Frontier town, Hollywood hideaway, retirement village, gay playground - Palm Springs has worn many caftans. Its dream-like, otherworldly landscape inspired modern architecture with glass walls that blurred the distinction between indoor and outdoor space. Sunshine pours down like ambrosia most days of the year and daytime temperatures flutter from balmy to a dry, scorching heat.
Our goal was to enjoy stylish and swanky Palm Springs - while sidestepping the high-end prices. By making the budget Ace Hotel our home base, skipping indulgent spa treatments and "taking the waters" with the Agua Caliente tribe instead, checking out modern homes via a free self-guided tour and lunching with the locals at cheerful Cheeky's, we could experience desert chic on the cheap.
Bohemian at the Ace
A fashionable young couple sit giggling on the army green, 1970s-style sectional couch next to some carefully arranged back issues of National Geographic, vintage albums and tattered paperbacks. A taxidermied coyote stands guard above the front desk. As we check in, a barefoot guy in cut-off jean shorts walks past, bouncing an orange ball. Is this our hotel or a scene from a Wes Anderson movie?
The retro design is the hallmark style of the Ace Hotel (now open in Seattle, Portland and Palm Springs, and set to open in New York). Outside, the property - a former Howard Johnson's - is dotted with towering palms and the San Jacinto Mountains rise up in the distance. By the larger of two saltwater pools, we take in the diverse crowd: Twentysomethings in bikinis and board shorts play table tennis, families entertain young children, dogs romp in the dog park and muscle men recline on oversized chaise longues. Tattooed and pierced staff flit about taking drink and food orders to the beat of the Beach Boys.
Best of all, the rooms start at $112 (expect to pay more for those rooms for which they have converted carports into patios equipped with firepits). Our room is all navy and earth tones, with canvas bedding and window coverings, pages from old magazines tacked to the wall, and a mini-bar stocked with plenty of booze and organic, raw power bars. Some have record players, and if you're not into the back issues in your room, check out the lobby, which doubles as a magazine store.
Want to get around? The hotel lends bicycles to guests free.
701 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-325-9900; www.acehotel.com/palmsprings.
Oasis of art
At the Palm Springs Art Museum, built by modernist architect E. Stewart Williams, find temporary exhibitions by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and Californian pop artist Wayne Thibaud, and Duane Hanson's disturbingly lifelike sculptures in the permanent collection. Admission is $15.50, free Thursday night.
101 Museum Dr.; 760-322-4800; www.psmuseum.org.
Drive-by desert modernism
The Map of Modern Palm Springs self-guided tour takes you past Elvis's honeymoon love nest, the House of Tomorrow; Frank Sinatra's old party pad, the debonair Twin Palms Estate; and the Bob Hope House, which looks like a flying saucer mated with a turtle. Grab a copy of the map for $5 (U.S.) at the triangular, Albert Frey- designed Palm Springs Visitors Centre (a former gas station).
2901 North Palm Canyon Dr.; 800-347-7746; www.psmodcom.com.
Mountain high, valley low
In stark contrast to the man-made structures is the stunning natural beauty of the Indian Canyons on sacred Cahuilla Indian land. Hiking trails wind along streams, past alien rock formations, waterfalls, fan palms and dozens of cactus species. Just watch your step: Rattlesnakes like it here too. A ride up Mount Jacinto in the world's biggest rotating tramcar takes you up about 2,590 metres in 10 minutes. At the top, with the entire Coachella Valley - from eerily robotic turbines of the San Gorgonio Pass wind farm to the Little San Bernardino mountains in Joshua Tree National Park - spreads out before you. Tickets are $27.50.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, 1 Tramway Rd., 888-515-TRAM (8726), www.pstramway.com.
Indian Canyons, South Palm Canyon Dr., 760-323-6018, www.indian-canyons.com.
Palm Springs's restaurant scene is evolving beyond early-bird buffets. Words such as organic, fresh and local are popping up on menus.
Cheeky's, a new, bright lunch and breakfast spot, ticks all three boxes, and the food is seasonal too. The oatmeal brûlée with berries, the poached eggs with polenta and leeks and a bacon "flight" (four different slices, $5), make for a satisfying and tasty start to our day. Mains hover in the $12 range.
622 North Palm Canyon Dr., 760-327-7595, www.cheekysps.com.
Get into hot water
The only hot springs in Palm Springs proper are at the Spa Resort Casino, owned by the local Agua Caliente tribe. An afternoon "taking the waters" entails a five-stage process: steam, sauna, eucalyptus steam inhalation, a dip in a private mineral pool and then unwinding. The spa is not new or state-of-the-art, but it is clean, there are outdoor pools, and it makes for a fantastically relaxing afternoon for just $40 ($25 if you also buy a treatment).
401 E. Amado Rd., 888-999-1995, www.sparesortcasino.com
Design for less
Mid-century modern design and furniture shops abound here; find smaller, affordable tchotchkes at A La Mod and at Bon Vivant (which had brass owl figurines from the 1970s for $18.50, Danish teak candlesticks for $18.50, and a number of colourful, one-of-a-kind Murano glass bowls in the $60 range).
A La Mod, 768 North Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-327-0707; www.alamod768.com.
Bon Vivant, 457 North Palm Canyon Dr., Suite 3; 760-534-3197; www.gmcb.com/shop.