On the main highway that courses through Palm Springs, about midway between Gerald Ford Drive and Frank Sinatra Drive, there's a perfectly satisfactory Days Inn Suites. Just around the corner from one of the late Liberace's Palm Springs residences, there is a clean and comfortable Motel 6. If you're not properly dressed for Hamilton's, the country club restaurant owned by the defiantly bronze actor George Hamilton, you can just jump on Dinah Shore Drive and follow it to where it intersects with Gene Autry Trail and grab a meal at the local pancake house (IHOP, dinners from $5.99, all day).
And if you are at all reluctant to spend $325 for a Day of Splendor at Merv Griffin's Resort Hotel and Givenchy Spa, I recommend heading down Route 111 just a few miles into Rancho Mirage. I went to a strip shopping center there and got a good haircut and a chocolate frozen yogurt with Hershey's mix-ins for just 12 bucks!
All of which is a long way of saying that Palm Springs, Calif.--legendary getaway for Hollywood's fast crowd, drying-out zone for the addicted elite, lush oasis backdrop for the Bob Hope Desert Classic, the Dinah Shore Open and more holes of golf than even an entertainment lawyer is likely to play before retirement--turns out to be an accessible getaway for the rest of us, too. Over the years, the Coachella Valley area--which consists of Palm Springs proper and half a dozen communities stretching east--has quietly come to offer a range of amenities catering to all budgets. Just about anybody who can afford to take the two- (from Los Angeles) or three- (from San Diego) hour drive can enjoy an escape in the Palm Springs area and savor the unsettling beauty and remote charms that drew the swells there in the first place.
When I started considering a "budget" vacation in Palm Springs, the Days Inn Suites came recommended as a good value with a convenient mid-valley location. My family could get a two-bedroom, two-bath suite there for $139 a night. I know that's not exactly $59 a night, but it's less than we pay for a single room in a lot of places. Alas, when we got to the hotel, we discovered that the swimming pool (which my family depends on more than I should admit for daily sanity re-bootings) was tiny and close to the highway. The manager was very gracious about letting us slip out of our reservation. We thumbed the visitors bureau's lodging guide and found a one-bedroom condo at the Desert Isle Resort, in Palm Springs proper--two pools, three hot tubs, a gas grill and manicured, palm-festooned grounds with a meandering lagoon--for $160 a night.
Honey, let's get dinner reservations at Hamilton's!
Just kidding. Even though we'd reached above the lowest end for our accommodations, we were still committed to high class on a low budget.
And we had a fine time. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is a must-do, a feat of mid-century engineering that whisks visitors from near the desert floor to 8,500 feet above sea level and a pristine mountaintop sanctuary where we hiked and rode mules and enjoyed mind-clearing views.
The valley is home to the nation's largest wind farm. There are the Indian Canyons, the oases where the area's first inhabitants found water and shelter from the sun and sand. There are a few date farms in the valley, which--who knew?--is responsible for 95 percent of the U.S. date harvest. Less than an hour away is Joshua Tree National Park, one of the most forlornly beautiful places in the federal portfolio.
There is the Salton Sea, a huge inland lake created by early engineers who mistakenly sent the Colorado the wrong way and wound up making a vast, shallow, below-sea-level body of water in the midst of the desert that has never gone away. There are desert gardens, state parks, a desert museum, horse rides, jeep tours and, I'm told, some 30,000 swimming pools in the valley.
Heck, all we needed was one.
And we had two.
Before we laid eyes on it, I was not very hopeful about the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, mostly because I figured it was a dalliance that let socialites on vacation get to the top of a mountain without climbing. Dinah Shore, a guidebook reported, was a passenger on the tram's inaugural day in 1963. Puh.
As usual, I was dead wrong. The tramway is unforgettable. Based at the end of a winding road just outside the city limits, the tram carries two gondolas from about 2,600 feet above sea level to the summit of Mount San Jacinto, at 8,500. That's over a mile of "vertical gain," as they say in the incline biz, and it's all surmounted during a nearly silent 14-minute ride that passes over five steel towers fused onto the mountainside. The cars--one goes up, the other down, balanced like cars in a funicular--dangle from a metal cable almost two inches thick. There are no seats; everyone just hangs onto a railing and gapes.
The tram route threads through a deep crevice and up the mountainside, passing four distinct climatic zones along the way. At the lower desert levels there are creosote, barrel cactus and mesquite. Then come scrub oak, junipers and white fir in the transition zones. Eventually most vegetation yields to vast, sheer granite cliffs that loom not far beyond the windows of the car.
I now have an appreciation of what it might feel like to scale a mountain face and be perched on a narrow shelf of rock, the valley dropping out below you like a great cosmic yawn. And I also now know that I'd rather not be one of the people perched there. I can't say the ride was scary, but it was vivid and startling, especially between towers three and five, where the ascent is steepest. When the car passes over a tower, the cable above thump-thumps and the car sways, and there is a soft chorus of "whoa"s among the passengers.
After Tower 4, it seemed that we were climbing nearly vertically and that gravity was likely to reassert itself at any moment. The rust-red faces of the batholith seemed to slide down all around our car and for a moment I felt vaguely disoriented. And then the gondola slowed and docked, with one sharp, unexplained screech, at the tramway's upper station.
At the top is Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness, 13,000 acres of "arctic-alpine" terrain (the promised fourth climate zone) laced with 54 miles of hiking trails. "Wilderness" represents the highest level of protection and lowest level of development among government lands, and aside from the lodgelike upper station, a couple of ranger buildings and modest riding and skiing concessions, there is nothing beyond what nature provides.
On the day of our visit, it was about 85 degrees in Palm Springs and in the mid-fifties on top of the mountain, the sky as clear as a baby's eye. One of the mule-hands, a thin German whose face looked as if it were reupholstered in tufted leather, said that at this time of year (mid-April) there was usually enough snow on the ground to cross-country ski. The woods were full of giant Geoffrey pines that had been felled by winter wind storms; they lay across trails, their massive roots split open, exposed to the elements .
The wilderness area does not appear to be located along any commercial flight paths, and the mountaintop was as fresh and silent as any place I've visited. Some people on the tram had brought serious overnight backpacks and quickly disappeared in the direction of the mountain peak, a couple of miles away and some 1,500 feet above us. But we didn't need to stray far for a full dose of alpine nature.
Granite outcroppings rimming the summit provided fine perches to view the valley below, Palm Springs and its succession of sister towns tapering along the valley into the distance.
To get a closer view of the valley, we took one of the area's many guided jeep tours. Our foursome was paired with another family in the back of a canvas-topped, open-sided jeep painted like a giraffe. It did not have a small sign saying "Abandon dignity all ye who enter here," but it might as well have. I put on hat and sunglasses and gave myself over to the experience.
We departed from the Spa Casino, one of the operations run by the descendants of the Cahuilla Indian tribe. Theirs is an interesting Indian tale, one with a fairly happy ending. After a railroad through the valley was completed, in 1885 the federal government granted alternating land parcels to the railroad and to the Cahuilla. That land, and the businesses that occupy that land, have by now made the Indians fabulously wealthy. Forty-five percent of the land in the valley is owned by members of the tribe.
Many Indian owners lease the lots to developers; others work at businesses like the 230-room Spa Hotel and Casino, built around one of the area's original hot springs, which today feeds a wide circular pool in the hotel courtyard. As the major gaming venue in an area that draws plenty of high rollers on holiday, the casino is an awesome money machine (the guide told us how much the tribe takes in every hour, and the amount was so high we all exchanged brow-jumping glances, but I forgot whether it was $50,000, $500,000 or $5 million).
While waiting for our driver in the gracious hotel lobby, I noticed a large, elegant woman who appeared to be one of the Native American owners or operators. She was wearing a bright, elaborately embroidered dressing gown, and her expression and skin glow suggested she'd just emerged from a long session in the spa. She walked barefoot through the hotel lobby smiling lightly, looking every bit the owner/manager/princess.
Our tour did not linger very long in Palm Springs's chichi downtown, which looks like a minor league Rodeo Drive, with all the high-toned jewelry stores, women's clothing boutiques, cosmetic surgery salons and interior designer storefronts you'd expect.
Our driver told us how, in the early '90s, Palm Springs had become a choice spot for west coast college kids on spring break, and for several years around Easter the town was overrun by marauding collegians who would pack 12 into a room at the Motel 6 or the Best Western, ride motorcycles down the main drag naked, climb street light poles and generally make Palm Springs otherwise uninhabitable.
But then-Mayor Sonny Bono engineered a campaign that consisted partly of a heavily promoted, family-friendly spring festival, increased enforcement of drinking laws and a new city ordinance banning thong bikinis. The kids decided to go elsewhere, and when we visited, in early April and our kids' spring break, there was no collegiate crowd to be seen.
(The late) Sonny Bono, Strongman Mayor!
Beyond downtown, the town fades into vacant lots (many owned by Indians who have not felt the economic need to develop them), and you can see the wind farms, thin towers topped with elegant double-blade fans, bristling along the hills in the distance. As we got closer, our driver told us to let her know if the wind got too much for us. We all bore up heartily for a while as the wind thundered though the jeep. We all took off our hats, then our sunglasses, and pretty soon we were all making tunnels out of our hands to surround our eyes. I wondered if my contact lenses would stay on my eyeballs. I tried to stick my head into the full force of the wind and my mouth popped open, my cheeks fluttering and my head bobbling. Our driver pulled over next to a big sign that said "Danger High Winds Blowing Sand" and attached a canvas wind shield.
The wind farms near Palm Springs, actually seven distinct operations that together constitute the country's largest gathering of windmills, stand directly in the path of the wind that nearly blew us from the jeep. In most places inland, wind is a periodic phenomenon, or even an aberration. But here it's a steady feature of the landscape, blowing pretty much all the time, day and night, all year, as cool air from the coast rushes east, slithering underneath the hot desert air and through a narrow gap in the mountains.
The wind in that alley is powerful and persistent enough to produce some of the least expensive electricity in the nation. In fact, the wind operations here sell the utility companies electricity for far less per kilowatt hour than the residents of Palm Springs have to spend to buy it back.
Our tour of the Brobdingnagian pinwheels and surroundings was fascinating. We had to four-wheel it across a dry desert wash, parts of which were used as a dumping ground for household appliances and large pieces of furniture and dead automobiles, all blasted to a dull shine by the sand and wind. At one point, we got out of the jeep and overlooked a gulch that carried one of the few streams in the valley. I was able to stand at the lip of the valley and lean over, hovering, my body supported by the force of the wind.
On the way back to town, our driver took us on an abbreviated celebrity house tour. This would be our only real taste of the Palm Springs of myth, the cha-cha playground of "Entertainment Tonight" and the glossy pages of Palm Springs Monthly. I was curious to see the stars' houses, of course, but the process was made more excruciating because I was seeing them from the rear seat of a jeep painted like a giraffe. I put my ball cap and sunglasses back on, a lame attempt at plausible deniability.
We saw a mountainside manse being constructed by Suzanne Somers, which, our guide said, had created noise problems for the neighbors, since the building site could be accessed only by helicopter. We saw the Tuscan-style villa of Zsa Zsa Gabor. We saw the home of Elizabeth Taylor, which had a black Rolls-Royce parked in front. We saw not one but two former homes of Liberace, one of which had handsome lyre designs welded into the fence and a cut-glass chandelier in the portico. We saw the place where Goldie Hawn shacks up with Kurt Russell, where Cher keeps a vacation home, where Elvis once held court, where Kenny Rogers has a recording studio and the driveway where Kirk Douglas, the guide said, used to wash his car and greet his fans.
In deference to the community's residents, our driver had turned off the sound system she'd used during the tour, but we were still pretty conspicuous, trolling the manicured streets slowly and deliberately in our giraffemobile. Just as we were about to leave, a white Lexus pulled up behind us and honked its horn twice. A big, florid guy jumped out and approached our vehicle.
"What are you doing?" he demanded of the driver. He seemed agitated and pink, and he wore around his neck the thickest rope of gold I've ever seen, except maybe on a Run-DMC video. Oh, god, I thought, sinking in my seat, all my anxieties and vanities suddenly unloosed in my brain, we're going to get busted! We're trespassing! Disturbing the peace! Violating human decency! Gawking at the rich and famous! I realized, too, that there was no way I could possibly defend or justify the predicament I had put my family in. Take me, not the woman and children!
"We're just doing the celebrity tour," the driver said, her voice about an octave higher than usual. "You know, Zsa Zsa's house, Elvis's house . . ." I suspect she was picking examples that seemed historical rather than contemporary, as if to make clear we weren't even going to look in the direction of houses owned by pink-faced, gold-wearing, Lexus-driving, tax-paying citizens of this fine city who deserved a little peace and privacy. I slunk lower and imagined the headline: Washington Post Travel Reporter Busted for Celebrity Snooping--Jailed When Unable to Produce Sufficient Personal Dignity for Pretrial Release.
"Well, you know, I just bought one of Barry Manilow's houses," the guy said, pointing to a modest flat-top at the end of the street. "He lived there in the '70s."
"Which one?" our guide asked, and the man pointed again and said the house number.
"Well, that's good to know," the guide said, exaggerated gratitude in her voice. "I knew about the other two Barry Manilow houses, but I didn't know about that one."
"Well, I just wanted you to know that there's another Barry Manilow house here," he said. "Not many people seem to know." And he walked back to his Lexus.
We all looked at each other and began to realize what had happened.
The man was not upset that a bunch of celebrity-sniffing, rubber-necking outlanders staying in budget lodgings were cruising down his street in a yellow-and-brown-spotted dorkmobile.
He just wanted his house to be included on the tour, too.
DETAILS: Palm Springs on a Moderate Budget
GETTING THERE: If you're taking in Palm Springs on a budget, check for low-fare flights to either San Diego (SAN) or Los Angeles International (LAX). (You can also check Orange County International (SNA) and Burbank (BUR), which occasionally have cheaper fares.) Flying directly into tiny, tony Palm Springs airport (PSP) is expensive, with the lowest fares starting at about $500. By contrast, recent sale fares from our area to LAX were as low as $188 and to SAN $232, with typical fares for both hovering between $300 and $400.
Unless you're hunkering at a golf resort the entire time, you'll want a rental car: It's a two- to three-hour drive from Los Angeles or San Diego.
WHERE TO STAY: Palm Springs Desert Resorts publishes a useful local lodging guide. It lists 200-plus properties, noting winter and summer rates, number of rooms, amenities --and, especially useful in Palm Springs, a "lifestyles" rating that indicates a specialty in gay and clothing optional/nudist travelers. For a copy, call 760-770-9000.
If you want to be close to "downtown" Palm Springs, aim for Palm Springs proper or, failing that, Cathedral City or Rancho Mirage. If you're seeking a tony environment of golf resorts, Palm Desert and Indian Wells (or La Quinta) are for you. We stayed at Desert Isle of Palm Springs (1-800-225-0584: $165 per night in the spring for a one-bedroom unit with kitchen), a low-rise condo complex on the outskirts of Palm Springs with two pools and a decent restaurant within walking distance.
WHAT TO DO: Activities range from high-end dining and spa-ing to campy, anachronistic stage shows to hiking, biking, riding, swimming and exploring the desert and its main attractions. Here's a short list of our must-dos:
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, 760-325-1391; www.pstramway.com. If you're not the hiking type, you can just take a round trip and, at the top station, visit the observation deck, the ranger station and restaurant. If you want to hike, bring water and snacks and you can spend a full day hiking the spectacularly viewful mountaintop wilderness of Mount San Jacinto.
Indian Canyons, 760-325-5673. You can tour these oases, blooming in the crevices at the feet of desert mountains, on your own or on one of several area tours. Interpretive hikes available; trading post.
Date Gardens. Date growers and packers are located in Indio, about 30 minutes by car from Palm Springs. Shields Date Gardens (1-800-414- 2555) offers date shakes, along with strollable orchards and gardens. Date Gardens (1-800-827-8017) offers more activities; California Redi-Date (760-399-5026) is the largest.
Fabulous Palm Springs Follies. This is true Palm Springs: a Vegas-style revue featuring performers who range in age from 57 to 86 (1-800-967- 9997, www.psfollies.com).
TOURS: A number of companies offer jeep or bus tours of major attractions, including celebrity houses, the wind farms and the Indian Canyons. Look for discount coupons, as retail prices are steep. We used Canyon Jeep Tours (760-320-4600), at $59 per adult, $49 per child.
Though we didn't take this tour, we were told that the Wind Farm Tours--which take in the seven different areas around Palm Springs that constitute the nation's biggest wind farm--are a knockout. 760-251-1997.
There are also several casinos, but the Spa Casino in downtown Palm Springs offers local history and color (the original "palm spring") along with the slots and whatnot (1-800-258-2946). Among the many high-priced restaurants, the one I'd be tempted to try, if only for the sheer camp value, is Hamilton's (760-340-4499; www.hamiltonsonline.com). If you want only pizza, pasta and burgers, however, you'll find plenty of choices. For day-trips, Joshua Tree National Park and the Salton Sea, two spectacularly odd swaths of geography, are within an hour by car (in different directions).
INFORMATION: Palm Springs Desert Resorts Visitors Bureau, 760-770-9000, www.desert-resorts. com. For a booklet featuring discounts on various attractions, call 1-800-417-3529.