© Jeremy Ferguson
Sizing up Palm Springs
Six reasons Hollywood’s playground will give you a natural high
The face of the San Jacinto range that looms over Palm Springs is deeply pocked, a brooding pile of jagged shards and boulders as if flung by some raging deity who’s confused this placid resort with Sodom and Gomorrah. In mid-afternoon, the mountain swallows the sun, and the shadow that engulfs the city is the beginning of night.
This town appears to cherish its darkness. Because its rich and powerful prefer their view of the starry sky free of "light pollution," city ordinances call for "minimal" street lighting. Welcome to la ville noir. As night falls, people are seen bumbling around with flashlights. Unlit intersections are lethal; pedestrians die. This urban blackness recalls Calcutta or Addis Ababa: everyone needs a seeing-eye dog. The Palm Springs night is made for muggers, and vampires in capes and golf hats.
If night can be downright creepy, the day seems a happy postcard of brilliant sunshine, Kodachrome skies, towering palms, lemons raining from trees, and wine and whisky prices to leave a Canadian bawling on a street corner. Even without its touted golf courses — 150, according to one resident — Palm Springs offers an armload of treats for us passers-through.
Modern Architectural Tour
Every city should have a tour like the one offered by lifelong architecture buff Robert Imber. Imber's affectionate two-hour spin around the city's residential neighbourhoods focuses on mid-century modern, the architectural force that defined the Palm Springs look from the 1930s into the 1960s.
This was the era when Palm Springs aristocrats — people like 20th Century-Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck — commissioned the finest architects of their era to interpret a style influenced by the Bauhaus and hallmarked by clean and simple lines, natural materials, the artful use of light and a respect for desert ecology.
Seen in passing are Copley's, an upscale restaurant occupying Cary Grant's old guesthouse, the urban nudist resort once owned by Errol Flynn and the Palm Springs Parker Hotel where, in a drug bust, Robert Downey Jr. was found with a prostitute clad in a Wonder Woman suit.
Unfortunately, it's impossible to get a decent view of Bob Hope's 1900-square-metre "Flying Saucer" home, currently on sale for a mere $25 million. tel: (760) 318-6118; palmspringsmoderntours.com.; US$85 per person.
Celebrity homes and bones
The 1940s and 1950s were Palm Springs’ glory period, the Hollywood years. Maps of celebrity homes are available at the local tourist office. At any of these manses, you’ll see Fords and Chevys disgorging star-struck tourists snapping away with smartphones.
Well, maybe the celebrity era isn't quite over. Last year, Leonardo DiCaprio purchased Dinah Shore's former home for $5.3 million.
Such is the near-eternal nature of celebrity that maps also include the realm of the dead. The commoners' Palm Springs Desert Memorial, with its simple tablets laid flat in a parkland setting, is where legions of fans find Francis Albert Sinatra’s resting place, beside the graves of his parents.
Others might gravitate to the nearby grave of Frederick Loewe. Loewe was one of the titans, along with George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin, of the American musical theatre. He composed the music for My Fair Lady, Camelot and the film Gigi. One of the wonderful songs from Gigi was "Thank heaven for little girls." Loewe's tombstone reads: "Thank heavens for Frederick Loewe."
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Look way, way up: this cable car — the largest rotating aerial tram in the world — sweeps you up the sheerest mountain face on this continent to an altitude of 2590 metres. The view of the Coachella Valley and Sonoran Desert goes on forever, of course. Equally intriguing is the tramway's engineering history. In the early 1960s, helicopters flew 23,000 missions to erect four of five supporting towers, and transport men and construction materials to perilous locations. 1 Tram Way; tel: (888) 515-8726; pstramway.com; adults US$23.95.
Palm Springs Art Museum
It may be a midget next to the Louvre, but the Palm Springs’ Art Museum is all about quality, and you don’t have to be a gallery hound to fall for it. Its emotional core, the western art gallery, showcases evocative works from a posse of outstanding artists including Frederic Remington and Thomas Moran.
Actor George Montgomery, remembered most for 1940s and 1950s westerns, had a more interesting private life. He married TV-star Dinah Shore, and was an accomplished artist and sculptor in his own right. When he left his art and sculpture, along with his collection of movie posters, to the museum, it was its single most important acquisition.
The museum's overall collection includes works from Chagall, Picasso, Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and Ansel Adams. Galleries incorporate art glass, photography, architecture, archeology and sculpture, all of a commanding caliber. 101 Museum Drive; tel: (760) 322-4828; psmuseum.org; adults US $12.50, free Thursdays after 4pm.
Joshua Tree National Park
This geological wonderland, part Mohave Desert, part Sonora Desert, is more than an hour’s drive, but it's Palm Springs’ most important experience, at least for photographers, desert junkies and travellers who like to exercise their sense of wonder.
This eye-popping landscape of boulders the size of office buildings and Joshua Trees — yucca plants with limbs like outstretched arms — might as well be another planet.
For any first-timer, the ideal introduction is the Hidden Valley trail, an easy 1.5-kilometre loop that leads through a mysterious cleft in the boulders to a completely enclosed valley. It was discovered by 19th century rustlers who stole cattle in Arizona, rebranded them here and sold them on the California coast. US$5 per person or US$15 per vehicle for seven consecutive days; nps.gov/jotr/index.htm.
An hour's drive brings you to California’s great inland sea. It’s a critical stop for 400 species of wintering birds, and for bird-watchers. It boasts great beauty and Bombay Beach sunsets are legend, but appearances are deceptive.
In the 1960s, it was hailed as California’s new resort frontier, a glamour spot with vacation homes and yacht clubs. It welcomed more visitors than Yosemite National Park. All of this turned to rot as salt levels soared. Today, it contains 50 percent more salt content than the oceans themselves and is almost certainly fated to turn completely saline as its fresh water sources dwindle.
A principle source of fresh water is the New River, which flows north out of Mexico and isn’t very fresh: it’s the most polluted body of water in North America. The Salton Sea contains 400 million tilapia, the only fish that can survive in this toxic saline soup. Fishing, anyone?
Many observers predict a catastrophic future after the dry-up. They envision a dust cloud of salt, chemical toxins and sewage lifted out of the seabed by the region’s powerful winds. If this is allowed to happen — and no level of government is ready to finance the massive rescue effort so far — it could blow like an airborne tsunami over the land and smother Palm Springs as surely as Vesuvius did Pompeii.
Drive through a hardscrabble neck of the woods east of the Salton Sea and you'll discover Salvation Mountain, a man-made adobe alp painted in madcap colours and completely inscribed with biblical quotes and religious slogans. This is the work of the late Leonard Knight and the Folk Art Society of America found it "worthy of preservation and protection." What fun for the camera. parks.ca.gov; salvationmountain.us.
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