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Beyond Los Angeles: A trip to Palm Springs

Palm Springs is the USA’s ultimate desert resort. Encircled by mountains and just two hours east of Los Angeles, the city has long been the stomping ground of golf-loving, condo-dwelling retirees, but they’re no longer the overwhelming demographic in town.

Over the past decade or so – following a quiet period of reinvention in the 1980s and 90s – the city has lured an entirely new crowd: these days you’re as likely to be mixing with desert hikers, hip young urbanites and a sizeable upmarket gay community as you are with legions of leisurewear-clad seniors. And don’t knock the oldies either, for these are the very people who’ve helped keep Palm Springs’ indomitable mid-century spirit alive all these years, playing a major role in matters of development and preservation, and propping up the same type of kitschy venues that are now such an attraction for nostalgic retro-seeking visitors.

 

Mid-century architecture

In the post-war years, Palm Springs was known as a playground for the international jet set. An ever-increasing circle of Hollywood’s elite helped fuel the city’s growth by commissioning avant-garde homes from an innovative clique of designers, who left a modernist architectural legacy that remains unparalleled in its influence.

Celebrated for its abundant use of glass, angular rooflines, open-plan interiors and a streamlined indoor/outdoor approach that capitalised on southern California’s warm climate, the Desert Modern style came to define Palm Springs. Highlights include architect John Lautner’s concrete-canopied Elrod House, used as a location in Diamonds are Forever; Frank Sinatra’s 1947 Twin Palms Estate; Elvis and Priscilla’s honeymoon getaway, the ‘House of Tomorrow’, and architect Richard Neutra’s landmark Kaufmann House.

Without a doubt, the best way to get to grips with the city’s distinctive styles, neighbourhoods, architects and buildings is by taking one of Robert Imber’s twice-daily Palm Springs Modern Tours, which give an expansive overview of the 1920s-1970s period with a focus on the glamorous 50s and 60s.

Robert is an architectural historian whose encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject brings the past to life in glorious detail. His commentary gives historical context to these extraordinary structures and is liberally sprinkled with juicy titbits about Rat Pack-era stars and their lives in the desert. You’ll learn how Palm Springs came to have the greatest concentration of mid-century modern architecture in the USA, about the maverick architects and designers who developed ‘Desert Modernism’, and how the style spread beyond residential enclaves to include civic buildings, country clubs, banks, resorts and hotels.

Tours take place in Robert’s air-conditioned minivan, and last approximately three hours. Note they do not include interior visits, but true enthusiasts can time their visit to coincide with the annual Palm Springs Modernism Week – held every February – when a number of home tours are available.

Cool hotels

Many of Palm Springs’ hotels are a destination in their own right, capitalising on their mountain views and home to some of the city’s best restaurants, bars and spas. But in a town where almost every building oozes kerb appeal, choosing where to lay your head is no easy task.

We love the rainbow-hued Saguaro off Palm Canyon Drive; a 1965-built resort which, until its recent transformation, was a gloomy khaki-green Holiday Inn. Now the serotonin-boosting property can only be described as euphoric, with a vivid new colour palette reflecting the indigenous flowers of the southwestern desert.

Created from the bones of an old motel, the 2009-opened Ace Hotel & Swim Club is just along the road from the Saguaro, and is undoubtedly one of the hippest hangouts in town. Rooms range from bright, simple doubles adorned with magazine cuttings to large patio suites with ‘curated’ vinyl collections. Even if you’re not staying, stop by for breakfast at King’s Highway: a self-proclaimed ‘roadside diner’ offering an upmarket twist on typical diner fare.

Other super-cool choices include the stunning Parker Palm Springs with its bougainvillea-filled gardens and fabulously kitsch lobby; the Albert Frey-designed Movie Colony Hotel, and hot new addition Arrive, launched by a former Facebook employee and set in the Uptown Design District.

 

Adventures in the desert

Amid all the glamour and cocktails, it’s easy to forget that Palm Springs sits on the western edge of the Coachella Valley; an area once occupied by the ancestors of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. This is an outstanding area for hiking – especially in and around the Indian Canyons located on Agua Caliente tribal land – and one of the best ways to discover the landscape is with Desert Adventures Red Jeep Tours, who offer 3-hour naturalist-led drives into the canyons.

Looking for a more adventurous or challenging hike? Trail Discovery offer a range of longer expeditions, including four to eight-hour treks through shadowy slot canyons and distant oases, and trips into the Mt. San Jacinto wilderness which begin with a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway – passing through four different ecosystems on the way up.

Robert is an architectural historian whose encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject brings the past to life in glorious detail. His commentary gives historical context to these extraordinary structures and is liberally sprinkled with juicy titbits about Rat Pack-era stars and their lives in the desert. You’ll learn how Palm Springs came to have the greatest concentration of mid-century modern architecture in the USA, about the maverick architects and designers who developed ‘Desert Modernism’, and how the style spread beyond residential enclaves to include civic buildings, country clubs, banks, resorts and hotels.

 

Tours take place in Robert’s air-conditioned minivan, and last approximately three hours. Note they do not include interior visits, but true enthusiasts can time their visit to coincide with the annual Palm Springs Modernism Week – held every February – when a number of home tours are available.

 
 

Robert is an architectural historian whose encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject brings the past to life in glorious detail. His commentary gives historical context to these extraordinary structures and is liberally sprinkled with juicy titbits about Rat Pack-era stars and their lives in the desert. You’ll learn how Palm Springs came to have the greatest concentration of mid-century modern architecture in the USA, about the maverick architects and designers who developed ‘Desert Modernism’, and how the style spread beyond residential enclaves to include civic buildings, country clubs, banks, resorts and hotels.

 

Tours take place in Robert’s air-conditioned minivan, and last approximately three hours. Note they do not include interior visits, but true enthusiasts can time their visit to coincide with the annual Palm Springs Modernism Week – held every February – when a number of home tours are available.

 
 

Uptown Design District

Palm Springs’ most interesting commercial area has continued to blossom north of Downtown over the past several years. What was once a forgotten strip of vacant shopfronts is now an eminently chic and walkable neighbourhood stuffed with drool-worthy furniture showrooms, vintage home decor stores, independent fashion boutiques, art galleries, coffee shops, bars and restaurants.

Running along a stretch of North Palm Canyon Drive between Alejo Road and Tachevah Drive, the Uptown Design District is a happy hunting ground for modernism junkies doing up holiday rentals, or savvy travellers looking for inspiration – not to mention the hottest destination for restaurateurs looking to make their mark in the city.

Kick things off with a coffee on the back lawn at Koffi before checking out the art and photography books on offer at Just Fabulous; the exquisite furniture and lighting at a La Mod, Modernway, BLVD and Just Modern, and the art gallery dedicated exclusively to the works of the artist Shag. Dining-wise, make a beeline (and a reservation) for Trio, a large, buzzing restaurant dishing up a contemporary American menu. Or book a table on Jake’s al fresco courtyard for great fish tacos and lunchtime salads, or a slap-up weekend brunch.

For more information about Palm Springs, visit the official tourism website at www.visitpalmsprings.com.

 

Written by Maxine Sheppard

Image credits:

Palm Springs homes © iStock: JayLazarin

Palm Springs sign © iStock: stellalevi

Palm Springs landscape © iStock: halbergman

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