The sprawl of urban structures makes way for hazel-colored hills and concrete landscapes turn into dizzying miles of arid land. When you drive east out of Los Angeles, there's nothing but cacti, dry desert flora and the occasional palm tree - nothing worth driving two hours for, at least to those not in the know. But Southern California locals like me, snowbirds from as far as Canada and, believe it or not, some German tourists answering to the lure of the Wild West know better. In fact, they regularly make their way out here.
This is Palm Springs, LA's more exotic little sister and a beautiful refuge nestled among the bare hills of the California Sonoran Desert.
Since the early 1900s, this resort city has drawn people of all types - from movie stars to notable people like John Muir and William Burroughs to, for better or worse, spring breakers. It eventually grew into the sought-after vacation destination perfect for everyone and anyone seeking respite from the mundane, with neighboring resorts like the Spanish Moorish Westin Mission Hills, known for its summer evening concerts and animal programs, and the stunning Mediterranean-inspired Miramonte Resort & Spa that beckon weekenders and vacationers alike
Don't get me wrong. On certain months of the year, Palm Springs is still very much a party city, especially during Coachella season when festivalgoers flock its streets like moths to a flame for celebrity DJ poolside parties and whatever else kids under 30 like to do these days.
The rest of the time, however, it's simply an oasis that comes with an amazing culinary scene - the number of shops and art galleries, in fact, is surpassed only by the number of surprisingly good gastronomic spots - and a myriad of attractions that are not just for the adults, all topped with that irresistible cherry of desert magnetism.
Here, you may find yourself, coffee-fueled, on a quiet Saturday morning at modest yet unexpectedly impressive museums like the Palm Springs Art Museum, a particular favorite of a friend of mine, and the Palm Springs Air Museum, home to many military aircrafts that have seen and survived battle and where you can - if you don't mind such touristy trivialities - climb into a fighter plane, let your awkward photos be taken and then take the opportunity to ask the docent in charge about the strange switches and buttons in front of you.
Here, an even sleepier Sunday morning may be spent, bright and early, in a desert zoo and gardens called the Living Desert, dedicated to the conservation of the desert habitats of the world and a golden enclave for desert animals from here to Africa, including an adorable sand cat from the Middle East - it's a paradise for the animal-obsessed, although those who have a normal amount of fondness for them are very welcome too. Or it may be spent cooling down at the local Wet n' Wild Waterpark, if you have kids in tow.
And here, you may even feel like you're on top of the world, via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway that takes you on a slightly daunting 10-minute ride up, atop the lush cliffs of Chino Canyon with all of Southern California's contradicting grandeur below you, and where it seems like everything - from the neighboring mountains all the way to desert wasteland Salton Sea - is in full display.
Here's the other side of Palm Springs.
- Somewhere in the middle of the main strip, an old-school artisan shake and malt shop called Great Shakes serves the creamiest, most delicious shakes topped with small, homemade donuts, thanks to proprietor and caramel aficionado Doug Nelson who has mastered the craft.
- A few steps away, classy yet funky Lulu California Bistro boasts American dishes served with seasonal vegetables as well as heaping 3-course feasts.
- Just in front of Sonny Bono's grinning statue is Matchbox, which makes thin crust pizzas and meatballs to perfection.
The all-suites Hyatt Palm Springs takes on a modernist approach to the Palm Springs lifestyle and serves as an ideal base thanks to its central location on the main strip.