Snowbirds looking to shed their winter layers and warm their bones have more choices than ever in Palm Springs and the greater Coachella Valley.
As we begin to emerge from the coldest, darkest parts of winter, many of us are starting to plot trips to gain at least a few days’ respite from snowboots and puffy coats. East Coasters usually opt for soft Caribbean beaches, which are just a few hours’ flight away, but not everyone wants to get their dose of Vitamin D at crowded beach resorts. If you prefer your palm trees, sand, and sun with a side of cacti, mountains, high design, and a healthy dose of Hollywood glamour, Palm Springs is an ideal (and now surprisingly easy) getaway for New Yorkers, with a new direct flight from Newark to Palm Springs on United.
If you prefer your palm trees, sand, and sun with a side of cacti, mountains, high design, and a healthy dose of Hollywood glamour, Palm Springs is an ideal getaway.
Even though Palm Springs wasn’t formally incorporated until the late 1930s, it became a favored winter retreat as early as the late 19th century for people looking to convalesce from winter (and big-city) ailments. Following World War II, however, the city really took off, as the titans of Golden Age Hollywood adopted Palm Springs (a two- to three-hour drive east of Los Angeles depending on traffic) as a convenient escape from paparazzi and clamoring fans. Over the next few decades, Palm Springs and neighboring Palm Desert became home to enclaves of sprawling, low-slung modern homes, along with clubby restaurants, swank cocktail bars, luxurious hotels, and exclusive country clubs. Early on, city ordinances were established to prohibit installing street lights or building structures taller than three stories, affording everyone unfettered views of the surrounding mountains and the piercing clarity of the desert night sky. Luckily, those laws are still in place, so visitors today can enjoy the same.
Lounge by the Pool
Numerous perfectly preserved midcentury hotels and motor lodges dot the greater Palm Springs area, but the most iconic properties sparkle like angular jewels along the main thoroughfare of Palm Canyon Drive, catering to all budgets and tastes.
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Party hounds with an eye for high design tend to gather at the Ace Hotel, which boasts impeccably decorated rooms, a high-end “roadside diner,” and a buzzy dance club/lounge. Young influencer types will revel in the pool scene and splashy, Instagram-ready hues of The Saguaro. Travelers looking for some luxurious peace and quiet favor the adults-only retreat of the hidden-in-plain-sight Sparrows Lodge.
But if your wallet can take the hit, nothing tops the Parker Palm Springs. This 13-acre estate—originally the weekend retreat of Western star Gene Autry—is its own self-contained world, with lush gardens where guests are encouraged to pick their own ripe citrus fruits, three pools, a huge spa, three restaurants, and impeccable service throughout. Design lovers will be gasping with delight at every turn, as the property was decorated down to the smallest details by celebrity designer Jonathan Adler (I was painfully tempted to fill my bags with his signature cheeky knickknacks, but managed not to commit any larceny during my stay).
Indulge in the Local Cuisine
You’re in California, famous for its glorious produce, so it’s hard to have a bad meal in Palm Springs. As befits the city’s resort vibe, even the high-end restaurants are fairly casual, and the prevailing modern design aesthetic is found in most dining rooms around town.
If you need to fuel up for a day of hiking or sightseeing, breakfast or brunch at Cheeky’s is tough to beat. The bacon flight (yes, like a wine flight) alone makes it worth a visit, but also don’t miss their freshly baked cinnamon rolls and justly famous chilaquiles and huevos rancheros. For lunch, try the hearty-yet-healthy Jake’s, which delivers mammoth sandwiches and salads (followed by enormous slabs of homemade cake) on its sunny patio dining area.
As the temperature plummets in the evening, dinner tends to be a cozier affair, with rich dishes served in dim, lounge-like dining rooms. If you want to channel former residents like Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, head to the Art Deco Mr. Lyons, where you can relax in dark green leather booths and enjoy perfectly cooked steaks and a robust wine list. If the Parker is out of reach for an overnight stay, their flagship restaurant, Mister Parker’s, is a worthwhile splurge.
Take a Tour, Take a Hike (and Maybe Feed a Giraffe)
If the hotel scene hasn’t already made it clear, let’s state it again: Palm Springs is pure heaven for lovers of modern design. You could just drive up and down the streets all afternoon and drink in the sharp angles and impeccable hardscapes of the local homes, but for more in-depth local history (and no small amount of gossip), sign on for a driving tour with local architecture expert Michael Stern, who will point out homes like it’s a Who’s Who of Hollywood royalty: Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, William Holden, the Gabor sisters…the list is as dazzling as the homes. And a natural byproduct of all the fabulous homes is fabulous shopping, namely in the furniture resale galleries (Vintage Oasis is a good place to start) and vintage clothing shops (The Frippery is the perfect spot to score a caftan that would make Bea Arthur green with envy).
If the great outdoors beckon, the mountains surrounding the city are crisscrossed with miles of hiking trails. For a (literally) breathtaking experience, hop aboard the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which whisks visitors up to the 8,516-foot peak of Mt. San Jacinto, from which you can see almost the entirety of the Coachella Valley spread at your feet. Short hiking trails meander along the top of the mountain, and more adventurous types can hike back down to the bottom. Winter visitors should keep in mind that the temperature at the summit is usually about 30 degrees colder than in the valley and there is often snow on the ground, so dress warmly.
At the other extreme is a visit to the San Andreas Fault, which takes you below sea level to some of the hottest territory in the country. Join a small-group tour out to the fault with Desert Adventures, whose knowledgeable guides tell you about the natural history of this former inland sea as well as the history of the indigenous tribes who have populated the valley for thousands of years.
If you’re traveling with kids—or if you just love animals—a trip to the Living Desert is a highlight. This 1,800-acre preserve is no ordinary zoo; it is an important rescue and breeding center for a wide variety of native and exotic desert-dwelling wildlife. Try to time your visit between 9:30 and 2:30, when you might be lucky enough to enjoy the singularly weird-but-adorable experience of feeding carrot sticks to the resident giraffes.
WHEN TO GO
Late fall through mid-spring is the best time to visit the Coachella Valley, with daytime temperatures ranging from the upper 60s to low 80s (but remember, this is the desert, so it gets quite chilly at night). People abandon the city almost completely in the summer, when temperatures can soar above 120F in the daytime.
For a long time, Palm Springs wasn’t on the radar of most East Coast visitors as a quick, casual trip, mainly because it wasn’t very convenient to get there. Direct flights were rare, connecting flights were inconvenient, and who really wants to undo the effects of a relaxing weekend by fighting LA traffic? But now a few airlines have begun adding direct service to the small, laid-back Palm Springs Airport, which is only about a 15-minute drive from downtown. Most recently, United Airlines inaugurated daily direct service from Newark (December to late April), starting around $400 round-trip. Public transportation is pretty thin on the ground in the greater Palm Springs area, so it’s advisable to rent a car.