Great Escapes: Poolsides, Fine Dining, and Desert Adventure in Greater Palm Springs

Tai Spendley
has gripes about food and culture in his adopted Palm Springs, namely that neither is evolving as quickly as he’d like. But the chef and owner of one of the Coachella Valley’s most beloved restaurants, Rooster & the Pig, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. He was lured here by the same predictable sunshine, reasonable traffic, and paparazzi-free anonymity that lured Hollywood’s melange of movie stars from Los Angeles to the desert way back in the ’50s 

“I own a business here, I live here, and I don’t bump into anybody,” he says. “The other day one of my servers came back and said, ‘Hey, that Incredible Hulk guy (
Mark Ruffalo
) has been out there waiting for a table for 45 minutes.’ Nobody really cares who you are.” 

Greater Palm Springs has evolved from a sleepy, nostalgic collection of nine cities strung from one end of the valley to the next into a less sleepy valley that lacks some of Santa Barbara’s sophistication but that offers an escape from terrible southern California traffic and has ample options for the adventurous traveler. 

What was once a hideaway for 1950s-era celebrities bound by contracts that prevented travel more than two hours from L.A. (so they could be available for gigs) is now a story of enduring Mid-Century Modern architecture, of blue pools, and bluer skies, of sprawling country clubs, stylish boutique hotels and mega-resorts, of interloping vanlifers and
Joshua Tree
-worshiping hipsters. 

It’s also a story that gets more dynamic, especially the farther travelers venture from Palm Springs proper, into the eight other cities and out to the 9,000 feet of elevation atop the San Jacinto Mountains, to the Seussian scenes of Joshua Tree, the sneaky slot canyons of the East Indio Badlands and the painted canyon in the Mecca Hills. Past the poolsides lies a desert teeming with intrigue, in every direction. 

STAY

The Renaissance Esmeralda in Indian Wells offers a slew of resort amenities and views of the surrounding mountains.


Winston Ross

When
David Dittmer’s
PRG Hospitality Group opened the Colony Palms Hotel in Palm Springs in 2004, “it just wasn’t the most interesting destination for people. They thought it was for old folks, like a South Beach vibe,” Dittmer says. That has changed in the past decade, thanks to a steady improvement in the valley’s hospitality. 

Now, PRG has three (other) hotels in the valley: Holiday House, Sparrows Lodge, and Sands Hotel & Spa. They are all excellent, for different reasons: Holiday House as an art gallery-inspired hideaway within sight of the great wall of mountains that rises out of the desert; Sparrows’ conversion from its rustic roots as Castle’s Red Barn to a “modern-day desert ranch,” with exposed beam ceilings, russet red walls, concrete floors with inlaid pebbles and butterfly chairs; Sands as the first designer boutique in Indian Wells. 

Two other boutique options not to be overlooked are the celebrity haunt Parker Palm Springs, glistening from a recent revamp from interior designer
Jonathan Adler
; and Villa Royale, an old-world estate transformed into a modern hotel, each of the 38 villas scattered about three and a half lush acres with its own unique decor. 

For travelers in search of all the amenities a big resort can offer, there are at least three fine options: the Marriott’s Renaissance Esmeralda in Indian Wells is the most charming, and there’s much to do on the property, including eating surprisingly good sushi at Glo, in the lobby. The J.W. Marriott Desert Springs features a cavernous lobby space and pools bordered by lagoons that reflect sunsets against the Santa Rosa mountains off in the distance. 

Embarc Palm Desert by Diamond Resorts is a timeshare resort that can be booked as a hotel, with well-appointed two-story haciendas that feature private patios with roomy stone tables and outdoor gas fireplaces. 

EAT & DRINK

Glo, in the lobby of the Renaissance Esmeralda in Indian Wells, offers a surprisingly good array of fresh fish just steps from the hotel’s rooms.


Winston Ross

Palm Springs is decidedly not L.A., but there are plenty of fine restaurants worth a stop, not the least of which is Spendley’s Rooster & the Pig, a destination eatery for loads of visitors, known to queue by the dozens in anticipation of the restaurant’s evening opening. Spendley only recently restarted indoor dining after a long take-out only spell, and it’s packed, night after night. Another standout is Sandfish, whose innovative takes on sushi and other Japanese fare are a delightful find in the desert. Owner Engin Onural brims with enthusiasm and gratitude for a clientele that comes “to enjoy my food, not to be seen.” 

Some of the valley’s best eateries are ensconced in its hotels. The Heyday is a fun take on burgers in the Hilton Palm Springs.
Villa Royale’s
Del Rey is a cave-like respite from oppressive heat, with Spanish and Mediterranean-inspired small plates. The Barn Kitchen at Sparrows Lodge does rustic American cuisine with local produce. 

For fine dining and a legendary tableside steak Diane, Melvyn’s in the Ingleside Inn is hard to top. Then there are oldies but goodies, like Babe’s BBQ, which has held down the same corner in Palm Springs for the past 20 years and brews its own beer to wash down St. Louis or baby back ribs and flaky
Marie Callender
pies. 1501 Uptown Gastropub and Eight4Nine are related restaurants with dog-friendly outdoor patios that do comfort and ethnic fused food right, from the Pitman Family Farms “Chicken under a brick” at 1501 to the smoked steelhead nicoise at Eight4Nine. And Roly China Fusion does everything from popcorn lobster to a whole red snapper for two to an impressive dim sum menu. 

EXPLORE

A half hour from Palm Springs proper, the Mecca Hills in Painted Canyon feature stargazing-friendly skies and ample dispersed camping spots.


Winston Ross

A good orientation to Coachella Valley comes by way of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which rockets passengers who don’t fear heights to a jaw-dropping 8,516 feet in mere minutes via rotating tram cars that ascend into the San Jacintos. Other institutional favorites are the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, established in 1970 as a conservation effort. There’s excellent vintage shopping throughout the valley and weird sculptures to spot when doing some urban exploring.

Slot canyons are the real gems of a valley ringed by four mountain ranges. Two of the best: The East Indio Badlands, where a five-mile loop hike begins not far from busy Interstate 10 but quickly disappears into wavy walls on all sides, shading hikers at all times of day except maybe high noon, before the trail climbs out onto a ridgeline with 360 degree views of everything else; and the Mecca Hills in Painted Canyon, accessible by bumpy but two-wheel-drive-capable roads that wind their way through lovely box canyons to the north or farmlands at the edge of the valley, to the south. There are ample dispersed campsites throughout the area, and they’re rarely crowded. 

The author was a guest of the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, of Diamond Results, and the PRG Hospitality Group.