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-and-a-half 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 (acehotel.com). 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. 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 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 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 sunny lands.org.
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, definitely 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 (jdvhotels.com).
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 (pstramway.com). A short drive away, the Joshua Tree National Park offers other scenic hiking possibilities, although many visitors are content to just explore by car.
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? Check it out at modernismweek.com. If you’re not visiting during this event, take a fascinating tour of the city’s midcentury treasures with PSModernTours (ps moderntours.com). 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 (pshistorical society.com) of downtown.