Fed by the mineral waters from the San Jacinto Mountains, Palm Springs has always been a getaway. It was for early pioneers who gathered here in the late 1800s. For presidents from Roosevelt to, perhaps more famously, Eisenhower. It also boasted film stars like Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra, who turned Palm Springs into America’s most glamorous oasis in the 1950s. Seeking eternal sunshine—more than 350 days a year—the glitterati from Los Angeles drove 100 miles east on I-10 into the Coachella Valley, to their elegant, modernist desert homes for weekends of cocktails, cabanas and oblivion. The age of Ol’ Blue Eyes in the Valley may have ended years ago, but Palm Springs remains as alluring as ever. Endless fairways, pristine pools and the famous healing waters continue to attract Angelenos looking to escape Southland. Then there are those always searching for The New. “The abundant sunshine, the climate and the intense natural beauty make it one very special place,” says art historian and collector Hal Meltzer, a longtime resident. “But the desert has indeed moved into the 21st century. Its current incarnation is quite exciting.” Now innovative stores like Insolito Home and Trina Turk Residential (see “Palm Springs Shopping Guide”) sit beside midcentury modern emporia. In addition to classic restaurants like Copley’s and Spencer’s, there are fresh favorites like Cheeky’s and Trio.
The essence of a Palm Springs trip really depends on the hotel. Since opening in 2004, The Parker Palm Springs (rooms, from $295; 4200 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-770-5000; theparkerpalmsprings.com) has reigned as the premier desert resort, hosting everyone from Jay-Z and Beyoncé to Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. The playful, 13-acre property is a maze of Alice in Wonderland–inspired gardens sprinkled with oversized chessboards, hidden bocce courts and crackling fire pits. Discreetly dispersed throughout all this lush greenery are 13 über-private villas with high-walled terraces and quirky Jonathan Adler decor like leopard-spotted benches and swinging wooden chairs that resemble birdcages. The main two buildings house 131 guest rooms, as well as Mister Parker’s, a formal French bistro (dinner, $65), and Norma’s, a West Coast version of the popular New York breakfast spot that seems much more enjoyable experienced outside on a sun-splashed patio (brunch, $30). Options for resting and relaxing abound. Along with two peaceful pool areas, there are red-clay tennis courts, morning yoga classes and a nautically themed spa that just added a massive coed relaxation area (see “Palm Springs: Classic vs. New”).
Another Palm Springs classic is the 75-year-old Colony Palms Hotel (rooms, from $150; 572 N. Indian Canyon Dr.; 760-969-1800; colonypalmshotel.com), which completed a $16 million renovation in 2008. Formerly home to a 1930s underground speakeasy and brothel, the Spanish Colonial hotel now has 56 guest rooms with bright, Moroccan-inspired interiors from Hollywood decorator Martyn Lawrence-Bullard surrounding a hibiscus-filled courtyard and pool. (Early risers quickly snatch up the two oversized daybeds.) The renovation added a four-suite Moroccan spa and a Mediterranean restaurant, Purple Palm (dinner, $65), one of the best dining options in Palm Springs. At night, the open-air poolside restaurant is filled with locals eating dishes like Alaskan lingcod with maple-glazed sweet potato gnocchi and sipping lavender mojitos.
Nestled next to the Palm Springs Art Museum, the often overlooked Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn (rooms, from $295; 412 W. Tahquitz Canyon Way; 760-320-0771; thewillowspalmsprings.com) is the thinking man’s boutique hotel. An eight-bedroom Mediterranean villa built in 1924, this is where Albert Einstein frequently visited and Clark Gable and Carole Lombard stayed on their honeymoon. In the mid-’90s, the house was restored into a B&B in archly opulent old Hollywood style. The bedrooms are filled with antique walnut furnishings, mahogany-beamed ceilings, wood-burning fireplaces and claw-foot tubs. It’s a homelier version of San Simeon. Perhaps best of all, room service is delivered from the storied French restaurant Le Vallauris, right across the street (see “Palm Springs Insiders”).
But perhaps the most apt embodiment of the new Palm Springs—and certainly the watering hole around which today’s Sinatras gather—is the two-year-old Ace Hotel & Swim Club (rooms, from $90; 701 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-325-9900; acehotel.com). Perfectly matched with the vibe of the popular annual Coachella music festival in nearby Indio, the 176 rooms in a converted motel have a bohemian-camping feel with cloth-covered, tent-like walls, vintage furniture, record players and concrete floors (the best have patios with gardens and outdoor fireplaces). There is also a diner-style restaurant in a former Denny’s, a simply appointed spa and two pools that become especially rowdy on weekends, when they literally overflow with party people from L.A. Change the music from Interpol to Dean Martin, swap out the sangria for a tumbler of scotch, squint and you’re right back in the golden era of Palm Springs.
Awash in pinks, blues and 7,200-yard greens, the Jack Nicklaus–designed Escena Golf Club was completed in 2009 but already seems like a Palm Springs classic. With clear sight lines and wide fairways, the course can be as challenging or easygoing as you want. Greens fees start at $45; escenagolf.com.