When I was 10 years old, my mom, my older sister, and I flew to LA to visit family friends. The trip was described to us as a California and Disneyland vacation, but we were actually there for my mom to see if she wanted to move us from New York to California. My dad had died five months earlier and my mom's childhood friend was trying to convince her to move closer by. Our week-long vacation was spent looking at sub-division model homes, with one day in Disneyland and one day in Palm Springs. Looking back now, especially as a parent, I appreciate my mom's effort to make it a "vacation" at a difficult time. Unfortunately, my only memories of Palm Springs were the long car ride there and back, and my mom's friend telling us that Ronald and Nancy Reagan lived somewhere nearby.
Now, as an adult and curious traveller, I had a chance to explore and make better memories of this iconic desert town. My husband, Alex, and our two children have been traveling more lately for work, family, and occasionally by our own design. This time around, Alex had a work conference on his birthday week. Luckily, the grandparents were able to watch the kids so we pieced together a work/vacation getaway sans-kids.
DAY 1: We picked up our rental car at LAX. 2 hours and 45 minutes later, our Waze app led us to the back entrance of Sparrows Lodge, a 1950's resort turned modern rustic retreat. The only sign we saw read "Under 21 not permitted." After making our way around the dumpsters and high fences, we ended up in an open courtyard with a central barn structure, a pool and gardens on opposite ends. It felt like an oasis summer camp for adults.
After a swim in the pool and an aborted game of RISK (from the Lodge's stash of boardgames) we had reservations at Workshop Kitchen+Bar, a restaurant serving American creative with farm and market dishes like, "Bloomsdale spinach, frisée, bougainvillea petals, shoyu vinaigrette, young beet chips and Black Cod with honey-lavender glaze, white corn puree, red frill mustard greens, fresno chino and garlic ferment." The place received a James Beard award for its restaurant design, but that's not to say the food isn't excellent. It is. They have a serious cocktail game and our main dishes were served personally by the chef, which was a nice treat. After dinner, we did some window shopping since the restaurant was in the middle of Palm Springs Uptown Design District.
DAY 2: The next morning we had a light breakfast served in the barn/lounge and headed out for Joshua Tree National Park—about a 50 min. drive from Palm Springs. We stopped off at Natural Sisters, for giant sandwiches and lemon-green tea smoothies (can't wait to make this at home all summer) and headed into the Park. Last summer we dragged our kids around camping in National Parks in Utah and Wyoming for three weeks. It felt good to be back in the Parks System, now more than ever. We stopped off at the visitor center to talk to a park ranger and grab a map (those black-striped, collectible, information laden ones) and bottles of water and started our driving tour. If you haven’t been to a National Park, most of them are set up to be seen via car with stops along the way, but the most memorable way to experience the parks is to get out of the car and hike in. With 97-degree heat and altitude hiking was a challenge, but we did find some places to explore off road, staying on the shady sides of the massive rock formations to see the variety of vegetation and even little creatures like roadrunners.
By the way, just in case you have the idea to look for it, THE joshua tree from U2’s 1987 album isn’t here. Though the photographer shot in Joshua Tree National Park, the famous photo was actually taken off the side of a highway near Death Valley. A Superfan went about to locate the tree and found the fallen remains of the 200 year old tree in 2001 and illegally erected a bronze plaque at the site that reads "Have you found what you are looking for?" :)
Later that evening, we checked into the JW Marriott in Palm Desert where Alex's conference was being held. This place felt like a shopping mall compared to Sparrows with its shops, golf course, and water taxies that take guests from the main lobby to the onsite restaurants. The room was soulless and tired looking, but with clean linens, a Starbucks, and a gym, it worked for us. The next day, I went out exploring solo.
DAY 3: After a morning at the hotel gym and spa, I headed out. For me, architecture viewing is like going to the movies. It’s entertainment that I appreciate as an audience member. Since I like history and I like design, it's a nice marriage of the two. I tried to email a modern tour company a couple of weeks before our trip, but got no response so I downloaded the Palm Springs Modern Tour app and went solo. I didn’t know much about the architectural history of Palm Springs, only that Richard Neutra designed a home for Pittsburgh retail magnate, Edgar J. Kaufmann 10 years after Frank Lloyd Wright finished building Fallingwater for him in Mill Run, PA. I had visited Fallingwater for my birthday a couple of years ago (actually, the last time we went on vacation without our kids) and became fascinated by the Don Draperesque, Kaufmann and his drama filled relationship with FLW. I wanted to see the house that Kaufmann ditched Pittsburgh and Fallingwater for.
Aside: If you are interested in architecture history that reads like a soap opera, I recommend Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E. J. Kaufmann, and America's Most Extraordinary House by Franklin Toker.
Unfortunately, like most houses on the tour, the Kaufmann Desert House is a private residence, so all I could see was from the road. But the app provides you with some interior photos, videos and sound bites, a bargain at $4.99.
The benefit of a self-guided tour (on top of saving 75 bucks) is that you can go your own pace and choose what interests you the most. Mid-century design is all over town. Even the Kentucky Fried Chicken has an inverted, butterfly roofline. I focused my tour mostly on the residential neighborhoods of Las Palmas and Twin Palms Estates.
I stopped off for late lunch and rehydration at Holiday House, the sister hotel to Sparrows that just opened a month ago. Afterwards, the manager showed me one of their rooms—brand new and sparkling with charm. I texted Alex and told him we were switching our last night to the Holiday House. It was worth the packing, unpacking, repacking and cheaper than the Marriott too!
Maybe it was because it was the last stop on my self-guided tour, but my favorite was a set of seven modest homes on the northern edge of town called the Alexander Steel Houses. Forget tiny houses. Why aren’t we making these anymore? Actually the app tells you that the dramatic rise in the price of steel was responsible for the halt in production.
DAY 4: I headed up to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, figuring it was a tourist trap. It is, but it seemed like an iconic piece of PS and the promise that the summit temperatures were 30 degrees cooler than in the valley below sounded really good. After a quick drive up to the base station, and a few minutes wait, I was corralled into the tram car with 30 others—mostly European tourists—and we rapidly ascended 6,000+ feet in 10 minutes. At the top, it's striking how the side of the mountain that you just ascended is arid desert, but on the other side is a lush alpine forest. The mountain range is so high, the weather can't cross over the top. I wished my kids were here for the in-real-life environmental science lesson. Jacinto State Park is at the top of the mountain with viewing platforms, a restaurant and café and miles of hiking trails. In the winter, there are activities like snowshowing, sledding, and cross-country skiing.
After lunch, I visited Moorten Botanical Garden, a timeless little half-acre piece of dusty earth that is well worth visiting. Admission is $5 with tours twice a day.
I drove back to the hotel to pick up Alex and our bags and headed back to Palm Springs. We stopped off for drinks at the Parker Palm Springs Hotel, designed by potter-turned-furniture designer-turned-interior designer, Jonathan Adler. The Parker was booked when I was planning our trip, but I wanted to check out Mr. Adler's handiwork. There was no shortage of bar options and design eye candy once we walked through the 16 ft glossy orange double doors. We were deciding between a drink at the “mini-bar” or at their patio restaurant, Norma's (their restaurant, Mr. Parker's wasn't open yet). We decided on their recently opened wine bar, Counter Reformation.
We shared tasting wines offered in 3oz sizes, ordered small plates (hen-of-the-woods, braised artichoke) from their bar menu, snacked on olives, fresh bread and chatted with the super-friendly bartenders. When we finally settled our tab they filled our glasses and encouraged us to walk around the grounds to check out all of the fun hidden spaces in this Alice-in-Wonderland-like hotel. The hotel's website has a series of hilariously cheesy promo videos that do a good job walking you through the grounds.
We arrived at Holiday House early evening and skipped our welcome rosé since we just came from the wine bar and were quite content. After check-in and a quick change into our bathing suits, we had a swim and a soak in the whirlpool. The lounge has a great collection of art and coffee table books. I couldn't put down Lee Radziwill's photo-biography, Lee (Assouline, 2016).
Great sushi in the middle of the desert makes no sense, but it’s here. We rode down Palm Canyon (the town's main drag) to a strip mall sushi joint that the Parker's concierge told us about. Kiyosaku serves actual Japanese sushi in America—no dragons or rainbows here, just traditional, simple sushi with fresh merchandise like Santa Monica Uni. Enjoy the gregarious chef, Kiyo, from Tokyo who will tell you about his merchant marine days before he settled in Palm Springs. Ignore the wall-to-wall carpeting, but do notice the wall of famous patrons photos, including a photo of Barry Manilow (who happened to once own the Kaufmann Desert House, pre-restoration). This place isn’t cheap, despite the misleading decor, but it will not disappoint you.
We rode our bikes back under a full moon along the quiet, unlit South Belardo Road on its nice, wide bike lane. Belardo runs parallel to Palm Canyon.
We got back to the hotel early enough to walk through Villagefest, the weekly Thursday night street fair where they close six blocks of Palm Canyon for food, live music, and street vendors (mostly tchotchkes). The stores stay open late as well and draw a festive crowd of tourists, townies and their dogs, all out enjoying the cool, night air. We stopped off for some strawberry horchata agua fresca and pretty palettas. We would have to head back to LA the next day before catching our flight back home. Good memories!
There is so much to do in PS. We were here off-season so things were mellow (and hot!) but events like Coachella music festival, Palm Springs Modernism Week, and Palm Springs Film Festival keep this town busy. We happened to be in town for Restaurant Week which is a good indicator to me that we were in the low season. Below are links to the places I wrote about and a few more on my list for next time.
Parker Palm Springs Counter Reformation, Norma's, Mr. Parkers
Ace Hotel Kings Highway and Amigo Room
a La Mod they sell on 1st dibs too
Integratron sound baths