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Palm Springs Fever

From design hotels to tiki bars, the former retirement retreat has a new spring in its step.

Palm Springs

Molly and Donovan Funkey, Palm Springs residents for the last five years, have wheeled in a new era with their downtown bar.

"Sorry, honey!" shouts the woman who just stepped on my foot as I try to make my way to the bar. She perches on a stool and waves her arms enthusiastically to the booming music. The scene is perfectly normal for a Saturday night except that the woman, with her grey hair and little beige hat, looks more like my grandmother than Kim Kardashian. "Welcome to Palm Springs!" says Donovan Funkey, co-owner of the Bar (the no-nonsense name of this place), clearly amused by the puzzled look on my face. I order an Allison – a zippy cocktail of beer, rye, St-Germain, Crème Yvette and lemon juice – and watch as my neighbour dances in front of three friends her own age. If Dorothy from The Golden Girls held her bachelorette party in an episode of Portlandia, the guests would look something like this: a mix of young men from a Frank & Oak ad, tourists in Hawaiian shirts and a few grey-haired holdouts.

Palm Springs

The setting sun casts a different light on the town's mountainous backdrop.

The city has definitely changed since my last visit. Ten years ago, I came here on vacation, lured by the movie-set backdrop of dusty mountains and the prospect of doing nothing but soaking up the desert heat. If nostalgia for the town's 1950s-era Hollywood glamour is still thick in the air, places like the Bar are giving it new life. Everywhere you look, the new greets the old with open arms, like an Instagram photo with an Earlybird filter.

Palm Springs

Jason Perry, Sparrows Lodge general manager, in the open-air lobby.

Just take Sparrows Lodge, where I'm staying. I wonder if the young L.A. types lounging by the pool know that Elizabeth Montgomery celebrated her first marriage here in 1954 (or so the story goes). They might not care, and I can understand why: The enormous metal bathtubs in the rooms, the tile work with artfully speckled stones and Taschen books strewn here and there are all far better reasons to hole up in this place. The lodge has something of a faux rustic summer-camp feel, as if the owner were a park ranger turned hotelier. Since things quiet down considerably during the week, I sink into the hot tub on a Wednesday night and have it all to myself. Looking up at the sky, I realize that the Sparrows is still the perfect spot to see the stars – the real ones.

Palm Springs

The lodge is located on the site of a hotel opened in 1951 by one of the producers of Lassie.

The midday sun starts to beat down on my bald head. For the last hour, I've been strolling through the Uptown Design District, where the home-decor stores used to be the only attraction. The window displays still boast an inspired selection of mid-century Modern furniture and accessories. At Pelago, I would have bought a minimalist Taki watch (or two) had the poor salesman's attention not been monopolized by two men arguing over whether to purchase a coffee table with curved lines. Today, bars and restaurants are sprouting up among the furniture stores, attracting a new clientele more interested in Frank Sinatra's lifestyle – and the cocktails the Rat Pack started pouring in the early afternoon – than his home decor.

Palm Springs

Canadian expat Jaime Kowal (back row, left) entertains friends at Ernest Coffee Palm Springs. She co-owns the café, located in the Uptown Design District.

Look no further than Bootlegger Tiki, a tiny speakeasy where woven bamboo panels and porcupine fish lamps hint at its origins. (The space used to be Don the Beachcomber restaurant, named after one of the founders of the tiki movement.) When I sit down at the bar festooned with vintage postcards, co-owner Jaime Kowal tells me with a ready smile that the mai tai was apparently invented here. The 36-year-old Canadian left Vancouver two years ago to come to Palm Springs and is part of a new wave of entrepreneurs whose energy is like an anti-aging serum for the city. Molly and Donovan Funkey (owners of the Bar) are good friends, as are Jason Perry, the general manager of Sparrows Lodge, and Chris Pardo, the interior designer who created Bootlegger, where he's also co-owner. It's 3:30 p.m. when Kowal orders me a Poison Dart – bourbon, Cynar, cinnamon syrup, orgeat syrup and lemon juice, a particularly dangerous mixture in the afternoon – and introduces me to two ladies seated nearby wearing grey outfits with hair to match. "I can finally drink my two daily martinis somewhere else than at home," says one, her smile broadening with the gin. "And I live nearby, so no need to drive!"

Palm Springs

In the Palm Springs neighbourhood of Vista Las Palmas, modernist architecture raises the roof.

As I leave and start walking along North Palm Canyon Drive in a pleasant haze, I come across a massive construction site several blocks long that's slated to become a shopping centre. Kowal's business partner, Chris Pardo, is in charge of the architecture and interior design. The project will no doubt change the face of Palm Springs, especially since a public-event space is part of the plan. Although I can't yet see the finished structure, I do get a glimpse at the first piece of the puzzle: the new Architecture and Design Center, an exhibition space opened by the Palm Springs Art Museum in an International Style former bank. The flat-roofed building with soaring bay windows is to Palm Springs what the Dolby Theater is to Hollywood: a temple showcasing its most famous residents. The Walk of Stars beneath my feet, featuring local architectural heroes like Donald Wexler and Albert Frey, is further proof: Here, architects are stars in their own right.

Palm Springs

Left to Right: The landscape outside town is best explored by Jeep; the wide Coachella Valley is surrounded by three mountain chains.

"A warning before we go: No complaining, no puking and no other bodily fluid in my Jeep," cautioned Morgan Levine, a tiny woman whose long brown hair is tied up with a blue ribbon. For the last hour, she's been leading me around the San Andreas Fault, which skirts Palm Springs, and could find her way around the desert with her eyes closed, having conducted tours of the area for 27 years. Captain Morgan, as she instructed me to call her, also told me not to stray too far off track. Of course, I didn't heed her warning, which is why I now feel like James Franco in 127 Hours: I'm stuck between two rock faces in the canyon that are so close, I can't even turn around. But with a little shimmying, I manage to release one shoulder and return to find Levine waiting by her truck, shaking her head. I hop back into the vehicle, and the captain navigates through the labyrinth of rocks that cuts through the surroundings. I feel as small as an ant in the Swiss-cheese landscape, the huge, milky, cratered rock walls reminding me that Palm Springs is truly a desert town.

Palm Springs

Dig into roasted cauliflower with capers and hot peppers at Birba.

Levine stops on a promontory where I can finally take in the full grandeur of the Coachella Valley: The Santa Rosa Mountains loom in front of me, with the Little San Bernardino Mountains at my back and the San Jacinto Mountains to my right. The town's inhabitants must wipe their brows with relief when the searing sun dips behind its 3,300-metre summit. The absolute silence is in stark contrast to the famous Coachella music festival that rumbles through the valley each year and draws in thousands of visitors from all over the world. But it's on the way back that the landscape truly awes me. Through the Jeep window, a series of sizable farms pass by, and I can't help but be surprised. I thought we were in the middle of a desert. If the valley has such a bounty of fresh veg, why have I never been able to find them on a restaurant menu here?

Palm Springs

"Captain Morgan" Levine (at right) shows visitors around the San Andreas Fault.

"For a long time, farmers wouldn't sell us their products because they were exporting almost everything. It took a while to convince them," says Tara Lazar later that night as I take a seat at Birba, one of her four restaurants on North Palm Canyon Drive. Lazar grew up in the valley and is now one of the leaders of the local farm-to-table movement, along with a group of fellow chefs. Of course, she knows that idea is hardly new – we're an hour's flight from San Francisco, after all – but in this town it's a mini-revolution. Not missing a beat, Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" plays on the radio as a thin-crust pizza topped with spicy salami, bird's-eye pepper, kale and fontina arrives at my table. The desert never tasted so good.
Admittedly, I still can't quite believe I'm in Palm Springs. Just a few years ago, I gleefully compared the city to Joan Collins: heavily tanned and unabashedly kitsch, with a lipstick-smudged straw in her cocktail. Looking at the young families and groups of friends crowding the patio at Birba, it's now more Demi Moore: Botoxed, of course, but in keeping with the times. And definitely capable of attracting a younger man.

Palm Springs


Travel Essentials

01 At Workshop Kitchen + Bar, Michael Beckman's seasonal dishes, like juicy pork chops with Gorgonzola-stuffed Bartlett pears, will have you forgetting mundane Palm Springs fare faster than you can say "Early Bird Special." (workshoppalmsprings.com)

02 A leading light in the downtown's rebirth, the Architecture and Design Center stages exhibits that focus
on the area's famous modernist architecture. (psmuseum.org)

03 Young and old alike come for the decor (which hasn't changed since the Rat Pack) and the martinis (the strongest in town) – and to grab a spot around the piano at Melvyn's Restaurant. (inglesideinn.com)

04 The guides at Desert Adventures will craft a custom itinerary for you, from stargazing in the Colorado Desert to a hike through Joshua Tree National Park. (red-jeep.com)

05 To shop the Uptown Design District's boutiques, start on East Granvia Valmonte and head north along North Palm Canyon Drive. Stop in at Ernest Coffee Palm Springs or brunch at chef Tara Lazar's Cheeky's. (cheekysps.com, ernestcoffee.com)


Where to stay

The ranch-style outdoor lobby and huge patio with commun-
al tables make Sparrows Lodge feel like a sophisticated summer camp. No surprise, then, that French Laundry's Thomas Keller is one of the investors. (How's that for a camp counsellor?)
sparrowslodge.com

Tags

CALIFORNIA     PALM SPRINGS    

Comments… or add another

G Allard

Thursday, April 9th 2015 17:38
Great outline of some of our favorite places in Palm Springs. We own a mid-century modern vacation rental there [http://easmor.com] and refer our guests to Bar, Ernest Coffee and Workshop Kitchen. It's exciting to see outside interest returning to the town for more than the great architecture. Modernism isn't just an aesthetic, it's a lifestyle and Palm Springs is doing it right.

K. King

Monday, December 14th 2015 09:39
I love Palm Springs. I am in my late 30's and I have been coming to Palm Springs for the last 10 years, it's fantastic to see a younger crowd enjoying the lifestyle. I recently decided to buy a place because I just can't seem to get enough of the great people and the weather. There is no mention of the airport therefore I definitely need to make a comment on that, it is one of the smallest and most efficient ones I have been to in the world so come visit us soon!
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