My first trip to Palm Springs — the land of swimming pools, salty margaritas, and desert sunsets — started in the snow. Just after breakfast on a Friday, we headed to the city’s aerial tramway, which in 10 minutes ferried us 2.5 miles up to San Jacinto Peak. Along the way in our big rotating tram car, we watched as cactuses gave way to conifers and blue skies turned gray. A voice recording told us about how helicopters skirted the sheer Chino Canyon cliffs to build the “Eighth Wonder of the World” in the 1960s. At the top we stood and laughed in our sandals on an observation deck powered with six inches of snow. In the distance were Coachella Valley and San Diego, and beyond that, Mexico.
Back down at sea level, the surprises kept coming. Before this trip, I’ll admit, my ignorance of Palm Springs was profound — I had imagined little more than a sleepy resort town where the men wore Bermuda shorts and the women liked ice in their pinot. Instead, we spent the coming days exploring a city steeped in celebrity history, bedecked with mid-century modern architecture, and full of good food, incredible views, and a buzzing nightlife.
We had our first lunch at Rio Azul Mexican Bar & Grill, where we dug into slow-roasted pork and veggie fajitas. The guacamole was prepared table-side, and the chips tasted as if they’d just come out of the fryer. Many of Chef Ernesto Gastelum’s dishes, we were told, come from family recipes, such as his Abuelita’s Albondigas Soup and Tia Maria’s Green Corn Tamales.
Next, we hit the Architecture and Design Center right down the road. The glass and steel building — a former bank converted into a work of art all by itself — features rotating exhibits of the Desert Modernism aesthetic. I’d always admired the style’s open floor plans with lots of windows and high ceilings, and was finally able to put faces to places by learning about architects E. Stewart Williams, John Lautner, Albert Frey, and others. We read how modernism was injected into America’s postwar suburbs and why the airy buildings succeed in inviting the outdoors inside. We spent as much time in the center’s gift shop as we did its galleries. My girlfriend couldn’t resist a set of green plastic army men molded into yoga poses.
Walking back to our hotel — the Hyatt Palm Springs — we window-shopped like there was no tomorrow. (Which was partially true; we drove to nearby Indian Wells the next day.) There were candy stores and adult stores and everything in between, with clothes, jewelry, and furniture — some of it matching the retro look of the buildings — between restaurants, salons, and movie theaters. Many of the curbside parking spaces were occupied by the souped-up golf carts locals favor. The night before, VillageFest closed down Palm Springs Drive right in front of the Hyatt, where more than 200 booths offered goods and food between a few lives bands. Bar-goers shuttled to and fro on the Buzz Trolley.
Our room’s white sheets and widescreen TVs offered the perfect respite from the action outside. The recently renovated Hyatt, it turns out, is the only all-suite hotel downtown, and its chic factor was on full display; we watched golfers from our private balcony and then read for a bit on our leather couch about how the city had been a winter playground for celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope. The hotel still felt family-friendly, though, with a pool and cabanas out back where kids played and adults lounged.
Later that afternoon, we stopped for a drink at Seymour’s, a new bar on the back of the famous Mr. Lyons steakhouse. Not quite a speakeasy but certainly not a flashy tourist trap either, Seymour’s is headed by Steen Bojsen-Møller, who held court in the small, dimly lit room lined with original Esquire illustrations and 100-year-old stained glass windows. The Prohibition-era theme was also sprinkled with modern touches, sort of like Bojsen-Møller’s approach to cocktail-making. “Classic cocktails are like a musical note,” he explained. “You can’t reinvent it, but you can subtly change it.” With that, he made me a Little Owl — rye whiskey, walnut liqueur, and IPA syrup. It was cool and silky and silly good.
Hyatt’s Indian Wells Resort, where we headed next for two nights, immediately deposited us into full-blown vacation mode, complete with poolside recliners and room service in robes. Nestled off the freeway among thick stands of palm trees and clear views across fairways and putting greens, the hotel attracts Midwest tourists and Coachella acts alike, as well as nearby Californians such as ourselves. Though it’s only a few hours away from our home in Santa Barbara, it felt like a far-off, dreamy desertscape of zero responsibilities.
We didn’t visit all seven pools; we mostly stayed in the Oasis adult-only area. But we did hang out in more than one hot tub and watched kids tumble in the “Desert Pipe” — a clear, plastic, hamster-ball-like contraption that spins riders in place, mimicking the thrill of a water slide. I said I would try it but then chickened out, a major and lasting regret.
Our spacious, split-level room put us in between the spa, where a 90-minute deep-tissue massage turned me into a stick of melting butter, and the Verbena Terrace, where head chef Chris Mitchum explained that everything served at the Hyatt is fresh and seasonal and that he and his team only choose the choicest of ingredients. Distributors will often try and slip low-grade food past large hotel kitchens, he said, so they inspect every fish filet, every cut of steak, before accepting the shipment. Mitchum, from Missouri, said he favors simple, wholesome dishes with local ingredients — such as artichokes, herbs, and tomatoes from nearby fields, and figs and citrus from his own garden.
Dinner was indeed next-level. We started off with crisp iceberg salad wedges sprinkled with bacon and Chino Farm tomatoes and drizzled with a BBQ sauce ranch dressing. Next were fried risotto marbles — fennel and thyme risotto with roasted red bell pepper puree — and mac ‘n’ cheese with wild mushrooms, smoked mozzarella, mascarpone-parmesan, and breadcrumbs. The main event was Hercules Farms short rib and red-wine reduction.
After touring the Hyatt’s posh and plush suites and villas — out of our own price range but a smart upgrade for those with deeper pockets — we were given a peek inside the grand Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Owned by Oracle’s Larry Ellison, the Garden is home to the BNP Paribas Open, the fifth largest tennis tournament in the world, and features 29 courts, including a 16,100-seat stadium. In its upper levels is the exclusive Nobu sushi restaurant, which opens only during the BNP tournament. Tennis players, many of them big golf players, love the BNP not only for its stiff competition but also because they can hit the links after their matches.
In a next door plaza, we ended our day and our trip with the Desert Jazz Festival, where Brian Culbertson and Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers jammed through the twilight. On a whim the next morning, we detoured on our way home through a date farm and Joshua Tree National Park, where we climbed Skull Rock and meandered between Dali-esque trees. It was the perfect endnote to a getaway of exploration and relaxation not far from home.