After quietly stepping out of the spotlight, Palm Springs reclaims its rightful throne as the literal “hot spot” of Southern California.
By Bria Balliet
Once known as the vacation destination for entertainment industry elite, Palm Springs was a proverbial stomping ground for the young and beautiful during the heyday of Hollywood. Numerous stars and starlets boasted homes in the shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains, and even President John F. Kennedy was known to make a getaway to the hip desert town from time to time.
After the hubbub of the 1960s subsided, Palm Springs entered a period of hibernation that seemed to spell the end of its resort-town reputation. However, it was only a matter of time before the desert reigned again. Now in the midst of an incredible resurgence, Palm Springs is home to chic hotels, brand-new foodie-pleasing eateries and a host of fresh events and activities that allow it to, once again, claim the title of So Cal’s trendiest “staycation.”
“I really have noticed a vibrancy,” says Kimberleigh Funkey, co-owner of local establishments Bar and Smoketree BBQ Bar & Grill. “Palm Springs is such a beautiful town and the food is amazing, the view is amazing [and] the weather is perfect. … It’s coming back to that newer, younger vibe and it’s so exciting to see.”
So, if that doesn’t sound like the Palm Springs you know, brace yourself. You’re in for a pleasant surprise.
Over the last few years, Palm Springs has seen more and more hotels—that were once downtrodden or even shuttered—make a comeback with remodels and rebranding. “That had been part of the problem in the past. You had a town with a tired reputation and you had tired product that supported that perception,” explains Mary Jo Ginther, director of the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism.
However, in recent years that negative perception has disappeared. “In the course of five years, you now have all these hotels that are looking fabulous,” she continues.
With a view of the bustling downtown on one side and the breathtaking San Jacinto Mountains on the other, the Hyatt Palm Springs is one such hotel. After undergoing an extensive remodel in 2010, the all-suite, pet-friendly establishment sits in the heart of the restaurants and shops that line downtown, rising above the desert floor as one of Palm Spring’s premier hotels.
Guests of the Hyatt are able to enjoy amenities such as poolside cabanas, complimentary bike rentals to explore the city and a newly renovated workout area complete with chilled towels. The hotel’s outdoor lounge, HooDoo, is also a draw for those who wish to enjoy the warm desert evenings along with a cocktail and live music.
And for those who desire an off-the-beaten-path retreat, the newly unveiled Sparrows Lodge will meet criteria for a more rustic stay. The quaint 20-room inn was originally built in 1951 by MGM actor Don Castle under the moniker Castle’s Red Barn. Following several name changes over the years and finally an extensive restoration in 2013, Sparrows Lodge reopened last year as a (21-and-over) adults-only, dog-friendly space that is perfect for the relaxed couple who wants to enjoy quiet company. There are no televisions or phones in the rooms, making it an ideal place to disconnect from technology and focus on your travel partner, and explore the lovely communal barn and on-site vegetable garden.
Like the multitude of hotel options that have cropped up as of late, there are just as many, if not more, new and high-quality dining options to keep palates satiated during your desert adventure.
“We have some of the best eating around,” says David York, general manager of the Hyatt Palm Springs. “There’s just amazing food establishments and there’s not … many chains so you’re getting good quality food experiences.”
To start the day off right, a hearty and healthy meal at Cheeky’s is a must. Opened in 2008, the eatery prides itself on its fresh produce—sourced from local farms—as well as house-made pastries and sausage, organic coffee and eggs and hand-squeezed juices. Because of their farm-to-table nature, the menu changes weekly, but guests can be guaranteed that there will always be something delicious and nutritious to satisfy any appetite.
One of Cheeky’s most popular appetizers, the five-piece bacon flight is a fun way to experience one of the world’s most beloved foods. Though the flavors are updated regularly, visitors can expect tastes such as jalapeno, Beeler’s apple-cinnamon and barbecue. For a main course, try the Blondie’s eggs Benedict (crispy bacon, arugula and a poached egg atop a homemade cheddar scone), which is a permanent fixture on the menu. To wash it all down, the eatery’s mimosas combine ripe, sweet fruit (whatever is fresh and in season) with bubbly Champagne, or go with the healthy Acai and Kale Icee.
For dinner, the brand-new Smoketree BBQ Bar & Grill sits about a five-minute drive from downtown and boasts some of the best barbecue around. Following a brief closure during the heat of summer, the restaurant will reopen Oct. 1 with a revamped menu that will highlight the barbecue talents of its head chef, Steven Helland.
“Chef Steven is so amazing at what he does,” Kimberleigh shares, noting the numerous mouthwatering dishes that will be offered upon reopening. For starters, the pork belly served on toasted bread with a mustard drizzle is mouthwatering. With a savory flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture, it alone is worth the trip. For your main course, Steven’s specials can’t be beat: The grilled scallops are cooked to perfection, accompanied by roasted vegetables and rice. And no trip to Smoketree is complete without sampling its delectable barbecue: The ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and smothered with Smoketree’s own signature barbecue sauce. Whatever you choose, be sure to sample one of Steven’s handcrafted desserts after your entree such as the bread pudding with raisins.
Along with the city’s new vibrancy, remodeled hotels and trendy eateries, there is also much more to see and do than in the past. “There’s a lot more life to Palm Springs,” Kimberleigh says. “[It’s] giving people something to look forward to and something to do besides sitting in the pool.”
While lounging by the pool is still a popular pastime, the new onslaught of arts and culture allows visitors to experience a different side of Palm Springs. For instance, Gallery 446, a contemporary art gallery that opened in 2010 and quickly rose to prominence, exhibits work from numerous local and guest artists. For instance, muralist Christina Angelina recently displayed a collection following the unveiling of her collaborative mural that adorns the front entrance of Bar, a restaurant, bar and concert venue on Palm Canyon Drive. Gallery 446 also hosts monthly opening nights for new exhibitions in addition to other events, which draw crowds of artists and art lovers alike.
For those who seek a taste of the Palm Springs of the past, Desert Adventures Eco-Tours & Events’ brand-new celebrity home tour will simultaneously please history buffs and entertainment aficionados. The 90-minute tour takes visitors through the neighborhoods that were once home to stars such as Liberace, Elvis and Priscilla Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Cher. Midcentury modern architecture abounds and the knowledgeable tour guides offer historic information and a taste of old-school celebrity gossip to feed everyone’s inquisitive side.
On the other hand, many come to Palm Springs to simply do as little as possible. “When you come to Palm Springs, you’re coming to relax,” David says. “This is a place to relax and to chill and rejuvenate yourself.”
It is fitting, therefore, that Palm Springs is host to a number of wonderful spas. One of the newest, Rock Spa at the newly opened Hard Rock Hotel, features a number of therapeutic massages, wraps and scrubs. But it’s the signature treatment, the Rhythm and Motion massage, that incorporates music in a truly rock ’n’ roll fashion. The full-body massage is expertly choreographed to a soothing soundtrack, easing sore muscles and moisturizing skin. What makes this treatment so special though is the speakers underneath the massage table, allowing the sound to gently reverberate through the table, letting you literally feel the music.
With so much to experience in such a small town, it’s no wonder that Palm Springs is once again at the forefront of the hospitality industry. And, if the last few years are any indication, this once sleepy desert hideaway will keep travelers under its spell for years to come.