Never scoff at a place that attracts the rich and famous. When the people who could afford to live anywhere cluster in Palm Springs, Southern California's desert hideaway, it's a sure thing they have a very good reason.

Since the early days of film, the Palm Springs area has been the special secret of movie stars and moguls (and, more recently, a retired U.S. president), whose designer homes snuggle up one against the other like a closing of the ranks for protection (probably justifiably) against intrusions from the outside.

They come, these movieland notables, in the depth of winter, fleeing the damp cold of coastal Los Angeles for the dry, invigorating warmth of the endless desert sun. And what the stars discovered, the rest of us can share.

Their secret is the region's natural wonders: the beauty of the mountains and desert; a magnificent climate and the marvelously fresh, clear air. These elements combine to invigorate the body yet soothe the harried mind. Palm Springs is both a perfect place for rigorous outdoor recreation -- of which there is an excellent variety -- and a surprisingly relaxful place.

Many travelers nowadays arrive from the north, escaping the frozen rages of winters. They are sun-seekers looking for a desert alternative to island beaches. Alaska Airlines schedules two winter flights daily from Fairbanks and Anchorage.

And at Easter, the city turns into the Ft. Lauderdale of the West Coast, when thousands of college students on spring break flock to the sun from as far north as Washington state.

The business of Palm Springs is tourism, but there's far more to the city than its swimming pools and tennis courts.

In a sense, it is a real-life representation of an unreal California fostered by decades of Hollywood scriptwriters, a place of wonderful fantasies. If you ever dreamed of life in California, this -- not Hollywood -- is the dream you dreamed. It is an Old West town with an Indian heritage, where rain rarely falls; tall palms bend to gentle breezes; and life is lived ever-so-pleasantly, or so it seems.

And Glamor with a capital "G" -- at least the kind that excites movie fans -- abounds. Better still, unlike Hollywood it is nicely concentrated in a relatively small, compact area for easy spotting.

Drive south down palm-lined Palm Canyon Drive, the city's fashionable main street, and you will pass the Alan Ladd Hardware Store (opened by the actor in 1956 and run by his family). A bit further on is the Gene Autry Hotel, owned by the cowboy hero of decades past, who sometimes lives there (and whose boots, spurs and holster are kept on display in the lobby).

At night, the street is especially lovely, illuminated not by street lights but with floodlamps bathing each seemingly stage-struck palm in its own spotlight.

Just a block west from Palm Canyon Drive, on the lower floor of Palm Spring's Desert Museum, actor William Holden's personal collection of Asian and African artifacts is on permanent display. Up on a nearby hillside, the building that looks like a sports coliseum is comedian Bob Hope's $10-million mansion, its vast undulating roof resembling a giant floppy pancake.

You might think the year-round residents would become blase' about their Hollywood connection, but they are shameless name-droppers. An art dealer tells you he saw comedian Red Skelton at the bank down the street the other day. A city official recalls seeing actor Kirk Douglas outside his home dressed in a bikini and walking his dog. A bus driver notes that when a fleet of cars is parked outside actress Goldie Hawn's house, it means she's in town, which is often.

As might be expected in a fantasy land, Palm Springs has its idiosyncracies, indulged by the wealth of many of its residents. No flashing neon signs mar the cityscape; they're against the law. So is the word "motel." In the West, there's a budget lodging chain called Motel 6, but not in Palm Springs. Here it's called Hotel 6. No building can rise above five stories, protecting everyone's grand view of the mountains to the west.

Though daytime winter temperatures average in the low-70s, summers get so hot here (regularly above 100) that even the permanent residents try to get away. But for those who must stay, there's plenty of indoor air conditioning and something called "outdoor" air conditioning: Tennis courts come equipped with water jets that spray a mist above the players, which cools the air but evaporates before it dampens the courts.

Restaurants with outdoor patios offer their own version, though sometimes the waves of mist rolling over the roof are mistaken for smoke.

Officials boast of 7,300 swimming pools within the city limits, an average of one pool for every five of the 37,000 permanent residents, though they share them, of course, with a winter weekend population that swells to 100,000 seeking fun in the sun.

Swimming is big business here. Bikinis by Bernie has two downtown locations selling tiny hand-knitted swimsuits, styled both for men and women, for about $40. (Buy a size so tight, says a clerk, that when you put the suit on, your voice changes to a "squeak.")

A local joke is that one of the three busiest jobs in town is pool cleaner. The other two are interior designer and landscape gardener. One glance around, and you don't doubt it.

Palm Springs definitely has a manicured look about it. The homes of the well-to-do tend to be one-story ranch or Spanish colonial-style structures, painted in discreet desert colors. But it is the landscaping that really catches the eye. Stretches of impossibly perfect lawns are kept brilliantly green year-round, and exotic desert plants and trees turn yards into botanical works of art.

True, not everything in Palm Springs is tasteful, though that is the overall impression. Outside the large home of entertainer Liberace stands an original light pole that resembles -- what else? -- a massive candelabra.

All this can be amusing or sociologically fascinating or an outrageous example of conspicuous consumption, depending on your attitude. Regardless, the benign Palm Springs climate and the area's natural beauty are attractions in themselves and can be enjoyed by visitors who never venture inside the locked gates of the rich and famous.

One day recently, when the morning sun had not yet burned a cool nip from the air, we rode out from Smoke Tree Stables, at the southern edge of Palm Springs, and headed up a "desert wash" or dry gully to explore Andreas Canyon, a palm oasis tucked into a crevice at the foot of the towering San Jacinto Mountains.

The mountains stood directly in front of us like a giant fortress wall, rising sheerly from the western outskirts of the city to more than 10,800 feet. They are covered at the base with the gray-green, sun-dried foliage of the desert. But as they climb, the slopes acquire a lusher mantle, and at the cloud-tipped summit a rugged forest wilderness unfolds.

Palm Springs' famous aerial tram, departing throughout the day from just north of the city, makes the trip to the 8,500-foot level in about 15 minutes. Winter vacationers can ski the snow-packed cross-country trails of this frosty mountain realm in the morning and then shuttle back down to the desert for an afternoon of shirt-sleeve golf or a dip in the hotel pool.

We kept to lower elevations, however, as our guide led us over a sandy trail past wispy smoke-tree bushes (found only in a desert wash), the stumpy barrel cactus and the scratchy creosote bush, named for its medicinal smell. A half-hour's ride from the stables we arrived at a barbed-wire gate, marking the entrance to the reservation of the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla Indians, on whose land Andreas Canyon is located.

For hundreds of years the Indians have lived here, the Agua Calientes taking their name ("hot water" in Spanish) from the hot springs of the region, which they believed to have magical powers to cure their ills. (A hot springs still flows into bathing pools at the Spa Hotel in downtown Palm Springs.)

Our guide ducked inside a dusty tollhouse to pay the $3.50 (per person) fee charged by the Indians to ride their land. As we moved on, we began to climb. Looking to the rear, we could see Palm Springs spread out below us, the flat landscape strangely resembling a sprawling checkerboard. It's the result of the historical vagaries of land management here.

A portion of the 32,000-acre reservation lies within the city limits of Palm Springs (the 180 members of the wealthy band are cited as the city's largest single landowner). In times past, the Indians were allotted every other square-mile section while private owners got alternate squares, and so the city has been developed in checkerboard fashion. Sections of verdant homesites abut still-untouched sections of desert, and the pattern is repeated. You are never very far from the desert anywhere in Palm Springs.

By now our horses were scrambling around giant boulders, the kind you could disappear behind, mount and all, if chased by movie outlaws. The mid-morning sun blazed hot, and my mouth was dry from the dust kicked up by the rider ahead. But I was captivated by the rough beauty of the desert -- the mix of reds and blacks and browns, the jumble of rocks and the unusual plants. High above, snowy clouds peaked from behind the mountaintops and ducked back down again.

Ahead, I heard the sound of tumbling water, and in a few minutes we had arrived at the mouth of the canyon. A clear stream, fed by the annual snow melt high above, splashed in a series of pools beneath tall palms. The fronds cast a deep, welcoming shade, and leafy ferns flourished at their feet. At the guide's urging, I plunged my face into the water for a cool sip.

We could stay only for a few minutes (a matter of getting the hired horses back in the allotted two hours), but it was long enough. Desert dwellers appreciate the beauty and the beneficence of an oasis, and now, I felt, so did I.

Palm Springs hotels began attracting vacationers in the early 1900s, but Hollywood really moved in on the Indians in a big way after actors Ralph Bellamy and Charles Farrell decided in 1931 to build themselves a tennis court on 200 acres of empty desert.

At the time, "there were a lot of stars wandering around in the sunshine looking for a place to play tennis," Farrell recalled in an old magazine article preserved by the Palm Springs Historical Society. He had first visited Palm Springs for a holiday at the urging of a friend and colleague, actress Janet Gaynor; he liked it and acquired a house.

Farrell and Bellamy had a private court constructed for themselves and another for their friends to the north of town. In no time at all, the demand for playing time was so great, they added two more courts and then clubhouse facilities. Without really realizing it, suddenly they were in the tennis business, and in 1932 Farrell, who had bought Bellamy out, formally opened the famed Racquet Club.

It became a "mecca" for the movie industry, Farrell wrote, drawing such names as Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda and others. And when the movieland greats began building their own getaway homes nearby, the city blossomed as a resort. Even today, Racquet Club parties in the fall inaugurate Palm Springs' active social season.

The growth of luxury homes has spread outside Palm Springs to other communities south of the city along State Highway 111, including fashionable Palm Desert, La Quinta and Rancho Mirage, where both entertainer Frank Sinatra and former president Gerald Ford have homes.

Many streets here, by the way, bear the name of an illustrious resident, and you get some funny coincidences. As we drove down Frank Sinatra Drive near Sinatra's home, his voice wafted from the car radio in the original version of "Strangers in the Night."

Tourism officials list more than 40 golf courses within a 20-mile radius of Palm Springs and have dubbed the city the "Winter Golf Capital of the World." The flapping flags on the greens seem as natural to the view as the palms, and golf carts bounce across every horizon.

Many of the private clubs, however, are reserved for members whose fancy homes ring the course. These are so-called country-club estates, where the club is just outside the front door. One of the fanciest is The Springs, on Bob Hope Drive in Rancho Mirage, where three- and four-bedroom homes "in a country club setting of lakes and fairways" begin at $325,000. But you might also find a home or condo elsewhere for $100,000.

For a popular resort drawing 2 million visitors a year, the city of Palm Springs retains something of a village quality, the sort of place where you regularly meet friends on the street. But year-round residents worry that the small-town charm is being damaged by rapid growth in the city and the communities beyond. New hotels are planned. The Marriott chain already has begun to build a 900-room resort in Palm Desert, which will be one of the largest in the area.

That growth is Palm Springs' future seems probable, but meanwhile the countryside remains quite open. South along Rte. 111, the Coachella Valley, nourished by irrigation, is agriculturally rich. It is America's date capital. As the home developments thin out, groves of date palms appear, the trees standing in a forest of even rows.

Many shops along the highway sell fresh or candied dates, and visitors with an adventurous spirit should try the local specialty, the date milkshake. At the Eldorado Date Gardens in Indian Wells, they are remarkably good.

Each morning at dawn, I slipped from my Palm Springs room clothed only in a robe. Just outside the door, in a very private patio, a tiled hot tub bubbled day and night at 100-plus degrees, a light steam rising in the early coolness. I dropped my robe and lowered myself into the tub's embrace, to soak and to watch the first light of the sun playing on the mountains.

In the midst of wealth, it is tempting to taste a bit of luxury yourself. Quite nice budget accommodations are available in the city's numerous small hotels, but the height of luxury may be the Mediterranean-style villas and town-house apartments of La Mancha, a small hotel five minutes by car from the heart of town.

You can rent an apartment or villa with a private outside hot tub; or one with a hot tub and a private heated swimming pool (swimsuits optional); or both of these and a private tennis court. If it's privacy you want, this is the place. Robert Wagner and Robert Mitchum are regular guests at La Mancha, says the management, and ex-White House aide John Dean came here to write his Watergate memoir, "Blind Ambition."

The idea behind the hotel, begun about eight years ago, was to create a place in which vacationers could enjoy, if for only a little while, the privileged life of Palm Springs' wealthy winter residents.

"You don't have to be rich to enjoy the same things as the rich," says owner Ken Irwin, though it takes a bit of money to pay the tab. An apartment for two with a hot tub begins at $210 daily during the winter high season; a one-bedroom villa for two with tub, pool and tennis court begins at $460 a day.

At night, when the sky sparkled with bright stars and a light chill had returned, I stepped back into my hot pool for another soak. And whatever the cost, it was wonderful.

Admit it. However grand the Palm Springs scenery or magnificent the climate, it would be fun to see a real Hollywood celebrity before you go. After all, Palm Springs is a celebrity resort. Tourist firms offer bus tours past the homes of the famous, and if you are lucky you might spot a big-name entertainer out in the front yard.

The other day, travelers awaiting their departure flight glanced up to see one of the great old faces of show business passing through the Palm Springs airport. He's put on years, but there's still something about the clown's grin and the unruly red hair that give Red Skelton the ageless look of a mischievious boy.

Onlookers, one after another, smiled spontaneously in recognition, and Skelton gracefully returned the smile. And that was a fitting end to a Palm Springs holiday.