Palm Springs is a sun-baked oasis in the Southern California desert, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles. In the late 19th century, the town grew up around a Southern Pacific Railroad line. A sanitarium, mineral springs and a resort hotel eventually drew scions of the Hearst and Vanderbilt families. 'Wealth and fashion, as such, are not much attracted to our village,' wrote J. Smeaton Chase, in a charming book about the city published in 1920. But only a few years later, wealth had arrived in force, transforming his “unspoiled” enclave into a fashionable and glamorous resort.
During the 1930s, at the height of the Hollywood studio system, numerous movie stars decamped to balmy Palm Springs to relax; it was within two hours of Los Angeles, and photographers were successfully discouraged from pestering celebrities there. The city served as a winter playground for luminaries like Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich and Bob Hope. These stars and other individuals of means built vacation homes and resorts, designed by noted architects such as Albert Frey, Richard Neutra and E. Stewart Williams. Their airy, light-filled Mid-Century Modern creations took full advantage of the pleasant climate and mountain views.
Vacationers originally focused on tennis, but today the region bursts at the seams with golf courses, kept green in the desert with water from a vast aquifer. The city is an outpost for second homes of residents of the metropolitan sprawl nearer the coast (Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange counties), and the population nearly doubles during winter as they migrate eastward. Along with shopping and dining, sun-soaked recreation is the focus here, and the improbably green golf courses and sky-blue swimming pools attract throngs of visitors.
Chefs in Palm Springs tend to be unadventurous, but there are a handful of notable restaurants. My favorite, the resolutely traditional French Le Vallauris (385 West Tahquitz Canyon Way, Tel.  325-5059), is close enough to The Willows Historic Inn to provide room service (the restaurant is closed from July to mid-September), but I love its serene courtyard, shaded by a canopy of ficus trees.
SO•PA (1050 East Palm Canyon Drive, Tel.  323-1858) is a romantic alfresco restaurant adjacent to L’Horizon Resort and Spa. For farm-to-table fare, Workshop Kitchen + Bar (800 North Palm Canyon Drive, Tel.  459-3451) is an excellent option. And at Mr. Lyons (233 East Palm Canyon Drive, Tel.  327-1551), a clubby steakhouse with excellent classic cocktails, the Rat Pack would surely have felt right at home.
A Tour of Modern Architecture
I highly recommend booking a private tour of Palm Springs’ modern architecture with the personable Michael Stern (Tel.  904-0904). He took us into strikingly designed private homes normally closed to the public and encouraged us to look at more-familiar city landmarks, such as the visitors center and art museum, in a new light, pointing out elegant details we would otherwise have missed.
Fans of midcentury modern design will love to stroll Palm Springs’ Uptown Design District. Heading out from the Palm Canyon Theater on North Palm Canyon Drive, you will find shops and galleries with furniture, art, books and clothing, as well as coffee shops and restaurants.
Memorable shops from our recent visit were Christopher Anthony Ltd. (803 North Palm Canyon Drive, Tel.  322-0600), Just Fabulous (515 North Palm Canyon Drive, Tel.  864-1300) and Trina Turk (891 North Palm Canyon Drive, Tel.  416-2856). Afterward, we enjoyed a delightful lunch at the retro EIGHT4NINE (849 North Palm Canyon Drive, tel.  325-8490).