Until last winter, Palm Springs existed in my mind as an overdeveloped wasteland populated by retirees, spring breakers afraid to go to Mexico, and Los Angelenos too lazy to go to a real resort town. To me, Palm Springs’ heyday-those of Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, before fast freeways and faster cars, when the town really was a getaway-happened way before I was born, an opinion I’d solidified throughout the years of visiting a wealthy uncle in nearby La Quinta and determining that, besides the golf or luxury accommodations, there was little reason to return.
But then came January 2008, and thanks to a freelance project, I was offered two nights at a hotel in downtown Palm Springs. My wife and I figured it would provide a nice rest, but we weren’t expecting much else. Little did we know that two nights would be barely enough time to experience the immensely enjoyable diversions that Palm Springs does have to offer. From outdoor adventures to culinary delights, Palm Springs still has that zing that made it famous, and now-before the sun starts beating down and spring breakers start appearing-is surely its best season. Here’s a cheat sheet to plan your own weekend escape.
Where to Stay:
Andreas Hotel & Spa: With one wall lining Palm Canyon Drive-Palm Springs’ bustling main drag-but its entrance on a decidedly less hectic avenue, the recently remodeled hotel’s location is convenient for getting in and out, and remains quiet in the courtyard and pool area, yet is just steps from the strip’s best restaurants, bars, and shopping. The rooms are tastefully decorated; some overlook the strip and include stunning views of the San Jacinto Mountains’ rocky peaks. (227 N. Indian Canyon Dr.; 888-327-5701; andreashotel.com)
What to Do:
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: There’s no better mindbender than heading to the desert and discovering a winter wonderland there. But that’s what happens when you take the world’s largest rotating tram off the valley floor and up two-and-a-half miles into Mount San Jacinto State Park, where you can build snowmen, rent snowshoes or cross-country skis, or just walk around enjoying the views. Best to grab a drink at the bar before battling the lines to get down again. (888-515-TRAM; pstramway.com)
Pioneertown: Created in 1946 as a set for Western movies starring such folks as Gene Autry and the Cisco Kid, this outpost a few miles off Highway 62 near Joshua Tree has been reclaimed by art-minded, music-loving residents, and is worth a meander through, if not a round or two of bowling at Pioneer Bowl. If you’re lucky, you might catch a mock gunfight, or there’ll be some rock stars playing at Pappy and Harriet’s, perhaps the coolest bar in the world. (pioneertown.com)
Joshua Tree National Park: Otherworldly boulders combine with Dr. Seuss-ian cacti in this phenomenal desertscape, worth a three-day camping trip all by itself. Start with a visit to the interpretive center in the town of Joshua Tree, and then watch the Earth change before your eyes from the Joshua tree-dotted Mojave Desert to the jumping cholla-decorated Colorado Desert. (nps.gov/jotr)
Indian Canyons: The Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indians once lived throughout these four canyons, but today, they offer them up to hikers interested in the natural and cultural history of the area, enhanced by a mandatory visit to the Trading Post, a visitor’s center/bookstore/arts shop. Featuring more indigenous California fan palms than anywhere else on the planet, the walk up 15-mile-long Palm Canyon reveals pleasant places to survive in an otherwise inhospitable land -waterfalls in the desert?-and you’ll want to stay all day. (760-323-6018; theindiancanyons.com)
Where to Eat:
Melvyn’s at the Ingleside Inn: Any place where a white tuxedo-wearing guy named Captain Bobby comes out to prepare your shrimp flambe tableside is worth the wait and the price. To top it off, the setting is a 70-plus-year-old hotel and the food is also solid, from grilled whitefish with mango and basil and scallops Proven§al to lamb, chicken, and veal, all served with fresh veggies. It’s been one of Palm Springs’ hottest spots for more than 30 years, for good reason. (200 W. Ramon Rd.; 760-325-0046; inglesideinn.com)
Norma’s at The Parker: Time for fancy Palm Springs, version 21st century. This swanky, artistically inclined resort is home to the super ‘luxe Mister Parker’s for dinner, and Norma’s, an indoor/outdoor restaurant, for breakfast and lunch. It ain’t cheap ($20 for a waffle, or better yet, $25 for the rock lobster and mango salad), but it’s tasty, and you’ll probably spot a celebrity. (4200 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-321-4630; theparkerpalmsprings.com)
Look Patio Restaurant and Video Bar: Serving food and drinks outdoors on a side street off Palm Canyon, across the street from the Andreas Hotel. Great for lunch, early dinner, appetizers, and drinks. The video bar part of the equation remained unclear, save for the big screens that were blank during the day. (139 E. Andreas Rd.; 760-778-3520; lookpalmsprings.com)
Tony’s Pasta Mia: An old-school, fairly priced Italian joint that has been pleasing the Palm Canyon strip crowds for 25-plus years, complete with lounge singers every night of the week and frequent appearances by Tony himself. Start with the stuffed artichoke, then shift to whatever traditional fare you’d like, from eggplant parmigiana and shrimp scampi to Catalina sand dabs and the Sinatra steak. Even The Sopranos ate here. (360 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-327-1773)