Hollywood's sunny getaway offers year-round recreation, glamour, fine dining, museums and a surprising array of kid-friendly attractions that lure all types of families to the desert.
Multi-faceted Palm Springs: It’s famous for the movie stars, Bob Hope, arid desert, lush golf courses, rich retirees, stylish gays, somber Republicans, vacationing families. You’ve seen it in films ranging from “Oceans Eleven” to “Phat Girls;” in TV shows from “Beverly Hills 90210” to “Alias” to the “Miss Teen USA Pageant.” One thing it’s not — a secret. Whatever you imagine, you’ll be surprised to see how these distinct personalities coexist and how much more Palm Springs has to offer in a chic, southern California playground setting.
Palm Springs has attracted tourists for generations. There are several large, full service resorts in the region, dozens of classic Mediterranean style bungalow courts within the town, and myriad attractions. Local area recreation includes golf (100 courses and the annual Bob Hope Classic tournament), tennis (600 courts in the village and the Tennis Master series at Indian Wells), biking (the Heritage Trail is one of many marked off-road trails), hiking (California State Park and Joshua Tree National Park), and horseback riding.
Beautiful Scenery, Beautiful People
Families with older children will want to try a balloon tour, a delightful way to experience sunrise or sunset over the valley. Ask your hotel or the tourist information office to check with each company about their minimum age requirement. One of the many off-road Jeep tours can take you to Joshua Tree, the edge of the San Andreas Fault (birthplace of California’s major earthquakes), an old mining town or deep into the desert. Younger children will be fascinated by Covered Wagon Tours (760/347-2161), who guide guests along the San Andreas Fault and a provide a cookout and sing-along recalling Pioneer times.
If it’s celebrities you’re after, you may cross paths with Governor Schwartzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver; Barbra Streisand; Henry Kissinger or Brad Pitt at the local supermarket. Stars like Nicole Kidman, Liam Neeson or Kevin Spacey might be in town for the annual Palm Springs International Film Festival. For a guaranteed look at the homes of current and past stars (such as former mayor Sonny Bono, Frank Sinatra, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and many more), join Celebrity Tours (760/770-2700) on their guided bus ride past more than 30 notable estates. Fans of Elvis may prefer an up-close tour of his former estate at 845 Chino Canyon Road; contact 760/325-6337; www.pselvis.com for details.
Family Fun, Recreation, and Learning
If you’re coming for relaxation, a few days at one of the resorts with elaborate pool complexes like Palm Springs Riviera Resort & Spa will make the family feel like they’ve been on vacation forever. For even more wet fun, visit Knott’s Soak City, a 21-acre waterpark chock full of 18 slides, sprays, inner tubes, and wave pools that is open daily from mid-March to Labor Day, then weekends through October. Knott’s recently added a climbing wall to the facility, a state-of-the-art system shaded by a tent and cooled by misters, where instructors provide gear and lessons.
City kids may enjoy the Boomer Family Entertainment Center, a local operation with mini-golf, go-karts, batting cages and bumper boats.
The area has many visual pleasures for families who “need to see” something. Architecture is a main attraction for those who like the optimistic mid-century Modern style known as MiMo, mixed in with well preserved Spanish Mediterranean villas and hotels. You can start at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which runs from Valley Station (itself a colorful MiMo landmark from 1963 designed by the noted architect Albert E. Frey, an assistant to Le Corbusier) to the station in Mt. Jacinto State Park, at 8,516 ft. This structure was designed by E. Stewart Williams, one of the major exponents of the Desert Style, the designer of many famous residences whose father had done La Plaza for downtown Palm Springs in 1936. It’s said to average 30ºF cooler up here, so get yourselves oriented at this viewpoint, stop by the restaurant and visitor center and cool off.
Allow at least one morning to explore the environment. The privately run, 50-year-old Moorten Botanical Gardens hosts more than 3,000 varieties of cacti, trees and birds. At the 12,00-acre Living Desert, well-labeled hiking trails and educational talks bring the local and worldwide desert environments to life. Don’t miss this park’s Village WaTuTu, a zone of African flora and fauna with a small petting zoo and displays.
The Indian Canyons are well known (Native Americans own much of Palm Springs real estate and are a major cultural and political force). The Andreas, Murray and Palm Canyons are surprisingly lush, and are home to the Agua Caliente Band of Cauhilla Indians as well as North America’s largest fan palm oasis. Call 760/325-5673 to book a Jeep tour and ask about their calendar of events.
Tahquitz Canyon is more striking geologically, with steep walls and a waterfall.
When the afternoons get too hot, head over to the Palm Springs Desert Museum (another Williams building) for a look at several excellent collections of contemporary California and Western American art, Native American art and some natural science exhibits (closed Monday.)
Architecture buffs should stop by the official Palm Springs Visitors Center for their fun “Public Art and Historic Site Map”, broad collection of architectural guides, and free brochures. You can also book a guided tour with PSModernTours (760/318-6118; firstname.lastname@example.org).
All-Families Family Lodging
Palm Springs, long a popular gay destination with many gay-oriented resorts and small cabaÃ±a hotels, is courting families more aggressively, making it an ideal destination for same-sex couples with kids. Cautions one experienced travel professional, “In Palm Springs, there are gay-friendly resorts and mainstream resorts. ‘Gay-friendly’ takes on a whole other meaning at a resort, and with certain aspects of that environment, you probably wouldn’t want kids around anyway.”
The region’s many large resorts (see FTF’s Palm Springs Resort Guide) are mainstream and are destinations in themselves. Families looking for the “real” Palm Springs, however, will prefer one of the smaller in-town lodgings. Caveat Emptor: Do your homework. Even the Palm Springs Official Visitors Guide uses one category of its Accommodations Chart for the notation Naturist, Gay-Men, Gay-Women or blank.
FTF has selected some of recommended “blank” or inclusive inns, the ones that welcome everyone, and each has a pool (essential in the blazing summer) and some style. The Pepper Tree Inn (866/887-8733, 760/318-9850) has 34 stylish rooms with patios and fireplaces, within walking distance of the shopping areas. The Las Brisas Best Western (800/346-5714, 760/325-4372) offers free breakfast and on-site bar and restaurant.
Convenient budget choices include the simple, motel-style 120-room Vagabond Inn (760/325-7211), where a free and varied breakfast is served, and the Quality Inn (760/323-2775), which has been renovated for its group business to include a bar, restaurant, fitness room and misting stations by its pool. Both are dog-welcoming properties. For long weekends or those traveling with extended family, there are several local rental agencies; one, the Palm Springs Rental Agency (866/785–0417), has a catalogue ranging from small condos, to large homes with pools, to celebrity estates and more, throughout the region.
For more selections, visit the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism at www.palm-springs.org.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.