If LA can feel like a strange place, Palm Springs, 80 miles east into the desert, is frankly bizarre. Its first Native Americans inhabitants called it ‘Se-Khi’ (boiling water). Though there are still springs, it was the draconian rules of the Hollywood studios in their heyday that gave Palm Springs its identity.
The ‘two-hour rule’ dictated that stars couldn’t live too far from the studios, in case they were needed back on the lots at some odd hour for reshoots or stills. Palm Springs was the furthest away they could get. Think of it as the outer boundary of the gilded cage. From the 1920s onwards, it was a base for everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor. The Racquet Club, built in 1934, was a Rat Pack hangout — and not really for the tennis. Even Shirley Temple, in her child star days, learnt to enjoy Palm Springs. She had her own bungalow at the Desert Inn and used to invite local kids to her birthday parties. That childhood rite of passage, learning to ride a bike, took place in this most adult of playgrounds.
After arriving late at night, my first views of Palm Springs were on waking up. At seven I was padding out of my room to the heated pool, steam rolling off its surface into the early morning air. I drank my coffee looking at the fat lemon trees, the towering palms and the cold blue skies over the snow on the top of Mount Jacinto.
The desert landscape has the kind of rocky beauty you might almost associate with another planet. After a long swim, over a smoothie and hueveros ranchos, I read the LA Times, where any distressing world news has been excluded almost entirely, to make room for on the latest must-know twists and turns in the Oscar campaigns. Even after a couple of hours, the place feels like a tonic.
The air is dry desert heat with no humidity (making it a health destination as far back as the 1900s). In the morning and at night it’s refreshingly cold, and in February when I visited, the sun builds steadily until by the afternoon it’s a perfect, comfortable temperature for lying around being a sun-lounge lizard. The Jacinto mountains, which I can’t stop looking at, give Palm Springs its own microclimate, nurturing the lemons and blocking out the winter winds.
The yellow sun loungers in the gardens of the Viceroy, and the peace and quiet, make it easy to imagine yourself as a visitor in an earlier decade. Perhaps it’s not quite the 1930s here, but Don Draper would feel at home on a weekend away. The design is by Kelly Wearstler, whose other similarly comfortable spots include the Avalon in Beverly Hills. Propped outside are bikes for lazy guests, named after notable 20th-century residents of the city — Priscilla and Elvis, for instance.
This property was built in the shell of one of the resort’s earliest hotels, the Estrella. (They have kept the name for its tiny, excellent spa.) The Estrella was a series of tiny Spanish-style bungalows (the kind you find in parts of West Hollywood) and they are still in use, albeit with modern creature comforts. When I’m told that my room is in the oldest part of the hotel, ‘dating back to the 1930s’, it’s said with the kind of reverence Europeans reserve for Pompeii.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a snob about the recent past as history. In fact, I can’t get enough of this stuff. When I finally move from my sun lounger, my first stop is the Palm Springs Historical Society. It’s run by a dedicated team of local volunteers and early the next day I take in an epic walking tour.
We view houses or little compounds in gardens set back from the almost empty roads of Las Palmas and the so-called ‘Historic Tennis District’ around the Racquet Club. And there’s no shortage of historic names to drop. Marilyn stepped out with JFK to a party at Bing Crosby’s house. Sinatra built himself a house here complete with a bedroom designated for Kennedy. During a flying presidential visit in 1962, Sinatra was mortified when JFK, who had cleaned up the company he kept, declined to be a house guest. Michael Douglas, who recently played Liberace in Behind the Candelabra, remembered his character as a neighbour of his father Kirk.
The dangerous hedonism was mythologised in Norman Mailer’s 1955 novel The Deer Park. He renamed the desert resort Palm D’Or and the title alludes to the Parc-aux-Cerfs, the mansion where Louis XV kept his mistresses.
Up above Las Palmas is Marilyn’s hideaway at 1326 Rose Avenue. A small pink house surrounded by cypresses, with a stripy canopy to keep off the sun and a spectacular view. There are no other cars on the road and the route courses away peacefully down into town. Her phone bill from the last months of her life (recently sold at auction) showed her endless efforts to get through to the White House. It’s a hard place to imagine being wretched.
As the most famous Palm Springs resident of all, Marilyn is also commemorated in a sunnier mood, in a triumph of almost monstrous kitsch. The skyline of the main strip is entirely dominated by a vast, 26 ft-high bronze cast of her in that famous pose from The Seven-Year Itch. It seems both apt and so very wrong that she should be frozen in this performance of gay abandon, with gormless tourists forever looking up her skirt.
For a place in which it’s so easy to do very little, there’s plenty to see in Palm Springs. Great examples of mid-century modern architecture are scattered here in the desert. (There are so many that Palm Springs modern is an architectural movement all of its own.) And in April there is Coachella, a music festival with no mud in sight.
While stars no longer have to abide by the two-hour rule, the desert still draws the young of LA out of the city for either hedonism or R&R. The ACE hotel is a popular spot (if slightly too grungy for my tastes). Sonny Bono, the former mayor, started the Palm Springs Film Festival in 1989. The Parker hotel, created by the cult designer Jonathan Adler, is the main venue.
My visit was fleeting, a couple of nights of peace and quiet before a week of non-stop parties and late nights, covering Oscar week. Flying home from LA, it was tempting to think of stopping off and lying by the pool, looking up at those ice-cold clouds and the snow. Maybe next time.
Seven nights in California with Virgin Holidays, including flights, car hire and accommodation at The Viceroy Palm Springs (two nights) and the Mondrian LA (five nights) from £1,435 per person based on two adults. Call 0844 557 3859, or see www.-virginholidays.co.uk and www.discoverLosAngeles.com