Published: 13th June 2004
One of my companions in flip-flops began to move restlessly from side to side, no longer so enamoured of the landscape of Indian Canyons. The canyons lie to the south of Palm Springs, a place more famous for its celebrity mansions and golf courses than its natural wonders. But it is the wonders that first lured celebrities and golf out into the desert. Two hours from Los Angeles and encircled by mountains, the region is still part-owned by the Cahuilla Indians, and has dry desert air that keeps people alive well after their time.
The snake turned out to be a diamondback rattler, just out of hibernation. Gingerly, we walked down to a stream surrounded by rocky gorges, with the barren desert beyond. From here, you can take a 4WD trip to the San Andreas Fault, where shallow-rooted palm trees festively mark the crack, as if nothing could be more wholesome and pretty than an earthquake. There’s an earthquake due now, a guide told us.
This is astoundingly beautiful land, and it has many tricks to play. In Joshua Tree National Park, for example, there’s a coyote who pretends to have a limp. When he’s been fed by sympathetic backpackers, he lopes off happily, every limb just fine.
The park itself is eerie, with huge blocks of granite dotted over the plains as if dropped from height by a clumsy giant. Here and there, tiny climbers scale the sheer outcrops, little insects in bright yellow and red; while all around, Joshua trees loiter in the apocalyptic landscape like an indecisive army, their leaves jabbing out in all directions (they are so named because a leaf pointed Joshua the way to the promised land).
It’s easy to scramble up a boulder or two, and soon I was sitting on a round stone in the heat, surveying the unreal landscape. One of the vast boulders is split like butter, neatly in half, as if by a knife. Other outcrops make the shapes of lizards and tortoises, another that of a skull. The skeletons of dead trees melt back into the landscape and tumbleweed moves in the occasional breeze.
The area fringing the desert is uncertain, spooky. Along the road back to Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, shops advertised psychic services — the area is apparently surging with supernatural energy. At one hillbilly thrift shop, full of broken toasters and threadbare coats, the overalled assistant thrust out a photo of a red-haired man with one earring.
“Have you seen this man?” she said. She leant forward, her eyes widening for the final revelation. I took a step back. “He’s a sexual paedophile ... and he worked here!”
It’s the unsettling beauty of the desert that makes Palm Springs so beguiling, not the glitz of its communities or the well-worn local legends about Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Apparently, Sinatra installed a helipad and 20 telephone lines at his Palm Desert compound, so that John Kennedy could make it his Californian White House. But Kennedy stayed with Bing Crosby instead, and Sinatra tore up the helipad in pique.
“So many houses out here have these tiny kitchens,” one resident told me, “and then they’ll have a big wet bar. The stars came to drink, lie in the sun and f*** each other crazy. If you look at the old pictures, people are just sloshed out of their brains — Sinatra and Dean Martin and all those guys. And they’re baking in the sun.”
Hollywood money helped to colonise Palm Springs in the 1930s and 1940s. Stars would buy little desert bungalows, then upgrade them — Bob Hope ended up with a house like a giant mushroom. Later, country-club communities sprang up in the valley, including Palm Desert, with its sandstone-and- cactus El Paseo shopping street to rival Rodeo Drive. Then there were the spas and clinics where the rich of Los Angeles came to recuperate and dry out.
It was in Palm Springs that Elvis and Priscilla Presley spent their honeymoon; their house can be hired for parties. Ronald Reagan had a home here; so did Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Even Greta Garbo owned one of the bungalows; curious for someone who wanted to be alone, as her neighbours included Liberace, Howard Hughes, Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable.
The stars still come, including Madonna, Goldie Hawn and Jay Leno, whose house has exuberant peacock gates (yes, I did one of those “homes of the celebrities” tours). The rich choose well. The colours of the mountains are continually changing, and the night air is so clear that the real stars dazzle. You can take an aerial tramway up into the snow and dine at the top of San Jacinto, looking at the lights below and the stars above.
The Palm Springs air is warm and soft as cashmere, instantly calming, and the mountains cup the valley like huge protective hands. There are no foothills; the mountains rise up abruptly — you drive to a shopping area to buy a toothbrush and it’s as though you’re driving into the mountain. In the pool at my first hotel, the Desert Fountain Inn, it felt as if I could swim right back into the mountain behind. It was an enchanted place, hidden away, without even a name at the gate.
The area has plenty of discreet, boutique-style hotels, some more discreet than others. One is a gay nudist hotel, with a blockaded walkway across the road so that guests can pass easily from one wing to the next.
The town is a gay mecca, something I hadn’t realised until I eavesdropped on an overblown conversation in a diner. The jukebox was playing I Got You Babe (Sonny Bono was mayor of Palm Springs, and his statue welcomes visitors), and a man’s voice said: “Sweetheart, I can’t let you kill what is good, pure and innocent in our relationship... you’re everything in the world to me.” It sounded like something from a black-and-white movie starring slightly had-it stars, but when I looked up there were two brawny men with tattoos.
This place is big on nostalgia: in the “village”, there is even a show called the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, where lavishly costumed ladies kick their legs in the air and sing old songs. Beneath all the feathers and sequins, the youngest is in her fifties and the oldest is a fine- looking 86. As I say, Palm Springs, is always playing tricks.
But don’t come here for the vaudeville show, or the thriving Indian-run casino, or the cute Thursday-night festivals, with their street performers and stalls, or even the many good restaurants. Come for the desert and the mountains and the eeriness of the “Desert Edge architecture” — those houses wedged into the margins of the valley, looking very much like places to disappear into.
Even from my balcony at the Hyatt hotel, right in the middle of Palm Springs, the evening shadows pour into the folds of the mountains, the golf courses disappear and there is only the strangeness and the stillness.
Driving back to Los Angeles, I passed thousands of windmills spinning in the mist, gawky metal creatures that looked ready to take over the emerald golf courses. It was a fittingly odd farewell. A few people had recommended staying in West Hollywood after Palm Springs, and I spent a couple of days there among the high-octane clubs and malls. But I recommend doing it the other way round. Live it up in Hollywood, then recuperate in Palm Springs, like the stars.
Need to Know
Getting there: Palm Springs is 100 miles east of Los Angeles. You can fly to LA from Heathrow with American Airlines (0845 778 9789, www.aa.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com), United (0845 844 4777, www.unitedairlines.co.uk) or Virgin (01293 747747, www.virgin-atlantic.com); from £480. Aer Lingus (0818 365000, www.aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin and Shannon; from €940.
Airline Network (0870 700 0514, www.netflights.com) has flights to LA from Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester with American Airlines via Chicago; from £460. Or try Expedia (0870 050 0808, www.expedia.co.uk) or Travel- select (0871 222 3213, www.travelselect.com).
Where to stay: the distinctive Desert Fountain Inn (00 1 760-323 0203, www.desertfountaininn.com) has doubles from £50. The Hyatt Regency (322 9000, www.hyatt.com) is a plush all-suite resort; doubles from £60.
Packages: a week at the Hyatt Regency starts at £759pp, room-only, with Virgin Holidays (0871 222 0306, www.virginholidays.co.uk), including flights from Heathrow to LA and car hire. Regional connections start at £89pp. Other operators include Travelbag (0870 814 4440, www.travelbag.co.uk) and Kuoni (01306 742222, www.kuoni.co.uk).
Further information: the best guidebook is the Rough Guide to California (£12.99). Or visit www.palm-springs.org.