It's cocktail hour at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, and a steady stream of picantes is snaking its way from the kitchen to the packed-out booths as the crowd settles in for Monday Night Bingo. Nobody seems bothered that it's a Monday night. Nobody has work tomorrow and even if they did, they wouldn't care. This is Palm Springs, where hedonism rules and rules are optional.
OK, that's not entirely true. There are definitely rules to bingo, which the host, drag performer Bella da Ball, is explaining to a rapt audience of twentysomething girls on their first road trip, retirees in baseball caps, actors on the lam from LA and black-clad New York ad execs, all of whom will later whoop and cheer with the frenzied enthusiasm of lottery winners when someone scoops the prize of a bottle of shampoo.
"It's Palm Springs, we go both ways!" da Ball sings, holding up a bingo board and explaining how to flip its switches. At 1.9m in flats, and considerably taller in her signature stilettos and pink beehive wig, the host and her rapid-fire bon mots have become an unmistakable mascot for this Californian desert city built on good times, good looks and good people.
Liberalism is baked into Palm Springs, just as solidly as its reputation as the world's mid-century modern design capital. In 2017, city residents elected the US's first all-LGBT city council, and its world-class Pride Festival is California's largest outside San Francisco.
But Palm Springs is a shapeshifter that has lived many lives. The Cahuilla people were the first to inhabit the area, living both on the valley floor and higher up in the cooler enclaves of Chino Canyon in summer, when temperatures are often north of 45ºC. In the centuries since, the region has been a health resort, a mobster hideout, a Rat Pack nest, a golfing capital and the weekend getaway of choice for Hollywood studio moguls and screen stars alike. There was its "gay and grey" era, the tumbleweed early Nineties, and then its rebirth as a favoured set for movies and magazine shoots, driven by its unrivalled collection of mid-century modern houses ringed by the starkly beautiful San Jacinto mountains. The latter's towering immediacy and sharp outline against an almost permanently cerulean sky create a Truman Show-like backdrop to life here. Which, to be fair, can feel like living in a bubble far removed from the rest of the US.
As Palm Springs marks 85 years since it was incorporated as a city, it is well and truly into its next golden age. Improved airport connections, the ever-expanding offer of boutique hotels (80 and counting), a new luxury spa, packed events calendar, thriving arts scene and the upcoming opening of the Palm Springs Surf Club are all factors in its popularity. But there's also something unquantifiable, an intangible magnetism in the air that makes people return here time and again, or even pack in their lives elsewhere and move.
Photo credit (r): Jake Holt Photography
Residents these days include the vanguard of sun-chasing creatives and design lovers who had early insight into the city's mid-century bargains. There's also a growing number of retired business types discovering second careers as boutique hoteliers or restaurateurs.
Opening hours are still somewhat slanted towards retirees but "early to bed and early to rise" makes sense in the desert anyway. Tables are busy by 7am, sun loungers occupied by 9am. If you're smart, you'll do your sightseeing in the morning, have a leisurely lunch and then retire for a nap or a few hours by the pool before cocktails at 6pm and dinner shortly after. There's a clutch of seductive late-night bars and speakeasies, and more on the way, but don't expect a raging 24/7 nightlife. This is the Coachella Valley, not Coachella. The mood is more sunrise hikes followed by breakfast mimosas.
As for those long-necked palms, they may not offer much shade, but they sure look good outlined against the soaring, searing sky. Thankfully, the rest of the place balances style with function. Buildings are icily air-conditioned, mist blasts over the sidewalks, and there seems to be a swimming pool every few steps. It's so well set up for desert living that I genuinely didn't notice that it was 39ºC degrees at 9.30am until my phone told me. And by then, it was time for another mimosa.
Where to eat, stay and play in Palm Springs
Where to stay
This newish entry on Palm Springs' busy hotel scene has an impeccable downtown location within walking distance of dozens of cafés and restaurants, and you can borrow a bike to explore further. However, Drift's own chic lobby bar and restaurant, Maleza, has fast become a destination in its own right. (The oysters with jalapeño mignonette and the tacos - all of them - are our picks.) Accommodation ranges from roomy studios to four-bedroom suites, each subtly decorated in sandy desert hues and natural materials, with views of either the jagged San Jacinto ridge or Slim Aarons-esque swimming pool.284 S Indian Canyon Dr, CA 92262 +1 888 976 4487 drifthotels.co/palmsprings
This adults-only hotel in well-manicured Deepwell, one of Palm Springs' oldest neighbourhoods, has hosted a galaxy of stars during its 70-plus-year history. Built in the Mission Revival style, its spacious rooms and suites are discreetly tucked between courtyards, fountains, swimming pools and towering palm trees. Each is individually furnished with mid-century pieces, record players and a generous stock of local spirits and hard seltzers so you can kick off cocktail hour in swinging style, before wandering over to the poolside Del Rey restaurant for dinner.1620 S Indian Trail, CA 92264 +1 760 327 2314 villaroyale.com
Before there was the Barbie marketing machine, there was Trixie Motel. This pink confection by Trixie Mattel, season three winner of RuPaul's Drag Race, has just seven individually themed but equally unforgettable rooms. If you can't nab one, then come for a retro cocktail in the bar, which, with its heart-shaped banquettes, arcade game, velvet loungers and pastel-pink everything resembles the fever dream of a swooning Sixties teenager. But the biggest drawcard is not the Insta opportunities but the attitude - staff are fiercely protective of the no-judgement vibe. If you've ever felt self-conscious on a sun lounger, this is the haven for you.210 W Stevens Rd, CA 92262 +1 760 808 0014 trixiemotel.com
Where to eat
Tucked off a side street in downtown Palm Springs, this homely indoor/outdoor café has a French-inspired menu of crepes and croque madames, balanced by Cali standards such as salads and avocado toast. Taking a seat in the pretty garden is a peaceful way to start the day, or to refuel after an early-morning hike.6 La Plaza, CA 92262 +1 760 322 2724 farmpalmsprings.com
Locals call the block around Blackbook the gay district, and there's no denying that this open-air bar feels like the great big heart of the LGBTQ+ community. The name was inspired by the Nevada Gaming Commisson's "Black Book" of excluded persons, and is an acknowledgment that everyone has felt the sting of exclusion at some point. But as owner Dean Lavine says: "Not here. Not ever. Blackbook is an inclusion bar." Craft cocktails and whiskeys are the highlight, but the food menu is no slouch either. Appropriately, it's heavy on comfort classics. Bring an empty stomach because portions are huge, even by US standards.315 E Arenas Rd, CA 92262 +1 760 832 8497 blackbookbar.com
Chi Chi at Avalon Hotel & Bungalows
The best Palm Springs breakfasts combine health and indulgence, and few are better than a bloody mary and a giant serving of avocado toast at Chi Chi. This poolside all-day restaurant is hidden behind the walls of the Spanish-style Avalon Hotel. Afterwards, shift to a sun lounger by one of the three pools for the day, then come back for dinner.415 South Belardo Rd, CA 92262 +1 760 318 3012 avalon-hotel.com/palm-springs
Lulu California Bistro
If you can't find it on Lulu's menu, it probably doesn't exist. The portions are equally expansive, and if you come for the three-course weekend brunch, you'll be set for the day. With its step-back-in-time styling, vintage movie star photos and central location at the heart of downtown Palm Springs, always-busy Lulu's feels like it's been around a lot longer than 12 years.200 S Palm Canyon Dr, CA 92262 +1 760 327 5858 lulupalmsprings.com
The Colony Club at The Colony Palms Hotel & Bungalows
In past lives, it was a playground for the innocent (Shirley Temple, Marilyn Monroe) and not-so-innocent (Frank Sinatra and various mobsters) alike, but since being reborn as The Colony Club, this downtown hotel has become a haven of calm where decibels rarely breach the levels of the delicate hummingbirds that buzz around its gardens. The look was inspired by Hollywood's legendary Beverly Hills Hotel, meaning palm prints and green stripes, and is best appreciated from the poolside restaurant, whose green Italian marble bar and hand-painted de Gournay wallpaper make for a luxurious backdrop.572 N Indian Canyon Dr, CA 92262 +1 760 969 1800 colonypalmshotel.com
One: there are dogs. Boozehounds was started by three dog lovers who wanted somewhere they could bring their actual hounds, and this is the result - albeit in certain sections only. Two: it has Palm Springs' best bathroom selfie opportunity (starring nostalgic wallpaper and a neon sign reading "bad bitches"). And three: the Asian-inspired menu is one of the region's finest. Highlights include three different types of crudo, char siu pork belly with celery root purée and cold pickled apple, and a mixed green salad topped with tuna seared in tamari garlic butter, with a creamy sesame dressing.2080 N Palm Canyon Dr, CA 92262 +1 760 656 0067 boozehoundsps.com
This low-lit steakhouse has been a bastion of old-school glamour since 1945. The menu is equal parts kitsch (shrimp cocktail) and modern Cali (superfood salad), but really it's all about the steak. Dress up, order a martini and a tomahawk ribeye, and don't sleep on the sides - the kimchi fried rice and crispy brussel sprouts are especially memorable.233 E Palm Canyon Dr, CA 92264 +1 760 327 1551 mrlyonsps.com
What to do
Bingo with Bella da Ball
Drag queen, performer, tour guide and the beating heart of Palm Springs, Bella da Ball hosts bingo in the Ace Hotel's diner every Monday from 7pm, followed by trivia in the back bar from 9pm. The cocktails (and date milkshakes) flow, the shishito peppers sizzle, and your rowdy competition is everyone, from everywhere, all at once. It's loud, it's proud and nothing sums up Palm Springs' "anything goes, all welcome" spirit better.701 E Palm Canyon Dr, CA 92264 +1 760 325 9900 acehotel.com
The Spa at Séc-he
If you wondered just where the springs in Palm Springs are, the answer is at this brand-new spa. Owned and operated by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians - "séc-he" roughly translates to "boiling waters" - this 6,782 sq m luxury spa complex deserves at least half a day to make the most of its services and treatments, which range from ancient to cutting-edge. The main attraction, of course, is the springs themselves, drawn from an aquifer deep below the earth and last seen land-side some 12,000 years ago. Soak up the relaxing benefits of their magnesium, calcium and sodium in one of the pools, or book a private mineral bath (hold your nose - your aches and pains will thank you). The heated quartz bed and water cupping massages, zero-gravity room and sound therapy chairs are also highlights.200 E Tahquitz Canyon Way, CA 92262 +1 866 777 3243 thespaatseche.com
Superbloom is an art studio and retail space offering colour therapy of the messy, fun kind. Bring your own item to decorate or opt for one of theirs, such as a tote bag, then don your smock, take your pick from the 10 signature colours in the Superbloom palette and get to work throwing paint at the wall. It's both creative and cathartic, and best of all, you'll have a one-of-a-kind souvenir of your own design to take home.1414 N Palm Canyon Dr, CA 92262 +1 760 285 3397 superbloom.world
What to see
Tour Palm Springs' incredible homes
Palm Springs is a living museum of mid-century modernism, with more original examples of the architectural style than anywhere else on Earth. Tours are available year-round, or visit during the city's Modernism Week (October and February) for talks, parties and a peek inside otherwise off-limits homes. You can tour the starry Las Palmas neighbourhood, whose erstwhile residents include Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant, and visit (or even stay at) Twin Palms, the sprawling home that Frank Sinatra commissioned from architect E. Stewart Williams in 1947.
Catch the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
If the heat is biting (or even if it's not), take the world's largest rotating tramcar 4km up rugged Chino Canyon to Mount San Jacinto State Park, where the pine-scented air is usually 15ºC cooler than in the city. The 10-minute journey lands you at Mountain Station, which offers incredible views of the Coachella Valley. The forest behind the station is criss-crossed by some 80km of hiking trails and in winter you can rent snowshoes and cross-country skis on which to explore them. (Yes, it snows!)
Palm Springs Art Museum
Explore the art scene
Palm Springs has more than 60 public works of art, including vivid murals, installations and sculptures of Lucille Ball, ex-mayor Sonny Bono and, most famously, a 7.9m statue of former regular Marilyn Monroe in her most famous pose, by Seward Johnson. Download the artsGPS app to explore it all easily. Directly behind Marilyn is the Palm Springs Art Museum. There's a busy calendar of exhibitions throughout the year, with the core collection dedicated to modern and contemporary art from some of the world's best artists. Make time for smaller galleries, too, such as The Elemental, which focuses on multidisciplinary exhibitions that explore the interaction between art and the environment.