It began as a relaxing bolthole for Hollywood stars and haven for the wealthy seeking clean, clear air, plenty of outdoor dining by night and endless golf.
And it still is, this pampered and relaxed resort of six widely-spaced, low-rise communities, a two-hour drive from Los Angeles Airport. It rarely rains, yet underground water makes the desert bloom. Sure, money helps: but there many hotel deals, and prices drop in high summer. The writer found lots to do in this balmy sunshine resort under the mountains.
Where eagles dare
Long before Americans made it to the Moon, a local man nurtured the crackpot dream to zing his fellow Americans up from the torrid floor of the Coachella Valley 8,600 feet to the top of nearby Mount San Jacinto, “where it’s nice and cool” and the snow lasts, at least in ribbons, well into the summer. From Valley Station I pondered the wire cables of The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway snaking at a crazy incline up the bare rock face.
Now didn’t I have an urgent appointment down in nice, safe flat Palm Springs? But once aboard the gently rotating car, and put at ease by our nonchalant exiled English operator, taking the eagles’ route gained an instant place on my list of lifetime experiences. At the top it’s 30 degrees cooler, the views from the restaurant are thrilling and 54 miles of trails beckon, winding through the state park. www.pstramway.com
Find the Fault
We took the tour to the San Andreas Fault, which runs close to the city, 20 minutes out of town. As we bumped along through the desert in a red Jeep, our guide Morgan deciphered one of the most twisted and tormented landscapes on earth, exactly where the Pacific and North American plates collide. It’s her job to check, after the frequent minor quakes and flash floods, how far her territory has been rearranged, with gulches shut off by rock falls and new springs running in the palm groves. Morgan’s virtuoso tour led us through a replica Cahuilla Indian village and up a very narrow slot canyon. Don’t even think about the movie 127 Hours. Her high speed patter ranged from her childhood experiences playing in a disused goldmine (one is recreated here) to assigning us all an – eerily apt in my case – Indian name.
Desert comes alive
The Living Desert is a super little zoo, on the resort’s edge. It’s a tribute to private giving (signs are everywhere naming the rich local benefactors), volunteer effort and a team of bright experts saving threatened desert animals and plants, ready for reintroduction to the wild. Lots of helpful information boards explain their work. The desert they recreate here is a riot of life, jewelled with exquisitely tiny flowers, statuesque cacti, shy desert foxes and that staple of immense US spaces, the roadrunner. A Mexican wolf (extinct in the wild since 1981) held us with intelligent gaze as a volunteer, a studious man well past retiring age and passionate about the zoo’s message, told us about the ongoing plan the zoo coordinates to reintroduce it to the wild, east of Phoenix. The latest count found up to 12 packs, with many cubs born in the desert.
Date to remember
Romance and Sex Life of the Date is the 15 minute film they show continuously at Shields Date Garden. It sounds daring enough today. Imagine how it came across in the 1930s when Floyd Shields started his roadside outlet with his wife Bess, and gave his daily talk of the same name, explaining how he propagated the Zahidi, Jumbo Royal Medjool, and Deglet Noor dates, and his own unique varieties, the Blonde and Brunette. The place has a wonderful 1930s retro feel about it. They still eschew chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Another homage to the past is the wide scattering of 1940s-60s buildings built low and attractive in the “mid-century modern” style. Look for the semi-circular home on Ladera Circle where Elvis and Priscilla stayed after their Vegas wedding; and the 1963 Tramway Gas Station, its roof like some futuristic radar-evading jet.
There are many contenders for best French maitre d’ in Southern California, but I nominate the amiable Antoine Babai in the casually elegant Le Paon, his tables spilling onto a first-floor balcony above the gilded El Paseo shopping district. Antoine greets everyone like an old friend with the same Gallic grace, while his brother, executive chef Eddie, sends out traditional French marvels from the kitchen, enhanced with some splendid Napa Valley wine. We were ordered to leave room for a miraculous soufflé.
This fine formula was repeated at the Citron restaurant, in the Viceroy hotel, all vibrant lemon-yellow walls and cool white furnishings. Our table was in the open air by the swimming pool, where Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford Bing Crosby dived when they stayed in one of the single story, lemon tree-shaded villas dating from the 1930s.
Answer blowin’ in the wind
With Ken Huskey asour guide, observing the blades of 3500 turbines swishing round was certainly not one level down on the tedium stakes from watching paint dry. Ken makes the of the San Gorgonio Wind Park on the edge of the resort – enough energy to power Cardiff–-into an exciting spectator sport. We drove under several generations of turbines, all turning to their own tune, from antique ones on rickety turrets, to the latest seek, smooth giants. Ken answered our questions about size, how they work, the economics and politics of wind. No, the blades rarely kill birds. And the new ones are not so noisy. And guess who the latest operator is? None other than the US’s energy villain BP. They replaced 139 turbines with eight of the latest make, producing almost double the power.
The writer and his wife were guests of Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa www.rancholaspalmas.com.
Further information: www.palmspringsusa.com