When Don Draper flew out to California in Season 2 of Mad Men, it was like he landed on a different planet. Standing poolside in his city sport coat, he was an entirely different species from the lolling sunbathers surrounding him. When he was whisked to a hideout in Palm Springs, the dreamy sense of displacement escalated. He knew he was in a place where the pace, rules and even language were a little bit different. Resistance, he realized, was futile, and before long, Don was lounging in the pool in a pair of trunks, trying on a new identity.
You don’t have to climb inside your TV to get a taste of mid-century Palm Springs. You just have to buy an airline ticket. Nestled in the Coachella Valley and surrounded by the San Bernardino, Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains, Palm Springs feels just a little bit cut off from the rest of the world. Driving in from Los Angeles on Highway 10, you know you’re almost there when you get to the fields of wind turbines silently rotating in the heat like enormous prehistoric birds. It’s weird and beautiful, but if you’d rather skip the 2½-hour drive, you can fly WestJet right into the Palm Springs airport. That’s easier, and easy is a big part of the Palm Springs charm.
From there, you have to answer just two more questions before you can let the desert heat go to your head: Where are you going to stay and how are you going to get around? We choose the Colony Palms Hotel for its great location and its laid-back luxe vibe. As for getting around, if you’d rather not rent a car, you can get away with walking and cabbing.
But having a car here is no hardship – parking is always free, and you can drive from one end of town to the other in about 15 minutes. No wonder people flock here from L.A.
Our first morning, I make like an Angeleno and learn how to properly camp out at the hotel pool. Even at 6:30 a.m. (jet lag), guests dot the comfy loungers reading the paper, Googling on their laptops and, yes, canoodling. The desert is chilly this early in the morning, and a small group has gathered at the outdoor fireplace. Everyone is wearing hotel robes. I’ve heard this place is a celeb favourite, so I look at people while trying to act like I’m not looking at people. Could that be Ryan Gosling? Maybe not but Jessica Simpson, Kate Bosworth, Jennifer Lawrence and Zac Efron have all stayed here. Everyone is super low-key, even the group drinking Champagne in a poolside cabana.
By afternoon, it’s time to move around a bit (not too much), so we explore the design district around the corner. The heat comes off the pavement and makes everything look wavy, but there’s no need to break a sweat. The stores are clustered over four blocks, and you can wander in and out of every low-slung building in less than two hours. If you like new clothes and shiny things, check out the Trina Turk Boutique and Wil Stiles sportswear next door. For good vintage, there’s Déjà Vu, and for decor, there’s everywhere else. Sixties furniture lovers shouldn’t miss A La Mod, Modern Way or Christopher Anthony, among others.
Back at the hotel, the pool scene has gotten livelier, but there’s no time to linger. Friends from L.A. have told us about a not-to-be missed place for dinner. Kiyosaku is in a humble strip mall, in a part of Palm Springs you would drive through but never notice. The Japanese couple who run this simple restaurant take their sushi very seriously. Don’t ask for unorthodox sushi; do order Kiyo’s grapefruit special. It’s a memorable combination of flavours and textures, with big chunks of scallops, tuna, salmon, crab and shrimp, tossed with juicy pink grapefruit pieces and dressed with the grapefruit’s juices. You’ll dream about it later.
At 7 the next morning, we’re heading toward Indian Canyons for a little hiking. Joshua Tree National Park is about an hour away, but this is right in Palm Springs so, yes, it’s easier. For a short hike, pick the Andreas Canyon trail; Palm Canyon is a bit longer. Both are peaceful and gorgeous and free you up by lunchtime.
The lineup at Tyler’s Burgers tells you this is the hottest lunch place in town, but you have to be patient. Or if you like to live on the edge, put your name on the clipboard, do a little speed shopping at See’s Candy next door, run the chocolate back to the hotel and get back in time to claim your table. Afterward, you might feel like strolling through downtown Palm Springs; its cozy charm somehow reminds me of Banff. Or maybe you want to pick up your tennis racket. Or play a round of golf. You can ride a horse, go on an Old Hollywood tour, get a massage or go to the outlet mall. If you’ve come for festivals such as Coachella, Dinah Shore or White Party, you’ll have places to go and people to see.
Personally, my idea of fun is to sample the vibe at other hotels by having a drink and a bite at the pool bar of each one. It’s the perfect cap to a few days of seriously easy relaxation. Just don’t expect to fit into your skinny jeans.
WHERE TO SWIM
The swimming pool is the centre of social life in Palm Springs. Of course, you’ll enjoy the one at your hotel, but if you want some variety, you really should swim around. Here are three greats to put on your list.
Ace Swim Club
For only $20, you can have access to the loud and lively scene at the Ace Hotel pool, as well as the gym and weight room. Spa services are also available (for an additional fee). 701 East Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-325-9900; acehotel.com/palmsprings/swim-club
Parker Palm Springs
The Jonathan Adler-designed Parker is worth a visit just to see the lobby. If you want to get wet, you can buy a pass to the spa’s indoor pool ($50 for a whole day; $25 after 2 p.m.; spa services are extra). The outdoor pools are for hotel guests only, but you can enjoy the lovely grounds and chic restaurant for the price of a drink and a bite. 4200 East Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-770-5000; theparkerpalm-springs.com
The Saguaro Palm Springs
The Technicolor Saguaro is an old-style motel done up in every colour of the rainbow. Rooms encircle the Olympic-size pool, which will be accessible by day pass next month. Until then, enjoy the local colour at a poolside table at Tinto, the hotel’s Spanish-themed restaurant and bar. 800 East Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-322-1900; jdvhotels.com/hotels
WHAT TO DO
Palm Springs is about more than just the pool-side scene. Get off your chaise longue and check out these colourful diversions.
Trina Turk Palm Springs Boutique
Housed in a 1960s Albert Frey building, Trina Turk Palm Springs is all shag carpet, mirrors and foil wallpaper. The colourful resort sportswear for men and women typifies PS desert style. 891 North Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-416-2856; trinaturk.com/boutique/palm-springs
Cheeky’s Palm Springs
Hip breakfast joint featuring local and seasonal ingredients. Adored by Angelenos; closed Tuesdays. 622 North Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-327-7595; cheekysps.com
Order a couple of sliders, a bottomless Arnold Palmer (half lemonade, half iced tea) and relax under the outdoor canopy until you are fully rested and hydrated. 149 South Indian Canyon Dr.; 760-325-2990; tylersburgers.com
You can easily explore the canyons – first settled by ancestors of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians – on your own, or you can sign up for a ranger-led tour. Fun fact: Palm Canyon boasts the largest natural palm oasis in North America. 38500 South Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-323-6018; indian-canyons.com
Fabulous mid-century-modern shop outside the uptown design district. Beautiful furnishings and accessories in a fun and friendly atmosphere. 462 South Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-327-1731; swankpalmsprings.com
Cherish the fresh and simple dishes. 1555 South Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-327-6601; kiyosakusushi.menutoeat.com
Special to The Globe and Mail