Palms, Pines, and the Rich and Famous

Andrea McVeigh finds sunny Southern California’s Palm Springs full of surprises

From palm trees to pine trees – I hadn’t expected snow in Palm Springs. Yet here we were, more than two miles above street level on a lovely late-January day, surrounded by snow-dusted pine trees and looking down over this glorious part of sunny Southern California. Palm Springs is full of surprises.

We had just taken a ride aboard the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, a two-and-a-half-mile cable car ride in the world’s largest rotating tramcars. There were lots of oohs and aaahs in our cable car as we journeyed up past the sheer cliffs of Chino Canyon until, 10 minutes later, we arrived at the Mountain Station at the summit. Because of the elevation it’s much cooler there, to the extent that you can find snow even when it’s sunglasses-and-shorts weather at sidewalk level.

I’d known about the city’s ties to Tinseltown before my trip, but I wasn’t prepared for the natural beauty of the place, nor those pine trees. Neither had I expected to discover such a wealth of Native American culture and history, or so many activities – from ballooning over the canyons to Red Jeep tours that take you into the San Andreas Fault to go star gazing at night or discovering the wildlife by day.

Just a two hour drive from LA, Palm Springs is famous as the place where the icons of the Silver Screen in the 1940s, 1950s and ‘60s went to let off steam – and boy, did they let off steam.

An edict from the studios stated that its stars couldn’t be more than 100 miles from the studio during filming. Palm Springs is 97 miles from Universal Studios, which shows that the stars of cinema’s golden age where as determined to get as far away as possible from their bosses during their time off.

So they settled in Palm Springs, in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains, with its abundance of greenery and the natural springs which gave it its name. Those Hollywood A-listers found what the Native Americans had discovered centuries before, a place filled with natural beauty, to which they added lots of opportunities to party.

On a Rich & Famous Tour with the Best Of The Best tour company, our guide Ken thrilled us with scandalous stories of the stars as we drove past the house that Elvis shared with Priscilla and the street where both Bob Hope and Bing Crosby lived – in fact Bob and Bing often popped over to the nearest hotel for drinks together. And since Bob was such a big golf fan, it’s no surprise to learn that Palm Springs is still a big draw for golfers. Our coach tour took in the abodes of Liz Taylor, Dean Martin, Greta Garbo and Liberace. Palm Springs was where Marilyn Monroe first met JFK and it’s where Spencer Tracy lived with Katharine Hepburn, while Frank Sinatra shared a love nest with Ava Gardner. Lily Tomlin lived right beside Lena Horne and even Albert Einstein spent winters in Palm Springs, in what is now the elegant and historic landmark hotel, the Willows Inn. This former private house was built in 1924 and it is where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent part of their honeymoon.

So far so starry, but Palm Springs is nothing like the Hollywood theme park you might fear it to be. Don’t forget, this is where the film stars lived, not where they worked.

Palm Springs celebrates its 75th anniversary as a city this year, so it’s a great time to visit and enjoy some of the events and activities on offer. It enjoys around 350 days of sunshine a year, but summers can be too hot for our local temperaments, so avoid high summer and enjoy the beautiful weather of spring, autumn or winter.

There’s a real feeling of space in Palm Springs. Buildings can’t be more than five stories high, no bigger than a palm tree, so as not to block the mountain view and the city is filled with stunning mid-century modern architecture – all flat roofs and sharp angles.

Its buildings are well documented on the numerous architecture tours and the design aesthetic is celebrated during the annual Modernism Week, which runs from 14-24 February this year. Personally, I love modernist design, so I was thrilled to see some of the buildings.

The city has been called a living museum thanks to its impressive display of modernist design, but Palm Springs isn’t stuck in the past – it celebrates its heritage without being suffocated by it. It’s a modern city with a fantastic foodie culture – the restaurant scene here is very competitive, so if restaurants aren’t good they simply won’t survive.

Some of the hotels, such as The ACE Hotel & Swim Club and the Orbit In boutique hotel, have revived the modernist look and have become hip hangouts for those in search of a retro retreat. Some have had a name change but kept their aesthetic appeal since their mid-century heyday, like The Rendezvous, where Marilyn Monroe kept a permanent suite in the 1950s when it was known as the Mira Loma. And where else can you slip on a sharp suit or a cocktail dress and sip a martini in the Riviera hotel, just like Ol’ Blue Eyes and his Rat Pack buddies did?

I stayed in the Korakia Pensione, named as one of the ‘sexiest hotels in America’ and originally built as a private home in 1924 in the Moroccan style. It offers privacy, thanks to its small collection of casitas, bungalows, rooms and suites, but it’s just a short walk to the city’s main shopping and restaurant area, Palm Canyon Drive (the downtown area comes alive on Thursday evenings with VillageFest, where stalls sell original art and handicrafts).

But as well as the stunning architecture, the Rat Pack hangouts and the world-class restaurant scene, what I also loved about Palm Springs was the fact that I could get close to some magnificent wonders of nature. As well venturing up the Aerial Tramway, I went to the Indian Canyons, where Native Americans settled centuries ago and where there are 100 miles or so of trails. I’m no hiker, nor even much of a walker, but this was a gentle, easy foot trail through part of Andreas Canyon, past babbling brooks and 200-year-old palm trees. I’m sure even Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals would have enjoyed it, had they ever put down their martini glasses long enough to try it.