It appears like a mirage after a two-hour drive east from Los Angeles. Gigantic white windmills crop up on the lunar landscape, generating energy for the region. Soon, scrub desert gives way to lushly planted roads with names like Bob Hope Drive and Frank Sinatra Drive. Sleek steel-and-glass buildings designed by star architects of the '50s and '60s resemble exotic cacti. And alfresco restaurants and palm-lined sidewalks buzz with perfectly groomed men walking small, perfectly groomed dogs, with glam senior citizens, and with stylish weekenders from Los Angeles and beyond.
Palm Springs first became chic in the 1920s, as a favored retreat for Hollywood stars, whose studio contracts required that they remain a short distance from the set at all times, even on vacation. Today, you can pick up a Map of the Stars' Homes at the Palm Springs Visitors Center and search out the former vacation villas of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Liberace—even the hexagonal house where Elvis and Priscilla spent their honeymoon in 1967.
The city brims with all manner of retro pleasures—great Mid-Century Modern furniture shops, throwback piano bars and time-stopped hotel rooms outfitted with lava lamps and record players. But you also can have a very 21st-century getaway, brunching on organic frittatas, hiking in pristine desert canyons, and downing boozy snow cones poolside at a trendy new resort.
Palm Springs went through a rough patch in the 1970s and '80s, when an economic downturn siphoned out the money and glamour. The city's rebound started in the '90s, as savvy weekenders from L.A. and New York began snapping up and restoring the newly fashionable Mid-Century Modern houses. Stoking the renaissance is the slew of stylish new hotels and resorts that have arrived in the past few years, once again drawing a glamorous, celebrity-studded crowd to the desert.
Among the more notable hotel newcomers is the Parker Palm Springs, which opened in 2004 after a cheeky makeover (it had previously been Merv Griffin's Givenchy Resort and Spa). Ceramicist-designer Jonathan Adler oversaw the work, adding shag rugs, needlepoint pillows and framed celebrity artwork. The 13 lushly landscaped acres are scattered with fire pits and hammocks, and the newly renovated, nautical-themed spa is gigantic. The Colony Palms Hotel was originally built by the mob as a cover for a speakeasy and brothel in 1936. In 2007, it emerged from a $16-million makeover with 56 Moroccan-inspired rooms and a lovely Mediterranean restaurant, the Purple Palm.
Then there's the new, cheap-but-chic Ace Hotel Palm Springs. A day pass gives non-guests access to the Ace's "Swim Club," a huge pool ringed with lounge chairs populated by beautiful people in gigantic sunglasses. An adjacent bar delivers sophisticated but affordable bites and artisanal cocktails to sunbathers, including those aforementioned "adult" snow cones.
Palm Springs is surrounded by mountains, and the clear desert air makes them appear startlingly close and cinematic. Nature lovers can explore the outdoors in a number of ways. For a crash course in desert fauna, stop by the one-acre Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium, a private outdoor "living museum" with 3,000 varieties of cacti, succulents and flowers.
Joshua Tree National Park, famed for its otherworldly rock forms and Dr. Seuss–like cacti, is just a 45-minute drive away. But there's also great hiking in Palm Springs proper. At the city's western edge is Mount San Jacinto, a snow-capped peak laced with 54 miles of hiking trails and nature walks through alpine forests. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway whisks you 8,000 feet to the top in just 15 minutes.
Also worth a visit are the unspoiled Indian Canyons, sacred ground belonging to the native Cahuilla Indians. In Palm Canyon, you can picnic beside a stream and explore a lush oasis shaded by giant fan palms. The trails at Tahquitz Canyon lead past ancient irrigation systems and rock art en route to a spectacular 60-foot seasonal waterfall.
When not lazing poolside or hiking among the palms, you can pursue indoor (air-conditioned) pleasures. There's culture: The Palm Springs Art Museum exhibits modern and contemporary works by the likes of Robert Motherwell and Ed Ruscha, plus glass art, Native American baskets and Mesoamerican sculpture.
And then there's shopping, especially if you're in the market for vintage furniture from the 1950s to '70s. The best shops are clustered on North Palm Canyon Drive, including Modern Way, the city's first Mid-Century Modern furniture shop, known for rare pieces in Lucite, glass and chrome, and, for funky housewares and knickknacks, Bon Vivant. At the recently opened "lifestyle shop," Trina Turk Residential, you can stock up on accessories like ice buckets, vivid striped towels and floor cushions upholstered in '60s-style graphic prints.
OLDIES BUT GOODIES
Architecture buffs flock here from around the world to gawk at Mid-Century Modern buildings by such celebrated architects as Richard Neutra, William Cody, Albert Frey and Donald Wexler. For a whirlwind introduction to the North American "mecca of Modernism," book a tour with local architecture expert Robert Imber.
Is there anything more life-affirming than a fleet of septuagenarians high-kicking in sequined leotards? Head to the Palm Springs Follies to learn the answer. Every year from late October to mid-May, you can see former showgirls (and boys), ages 56 to 86, sing and dance in an energetic performance that's as inspiring as it is campy.
Continue the kitsch fest at Melvyn's, a restaurant and piano bar that has barely changed since it opened in 1975. Every night of the week, the piano player croons Tom Jones and Elvis songs at an electric keyboard atop a grand piano surrounded by a built-in bar. Don't roll your eyes—just join the eclectic, martini-fueled crowd boogying on the dance floor, and let your inner diva take over.
Palm Springs Visitors Center: 2901 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760.778.8418
Parker Palm Springs: 4200 E Palm Canyon Dr.; 760.770.5000
The Colony Palms Hotel: 572 N Indian Canyon Dr.; 760.969.1800
Ace Hotel Palm Springs: 701 E Palm Canyon Dr.; 760.325.9900
Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium: 1701 S. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760.327.6555
Joshua Tree National Park: 74485 National Park Dr., Twentynine Palms; 760.367.5500; nps.gov/jotr
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: 760.325.1391; pstramway.com
Indian Canyons: 760.323.6018; theindiancanyons.com
The Palm Springs Art Museum: 101 N. Museum Dr.; 760.322.4800; psmuseum.org
Modern Way: 745 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760.320.5455; psmodernway.com
Bon Vivant: 457 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760.534.3197; gmcb.com/shop
Trina Turk Residential: 895 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760.416.2856; trinaturk.com
Robert Imber: 760.318.6118, email@example.com
Palm Springs Follies: 128 S. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760.327.0225; palmspringsfollies.com
Melvyn's: 200 W. Ramon Rd.; 760.325.2323; inglesideinn.com