It had been five years since I last visited Palm Springs (43,000 people) and boy how it has changed! Located about 110 miles east of Los Angeles and 140 miles northeast of San Diego, it is one of nine adjacent cities that make up the Coachella Valley (Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage, and Palm Desert etc). The valley covers an area southeast from the San Bernardino Mountains to the saltwater Salton Sea, the largest lake in California.
The San Andreas Fault crosses the valley which is sometime called “The Desert Empire”. The Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians has lived in the area since their reservation was established in 1896. They are the largest land owners in Palm Springs with over 6,700 acres of reservation land within the city limits. The city has a warm, dry climate with less than 6 inches of rain a year. The dry desert heat during the summer means temperatures over 100, which cools to the 70’s at night. Winter highs are around 70 but nighttimes it can get down below 40 degrees. As luck would have it during one of the late November days I spent in Palm Springs the high desert had more rain, in one day, than they received in all of 2006 and 2007.
I was in Palm Springs to attend The Travel Media Showcase, an annual event that brought together 75 exhibitors and 83 travel journalists for two days of speed talking. We had 15 minutes at each booth to convince the exhibitors (or vice versa) why I should be invited to visit and write about their city or region. There were also luncheons and dinners; local tours and several post tours to surrounding areas.
Writing in Travel & Leisure Magazine in 2005 David A. Keeps had this to say about Palm Springs: “Once the decadent weekend retreat of the wealthy and the well connected, Palm Springs now welcomes some two million visitors a year. There is a tourism-and-development boom that rivals those of South Beach and Las Vegas. In a city where the Walk of Stars in the downtown shopping district has plaques for local cosmetic surgeons, the most noticeable face-lifts these days are on buildings. The city’s social complexion also appears more youthful (the average age of residents, once 58, is now 47) and more liberal. The late Sonny Bono (check out his bronze statue dressed in desert casual) was mayor from 1989-1993 promised to crack down on those who dared to wear a thong in public. Now, the mayor and the majority of the city council are openly gay. Gay residents represent about 35% of those who are year-round residents.”
The early visitors came at the beginning of the 20th century for the hot mineral spring baths and to cure respiratory ailments in the dry desert air. In the 1920’s Charles Farrell, a silent-film star, built the Palm Springs Racquet Club. It was a “safe haven” for Hollywood celebs who then had a place where they could let their hair (or other things) down. By the way, the Racquet Club is being refurbished and is set to reopen in 2008. It is said Marilyn Monroe was discovered there. During the 1970’s the super stars of Hollywood came for long weekends or built homes. Clark Gable, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Jane Mansfield, Frank Sinatra are all perfect examples. One can rent the 1974 Frank Sinatra house that he built for Eva Gardner or one owned by Lorne Greene (we visited both). Liberace has a rather over-the-top house here. Celebrities still come to Palm Springs, but today the city’ economy centers on tourism, real estate, health care, shopping and gambling.
Where To Stay- Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa- the Morongo Reservation (Morongo Band of Mission Indians) was established in 1876. It is one of 567 federally recognized Indian tribes and one of 224 in 28 states that utilize gaming for economic development. In 1983 they built a bingo hall (it is now a bowling alley and a conference center where the Travel Media Showcase took place). In late 2004 they opened the $250 million Casino, Resort & Spa with one of the largest casino floors on the West Coast. There are 310 rooms in the 27 story hotel; I spent three nights there. It is located 20 minutes from Palm Springs.
A Place in the Sun Garden Hotel- Sound familiar? In 1951 it served as a retreat for the production crew for the movie of the same name starring Montgomery Cliff, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters. Directed by George Stevens it won six Oscars including best director. There were also nominations for best picture and for Shelley Winters and Montgomery Cliff’s performances. I stayed in one of the 17 bungalows that formed an enclave around the pool. It is located about ½ mile from downtown Palm Springs.
Spa Resort Casino & Hotel- Located in downtown Palm Springs there is a 228 room hotel that was remodeled in 2003 and the $100 million casino located across the street that opened in November 2003. They have a great breakfast buffet.
What To See- You must get to the Palm Springs Follies celebrating its 17th season at the historic downtown Plaza Theatre. It celebrates the golden age of American pop music from the turn of the century through the ‘50s. This edition starred Kaye Ballard with The Four Aces and Melba Moore to follow. What is unusual about the Follies is that all performers have to be over 55 years of age and the Guinness Book of World Records lists one performer as the “World’s Oldest Still performing Showgirl” (she’s 84).
While downtown you can walk to the Copy Katz Showroom & Backstage Bistro for their female impersonation show. The night I was there it included: Judy Garland, Cher, Madonna, Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson. They look and sound great.
Palm Springs- Paradise in the Desert
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is a bit outside town but the world’s largest rotating tramcars ascend two-and-a-half miles up for dramatic, sweeping valley views. They ascend from the valley floor to 8,500 feet (10 minutes) where there was snow on the ground while it was 70 degrees below. The rotating floors of the cars can be a bit scary so hold on if you have vertigo.
If shopping is your thing then visit the Desert Hills Premium Outlets with its 130 stores. It is only a ½ mile from the Morongo Casino and the hotel shuttle vans will take you there and back. Or stroll along Palm Canyon Drive with over 500 shops, galleries, restaurants and attractions. We were there for the annual Christmas parade with over 100 floats and bands.
Probably the best tour I have ever experienced was conducted by Robert Imber of PS Modern Tours. We drove by and visited the famed mid-century architecture of Palm Springs. He seemed to know every house, architect, builder and resident. We visited several homes including the famed Alexander Homes with their low pitched roofs, wide eaves, open-beamed ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows that created indoor/outdoor living around the swimming pool.
Plan on spending a day in the Yucca Valley, 37 miles north of Palm Springs and known as the High Desert. Of course, the only rainfall in a year occurred while we were visiting the valley. Yucca Valley is located in southern California’s San Bernardino County on the northern edge of Joshua Tree National Park. It is among a group of communities, including Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, occupying the Morongo Basin of the southeastern Mojave Desert. It is headquarters to the U.S. Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center that occupies hundreds of thousands of acres and is the largest Marine base in the world.
The Joshua Tree National Park includes almost 800,000 acres and includes parts of two deserts. Below 3,000 feet are the Colorado Desert and its cholla cactus and creosote bush. The higher and slightly cooler Mojave Desert is the habitat of the Joshua Tree and hills of bare rock, usually broken up into loose boulders. There are five palm oases in the park where water occurs naturally and wildlife prospers.