Palm Springs is a funky mix in a one-of-a-kind setting. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians had lived there for centuries before movie stars started planting their flags somewhat more recently to escape the powerful reach of gossip columnists; and to live their lives more privately. Wealthy industrialists and business people followed. They hired the best architects to build stunning houses, and lived the desert life. Most of the stars have gone, but much of the wealth and architecture remain. Decorators and tastemakers discovered the city years ago. They renovated, restored and preserved it. In the early 2000s, the Coachella festival drew young people to the valley; some stayed for good.
The city itself is inextricably bound to the desert. You cannot escape the desert, so it is best to embrace it. I had wanted to start the week visiting an oasis or two, but the weather changed my mind. Normally Palm Springs is in the 80s in April. Not this year. It was in the high 90s. When it’s that hot, hiking in a canyon is probably not the smartest thing to do. Fortunately, there are many other things to do in Palm Springs.
The Desert Hills Premium Outlet Mall was on my must-see list. Maybe not first, but on the list. A 20-minute drive from Palm Springs, the mall is filled with designer labels and main street mainstays, all at a discount. While there were no tour buses, the parking lot was just about full when we arrived. With a view of San Jacinto Peak and endless blue skies, it had the Palm Springs vibe.
Some stores were busier than others. The number of shoppers allowed into stores is strictly controlled. The line to get into Gucci was an hour long, and Prada was clocking in at half an hour. Since most of the merch is only 30 to 50% off, it was not worth the wait. It was boiling hot. Balenciaga had no line.
There wasn’t a line at Loewe, either. Jonathan Anderson, the designer, has reenergized the brand. His cool clothes for women and men were so tempting that I picked up a small bag at a bit over 60% off. Since premiere designer bags rarely go on sale, it seemed like a bargain, even if it’s a few years old.
Luxurious sheets are always a good idea. Discounts are a good idea, too. We also got a minimal grey and white set at Frette at 80% off. The throws, robes and slippers were also tempting.
Fendi had a lot of clothing for men and women. The oddest outfit was a men’s printed nylon tracksuit covered in cartoon images of its late designer Karl Lagerfeld. I am sure he would not have been amused.
Valentino, Dolce, Marni, Bottega Veneta, Tom Ford, Saint Laurent, Burberry, Louboutin and Jimmy Choo mix with Neiman Marcus Last Call, J. Crew, Coach, Birkenstock and Nike. Everyone is here.
Desert Hills Premium Outlet, Cabazon, Ca.
The Palm Springs Art Museum is open with timed tickets. The museum has a permanent collection, and special exhibitions. The top floor has a large yellow work by local artist Jim Isermann and pieces by Louise Bourgeois, Kiefer and others. Pre-Columbian art fills a corner on the second floor below.
Calder, Henry Moore, Motherwell and others grace the second floor.
You will find serious pieces of Western art in the collection. There are also these two droll pieces, Kellogg’s Lost Angel Flakes by Billy Schenk and Last Outpost from Llyn Foulkes.
Downstairs there is a large sculpture garden, surrounded, of course, by palms. The spacious garden has works by Yaacov Agam and Max Bill around a freeform pool.
A Jim Dine sculpture anchors one corner, Glass balls by Dale Chihuly are hidden behind the cactus.
More of the Chihuly balls and some red glass spears sit in the well designed xeriscape, or desert garden. There is another sculpture garden on the other side of the building with an inviting restaurant.
Palm Springs Museum of Art, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs
After lunch, we decided to explore some of the iconic mid-century modern architecture. Our first stop was at the Palm Springs Visitors Center. It is located in Tramway Gas Station, which is in the National Register of Historic Places. We wanted to take the Tramway to the top of San Jacinto Peak, but it was booked the entire time we were there. We bought a map and an app from the Palm Springs Modern Committee and set out to explore the best architecture the city has to offer.
Right behind the Visitors Center is one of the monuments of Desert X, a site specific contemporary art collection. Never Forget by Nicholas Galanin is a memorial for Indian land, and highlights the fact that Indian life is still woven into the fabric of Palm Springs life as well as the entire Coachella Valley. More on Desert X later.
We headed up into the canyons and visited several homes on the map, the 1946 Raymond Loewy house, the 1953 Edris House, the 1954 Franz Alexander House and others. The problem? Mostly what we saw were driveways and garages. Plus the app was buggy and did not work particularly well.
In the meantime, the Kauffman Desert house is currently on the market with a price drop to $19 million if you are in the mood to buy a landmark. Even from the back it looks sensational. The Slim Aarons photograph of the front of the house hangs on our wall. It’s nice to complete the picture.
Mr. Kauffman, owner of a chain of department stores, had outstanding taste. He also built Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater near Pittsburgh where his business was based.
That night we headed to the Parker Palm Springs for dinner. The hotel is spunkily decorated by New York’s Jonathan Adler. Norma’s outdoor terrace restaurant is excellent, but we were headed to another restaurant on the 13-acre property. Non-guests are welcome with reservations.
Counter Reformation is a tiny, one-counter-only wine bar located around the corner from Norma’s. The small plate menu is delicious, and chef Herve Glin gives it a modern French spin. The foie gras macarons and truffle and fontina club are to die for. Of course there is a good wine list. Every bottle, including Champagne, is $52.00. The decor is ecclesiastically cool, with a priest-(and guilt)-free confessional at the back. It is a must-visit. Oh, and bring your appetite.
Counter Reformation, Parker Hotel, 4200 East Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, Ca.
The next day was cooler, so we went into the high desert that lies above Palm Springs. A hike in Joshua Tree National Park is always inspiring. Joshua Tree is special as it is the meeting of two desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado deserts. And Joshua trees are a real thing. Oddly shaped with balls of leaves top spindly trunks. Curiously, they are members of the Agave family.
It is the desert, and it can be dangerous. So never go wandering off. Camping, rock climbing and hiking are the draws of the park. There is plenty of wildlife and so many beautiful vistas.
Joshua Tree National Park, Twentynine Palms, Ca.
Life in the high desert is different than in the valley. It is normaly ten to fifteen degrees cooler. We went for a late lunch at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. Barbeque ribs, pulled pork and accoutrements are delicious. Pre-pandemic, there were famous live musical acts. They’ll be back soon.
Pioneertown was built by Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and others in the 1940s as a film set. If you have watched Westerns from the ’40s and ’50s you have seen Pioneertown.
The four-block-long town is amusing. The Pioneertown Motel, where the cowboys would stay while they were making films, was bought a few years ago; and totally redone. The old West is new.
Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Rd, Pioneertown, Ca.
On the way back to Palm Springs we stopped at the The Lautner Conpound. The compound consists of four luxury rental suites. Each one has a kitchen and a desert patio. The units were created by Lautner in 1947, and are renovated. Finely furnished with mid-century furniture, and paired with 21st-century luxuries.
Each of the suites has a different decor. There are two other buildings on the property that make it an ideal place for a wedding or an event. Why not take the entire place for a blowout celebration. We could all use one right about now!
There is a huge open air event space and garden, a 1957 ranch house for support, and outdoor spaces for entertaining your guests in mid-century style.
The Lautner Compound, 67710 San Antonio Street, Desert Hot Springs, Ca.
Downtown Palm Springs is much funkier than the cities further down the valley. There is no gated community on a golf course cookie-cutter mentality here. There are some clothing stores, but they are either vintage or contemporary price points. If you want upscale designer brands, head to El Paseo in Palm Desert.
What you will find in spades are stores with mid-century decor items. There are boutiques, and there are galleries, or collections of dealers. I loved this particular dealer. We all dream of Princess phones, but you cannot use them anymore (they are not digital — boo-hoo). But here, the owner has turned them into lamps. He’s also turned vintage cameras and movie cameras into lamps. The chandelier is made from cut-up license plates. This is repurposing with a sense of humor. A friend who came along for the ride scooped up the turquoise phone-lamp.
There are many dealers with furniture and art. Also rugs and tons of lighting.
While some dealers are selling model planes, submarines, and other fun things. I discovered some coins from the reign of Louis XVI minted before the revolution. You never know what you will find.
Pea coats, military ephemera, barber chairs and flamingos. It all makes sense in Palm Springs. Do you need a ventriloquist dummy? You’re in the right place.
Antique Galleries of Palm Springs, 505 E. Industrial Place, Palm Springs, Ca.
Another small gallery up the street had an amazing mid-century bar with colorful barstools. And a huge assortment of glass and ceramic pieces. There are lots of period watches, jewelry and clothing.
Retro Revolution, 691 E. Industrial Place, Palm Springs, Ca.
Around the corner was another mall full of dealers. The items here consisted of smaller pieces, with a heavy dose of movie-star madness. Had you ever heard of the Charlies Angel’s board game?
An autographed photo of Paul Stanley from Kiss was one of the many photos for sale. And I am not sure where else in America you could find used TV Guides for sale. Vinyls records abound, as do CDs. Cases and cases of jewelry, costume and real, lined the aisles.
Sunny Dunes Antique Mall, 507 E. Sunny Dunes Road, Palm Springs, Ca.
Mitchell’s is the best designer vintage store in Palm Springs. The store is tiny and packed with clothing, shoes, bags, jewelry and more. On this visit I was drawn to the colorful men’s shirts. There were two fabulous Pucci shirts and a wonderful checked Hermes one. Wish I could pluck them out of this photo.
Mitchell’s, 106 South Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, Ca.
Vintage cars and bikes are also part of the mix. One of the bikes in the window is going for $18,000.00. McCormick’s does classic car auctions. It’s easy to ship a car cross country. And Southern California cars are in better shape than Northeastern ones, as they never face snow and salt.
McCormick’s, 244 North Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, Ca.
Desert X is a biennial show that brings the desert of the Coachella Valley to life through art. There were eleven projects this year. Parapivot by Alicja Kwade is set high up over Desert Hot Springs. Marble stones are placed on a frame so you can walk through the piece and dream —maybe of San Jacinto Peak?
Back down in the valley, The Wishing Well by Serge Attukwei Clottey is made from the plastic cans that people in his native Ghana use to collect water. They often travel long distances.
In the middle of Palm Springs, The Art of Taming Horses from Christopher Myers is placed in the middle of a busy road. The pieces tells the story of two men and their travels with horses.
The Passenger by Eduardo Sarbia sits in the desert in Palm Desert. The immense piece is woven of dry palm trees and the walls contain a maze that tell a story.
The Jackrabbit Homestead created by Kin Stringfellow, also in Palm Desert, is a 200-square-foot fully furnished building. As you look through the windows, a narator tells the story of the female homesteaders and the joys and problems that they faced.
The Jackrabbit Homestead is located next to the Fay Sarkowsky Sculpture Garden, a branch of the Palm Springs Museum of Art. Inside the garden are works by Donald Judd, Betty Gold and Fletcher Benton. It is a beautiful place to wander.
We had meant to go Indian Canyons the first day we were here. We finally made it on a cooler day. The Indian Canyons is the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Indians. The tribe was granted over 30,00 acres of land, including some of downtown Palm Springs, making them one of the wealthiest in the country. However, they have created this amazing nature preserve to share their land with the world.
Situated on the south side of the valley, Indian Canyons Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and Tahquitz Canyon have waterfalls and several oases. The water springs out of the earth from the San Andreas Fault that lies below. The California fan palms line the creek, and are a cool place to walk in the desert. Palm Springs was actually named for this oasis or the one in Palm Canyon.
The tribe has laid out clearly marked hiking trails that go from easy to strenuous. There are also horseback trails. The canyons have many different dramatic rock formations. In the Oasis, animals and birds abound. Life is easier here than in the desert.
The lush oasis popping out of the floor of the canyon enhances this pristine nature preserve.
The Aqua Caliente are very lucky to have come from these beautiful and sacred lands.
Barbara Hodes is the owner of NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn.