A year-round recre­ational play­ground

Travel Guide to California - - CONTENTS - BY CHRISTO­PHER P. BAKER

116 Palm Springs

With its awe­some land­scapes and sub­lime win­ter weather, Cal­i­for­nia’s desert re­gion has a unique al­lure. More than five mil­lion vis­i­tors an­nu­ally de­scend on Palm Springs and en­vi­rons for club- and racket-swing­ing recre­ation and to sam­ple na­ture’s raw beauty, from lush palm oases to sooth­ing hot min­eral spas. Add a glam­orous yet low-key life­style that’s be­ing rein­vig­o­rated and recon­ceived with a youth­ful new Hol­ly­wood en­ergy. No won­der “It’s hot!” has new mean­ing for a cross-spec­trum of trav­el­ers thrilled by Palm Springs’ new­found desert-cool sen­si­bil­ity. After all, where else can you golf in the morn­ing, go snow­shoe­ing in the af­ter­noon, and en­joy a chilled mar­tini by the pool in the evening?

An easy 90-minute drive from Los An­ge­les, “Palm Springs” is un­der­stood as the en­tire Coachella Val­ley, com­pris­ing eight “desert re­sort com­mu­ni­ties” clus­tered at the foot of the San Jac­into Moun­tains. They merge into one an­other along High­way 111—one of Cal­i­for­nia’s great ur­ban drives. The phys­i­cal set­ting is out of this world. Ma­jes­tic moun­tains soar on three sides, glis­ten­ing with snow in the win­ter sun­shine. There’s no short­age of ac­tiv­i­ties and at­trac­tions. The din­ing is fab­u­lous. The spas are among Cal­i­for­nia’s best. And the re­gion boasts sev­eral ritzy casinos. Mu­se­ums cater to WWII avi­a­tion buffs, art fans and na­ture lovers keen to ex­pe­ri­ence desert ecol­ogy. El Paseo gives Bev­erly Hills’ Rodeo Drive a run for its money in its qual­ity and range of bou­tiques. Palm Springs’ music, film and arts fes­ti­vals are world-renowned, as is the city’s hip trade­mark mid-cen­tury ar­chi­tec­ture.

Sports and Ac­tive Ad­ven­tures

You might be for­given for think­ing that a desert of­fers lit­tle to do and that it’s just too darn hot to do it in any event. Wrong on both counts! The re­gion is re­plete with ex­cit­ing recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties.

There’s no more quin­tes­sen­tial im­age of the Palm Springs re­gion than an emer­ald greensward stud­ded by palms and framed by boul­der-strewn moun­tains glo­ri­ously snow­capped in win­ter. In fact, the Coachella Val­ley has earned the dis­tinc­tion of “Golf Cap­i­tal of the World,” with more golf cour­ses than you can shake a 4-iron at. More than two mil­lion vis­i­tors come an­nu­ally to play golf on more than one hun­dred cour­ses. Al­most as many ar­rive to ex­plore the palm groves, alpine sum­mits or spec­tac­u­lar desert

land­scapes of Anza-bor­rego Desert State Park and Joshua Tree Na­tional Park, where boul­der for­ma­tions prove an ex­cit­ing chal­lenge for climbers.

Fab­u­lous win­ter weather spells Nir­vana for hik­ers, rock-climbers, cy­clists and other out­doorsy folk. In­cis­ing the slopes of the San Jac­into Moun­tains, the three In­dian Canyons tempt hik­ers with 30 miles of trails and pic­nic sites. Fed by nat­u­ral springs, stands of desert fan palms crowd the canyon floors, pro­vid­ing shel­ter­ing oases for kit fox, bighorn sheep and coy­ote. An­cient pet­ro­glyphs can be seen while hik­ing An­dreas Canyon and Tahquitz Canyon, with its spec­tac­u­lar 60-foot-tall wa­ter­fall.

Cul­tural Con­nec­tions

Cul­ture vul­tures de­light to find the desert is far from dry. The Na­tive Amer­i­can Agua Caliente oc­cu­pied the Palm Springs re­gion long be­fore Euro­peans ar­rived. Their proud legacy is on show at the Agua Caliente Cul­tural Mu­seum in down­town Palm Springs. His­tory buffs also de­light in the Palm Springs Air Mu­seum, re­plete with World War Ii-era war­planes from a P-51 Mus­tang to a B-17 Fly­ing Fortress. The monied elite that pours into Palm Springs for the win­ter is a huge pa­tron of the arts. Hol­ly­wood star and long-time res­i­dent Kirk Dou­glas was a ma­jor donor to the Palm Springs Art Mu­seum, one of Cal­i­for­nia’s top re­gional art venues—its Plein Art, Me­soamer­i­can and Contemporary Glass col­lec­tions are out­stand­ing.

Down val­ley, more than 150 unique works of art dec­o­rate the streets of Palm Desert, grouped for four self-guided tours. Col­or­ful mu­rals grace his­toric down­town In­dio, paint­ing a big pic­ture on the city’s past. And since 2005, vis­i­tors can ex­plore the vast Sun­ny­lands Es­tate, in Ran­cho Mi­rage, where bil­lion­aire Wal­ter An­nen­berg hosted Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon after he re­signed in 1974, and Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan on a score of New Year’s Eves.

Fes­ti­vals to Casinos

Palm Springs has fes­ti­vals to please ev­ery taste. The sea­son kicks off in Jan­uary with the Palm Springs In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, when Hol­ly­wood’s finest hit town. In March, the world-class In­dian Wells Ten­nis Gar­den fills to over­flow­ing for the an­nual BNP Paribas Open. And in April, be there or be square for the Coachella Music Fes­ti­val, hosted in the warm open air of neigh­bor­ing In­dio. Al­most 200 per­form­ers rock half a mil­lion at­ten­dees; unan­nounced sur­prise per­for­mances have in­cluded Bey­oncé, Paul Mccart­ney and Gwen Ste­fani.

Higher cul­ture? Palm Desert’s Mc­cal­lum The­ater re­sounds to laugh­ter and cheers of de­light with a lineup that can range from Itzhak Perl­man and The Vi­enna Boys Choir to The Nutcracker bal­let and the Pek­ing Acro­bats.

Since the val­ley’s Cahuilla In­dian ter­ri­tory is a sov­er­eign na­tion, it’s ex­empt from Cal­i­for­nia’s state ban on gam­bling. Try your hand with Lady Luck at any of half a dozen casinos. Most have venues that host class acts from world-ti­tle box­ing to top per­form­ers such as Ke­sha, Sheena Eas­ton, and the desert’s own Barry

Manilow. And shopa­holics are in for a treat: Art gal­leries, haute cou­turi­ers, and bou­tique stores spe­cial­iz­ing in retro mod­ernist dé­cor of­fer a dash of re­tail ther­apy be­tween your spa treat­ments.

Nat­u­ral Won­ders

Brim­ming with the glo­ries of na­ture, the desert is a par­adise for any­one who ap­pre­ci­ates stu­pen­dous land­scapes. The scenery is far more di­verse than you might imag­ine, rang­ing from be­low sea level to al­most 11,000 feet atop Mount San Jac­into.

Abun­dant rains in win­ter car­pet the desert with wild­flow­ers—nowhere more spec­tac­u­lar than the spring­time bloom of An­te­lope Val­ley Poppy State Re­serve, near the town of Mo­jave. Snaking south through the Coachella Val­ley, scenic palm-lined High­way 111 will de­liver you to Anza-bor­rego Desert State Park. Cap­i­tal of desert botan­ica, this 500,000-acre park is ablaze with fiery red pop­pies and other wild­flow­ers.

A 30-minute drive north­east from Palm Springs, Joshua Tree Na­tional Park spans 1,240 square miles of Mo­jave and lower Colorado deserts and pro­tects one of the most spec­tac­u­lar desert re­gions in North Amer­ica. Pop­u­lar with rock climbers, its dra­matic land­scapes are made sur­real by the “Joshua tree” species of yucca, with strange, arm-like branches.

From Joshua Tree, his­toric Route 66 un­furls past Mo­jave Na­tional Pre­serve, where the Kelso Dunes tower al­most 1,000 feet above the desert floor. They’re known as the “singing dunes” be­cause they emit a buzz or rum­ble when sand slides down the dune-face. Nearby, 32 an­cient vol­canic cones stud Cin­der Cones Na­tional Nat­u­ral Land­mark—a gate­way to the stand-out draw of the north­ern Mo­jave: Death Val­ley Na­tional Park. The high­est ground tem­per­a­ture ever recorded on earth was here, at Bad­wa­ter, a sunken trough that reaches 282 feet be­low sea level. Yet Death Val­ley is rimmed by 11,000-foot moun­tains. Win­ter months are de­li­ciously tem­per­ate, when tourists flock to marvel at chro­matic canyons and sun-bleached salt pans. Well­paved roads lace the park, while dirt roads open up a world of ex­treme adventure for vis­i­tors with suit­able ve­hi­cles.

Fam­ily Fun

Kids love the desert, which of­fers heaps of fam­ily fun, in­clud­ing old ghost towns such as Pioneer­town, an old movie set where shoot-out recre­ations bring old Westerns back to life. An­other fa­vorite is the Liv­ing Desert Zoo & Gar­dens, ex­hibit­ing nearly 400 species of an­i­mals, from aard­vark to ze­bra. With luck you might even spot bighorn sheep in the wild on a Desert Ad­ven­tures eco-tour by Jeep. Even camels add to the fun at In­dio’s River­side County Fair & Na­tional Date Fes­ti­val in Fe­bru­ary.

In sum­mer, beat the heat splash­ing about at Knott’s Soak City. Or take to the air with Fan­tasy Bal­loon Flights for a bird’s-eye view of the Coachella Val­ley. Then de­light the kids, and your­self, with a ten-minute jaunt to Alaska (at least metaphor­i­cally) aboard the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. It as­cends through four life zones to the moun­tain­top sta­tion, where the air is 30 de­grees cooler than it is in the desert be­low.

COACHELLA MUSIC FES­TI­VAL, top; vin­tage car show dur­ing Mod­ernism Week in Palm Springs, above; cholla cac­tus sun­rise, Joshua Tree Na­tional Park, op­po­site top; wild­flow­ers in Anza-bor­rego Desert State Park, op­po­site be­low.

PEAKS ABOVE LA QUINTA, Coachella Val­ley, op­po­site; play­ing golf at Mis­sion Hills Coun­try Club, Ran­cho Mi­rage, be­low.

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