Travel USA: Old school and new cool

Retro rules OK? The laid back desert towns of Greater Palm Springs offer luxury, retro charm, vintage good manners and a host of local architectural surprises.

Greater Palm Springs, California is an odd concept – you enter Greater Palm Springs and it’s a collection of villages in a line: Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio and Coachella. And – Palm Springs didn’t have any palm trees when the desert settlement became a town.

There were a few native palms around the actual ‘springs’ but the towns were planted in from the 1920s -1930s when America was going wild for the exotic trees that were emblems of sunny days, clear blue skies and waving fronds. They lined the streets and set the standard for California boulevards.

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The drive from Long Beach takes about two hours and along the way the landscape is dotted with orchards of wind farms and the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains ride shotgun along the route.

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Palm Springs, in the Sonoran Desert became a popular escape for Los Angeles and Hollywood celebs from the 1920s and it was a perfect place for young architects to show their chops in a solitary environment.

The Hollywood starlets and heart throbs, crooners and wheeler dealers could come to Palm Springs and not break their contracts. The line was that they could never be more than two hours away from the studios. Private homes were built and hotels were bursting with talent – and hormones – during the summer weekends.

Being close to ‘the office’, Palm Springs as a getaway for folk earning money quicker than they could spend it became ‘the’ place to be seen and for a few closeted stars, unseen.

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Omni Ranchos Las Palmas.

The fast lane saw the advent of the now classic mid-century architecture to be built for the big names. The 1947-built Frank Sinatra House has a swimming pool shaped like a grand piano – a perfect example of the architecture from this period.

At this time, right after WWII European architects headed to where the money and creative freedom was and they brought Modernism and the International Style which morphed into the elegant and informal style, often called Desert Modernism.

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As you explore Palm Springs look out for the early Spanish revival homes, Spanish eclectic and Tiki (Polynesian themed). Architects Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison combined modernist ideas with Polynesian themes when they designed the Royal Hawaiian estates in south Palm Springs. The Royal Hawaiian Estates is one of four Palm Springs condo communities which hold the historical designation, per the Palm Springs Historical Preservation Board.

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The Oasis Hotel, built in 1924-5 and designed by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank), led the way with its modernist design. More resorts, such as El Mirador, followed. Celebrities decided homes were more important than hotels, though, and along with now-revered architects – including Donald Wexler and Richard Neutra – concocted bold exteriors and sumptuous interiors.

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The established homes and gardens (yes, there’s a lot of luxurious green grass in the desert here) are rather grand but the midcentury-modern architecture with the advent of besser bricks and concrete are the showstoppers. (There’s an excellent half day tour of the homes with the Palm Springs Mod Squad, www.psmodsquad.com)

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This is the Palm Springs Visitors Center, which was originally built as the Tramway Gas Station. Architects: Albert Frey and Robson Chambers.

 

Rat Pack locations

Core shopping is along Palm Canyon Drive with vintage stores, interior design shops and a host of eclectic and inviting restaurants. And for the ultimate Palm Springs retro experience book a table at Melvyn’s. Since the 1970s Melvyn’s has been packing them in. Sinatra held court here and all Hollywood star that entered Palm Springs were guests at Melvyn’s. There’s still a Rat Pack aura to the rooms and the waiters are dressed in dinner suits and a couple of them still totter about as they did over 40 years ago. The menu reflects the era of the past and it’s pretty good too – crepe suzette or prawn cocktail anyone?

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One of the original wait staff at Melvyn’s. His lips are sealed – no gossip from him . . .

  • As early as 1919, Palm Springs was used as a ready-made set for many Hollywood silent movies.
  • Sonny Bono (of Sonny and Cher) was the 16th Mayor of Palm Springs from 1988- 1992.
  • Hire a car and do your driving here – this is America – it’s all about cars. It’s about 60km to drive the entire collection of towns.
  • Stay at Omni Rancho Las Palmas, a resort & spa with a golf course with a backdrop of the mountains.
  • Best time to visit: Between January and April, the temperatures are pleasant. Always blue skies here and sunny days but summer renders scorchers, not great for outdoor activities.
  • If you head out to the desert book for a fab meal at La Copine com and drop in to Pappy & Harriet’s at Pioneertown pappyandharriets.co 

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PALM SPRINGS AERIAL TRAMWAY

I was surprised when I arrived at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, I didn’t realise it was a rotating cabin pulled up a mountainside for an exhilarating 805 metres. It was a welcome 4deg.C cooler than the hot day below as we reach the mountain station of Mt Jacinto State Park.

You can view the dramatic desert setting of the Coachella Valley as you ascend through the rugged Chino Canyon. There is 80km of hiking trails here, so if you want to walk off some of the fine food you’ve tried, here’s the chance, or you can sit with a coffee, enjoy the view and the pristine mountain air.

http://www.pstramway.com

This story was originally published in long form in http://www.LetsTravelMag.com

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