Get Lost in the Desert in Palm Springs

1. Where to Stay

The Saguaro features splashes of colors inside rooms and throughout the property.Photo: Courtesy of The Saguaro

Party to poolside DJs at The Saguaro (from $149), a former Holiday Inn that reopened last month after a facelift and rebranding by the owners of the nearby Ace hotel. Tangerine- and lime-accented walls and sleek furniture give this 245-room property a vibrant, youthful look. It’s also home to two restaurants—one a tapas bar, the other featuring Mexican small plates and 100 tequilas—with menus created by Iron Chef Jose Garces.

Unpack within walking distance of the Design District’s mid-century furniture shops at the Spanish-style Los Arboles Hotel (from $148). Its vine-covered walls contain 21 rooms that overlook a courtyard pool with mountain views, but request one of the four that have an en-suite sauna and private patio. Locals love the on-site restaurant for its authentic Mexican dishes and strong margaritas.

Hang with architecture buffs at The Horizon Hotel (from $139), one of the few original Modernist hotels remaining in the area. Built by Hollywood mogul Jack Wrather and his wife, actress Bonita Granville, in the fifties, its 24 angular rooms feature mountain views, outdoor showers, and round patios. If you’re feeling lavish, stay in Wrather and Granville’s former residence, which rents as a one-, two-, or three-bedroom unit with a sunken bar and private pool.

2. Where to Eat

Cheeky's uses local ingredients and serves batters, sauces, and dressings made in-house.Photo: Courtesy of Cheeky's

Avoid the line by arriving on the later side for lunch at Cheeky’s, a popular daytime café that brought farm-to-table cooking to a town steeped in dated Continental cuisine when it opened four years ago. Sit on the side patio, order a fresh blood-orange mimosa ($11) and fried-egg-topped heirloom tomato sandwich ($11), and share a flight of four kinds of bacon ($4).

Hop on a vinyl barstool at Woody’s Burgers and Beer (317 N. Indian Canyon Dr.; 760-230-0188), a fifties diner that used to be part of the old Greyhound bus station. Try the jalapeno-pepper jack burger ($6.50) with house-made jalapeno sauce, or choose three of their ten types of burgers for a slider sampler ($9.50). Though the counter seats only sixteen, there’s a speakeasy-like lounge in the back where you can hear jazz and blues daily.

Sip a grapefruit mojito ($13) on a poolside sofa at the Kelly Werstler-designed Viceroy hotel before dinner at in-house restaurant Citron. Though the white-and-yellow, mirrored jewelbox space may look demure, portions are not model-sized. Spicy tuna tartare with beets, tomatoes and avocado ($15) is a standout appetizer; follow it up with beef tenderloin meatloaf ($24) served with buttermilk mashed potatoes.

3. What to Do

Desert Adventures' tour includes stops at an 840-acre ranch and recreated villages.Photo: Courtesy of Desert Adventures

Take a one- or two-hour guided horseback ride ($50–$90) at the foot of the Santa Rosa Mountains with Smoke Tree Stables. Check out views of downtown Palm Springs in the distance as you travel through rocky gorges and mountain streams to a desert oasis on the Agua Caliente Indian reservation. Inexperienced riders should request Choppo, a gentle horse once owned by the mayor of Palm Springs.

Ride the world’s largest rotating tramcar, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway ($24), ten minutes and 8,516 feet to Mount San Jacinto State Park. In winter, go sledding or cross-country skiing on snow-capped San Jacinto; during warmer months, enjoy a 30-degree drop in temperature at the top and choose from 54 miles of backcountry hikes. Pick the moderate, 1.5-mile Desert View Trail for great panoramas of the San Bernardino Mountain range.

Order a mountain bike delivered to your hotel from Big Wheel Bike Tours ($45 per day, plus delivery) and pedal 45 minutes through thousands of wind turbines to Joshua Tree National Park. Bike the remote Geology Tour Road through surreal rock formations, caused by tectonic movements in the area, and scope the varied high-desert vegetation, including the bulbous, prickly namesake tree.

Explore the San Andres Fault Zone from a CJ-8 Jeep with Desert Adventures. They’ll pick you up in town and take you to their private ranch in Indio for a three-hour tour ($125), where you’ll pass through unusual sandstone formations and dramatic slot canyons to a palm oasis. In their recreated villages, guests learn how the Cahuilla tribe and early white settlers survived harsh Colorado-Sonoran Desert life.

4. Insider’s Tip

Palm Springs is stacked with mid-century furniture shops, but you'll find bargains at The Estate Sale Company.Photo: JoeInSouthernCA, via Flickr

You’ll find great stuff but no bargains in the Uptown Design District’s mid-century furniture and accessories shops. Instead, check out The Estate Sale Company, a 90,000-square-foot consignment warehouse in south Palm Springs that locals swear by. Rumor has it that when Palm Springs’ elderly, second-home owners pass away, the entire contents of their homes are brought to the shop. If you stumble upon a pricey Eames or Knoll piece they’ll even coordinate shipping for you.

5. Oddball Day

Sunnylands has hosted presidents, politicians, diplomats, and Supreme Court Justices.Photo: Courtesy of Sunnylands

Spend a day getting in touch with Palm Springs’ star-studded past. Grab coffee at Starbucks (corner of Palm Canyon and Tahquitz Canyon) before strolling in either direction along the Palm Springs Walk of Stars to get acquainted with the area’s famous residents. At 10 a.m. get picked up by guide Michael Stern, whose Modern Tour ($150) takes small groups inside landmark Modernist vacation homes and points out those built for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor in the fifties and sixties. Stern, who’s an architecture buff and author of Julius Shulman: Palm Springs, provides commentary about high-desert mid-century style and its accompanying cocktail culture over the course of two and a half hours. Drive for brunch at the Jonathan Adler-designed Parker Palm Springs, where you can grab a Bertoia chair on the tent-covered patio at comfort-food spot Norma’s, home of the $1,000 Sevruga Caviar omelet. Afterward, drive fifteen minutes south to ritzy Rancho Mirage to explore Sunnylands ($35 tour, reservation required), the 200-acre former estate of Ambassador Walter and Leonore Annenberg, opened to the public for the first time this month. Tour the pink-roofed, sixties home where the Annenbergs often entertained dignitaries, including their friends the Reagans, and note the high-quality reproductions of Monet and other impressionists throughout (the originals were donated to the Met). Don’t miss the interactive exhibit about the estate’s $5 million eco-sensitive restoration in the new visitor center and then take a 1.4-mile walk around its desert garden. Next, head to Carey Grant’s former estate, now Copley’s restaurant, for a gin martini ($10) around the fire pit on the newly expanded patio. Then move inside for a retro movie-star meal: wedge salad ($11) and beef tenderloin over corn and lobster risotto ($34). After dinner, make your way to 35-year-old piano lounge Melvyn’s, plastered with framed photos of the owner with Cher, John Travolta, and other stars. Sip a Melvyn’s coffee (with Baileys, Frangelico and fresh whipped cream; $8.25) from a curvy booth in the dark, carpeted bar, but make sure you’re close enough to see who’s on the dance floor, and keep an eye out for the impeccably turned-out Haber.

6. Links

Find out what celebs have been in town recently on local radio host Rick Rockhill’s Palm Springs Savant.

Check The Cochella Valley Art Scene for write-ups on edgy art shows and festivals happening in the desert.

Visit the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism Site to read up on events and weekly deals, and to download their free travel apps.

Read The Desert Sun or Palm Springs Life to get a sense of the news and issues in the valley.

Get Lost in the Desert in Palm Springs