I don’t know anything about Palm Springs before we get there, apart from the fact that it’s a desert. I have a vague notion that it was once a playground for Hollywood elite, who would vacation there in the winter. When I was a teenager I also remember that it was a spring-break destination. It went off the radar before I had a chance to visit.
As we approach the city, the landscape is at once beautiful and desolate. Mountain ranges loom before us, covered in jagged rocks. One of the largest mountains is rimmed with snow, and my brother’s girlfriend tells us that we can take a tram to the top (elevation 8500 feet). I am astounded that you can go from searing heat to freezing cold so quickly. I’m tempted by the aerial tramway that goes up the cliffs of the Chino Canyon, but my brother’s fear of heights means we will give it a miss. I’m also not sure we are prepared for the change in temperature – there isn’t a decent jacket between us.
We drive through the downtown district of Palm Springs and it’s full of small, low-to-the-ground buildings. I fall in love with the mid-century architecture – many of the buildings date from Palm Springs’ heyday in the 40s and 50s. We stop at a restaurant with a pretty courtyard that looks out to the dramatic mountains beyond. They are incredibly close and look burnt orange and brown in color. Contrasted against the piercing blue sky, the canyons almost look like they are jumping out of a child’s pop-up book.
There’s no doubt that Palm Springs is arid. Much of the landscape is unforgiving, with a constant glare from the bright sun. But there are green spaces and desert flowers that beautify our surroundings. I can’t help feeling like it’s a bit artificial, though. Left to its own, the desert would bleach everything white and kill all but the hardiest weeds and thorny cacti.
Ciara, my brother’s girlfriend, walks with me up and down the strip (the walkable downtown area). It reminds me a bit of London’s Leicester Square because it feels like a tourist trap. I am fairly certain we are in the tackiest part of Palm Springs. There are shops selling lots of rhinestone-studded t-shirts and tank tops emblazoned with the words ‘Palm Springs’; there is a huge Starbucks on one corner and we pass an Irish pub, confirming my suspicion that there is one of these in every city in the world.
Uptown is downtown’s classier cousin. There are design shops selling interesting pieces, from lamps to coffee tables. There are lots of restaurants and thriving bars, and funky vintage clothing stores; I suddenly feel like I could be in west Hollywood, with its artistic, bohemian feel. I am also a bit surprised that Palm Springs has such a large gay community. Outside of San Francisco, I’m not sure I have seen so many gay couples. It’s more obvious here, though, because the city is much smaller.
That night we find out it’s a Dinah Shore weekend. Known in the gay community as ‘The Dinah’, Wikipedia claims it’s the largest lesbian festival in the world and takes place annually in Palm Springs over five days. The English Husband asks our cab driver if she’s playing in Palm Springs. ‘She’s dead,’ he replies. The English Husband doesn’t know much about old American lounge singers. Apparently Dinah Shore, a renowned golfer and one-time resident of the nearby Coachella Valley, is a gay icon and, this weekend, her many fans make a pilgrimage to Palm Springs for pool parties and a golf tournament.
Our cab driver also explains that Palm Springs is largely made up of people over 70 who play golf. The rest are ‘snow birds’, wealthy part-time residents who flee cold winters. I think these are over 70, too.
At Tinto, an upscale restaurant in the Saguaro Hotel (the old Holiday Inn, now remodeled), we have a tasting menu for $55 per head. The chef specializes in tapas. We sample a huge selection of cheese, fish, vegetables and some meat. The standout item, however, turns out to be smoked marcona almonds.
Michael, our friendly waiter, explains how he came to Palm Springs from Chicago. He survives the incredibly hot summers (an average of about 115 degrees Fahrenheit) by going to a friend’s freshwater pool in the mornings until he has to go to work. From what he says, I sense that the city may not be as liberal as it appears on the surface.
Michael tells us that he once had a condo where his neighbors left him a note telling him not to plant trees around his home. His current condo complex won’t allow him to use a grill outside because his neighbors don’t like the smell of propane gas. Michael may not be allowed to grill food on his balcony but he can smoke all he wants.
Next stop is the Village Pub, a reminder that I should never drink in a place that uses a g-string and a Bud Light t-shirt to make a window display. I look around and I would guess that the average age in the bar is about 21. Could these be the snow birds’ grandchildren? I’m not sure where all these kids come from, but I wouldn’t really want to spend more than 10 minutes in this place sober. Being half drunk, I might stretch this to half an hour.
We end the night at a casino, although I’m not a gambler and find these kinds of places soul-sapping. This one smells of cigarette smoke (yes, you are allowed to smoke inside) and desperation. Unlike the Village Pub, the Spa Resort Casino is full of pensioners that appear to have been there since the afternoon (it’s now past midnight). Most of them are seated at slot machines, reflexively pushing buttons like desiccated robots.
We leave after the English Husband wins $70 at Blackjack. As we walk back to our hotel, I see the mountains silhouetted against the night sky. The desert night sky is stunning – you feel like you are part of the galaxy. In a large city you can easily forget how bright the moon and the stars can be. The next morning I clear my head in the pool. I’d like to come back to Palm Springs, but next time I might get off the strip and see what lies beyond.