Just the mention of some place names sends images flickering into life. Venice and its canals, New York and its skyscrapers, Rio de Janeiro and the Copocabana Beach, Cape Town and the imperious Table Mountain. Mention Palm Springs and perhaps a colorful snapshot of elegant tall palm trees, pristine houses, vintage American cars and wealthy retirees waving golf clubs around comes into your head. Well, you are not far wrong.
Palm Canyon Drive
This is a real oasis, a genuine fertile haven in the arid desert, bubbling with hot springs, chilled champagne and expensive jewelry, shining in the palm (excuse the pun) of a rather grubby scrubland of a desert. The surrounding mountains, snowcapped and up to 12,000ft tall, provide the perfect theatrical backdrop for this smart and engaging resort.
About 50,000 comfortable folk live here, their bank balances as full as their wine glasses. We guessed they come here to die but seemingly have completely forgotten to do it, probably because they are just thriving with rejuvenation on the outdoor lifestyle which is almost perfect. Year-round warm dry weather lets the well-maintained American pensioners get out every day to walk the green, green golf courses, play a bit of gentle tennis or just go on a leisurely hike in the nearby hills.
On first arriving it is hard to find what the fuss is all about. You can easily drive around the spotless, residential havens that house these fortunate folk for hours without discovering the buzzing center. This is actually found on the far edge of town, on Palm Canyon Drive, which in fact is not so much buzzing as positively purring with self-satisfaction. For Palm Springs gives the air of somewhere that is very pleased with itself. And rightly so. It doesn't have the same divisions of wealth and privilege that are so commonplace through this continent - it seems everyone shares equal wealth and privilege. It has the unity of a group of fortunate people who have got everything right in life and can live without a care in the world.
Palm Springs was first settled on by the Cahuilla Indians 2000 years ago, attracted by the abundance of water and mountain shade in the tortuous Sonoran Desert. Like their successors, they loved the Agua Caliente ('hot water') that flowed naturally and purely out of the ground at a scolding 140 degrees. Still today, this phenomenon provides the drinking water that is put into the town's plumbing system untreated. After the Mexicans planted their sombreros here for a spell in the first half of the 19th century, European settlers then arrived and started to sample its delights. They came, they saw, and they bought land and stayed. But it was, as so often happened in this part of America, the railroad that jump-started the development. The US Government needed to get the trains through the region to the coast, so it imaginatively created a chess-board map of the main area and let the local Indian draw lots for the 'red' squares and gave the railroad companies the 'black' ones. (No, they weren't the Pawnee Indians). These were then traded, to a financial benefit for the indigenous tribesmen so that the trains could travel by the edge of town and in a straight line. To this day, most of the downtown land is not owned by the householders but leased from the Indians.
In the mid-1900s, the place really took off. The influx of movie stars made it one of the most fashionable places on Earth. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davies, Audrey Hepburn - the list of names glittered like the film posters they adorned. This was THE place to have a home, somewhere you could rub padded shoulders with the ritzy and the glitzy on a daily basis.
Bob Hope's party house in the hills. Steve McQueen was his neighbor
Elvis's Honeymoon Hideaway
Audrey Hepburn lived here
Leonardo di Caprio's Palm Springs retreat
Today, it has lost most of that showbiz identity, stars' houses are now the profitable focus of sight-seeing tours but devoid of their famous inhabitants. Nevertheless, it still has a touch of perfection about it, a luxurious, safe retreat for the rich but now not-so-famous.
Thankfully though we did eke out less perfect little corners of the area. Too much perfection is frankly rather nauseating. You have to go only a few yards outside the city limits to be lost in a wilderness of scruffy wasteland, a charmless sandpit of desert that looks forlorn and as plain as a rich tea biscuit. A battalion of two thousand wind machines, each waving a troika of swords, populates the valley, their ginormous white blades gyrating slowly in the variable scirocco, occasionally disappearing from sight in the blinding sandstorms. Thomas Edison would have been proud of these tilting windmills that blot the landscape.
Curiously and incongruously, Palm Springs is also one of the major cannabis growers in the US. Another sign of how mixed-up and potty the American hazy dream has become.
There are four or five other neighboring towns sharing the Coachella Valley but the only one that competes (and perhaps wins) is Palm Desert. Its main street, a must-visit, is El Paseo lined with upmarket shops and fine restaurants. It even has an unstaffed Tesla showroom in the middle - with a sign saying that if you want to buy a Tesla car just go online - it will only take one minute to seal the deal. However, the pile of letters marked 'tax-demand' and 'fine' dropped through the letter-box is a bit of a worry.
El Paseo, Palm Desert
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
About an hour outside Palm Springs is the glorious Joshua Tree National Park. The impressive mountains of giant boulders, some being climbed by lunatics with ropes, are a compelling and curious natural freak show.
But we were fortunate to drive through from one end to the other at the perfect time. In the Spring, the desert is carpeted with wild flowers, turning the whole scene into a sea of yellows and blues. Round here they call it the 'Super Bloom', a worthy title for an incredible spectacle.
We wrote last time about the crazy, wacky towns around Salton Sea, places where the unenviable occupy the uninhabitable. If you do not feel quite ready to enter the dangerous Mad Max world of Slab City, you must visit Pioneertown, a cluster of old Wild West buildings in the middle of nowhere but almost en route to Joshua Tree. After a winding four mile drive through a tight valley, you come to a movie-set village of 200 people, living an imaginary cowboy life. Pioneertown was started by actor Dick Curtis in 1946 as an 1880s Old West settlement. It was his concept to create a movie set for filming but at the same time create a living, breathing environment. Even Roy Rogers put some of his saddle-sore money into the idea. Today, it makes an interested stroll down the one street. It is like a working man's Disney without the cleaners. The highlight is Pappy & Harriet's Palace, a bar and cowboy eatery which is primarily known for brilliant live music. It counts iconic musical Brits like Eric Burdon and Robert Plant amongst its patrons, so it can't be bad.
We mentioned last time about how Frank Sinatra sold his Palm Springs' house for $1.
It all came about after his tempestuous marriage to Ava Gardner erupted in Vesuvius proportions when she came home unannounced to their Palm Springs' home (above). Imagine the scene. As she went through this very door, she was confronted by a naked and afraid (and not disinterested) Frank caught red-handed and red-faced cavorting in the pool with an equally naked and interested Lana Turner. Ava was always a Shrew that would never be Tamed. She just grabbed the nearest liquor bottle and hysterically chased the cocky, unclad crooner through the house and into the bathroom where she hurled her weapon at him, narrowly missing her target but instead cracking the expensive basin. She then turned on her high heels and fled, saying she would never, EVER return. She never did. But the cracked sink remained and is there to this day.
In the inevitable divorce, it was agreed that Ava would get half the proceeds from the sale of the house. Frank, bless him, was true to his word.
He promptly sold it for $1 and handed his ex-wife 50 cents. Oh to be that rich...
NEXT TIME: Talking about being rich, we visit Hearst Castle and look at its extravagance, its Citizen Kane legend and its unbelievable indoor swimming pool.