As the sun’s fading light gave the San Jacinto Mountains a golden glow, it also cast a serene spell over those below, admiring the view in Palm Springs, to slow down, breathe deep – and maybe even have a cocktail.
A group of LGBTQ men and women of all ages gathered at the pool and rooftop lounge of the new Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs Hotel, an elegant-casual spot for such sunsets and an even better one to eye all sorts of pleasurable scenery of the human kind.
I was there in late summer for an annual national conference of gay journalists, many of whom were there for the first time. Others, like myself, had returned for another enjoyable escape; but some, too, had decided to live there, drawn to this odd oasis of under-the-radar delights in the desert – while still being within striking distance of a major city or two.
I wanted to know from this poolside crowd what the pull of this place was, acting as a playground, home and community for so many who live under a rainbow flag? How did it evolve and, most importantly, what is it like now?
But first I wanted to understand the lay of the land, and veteran visitors gave me the basics for this desert outpost most widely known for its hot springs (20 boutique mineral water resorts and hideaways), golf tournaments, rehab centers, mid-century architecture and its 20 or so clothing-optional resorts and spas, including some for the straight crowd. Here’s what I learned:
It’s a string of desert pearls (and some zircons). The area is made up of a series of small towns that extend from Palm Springs in the west all the way to Coachella in the eastern end. Among the two points are Desert Hot Springs, Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Indio, and La Quinta. Palm Springs, however, is the hub of gay life.
The hipness factor went up and down, and then back up. The town, once a Mecca for Hollywood stars wanting a more private place to frolic, slid out of favor in the latter part of the 20th century when the studio system disappeared and new stars wanted fresh hideaways in St. Barts, Lake Como and Montana, leaving Palm Springs to older-generation celebs like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and the town’s former mayor and pop icon Sonny Bono, whose statue stands outside a mini mall in the heart of downtown. But a new wave of Hollywood stars, led by Leonard DiCaprio (who bought Dinah Shore’s old manse), has brought a fresh generation of stars back to town.
Toasty temps. Yes, temperatures can get in the triple digits in the summer season, but it’s a dry heat and mostly manageable. If it gets too brutal at the height of summer, common sense prevails and people just stay indoors during the few hours in the mid-afternoon when it’s at the top end of the thermometer. But then the numbers drop a bit and out we go again, refreshed by the plentiful spraying “misters” along downtown sidewalks that make you feel cooler – and moisturized. During the winter months, daytime numbers are in the 70s and low 80s, and evenings are in high 40s to low 50s. People actually own sweaters here for just that nocturnal occasion.
It may feel remote. It’s not. Palm Springs is still close to major cities like Los Angeles (107 miles away) and San Diego (123 miles away), which are both about two hours or so away by car, depending on traffic. Phoenix is 260 miles away, if you want to add a southwest touch to the trip.
If you’re driving in from Los Angeles, you first come across a great expansion of giant white wind turbines, which in this vastness of the desert landscape looks like God’s kinetic sculpture project. Then drive past date and palm trees as the mountains emerge, and as you enter a valley the first burgh becomes visible: Palm Springs, with its busting downtown, yet kind of cozy and homey. Planning ordinances prohibit towering structures so buildings are of human-scale proportions.
If you’re flying in, the small, easy-to-manage and partially outdoor airport gives you your first signal to relax. At the height of the winter season, direct flights are offered out of New York City on Jet Blue and United Airlines. You can also get connecting flights out of Bradley International Airport on American, United and Delta airlines..
Though many simply enjoy the passive beauty of the landscape, there is plenty to do for the activists among us: There are golf courses, tennis courts and activities for nature buffs who enjoy the hiking, biking and horseback riding trails in the Coachella Valley and Indian and Tahquitz canyons. There’s winter cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the back-country area of Mount San Jacinto State Park, accessible by the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, whose rotating cars climb a 2.5-mile ascent. Joshua Tree National Park also offers a wide array of activities for the outdoor- inclined. There’s also the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens (open year-round). And the new 5.8-acre Agua Caliente Band Cultural Museum, showcasing the culture of the Cahuilla Indians Tribe, is slated to open next year.
But there’s plenty of reasons locals, residents, weekend-trippers and longer-stay tourists also venture to the center of town – or to the other hamlets just down the road. All are filled with trendy and vintage restaurants, a lively arts scene of music, theater and galleries, hotels, shops and the occasional little oddity (like the bronze statue of Lucille Ball in full “Lucy” pose, the retro walk of fame or the Mark Pickford Museum). Oh yes, the region is also known for its alien sightings.
In terms of cool hotels, there are too many to mention though I can’t resist suggesting the Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs for its stunning views; the Sands for its Martyn Lawrence Bullard-designed, Moroccan-influenced look; the just-opened Hotel Paseo, the area’s first boutique hotel where you can even reserve the hotel’s vintage 1950s Airstream Trailer, adjacent to the pool, as your room; and the more intimate La Maison in Palm Springs. OK, one more: the recently refurbished gem, the Ingleside Inn Palm Springs, a Spanish Colonial Revival design that harks back to the era of Sinatra, Hope and Marilyn Monroe (who, legend has it, was discovered poolside in Palm Springs).
For eateries, I love the casual atmosphere at Lulu California Bistro and Elmer’s, both on Canyon Drive, for terrific breakfasts and lunches to more elegant dinners at LG’s Prime Steakhouse, Eight4Nine, Alebrije Bistro México, and Johannes Restaurant or, for the quintessential deluxe Palm Springs eating experience, Spencer’s.
Make It Gay
It should be noted that Palm Springs is heavily Democratic, according to a spokesman for the Greater Palm Springs Visitors Center. The city is ranked first in the state and third in the nation among cities with the most same-sex couples per 1,000 households, according to an analysis of U.S. census data by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. Further down the valley, it’s more “Orange County Republican,” with more strip malls and suburban-looking homes, some in gated areas. But Palm Springs and its immediate surrounding towns are true blue — and rainbowed.
The entire city council is gay or bi or transgender. Mayor Robert Moon – a former military man – is gay, as is the city manager, city clerk and many business leaders.
In one area in the heart of downtown there’s a cluster of gay bars, lounges, shops and cafes, all within a block or two, making it the easiest of bar-hopping experiences.
Palm Springs also avoids the logjam of June gay pride celebrations by having its events in late fall. (This year, it’s November 2-3.) For the circuit crowd, its “White Party” is in mid-spring, and Palm Springs really goes all out for Halloween. There’s a wide variety of gay-centric activities every week – from drag shows and strippers to yoga sessions, pool parties and karaoke nights. The best way to check activities out is to go to visitgaypalmsprings.com
Taking place the same weekend as the popular ANA Inspiration LPGA golf championship in April, the Club Skirts Dinah Shore Weekend is described as one of the largest, if not the most popular, gatherings of lesbians in the world.
There’s also all sorts of conventions and gatherings in Palm Springs – ranging from Wellspring, a wellness gathering featuring innovators, teachers and socially conscious companies (October 4 to 6); to a masturbation convention, organized by a group called Healthy Friction (May 9 to 12).
But my favorite gathering is during Modernism Week, held every February, when Palm Springs becomes a Mecca of mid-century modern architecture, art, interior and landscape design.
“It’s not for everybody – which is one of the things I love about Palm Springs,” says one of my new friends at the rooftop pool before we headed off for dinner and dancing. “When you come here, you can’t have too many clothes because of the heat, so you have to physically disrobe somewhat – and I think that does something psychologically, too. You’re not hiding so much. You’re more revealed as well as relaxed. You’re just more you.”