Palm Springs: cultural oasis

Once the proverbial playground of Hollywood stars, Palm Springs has undergone a 21st century cultural and culinary resurgence to become one of the US's most rewarding destinations.

Palm Springs is one of those classic Californian destinations that exists in our imagination long before we set foot on its asphalt; I believe I’ve dreamed of holidaying in Palm Springs since I was approximately eight years old. The name “Palm Springs” alone evokes swaying palm trees, poolside cocktails, decadent dinners, sunshine-on-tap, the strains of Sinatra. These things, Palm Springs has been delivering for decades. Less embedded in the imaginations of travellers, however, is Palm Springs’s gentle metamorphosis from a pleasure-seeker’s paradise into a cultural hotspot dedicated to 20th century art, architecture and design.

I’m here for Palm Springs Modernism Week, an annual celebration of the city’s mid-century architecture, design and art. This February event of open house tours, double-decker bus tours, heritage walks, exhibitions and concerts is a broad church, attracting everyone from academics and preservationists to fashion influencers and die-hard fans of Mad Men.

It’s the open homes that are the big draw; for 10 days, visitors have the chance to mill around the homes that belonged to Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra (who would famously hoist a flag announcing he was receiving guests for cocktail hour) and even the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio. This is my kind of cultural city break, where I can spend my mornings hiking the surrounding canyons, my afternoons immersing myself in 20th century art and pretending I live in posh mansions, and my evenings lounging poolside and eating my way around town.

Photo: David A. Lee

Despite its contemporary cultural credentials, there’s no escaping the truth that Palm Springs was purpose-built for pleasure. This Southern Californian desert resort city was developed in the early 20th century, when seeking out dry climates for health conditions was all the rage, and hotels had glamorous names like “Dr. Reid’s Sanitarium”. By the 1930s, Hollywood stars had adopted this desert enclave 160 kilometres east of Los Angeles.

They were drawn by the impeccable weather, views of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains, plus it complied with a Hollywood-wide “two hour rule” requiring actors to be on call for the studios. Over the years, it became the party pad of choice for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Carole Lombard, Sammy Davis Jr, Lucille Ball, Elizabeth Taylor and Liberace. The stars and wealthy studio bosses opted for homes over hotels, however, and drafted in architects like Donald Wexler and Richard Neutra, who pioneered a desert modern architectural style that is now widely fetishised by hipsters around the world. Arguably (and Modernism Week attendees do argue about this) it was the architect Lloyd Wright (son of Frank) and his design for the Oasis Hotel (built in 1924-5) who paved the way, with its sleek modernist design, and resorts such as El Mirador following suit.

Frey House II.

(Photo: David A. Lee)

By the 1970s, Palm Springs was a modernist mecca, with one of the strongest collections of modernist architecture on the planet. It’s easy to see why the great and the good fell for this place. Perfect sunny days replicate themselves with near-creepy regularity here in the Coachella desert valley, and Palm Springs is sheltered (and photogenically backdropped) by the San Bernardino Mountains to the north, the Santa Rosa Mountains to the south, the San Jacinto Mountains to the west and the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the east.

Humans are fickle creatures, however, and after the boom, there came an inevitable bust. During the 1980s and 1990s, Palm Springs sank out of favour with fickle urbanites from San Francisco and Los Angeles, gently derided as a mecca for snowbirds and retirees. But the city played a power move in focusing on 20th century art and design and investing heavily in cultural institutions, and in recent years a whole new generation has rediscovered the city’s fabulously retro architecture, relaxed vibe and the dazzling beauty of the surrounding deserts and mountains. The Palm Springs of today is a wealthy, welcoming and wonderfully progressive Californian town, where well-off retirees mingle happily with the burgeoning LGBTQI+ community, hikers, bikers and climbers, and design and architecture buffs.

Downtown Palm Springs.

(Photo: supplied)

For international visitors, Palm Springs is dream getaway material for imaginative, intrepid travellers who crave some dedicated time on a sunlounger, but also want to be awestruck by artwork and architecture, delighted by design and vintage finds, enlivened by the city’s acclaimed sushi restaurants and speakeasies, and uplifted by sidetrips into the canyons and national parks.

In Palm Springs, I soon realise, nothing is mediocre, because this place has always catered to people with sky-high salaries and sky-high expectations. The food, like the architecture, is aspirational, built to delight and dazzle. Engin Onural is a Turkish chef who has represented America in the World Sushi Cup, who now calls Palm Springs home. His sushi restaurants – The Venue in Palm Desert and Sandfish in Palm Springs – are two of the hottest tickets in the area. “There are so many reasons that I love being part of the culinary scene in Palm Springs,” he says. “For a restaurateur, there’s a lot of motivation to excel. For a smaller city, there’s still healthy competition as chefs move here from Los Angeles, San Francisco and cities out of state. But mainly, our customers are visiting from all over the world, they’re on vacation, they’re in a good mood and they’re feeling adventurous. This makes for a great creative environment for a chef.”

Del Marcos Hotel.

(Photo: Jake Holt)

Travellers might first be drawn to Greater Palm Springs by the city’s retro-chic vibe and ravishing mid-century modern architecture, plus the seductive vision of lazing poolside or in a natural mineral hot pool at a super-stylish boutique hotel. But what we stay for, the true American addiction, is aspiration. Palm Springs is always striving to please, to go one better, to show off just how sweet life can be with a little sunshine and a lot of money. This literal and figurative oasis town is all about abundance, and I will always know where to come when I need a respite from reality.

Two Bunch Palms.

Where to stay

Two Bunch Palms

Rumoured to have once been the West Coast hideaway of Al Capone, this beautifully renovated 1930s resort in Desert Hot Springs is just as famous for its hot mineral waters, which flow into the liberal sprinkling of natural pools and soak tubs in this 77-acre property. The magic touch of the new owner – millennial wellness entrepreneur Erica Chang – is visible in the pioneering wellness programmes, yoga classes and plant-forward menu at the restaurant.

Villa Royale

This 38-room adults-only hotel in a quiet residential neighbourhood of Palm Springs was a favourite haunt for Hollywood stars throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and the new owners have embraced the original Mission Revival aesthetic, surrounding the terracotta-roofed Spanish villas with bougainvillea bushes and dotting serene pools around the gardens. More modern flourishes include oversize rock’n’roll prints and geometric tiling, and the restaurant, Del Rey, is a hot-ticket table.

Avalon Hotel

The downtown Palm Springs location of the Avalon Hotel puts car-free travellers smack in the middle of things, and yet this deservedly-popular cluster of 67 Spanish-style lodgings still feels like a peaceful oasis, with three pools spread over four acres of lush gardens. The friendly staff and relaxed vibe of the restaurant, Chi Chi, makes the Avalon Hotel particularly perfect for solo travellers.

Where to eat and drink

King’s Highway

The Ace Hotel’s prime location and divine swimming pool, poolside restaurant and refined diner makes it a worthy stop on any Palm Springs itinerary. Perhaps pop in for breakfast and sip a Stumptown coffee alongside a chia seed pudding,

or come late and have a pisco sour in the Amigo Room cocktail lounge.

Sandfish Sushi and Whiskey

Turkish chef and sushi maestro Engin Onural is one of Palm Springs best-loved restaurateurs, and his Scandinavian-inspired Sandfish – all blond wood, polished concrete and industrial lighting – is a must-visit for any lover of sushi, seafood and whiskey cocktails.

Café La Jefa

This newly opened Latin-influenced café is already a favourite with Palm Springs residents, who flock to the outdoor patio for Sisters coffee and pastries made by local bakers.

Tailor Shop

This elegant new speakeasy-style bar by Engin Onural (of Sandfish fame) offers craft cocktails and small plates in sumptuous, moody surroundings, complete with velvet banquettes, amber-hued lighting, gleaming brass fittings and a centrepiece wrap-around marble bar.

Ernest Coffee

A Palm Springs institution, Ernest Coffee serves Stumptown coffee and home-baked muffins and scones from 6am to 7pm, and it’s the best place to sit and idly watch a fascinating cast of local residents coming and going.

Photo: Supplied

What to do

Palm Springs Art Museum

This progressive, mid-size museum successfully delivers world-class events and a relevant roster of exhibits, with a permanent collection of contemporary paintings, sculpture, and art glass by Henry Moore, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, and fellow West Coast artists like Sam Francis, Mark di Suvero, and Edward Ruscha. The museum has an architecture and design centre in downtown Palm Springs.

Palm Canyon Drive

Palm Springs’s main drag is lined with enticing galleries, antique showrooms and boutiques. Look out for the gallery and store of local artist Shag, and the unassuming strip mall that houses both Revivals thrift store and Palm Greens Cafe, where the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Miley Cyrus come to sip green juices and eat vegan treats.

Joshua Tree National Park

One of Palm Springs’s most unsung places draws its easy proximity to a wildly varied list of attractions less than 90 minutes’ away. On the sidetrip menu is the mountain resort town of Big Bear, organic vineyards in Temecula, the other-worldly landscape of Joshua Tree National Park and the cadre of bohemian boutiques, eateries and music venues bordering the park, plus gloriously quirky and unique artist colonies at Salvation Mountain and the Salton Sea. Tallgrass Tours are the best guides in the area.

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