higher, moister and slightly cooler Mojave Desert. This is where the famous Joshua Tree grows. Surprisingly, this slightly disorganized looking plant is a giant member of the lily family.
The tallest Joshua trees grow in the Covington Flats area of the park. The oldest and largest one is more than 700 years old. It is difficult to find though, and you may want to consider booking a guided tour. Elite Land Tours (555 South Sunrise Way; 800-514-4866) might be your best bet. Knowledgeable Mark Farley will take you in an all-terrain Hummer H2 on an eco-exploration to the most beautiful and unspoiled backcountry of the Park. Even on dirt roads, you can hardly feel any bumps. It’s a luxurious expedition, and if you wish, you can sign up for a white tablecloth catered lunch in the middle of the desert.
After this sumptuous meal in the middle of nowhere, you are probably not too hungry. Perhaps a gourmet sandwich for dinner will be just enough. Try Sherman’s Deli & Bakery (401 East Tahquitz Canyon Drive; 760-325-1199), a longtime favorite with locals. You will find New York-style hot Pastrami sandwiches on the menu of this kosher family restaurant, as well as bagels with lox or Swiss cheese, matzo ball soup, baby back ribs and rotisserie chicken.
Long before this beautiful oasis of palm trees, natural waterfalls and hot mineral springs at the base of towering mountains was discovered by westerners, Native Americans had lived in the Coachella Valley for at least 2,000 years. Dedicate today to discovering Palm Springs’ fascinating Indian heritage.
The oldest known village of the Agua Caliente, a band of Cahuilla (pronounced Kaw-we-ah) Indians, is in Tahquitz Canyon (500 West Mesquite Drive; 760-416-7044). The canyon, noted for its magnificent 60-foot (18 m) seasonal waterfall, pools, archeological irrigation system and rock art, is the ancient home of the powerful shaman Tahquitz. It is a sacred place to the Native Americans. Guides lead two-hour walking tours.
You are welcome to explore the Indian Canyons (38520 South Palm Springs Drive; 800-790-3398) by yourself. Along with Tahquitz Canyon, these three canyons south of Palm Springs are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Fifteen-mile long (24 km) Palm Canyon is considered the world’s largest California Fan Palm (also called Washingtonia filifera) oasis. The green and lush vegetation is a breathtaking contrast to the barren spice-colored desert lands beyond. A moderately graded and paved footpath winds down from the Trading Post (where you can buy maps and refreshments) to the stream. The four-mile (6.4 km) trek is beautiful, yet it’s a strenuous hike up to the source of Palm Canyon Creek. Prepare to wade through water at times!
Andreas Canyon is much more accessible. More than 150 species of indigenous flora line the easy mile-long (1.6 km) scenic loop along unusual rock formations. Keep your eyes peeled and you might even discover bedrock mortars and metates (stones with concave upper surface used to grind seeds) used centuries ago. Less visited Murray Canyon is an easy hike leading to a tranquil area among stately skirted palm trees.
In the late 1800’s, the United States Congress gave all surveyed odd-numbered one-mile (1.6 km) sections of the area to the Southern Pacific Railroad to induce them to build the railroad. The land was divided in a checkerboard pattern. And the even-numbered parcels were then deeded to the native residents of the area, the Agua Caliente. Of the reservation’s 32,000 acres (129 km²), some 6,700 (27 km²) lie within Palm Springs city limits. Today, this band of more than 300 tribal members represents Palm Springs’ largest single landowner.
This is why you will find the Indian-owned Spa Resort Casino right downtown (100 North Indian Canyon Drive; 800-854-1279). Even if you are not a fan of organized gambling, have lunch at the all-you-can-eat Oasis Buffet for less than US$ 10 and you will definitely be a winner. There are several active cooking stations for custom-ordered entrées. Choose from the expansive Mexican, American and Asian menu, but remember to leave room for dessert!
Afterwards, take a stroll down Palm Canyon Drive to the admission free Agua Caliente Indian Museum located in the Village Green Heritage Center in downtown Palm Springs (219 South Palm Canyon Drive; 760-778-1079) to learn about Native American culture. The small museum traces the history of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians from early prehistoric times to the present. The permanent exhibit include a Basketry display, an exhibit on pottery making and a replicated kish (palm frond hut) used by the Cahuilla people.
If you still have not had enough, check out the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens (47-900 Portola Avenue, Palm Desert; 760-346-5694). Established in 1970, the botanical gardens represent 10 different ecosystems — from the Southwest and Mexico to East Africa and Madagascar. More than 400 species, including coyotes, bighorn sheep, oryx antelopes, zebras and cheetahs live here. The Living Desert has grown to become one of the most successful zoological gardens in the country.
Treat yourself to something special for your last night and make reservations for dinner at the award-winning Europa Restaurant (1620 Indian Trail; 760-327-2314). This cozy auberge on the site of Villa Royale (once the innkeeper’s residence) tends to fill up even on weekdays. The Europa serves superb Continental cuisine and offers an impressive variety of imported and domestic wines served by a crackling fire or under twinkling desert stars on the intimate patio. This is said to be one of Barry Manilow’s favorite haunts. So be on the lookout!
Tomorrow you will be leaving already and you have not even had time to enjoy Palm Springs Desert Resorts’ 111 manicured golf courses, 600 tennis courts and 30,000 swimming pools. The recreational opportunities seem endless. But don’t despair. Everyone feels this way and many visitors come back. Most likely, you will too.
If You Go
Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority
70-100 Highway 111
Rancho Mirage, California 92270