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Take a quick visit to Palm Springs before summer

by Charlie Wagner

California Fan Palms are in abundance along Andreas Canyon in Indian Canyons. Photo: Charlie Wagner
California Fan Palms are in abundance along Andreas Canyon in Indian Canyons. Photo: Charlie Wagner  

You may have no interest in tennis, tanning, or cocktails by a pale blue pool, but sometimes, San Francisco is just too cool and gray. What about a place where locals boast, "Winter's over in less than a month?" At this time of year, that place is Palm Springs.

Besides simple pleasures of the flesh, Palm Springs offers great hiking and walking, a good art museum, unique and sometimes whimsical architecture, great indoor/outdoor dining, a surprising variety of live entertainment, and some delightful shopping.

We stayed at the InnDulge Resort at 600 South Grenfall in the very gay Warm Sands area of Palm Springs, arriving in time to relax around the clothing-optional pool. If you drive down via Interstate 10, consider stopping at Hadley's Fruit Orchards in Cabazon to enjoy one of the essential elements of Palm Springs cuisine, the date shake.

InnDulge charged $219 per night for a spacious poolside one-bedroom unit with breakfast. The resort is marketed as men-only, however, nearby is the clothing-optional, straight-friendly Terra Cotta Resort and Spa, which welcomes same-sex couples of all genders.

Hiking and walking
Palm Springs can have extreme weather conditions between April and October so hike descriptions often include warnings about the safest months to hike. One excellent guidebook is "100 Great Hikes in and near Palm Springs" by Philip Ferranti. Take hiking poles if you have them as many trails have significant elevation changes.

About three miles from Warm Sands and easily bikeable, the Indian Canyons are the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Admission to Indian Canyons is $10.25 per car and gives you access to many trails.

Horseback riding is allowed but dogs are not. We were relieved to read that rules also included, "No drones or remote control vehicles."

The Andreas Canyon Trail is one of the easiest in the canyons, a 1-mile loop hikeable with running shoes, though not wheelchair accessible. Outbound the trail follows a pretty stream with plenty of shade; the return crosses an exposed ridge. The trail passes hundreds of native Fan Palms as dramatic, jagged red rocks tower overheard.

You won't be alone in Andreas Canyon, and there are picnic tables and toilets at the trailhead. Allow an hour for the hike.

Hikes in Palm Canyon are a big step up, but not strenuous. The 8-mile Lost Paradise hike is highly recommended and the tranquil, rocky pools at the end are a perfect lunch spot. Palm Canyon is the world's largest California Fan Palm oasis.

The Museum Trail, starting behind the Palms Springs Art Museum, is much more difficult with a 1,000 foot elevation change over 1 mile. Dogs are allowed, but there is no shade on this trail. We laughed at a sign about halfway up the trail, asking hikers to choose between two routes, one simply marked "more difficult." Easy decision.

With that as our "conditioning" hike, the Araby Trail seemed fairly easy with an 800 foot elevation change over 3 miles, for a total of 6 miles. It took about three hours at a modest pace. At the top, the Araby connects with a network of other trails, so a longer loop is possible; see "100 Hikes" for ideas.

This Araby Trail is called "hike to the stars" because you get close-up views of the former homes of Bob Hope and Steve McQueen. There's no fee to park at the trailhead; dogs are prohibited due to bighorn sheep in the area.

Often recommended by locals is the Whitewater Canyon Trail, which can include a gorgeous wildflower display with snow-capped mountains in the background after a wet winter. The canyon contains the Whitewater River, which charges the aquifer beneath the Coachella Valley, the source of Palm Springs' water.

Joshua Tree National Park is another hiking area highly praised by locals, though also best after a wet winter. That's about a 45-minute drive from Palm Springs. Our local source said his favorite is the 2.5 mile Split Rock Loop, but this should not be done in summer.

For more information, check http://www.nps.gov/jotr/index.htm. Several hikes are rated "Do not attempt in the heat" and some cross rocky areas where it is easy to lose the trail. Do not hike alone.

For those with limited mobility or traveling with children or just not interested in anything called "hiking," a better choice might be the Living Desert in Palm Desert, also about 45 minutes away. The emphasis is on kid-friendly wildlife displays but it's entirely accessible and offers the Eisenhower Peak Loop Trail for the more ambitious. Admission is $20 for adults.

Less than two miles from Warm Sands and only $5 a person is the Moorten Botanical Garden at 1701 South Palm Canyon Drive, a local enterprise run by the third generation of the Moorten family. It features over 3,000 varieties of desert plants plus Tank, an African spurred tortoise who was lunching on strawberries and lettuce during our visit. It is accessible.

The Sunnylands Center in Rancho Mirage also offers easy strolling and is the former home of philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg. The tour of the house is $48 (reservations required) but the self-guided tour of the gardens is free, no reservations required. Sunnylands is the largest Palm Springs estate open to the public; both house and gardens are accessible.

For those with an interest in old Palm Springs and able to walk for about two hours, the Palm Springs Historical Society offers nine different walking tours for $20 a person, with at least one every day of the week (http://www.pshistoricalsociety.org).


Tank, an African Spurred tortoise, eyes his lunch at Moorten Botanical Garden in Palm Springs. Photo: Charlie Wagner  

Desert art, architecture
Located in downtown Palm Springs, the Art Museum at 101 Museum Drive is a pleasant, medium-sized museum with a light-flooded interior and a casual restaurant inside. If you need to rest after your visit, the front entrance has orange cushions scattered on the steps. The museum also operates the Architecture and Design Center in downtown Palm Springs, in a former bank built in 1961, plus a smaller museum and sculpture garden in Palm Desert (http://www.psmuseum.org).

Its current show is "Andy Warhol Prints" (through May 28), which includes paintings made with diamond dust and rarely-exhibited prints of men in sexually explicit poses. The museum's collection includes works by David Hockney, Bay Area ceramicist Robert Arneson, and Dale Chihuly.

Palm Springs is one of the most architecturally distinct cities in the U.S. with numerous, mostly-intact mid-century buildings. Thousands visit during Modernism week, typically held in mid-February.

Albert Frey is one of the most acclaimed architects of that style and worked in Palm Springs for most of his life. A local group is currently raising money to move Frey's famous but neglected "Aluminaire" house, designed in 1931, from New York to directly in front of the Palm Springs Art Museum.

Dining
One of the treats of desert dining is how restaurants seem designed for people-watching. Trio is one of the best and consequently one of the most popular gay restaurants in Palm Springs. Located at 707 North Palm Canyon Drive, Trio served good food and the tab was reasonable at $96 (three drinks, before tip). Arrive before 6 p.m. to order the $19 prix fixe and $3 cocktails.

The restaurant Eight4Nine, up the street at number 849, is equally good for food and people-watching. Eight4Nine features white walls, white chairs, and white tables, which somehow feels very Palm Springs, and has lots of outdoor seating. Dinner for two was $92.

Another night we dined at locals' favorite John Henry's at 1785 East Tahquitz Canyon. You enter through an outdoor patio giving you the opportunity to check out every patron before you enter the smaller indoor section. It's not quite the bargain it reportedly used to be; dinner was $95. It's treasured for its large drinks and desserts. Be sure to reserve ahead.

For old Palm Springs glamour, consider either Melvyn's at 200 West Ramon or Spencer's at 701 West Baristo. Both have an indoor/outdoor design with lots of light, are great for people-watching and often have live entertainment. Service and presentation is a slice above the other restaurants, and the slightly dressier crowds give both places a more sophisticated atmosphere. Plan to spend around $150 or more per couple.

Our favorite lunch place was the Corridor at 515 North Palm Canyon Drive. That complex includes several casual restaurants, a branch of the LGBTQ-popular coffee shop Koffi, and an open courtyard with seating on the lawn for more great people-watching.


Vocalist Sharon Sills performed at the Purple Room in Palm Springs. Photo: Charlie Wagner  

Entertainment
The entertainment discovery of our trip was Michael Holmes' Purple Room, billed as a premiere supper club. With photos of the Rat Pack on the walls, the look is unmistakably retro, and the room is indeed purple. There's nothing like it in San Francisco, and we were completely charmed. The room has three seating areas. Sight lines are best in the main dining room, but you are expected to order dinner if you sit there.

Shows without a cover are done Tuesday through Thursday from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Every seat is assigned by the host, including those around the bar. Dinner is good but pricey at $150 for two (three drinks, before tip).

Dining is required for the shows with a cover on Friday through Sunday nights. For the no-cover shows, there's no food minimum beyond the expectation you'll order a drink.

Tuesday, we heard Rose Mallett and her trio performing songs made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, Al Jarreau, and Carmen McRae. For the cost of a few drinks, Mallet's group presented an excellent show.

We returned Thursday to hear sassy and equally talented Sharon Sills, with a different trio of musicians, sing more pop songs in a silver lame dress and chandelier earrings. Her sets included songs like "YMCA" and "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and she had fun with campy versions of a few other songs.

Also on the same three nights, a vocalist and piano entertain from 4 to 6 p.m., with no cover. Sunday night, the Judy Show is on at 7 p.m., which friends described as hilariously funny and with some audience participation. Reserve well in advance.

We did catch a production of "The Cocktail Hour," a comedy by A.R.Gurney at the Palm Springs Art Museum's Annenberg Theater. It was mildly entertaining though tickets were $60.

Other nearby live entertainment venues include the Palm Canyon Theater ("Sister Act" was playing during our visit), the Copa Room, McCallum Theater, plus CV Rep Theater in Rancho Mirage (Edward Albee's "The Goat or who is Sylvia" was playing) and Desert Theatreworks in Indio.

Shopping
Palm Springs stores offer an exceptional selection of mid-century furniture in all price ranges, including both vintage and reproduction pieces. This site has a list: http://www.midcenturypalmsprings.com.
For a different type of retail entertainment, visit the 14-shop complex at 1345 North Palm Canyon. Stores in the gay-owned complex carry a fascinating collection of objects ranging from furniture to fashion to paintings to vintage Moroccan rugs.

The newest addition is the Backyard, opened in October 2017 by Bret Baughman with help from his husband. They transformed a pile of sand behind 1345 into a stylish retail space displaying cacti, containers, and accessories for sale. Baughman also offers landscape services.

For his favorite cactus, he nominated the "simple paddle cactus," featured on his web site, http://www.thebackyardps.com.

Locals raved about the Sunday tea dance at Oscars (125 E. Tahquitz Canyon), where the crowd includes all ages and genders. It offers live entertainment on other days and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

A helpful LGBTQ site is http://www.visitgaypalmsprings.com. The Desert Sun newspaper also publishes the LGBT Newsletter; sign up at http://www.desertsun.com/newsletters. For more live entertainment ideas, visit local performer Les Michaels' site at http://www.lesmichaels.com.


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