What to Eat, See and Do in Palm Springs

It's a brave new world beyond the fairways and tennis courts of California's Coachella Valley 


 

Confession: I went to Palm Springs and didn’t swing a single tennis racquet or golf club. In fact, the closest I came to the greens was watching Presidents Cup highlights after savouring one of the most tender cuts of steak I’ve ever sunk a fork into at Morgan’s in the desert, the marquee restaurant at La Quinta Resort & Club (that’s the historic retreat where Frank Capra once sequestered himself to write the cinematic masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life.) 

Palm Springs and the neighbouring eight cities that occupy California’s Coachella Valley need no introduction as destination numero uno for golf- and tennis-loving snowbirds looking to flee the curse of the snow shovel. 

I decided, though, to look beyond the golfing greens and tennis whites and examine some of the other ways in which Greater Palm Springs manages to thrive, centuries after the area’s earliest inhabitants, the Cahuilla natives, first decided to stay.

“The Cahuilla were incredibly ingenious and respectful of the natural world,” says Tom Mennig, a naturalist guide with Desert Adventures Tours. “A lot of people wonder why they would have settled in the desert, but, for most of the year, when the Plains Indians were struggling with freezing temperatures, the Cahuilla were pretty darn comfortable.”

That about sums up the appeal of the Coachella Valley—pretty darn comfortable. Cocktails and reading by the pool in summer, golf and tennis in the winter. But, as I discovered, there’s more to this place—including great shopping, unique architecture and live music—to keep you entertained and intrigued.

Stylish Shopping

From its upscale, name-brand outlet stores to its locally owned boutiques and galleries, the Greater Palm Springs area offers some of the best shopping opportunities in California—especially when it comes to art and design.  

“There’s something about this place that is very precious,” gallery owner Christian Hohmann says as we peruse the work of sculptor JD Hansen. “People here have time, and I like to help ignite passion about art in my customers.” Hohmann’s gallery, Christian Hohmann Fine Art, is located on El Paseo in Palm Desert—the area’s undisputed mecca for high-end art collectors. In the El Paseo area, you can peruse not only Hohmann’s gallery but also Coda Gallery and Heather James Fine Art

991 Christian Hohmann Fine Art

In Palm Springs’ Backstreet Art District, a warren of galleries and studios tucked behind the Mercedes dealership off Highway 111, check out Maria Zang’s Made-That Designs—featuring art made entirely from discarded items—or join Art Walk, offered the first Wednesday evening of every month, to meet artists and gallery owners. 

For folk art, street eats, jewelry or even a sidewalk massage, locals and tourists alike flock to Palm Canyon Drive on Thursday nights for VillageFest, an outdoor street fair that features a diverse assortment of artists, entertainers and specialty merchants. At the nearby Palm Springs Uptown Design District, you can browse the racks at Trina Turk for Southern California chic or accessorize your home with Trend House’s globally sourced furniture and collectibles, just two of the shops that are found in this upscale area.

Desert Modernism

From socialites like Grace Miller to department-store tycoon Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr., Palm Springs and its environs have always attracted wealth. And, where money goes, so too go the architects and designers. In the 1940s and ’50s, leading architects like Richard Neutra and Donald Wexler (a pioneer of steel-framed houses) left an indelible mark on Palm Springs’ cityscape. Neutra popularized the mid-century modernist movement, a school of design that embraces simple and spare structures meant to complement, not compete with the desert. 

You can discover the stories behind these fabulous, boxy abodes—some of which fetch prices of more than US$10 million today—by taking an architecture tour with one of the ultra-informed guides at Palm Springs Modern Tours

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My guide, Robert Imber, gives me an insider’s look at many noteworthy structures, including the Miller house—Grace Miller’s Neutra-designed desert home. A masterful, L-shaped expression of simplicity and function, the home is infused with natural light that shines through big windows and a glass-enclosed sun porch where Miller once sat to read and admire the desert sunrise. Before the current owner bought and restored the property, it had become a derelict crack house. Today, it’s one of the city’s most celebrated architectural treasures. 

“The whole city of Palm Springs is like a museum of architecture,” Imber says, adding that Modernism Week, held every February, offers a rare glimpse behind the walls of other celebrated modernist homes. 

Cuisine and Cocktails

No trip to Palm Springs is complete without seriously contemplating cocktails. And, while martini-sipping by the pool remains a popular pastime here, the arrival of the Coachella Valley’s first craft brewery signals a compelling shift in the area’s cocktail culture. With Ottawa-born head brewmaster Chris Anderson at the helm, Coachella Valley Brewing Co. tapped the kegs on its first batch of beer in 2013 and has since grown its hoppy roster to more than 30 beers. 

“The craft brew trend is driven by a younger crowd. Traditionally, here it was the snowbirds who set the trends, but that’s starting to change,” Anderson says as we tour the brewery with a glass of a customer favourite, Desert Swarm.

While hop hipsters are only just starting to catch a stride around here, there remains plenty of opportunity for a nostalgic happy hour before tucking into a fine meal. Just off South Palm Canyon Drive, Melvyn’s Restaurant and Lounge at the Ingleside Inn, with its 1895 oak and mahogany bar and legendary Veal Ingleside entree, is a local favourite.

992 Tropicale Restaurant

Other must-tries include the Tropicale Restaurant and Coral Seas Lounge in Palm Springs, which invokes the era of dinner clubs with its plush, high-backed booths, Pacific Rim-inspired menu and a cocktail list that includes lemongrass basil mojitos and salted citrus martinis. At Morgan’s in the desert in La Quinta, three-time James Beard Award-winning executive chef Jimmy Schmidt, chef de cuisine Brian Recor and manager John Healy have an exclusive licence to sell Prime Certified Angus Beef for the Coachella Valley—to the delight of steak-lovers from near and far. 

Music Scene  

On my last night in the Coachella Valley, I stumble across Woody’s Burgers on N. Indian Canyon Drive. Blues singer, keyboardist and saxophonist Deanna Bogart and her tight band are rocking the backroom lounge of this intimate little diner that’s the antithesis of the manicured-golf-course, gated vacation community that skews perceptions of this desert destination. 

Live music is part of the desert’s soul. The Amigo Room at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club draws a hip L.A.-style crowd with a lineup of alternative bands and indie artists. Or, for something a little more laidback, the Village Pub in downtown Palm Springs is a great venue to meet for drinks and pub grub, and enjoy the decade-in-residence house band Nite Fixx. 

990 The Amigo Room

Then, of course, there’s the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Held every April at the sprawling Empire Polo Club in Indio (a 30-minute drive from Palm Springs), this two-weekend event features dozens of top musical acts representing a variety of genres, from alternative and hip hop to electronica and rock. Known to most music fans as simply Coachella, this world-famous festival sees more than 90,000 people converge each year to take in performances on several stages and check out the fascinating art installations found throughout the grounds. (This year, Coachella runs April 12-14 and April 19-21.)

Getting There: WestJet flies to Palm Springs 32 times a week from five Canadian cities.  

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