How Palm Springs got hip (again)
The best way from Los Angeles to Palm Springs is, of course, in a Tesla. Elon Musk’s head-turning electric cars are taking over southern California, and I lose count of how many I spot as we head east through the traffic on Interstate 10. For a moment it feels as if we’re in a scene from the next Blade Runner sequel, but the illusion ends when we stop to plug the car into a charger next to a McDonald’s. ‘First time in the desert?’ our driver asks. ‘It’s pretty cool out here.’ He’s from Silver Lake, LA’s hipster honeypot, so this is quite an endorsement.
The story of Palm Springs is one that loops back on itself. Historically the home of the Agua Caliente tribe, the city’s endless sunshine and proximity to Hollywood turned it into the Las Vegas of the 1920s and a Rat Pack rumpus room, before the A-list moved on and it became an uncool hybrid of hippie colony and retirement community. But the past few years have seen it catapulted back into the spotlight – thanks in part to Coachella (of which more later) and its reputation as a live-and-let-live destination. Leonardo DiCaprio owns the mid-century Dinah Shore estate, there are rumours that the Obamas are planning to buy a holiday home nearby, and the list of those snapped out in the valley this year is a Who’s Who of social media’s most-followed.
Pretty much everyone agrees that the renaissance started with the Ace Hotel, part of the design-led micro-chain with outposts in other hipster hotspots, including Portland, downtown LA and Shoreditch. Formerly a run-down motel, the 179-room Ace Hotel in southern Palm Springs hit the city like a meteorite when it opened in 2009. The time was right: the mid-century Mesozoic stonewalls and acres of leatherette that had looked dated a decade earlier now felt chic. Ten years on, sitting by the pool here with a watermelon margarita is still one of the best ways of taking Palm Springs’ temperature. It stays open til 2am, and everyone around it is young, gorgeous and glued to their phones.
Uptown in the design district, a more chilled crowd gathers at the Alcazar, a sleek boutique hotel that feels like a landlocked ocean liner. ‘For me it all really changed here after the Louis Vuitton show in 2015,’ manager Robert Hunt tells me over huevos rancheros at the diner next door. The show set the tone for what Coachella is today. The festival has been running since 1999, but only really got going in 2012, when the promoters relaunched it as two three-day weekends in April. The rest, as they say, is history. Last year, a quarter of a million attendees descended on the Empire Polo Club in Indio, 20 miles from Palm Springs, spilling into the valley.
One of the biggest draws, of course, is the Insta-bait backdrops. Palm Springs is the birthplace of Desert Modernism, a regional remix of mid-century style executed in poured concrete that stands out against the barren landscape – think Mars, colonised by a Bond villain.
About 15 years ago, savvy LA stylists started buying up neglected houses and renting them out for fashion shoots. They began appearing in glossy magazines and in 2006 the buzz around the properties coalesced into Modernism Week, which will run from 14-24 February next year.
Palm Springs is actually one of nine sister cities strung out along the valley. Of these, Rancho Mirage has the most to offer. As an early beneficiary of the ‘two-hour rule’, which tied Hollywood stars into living within easy reach of the studios, it has a pedigree of louche living. The modern equivalent of the Fifties glitterati’s weekend retreats is the Miramonte Indian Wells Resort and Spa, in the foothills of the Santa Rosa Mountains. It’s not far from La Quinta Old Town, home to an electric bike rental shop and an ice cream parlour powered by liquid nitrogen. Winter high-season guests drive out to the wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park to hike and reflect, dine at The Pink Cabana in Indian Wells then gather around the fire pits in the hotel’s grounds.
During the summer, though, fire is the last thing anyone wants. From November to February daytime temperatures are balmy, but in August the mercury can hit 50C. Unbelievably, things still grow – abundantly so. On a trip into the desert with Tallgrass Hiking and Tours, we visited the fields of peppers, grapes and date palms in the shadow of the San Andreas Fault, watered by the Colorado River and sustainably fed.
All that produce is fuelling the rise of Palm Springs’ bar and restaurant scene. We queue for Vietnamese-American bowls at Rooster and the Pig, sip Californian pinot noir at Truss & Twine and share three-kale salad at Birba. The hottest destination restaurant, Workshop Kitchen + Bar, has proved divisive. ‘If I wanted LA attitude I’d have stayed in LA,’ I overhear one transplant grumbling as he looks at the menu and sees farmers’ market fare at Chateau Marmont prices.
The times, then, are starting to change, but one Palm Springs tradition remains untouched. Happy hour still starts promptly at 4pm. Every bar in town gets involved, but the one to be seen at right now is hidden in a strip mall on East Vista Chino. In Sosa’s Plaza, next to a cannabis dispensary and behind an unprepossessing frontage reading ‘BAR/FOOD’, is the kind of place Tom Waits sang about in Nightawks at the Diner. Patrons sink impeccable $7 frozen Sidecars before drifting into the night.
‘You enjoy yourselves,’ the bartender says as he pushes sugar-rimmed glasses across the bar. Nothing unusual in that. But, in Palm Springs, it’s less of an instruction, more like a prediction.
How to get there WOW Air flies to Los Angeles from London Gatwick via Keflavik in Iceland from £345 return.
Where to stay Poolside king mountain-view rooms at the Alcazar Palm Springs start from $171 per night plus tax (alcazarpalmsprings.com). King rooms with a patio or balcony at the Miramonte Indian Wells Resort and Spa start from $286 per night plus tax.
What to see For full details of Modernism Week, La Quinta Old Town and Tallgrass Hiking and Tours, visit visitgreater palmsprings.com