I’d been hearing about it for years: the oasis of calm and sophistication on offer in the middle of the desert, a respite from LA’s madness, just two hours away, amidst an enclave of privileged people who take their fun (and their shopping) seriously. Palm Springs has avenues named for the wealthy and renowned who have favored it including Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, and Frank Sinatra. I am none of those, so what is the appeal?
Plenty it turns out, so for a few days last summer my S.O. and I indulged in a side trip from our beautiful and adored Sedona to expand our horizons a bit in the Coachella Valley, within sight of the San Jacinto and San Bernadino Mountains.
We set up home base in Palm Desert, a bit more affordable for a travel writer on a budget and enjoyed its somewhat quieter charm that nonetheless takes Palm Springs glam as its inspiration, with boutique and high-end shops like Tiffany and Saks alongside restaurants featuring chef-owners’ passionate creations, white tablecloths, and sparkling glassware full of mixological innovations, all on El Paseo’s main drag.
It was a relaxing base from which to explore the larger town nearby and the whole area. Our cheerful hostess-hotelier at the nouveau-motel Casa Larrea, just a block off the main drag, offered us a spacious, comfortable room with a full kitchen and a colorfully lit and ornamented patio pool area right outside the door, perfect for a cocktail and peaceful swim after a full day of exploring. Those seeking slightly more refined lodging might try the Hotel Paseo, part of Marriott’s Autograph collection, nearby.
Palm Desert and Palm Springs are both homes to branches of the Palm Springs Art Museum, small collections highly respected in the art world, so we made sure to explore two of its branches during our visit. Founded in the 1930’s through donations by local private collectors, it thrives today through the careful oversight of its nonprofit board.
The smaller Palm Desert branch has its own permanent works, but typically features a special exhibit in most of its space; in this instance, a brilliant collection of photographs by artists past and present who managed to lovingly present the desert’s beauty while acknowledging its unforgiving harshness and the difficult lives of those who embrace it as their homes.
This was the perfect beginning to our three days in the area. The serene and provocative outdoor sculpture garden is a further reminder of how careful, observant respect for the environment promotes creativity.
On another day, we enjoyed several hours exploring the main campus in Palm Springs. Contemporary regional art is the main focus; spaces inside and out invite one to explore and ponder an eclectic combination of sculpture and painting. Volunteers manning the entrance helpfully offered guidance and encouraged questions, clearly happy to share whether visitors were serious students of art or curious passers-by.
From the museum you’re just across the street from Kimpton’s highly rated Rowan, with its desert-view rooms and suites and a rooftop pool, and only two blocks from Palm Canyon Drive’s busy blocks of shops and restaurants, catering, judging by the license plates, to a largely Californian clientele.
It’s got that unmistakable West Coast vibe, with people casually, but distinctively tailored, sunglasses and sandals and bare tanned legs and arms keeping everyone looking cool despite temps soaring past 100. People are somewhat in their own worlds there, with few of the friendly greetings or smiles I’d expect in Nashville or Flagstaff, but that gives the outsider a sort of unnoticed anonymity that is enjoyable in itself. I was surprised to find the independent shops had excellent bargains on unique clothing and accessories, and window shopping and browsing were encouraged.
Time for a respite and refreshments, we settled on the bustling Lulu’s, an area favorite with pleasant, natty décor and an extensive menu.
I thoroughly enjoyed my seared ahi tuna on wontons, a superb pear salad with blue cheese and candied walnuts, and a cooling gin and cucumber beverage. My companion feasted heartily on wild mushroom soup, the chef’s homemade meatloaf, and a tiramisu he was kind enough to share; all choices available as part of the well-priced multi-course lunch menu, along with an enticing house-made cotton candy we rather wished we’d indulged in after seeing it in festive bowls at several tables.
Our server was young, but very professional and well-spoken. I couldn’t help wondering if he was a hopeful actor making time and money until his big break. Around us we saw young couples of every description, a few families, and a few oldsters like us, but we felt quite welcomed into the mix.
Joshua Tree National Park pulls in campers, hikers, and roadway explorers from around the U.S., and it was a prime motivation for us to visit the area. We love deserts, and here was our chance to see not only the unusual flora of its namesake, but the intriguing rock formations that are everywhere.
Taking our hostesses’s advice, we drove north to the entrances at the little town of Joshua Tree rather than spending undue time in the Joshua-tree-less southern region by the entrance off of I-10, and we were immediately gratified with photo opportunities both on and off the road.
It was Labor Day weekend, so plenty of others joined us in circumnavigating the park, and the campgrounds were nearly full with people willing to forego showers and a pool for the sake of engaging more fully in the quiet and stars away from settlements.
The Joshua Trees themselves are not actually trees, but a sort of yucca, related more distantly to orchids and grasses. Like Snide Trees in a Dr. Seuss story, their shapes are whimsical, their growth a slow, persistent matter requiring decades to reach full heights of 15-20 feet before sections of them begin to fall.
Working below them at an even more stately pace, the geological forces of water and wind combine with tectonic uplifts and flows of monzogranite and gneiss, resulting in unusual formations that look as though they’ve been carved and then rounded by human hands. All told, here is a strange and wonderful landscape that reminds us of the amazing variety to be found not only across our nation but in California itself.
We sampled several of the hiking trails and the outlook at Keys View over the course of several hours, then had a picnic in one of the established day use areas before returning to the Valley, stopping in Joshua Tree for a coffee first.
Our final afternoon and evening we devoted to the Aerial Tram, just outside of Palm Springs. A welcome excursion away from the summer heat, this two and a half mile tram ride brings you up into the San Jacinto Mountains, revolving slowly so no matter your spot standing inside it, you can enjoy views of plunging rock crevasses and desert expanses in all directions.
Parking (for a fee) is in several lots below, with a shuttle system, bringing people to the base lodge. Up top, it was cool enough for a light jacket on this late August day. The visitor’s center is spacious and offers terraces all around with views into the forest and below to the valley.
We braved the steep decent via a concrete path to walk a bit on the well-traveled forest trails through huge pines and firs, with a few informational signs explaining more about this mountain ecosystem. We also had a light, casual meal of homestyle favorites at the cafe, which we’d chosen to include in our tram ticket price; others enjoyed the fine dining experience at Peaks Restaurant.
Visitors from around the country and the world enjoyed the peaceful magnificence around us, dining at long communal tables, taking photographs, and sauntering along the trails. As the sun set, we made our way back down, watching the twinkling lights come on below.
AND the following day we headed East again, for our flight out of Phoenix and return to the quiet of Vermont. It’s a different world out there, one I can’t quite imagine living in full-time, but which I’m happy to have been a part of for that handful of days. This winter as the snow drifts pile higher and the furnace drones on, I’ll remember with fondness the confluence of natural and man-made refreshments quenching our every aesthetic craving in the middle of the Palm Springs heat.