Easy Escapes: Palm Springs, California

California calling... Jessica Harrison heads for the hippest of desert retreats

California calling… Jessica Harrison heads for the hippest of desert retreats

Why go? To lose yourself in this otherworldly, chilled-out desert resort. 110 miles southeast of Los Angeles, Palm Springs comes with guaranteed sunshine and an easy-to-love mix of hip hotels, desert vistas and great vintage shopping. It started life as a secret escape for the Hollywood crowd, and remains a magnet for celebrities, hipsters and wealthy retirees who hang out in perfect harmony in this oasis getaway.

Desert luxe: a pool at The Parker Palm Springs hotel

When? The weather’s always good in Palm Springs, but the favourite time to go is between December and May when the days are sunny and warm and the nights bring a welcome desert chill. Summer months are hot, really hot. It’s manageable if you’re by a pool with a frozen cocktail, just save your desert exploration to the early mornings and late afternoons. Being in the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs is the place to stay during the super-cool Coachella music festival (coachella.com) held every April, and try to be there on a Thursday night when you can enjoy the stalls and snacks at the weekly Village Fest (palmspringsvillagefest.com).

You really must…
Palm Springs is home to some stunning mid-century and desert modern architecture – visit the Palm Springs Visitors Center and pick up a map of the landmarks (including the house where Elvis honeymooned) or book a guided tour (palmspringsmoderntours.com). Even this is an interesting building – a very cool-looking old gas station!

Hot designs: desert modern architecture in Palm Springs © Arthur Coleman

Hiking in the Palm Springs area is a must. Even if you’re not a hiker, do it anyway please. Trust me, the scenery is spectacular, varied and there are abundant trails for every level from easy to more difficult terrain – try Indian Canyons (indian-canyons.com) and take a picnic. If you’re feeling adventurous take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (pstramway.com) to the top of the mountains for a breathtaking 2.5-mile ride that whisks passengers up to 8,500ft aboard the world’s largest rotating tramcars. Hikes through the Mt San Jacinto State Park (parks.ca.gov) can be taken once you reach the top, or just have lunch at the Peaks Restaurant (or a stiff drink) and come back down! From January to April there could well be snow.

A nice alternative to dusty hiking is a visit to Sunnylands (sunnylands.org). This is the 200-acre former estate of the Annenberg family and located in Rancho Mirage just 15 minutes’ drive from Palm Springs. Do a tour of the estate, which has played host to former US presidents such as Ronald Reagan. Take the 1.4-mile walking tour to see fields of wildflowers and desert gardens. Open Thursday to Sunday only.

Joshua Tree National Park (nps.gov/jotr) is amazing and eerily beautiful – be prepared to take a thousand photos. An easy 40 minute drive from Palm Springs, you should enter the park from the north entrance in Twenty Nine Palms, where you drive past a cluster of houses with blue jeans hanging on the washing line and cacti gardens. You’ll start to see a few Joshua trees dotted around but continue deep into the park for the real beauty and various trails available. Pick up a helpful and detailed map at the Visitors Center at the entrance, and try to be there in the late afternoon for the incredible sunset colours.

Sunny days: get hiking in Indian Canyons © Arthur Coleman

Stay at: Palm Springs has a lot of great hotels, from small basic motels to the hip and luxurious. If you have a decent budget and want a treat, stay at The Parker Palm Springs (from £202, theparkerpalmsprings.com). A fabulous 144-room hotel with an amazing energy, it has two beautiful pools, a spa, lemonade stands ready to quench your thirst, gardens to get lost in (literally, I had to ask someone to help me find my way), hidden hammocks to snooze in, friendly happy staff, hummingbirds, and interior design by Jonathan Adler. Oh, and a croquet pitch.

In nearby Rancho Mirage, the newly-opened The Ritz Carlton, Rancho Mirage (from £220, ritzcarlton.com) is a very special hideaway with 244 rooms. If you want to splash out get a room with a personal fire-pit on your terrace which will be lit for you at sundown. Take a glass of wine, sit by the fire and stargaze. Bliss… The hotel has two great swimming pools – head to the adults-only one which has an incredible backdrop of the mountains while you swim. The friendly and welcoming staff are on hand to offer poolside bites, including a delicious rosemary lemonade and freshly-made sushi. If you aren’t already relaxed enough, head to the spa for a great range of treatments and relaxation areas including a clothing-optional outdoor hot tub. 

Cool times: the pool at The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage

Dine at: The Ace Hotel and Swim Club (acehotel.com) is where the cool kids go. It has a good restaurant, King’s Highway, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner. Try the date shake (made from local dates, almond milk and vanilla bean gelato) and the kale and quinoa salad.

For a cheap and healthy eat, visit Native Foods Café (nativefoods.com). Founded in Palm Springs, this is an excellent vegan restaurant, now with more locations around the USA. The menu is 100% plant-based and loved by vegans and non-vegans alike. Try the watermelon fresca (fresh watermelon, mint and organic agave) and one of the Earth Bowls such as the sesame kale macro dish.

The Parker Palm Springs has two very good restaurant choices. The dark, sexy (and pricey) Mister Parker’s is perfect for a special dinner. Try the pistachio-crusted scallop appetizer, or for a more laid-back diner feel and the option to eat outside, book a table at Norma’s. The breakfast huevos rancheros (Mexican eggs) are the best I have ever had and I’m an expert. At The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage visit the State Fare restaurant and try the prime burger with bacon jam. Yes, I said jam – prepare to get messy and go through a lot of napkins, and wash it down with a signature Wolfskill+Pine cocktail.

Warm feelings: the fire-pit at The Parker Palm Springs

Party at: There are plenty of bars in Palm Springs ranging from gay, straight, pricey or divey. Most of the bigger hotels have good bars too, so you’re never far away from a cocktail. If you decide to spread your wings and leave your hotel (please do), for a more affordable, hand-crafted cocktail with the locals head downtown to Bar (barwastaken.com). They have a cocktail and beer menu and tasty bar snacks and pizzas. Bar offers live music and a dance floor and they’re open till 2am. My drink of choice is the Old Fashioned, and it’s spot on. And don’t miss the Devils on Horseback – bacon-wrapped, blue-cheese-stuffed Coachella Valley dates. Oh my.

Another hot spot is the Amigo Room at the Ace Hotel, where they specialise in artisan cocktails and craft beers such as Dogfish Head. You can find something going on every night of the week here, from live music and DJs to comedians and Monday night bingo when local celebrity Linda keeps the hipsters entertained with songs, prizes and her sailor’s mouth.

Life is always colourful in California: get shopping at Trina Turk © John Ellis

Bring home: Mid-century modern furniture and vintage clothes. Palm Springs has plenty of vintage shops scattered throughout town offering both upscale and thrift-style. For that Eames chair you’ve been dreaming of try BLVD (boulevardps.com), or have a rummage at Revivals on 611 South Palm Drive, where you’ll find vintage threads, books and furniture (and a few odd locals). If new clothes are more your thing, head to Desert Hills Premium Outlets (premiumoutlets.com) which is en route back to LA and just 25 minutes drive from Palm Springs. Here there’s every major designer brand you can think of – good luck getting it all home…

Book now: British Airways (ba.com) flies direct from London Heathrow to Los Angeles, from £486 return. You’ll need a visa-style authorization (https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/). Palm Springs does have its own airport servicing most major domestic airlines within the USA, so if you’re already in the country, you can easily add a desert getaway into your itinerary.

Hire a car (don’t forget the GPS, it will become your best friend) and enjoy the very easy drive out to Palm Springs along Highway 10. Enterprise (enterprise.co.uk) offers a good service but can be pricier than other companies. If cheap and not so cheerful is ok, try Alamo (alamo.co.uk).

Info: Los Angeles, San Diego & Southern California (£14.99; Lonely Planet) covers the region. Useful websites include visitpalmsprings.com, visitgreaterpalmsprings.com and visitcalifornia.com

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