WITH MORE THAN 350 sunny days a year and less than six inches of annual rainfall, Palm Springs is the perfect remedy for living under Western Washington’s soggy gray skies. Winter is known as “the season” in southeastern California, when the mercury doesn’t climb above 85 degrees and the wildflowers are in bloom. You’ll be talking like Zsa Zsa in no time.
There are two ways to see Palm Springs: Lavish your body with the movie-star treatment or venture out and lavish your senses with the eye-popping landscape. We recommend a little of both. The movie star stuff started in the 1920s, when actors blew in from LA for privacy. Later, Sinatra and the Rat Pack deemed the desert oasis the perfect spot for Rat Pack behavior, away from public scrutiny. (Sinatra’s old pad, the Twin Palms Sinatra Estate, can be rented for $7,800 for three nights.) The landscape stuff started a few million years earlier, when the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountain ranges burst up from the continent, leading to numerous natural hot springs and Joshua Tree National Park, home of those eponymous yucca plants.
But before you spy yucca one or start living it up like Clark Gable, you’ve got to hop a two-and-a-half-hour flight to Palm Springs International Airport—to which Horizon Airlines started direct service from Sea-Tac in July—jump in the rental car, and head south on El Cielo Road. For martinis, massages, and magnificent cuisine, take a right on East Ramon Road and head to the boutique hotel Viceroy Palm Springs. Or for an ultraprivate sanctuary make your way to the Smoke Tree Ranch, an enclave of 53 cottages nestled on 400 acres of desert land named one of the world’s 10 great escapes by the Robb Report.
Winter is known as “the season” in southeastern California, when the wildflowers are in bloom. You’ll be talking like Zsa Zsa in no time.
Behind the gates at Smoke Tree Ranch, the days are filled with tennis matches, guided horseback rides into the canyon, croquet, and lawn bowling. A triangle’s chime calls guests inside for buffet-style meals at the ranch house, where the menu stretches from osso bucco and chicken Véronique to grilled-cheese sandwiches, and the evening entertainment includes swimming by moonlight and in-room massages.
Venture beyond the gated retreat and deeper into the desert with a trip to Joshua Tree. The nearly 800,000-acre national park is an hour east of Palm Springs. For an easy trail, hike the one-mile loop to Barker Dam where you’ll pass the Wonderland of Rocks, 12 square miles of enormous jumbled granite rocks, and Native American petroglyphs and pictographs, still visible but unfortunately painted over (legend has it that in the 1960s a crew filming “Chico, the Misunderstood Coyote” for a Disney TV series applied the gloss to the ’glyphs and ’graphs so that they’d appear darker on screen). For a more challenging—and less Disneyfied—route, tackle the three-mile Ryan Mountain Trail, which climbs to the mountain’s 5,461-foot summit, for views of snowcapped Mount San Gorgonio and Mount San Jacinto and the park’s expansive valleys.
Tromping through the desert works up an appetite, so be sure to hit Babe’s Barbeque and Brewhouse in nearby Rancho Mirage for salty meats, sweet-potato fries, Mandarin-orange-and-pecan slaw, and microbrews. Later, board the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for the 80-passenger cars that slowly rotate 360 degrees while ascending 5,873 feet through Chino Canyon in under 20 minutes. At the top of the nearly two-and-a-half-mile ride, take a self-guided nature walk, rent inner tubes and slide down snowy hills, or picnic and take in a bird’s-eye view of the Coachella Valley.
Closer to the town, the Viceroy is the perfect base camp for experiencing the valley’s decadence. The hotel’s massive bright-yellow doors open to a “Hollywood Regency” design that includes lemon-colored accents, Grecian-inspired statues, and shag carpets that offset black-and-white decor. Four acres of meticulously manicured gardens surround plush rooms and adobe-roofed villas that once housed the likes of Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and Bing Crosby. Relax at the see-and-be-seen pool under a chic cabana where you can order everything from a plate of grilled-lobster tacos and a Popsicle martini—a watermelon libation served with a grapefruit, orange, and mint Popsicle—to a manicure and pedicure.
When you’re done sunbathing, pedal one of the Viceroy’s Townie bicycles the half-mile to Spencer’s Restaurant at the Mountain inside the Palm Springs Tennis Club for an Azalea, a champagne cocktail with orange juice and a splash of cranberry, and a mouthwatering lobster omelet or mushroom ravioli in a vodka-tomato-cream sauce with sautéed portobellos.
Bike into town and catch a matinee of the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, a legendary vaudeville show where all the performers are over 55 years old. Playing at the Plaza Theatre, the show’s 17th edition, titled Tin Pan Alley, celebrates the golden age of American popular music and is chock-full of slapstick, sequins, and support hose.
End the evening at Mister Parker’s inside the Parker Palm Springs, the resort that was once Gene Autry’s estate and recently starred in the short-lived Bravo reality show Welcome to the Parker. A posh supper club with a dark dining room, mirrored ceilings, and walls decked with an eclectic mix of paintings including some of partially disrobed women, Mister Parker’s serves up twists on savory favorites from gnocchi with veggies in pesto sauce to pork tenderloin with cipollini onions, sherry sauce, and salsify.
Consider driving east on Interstate 10 and play a few rounds at the Desert Willow Golf Resort, a public course owned by the city of Palm Desert—14 miles from Palm Springs—and dubbed one of the best places to play by Golf Digest magazine. Don’t feel like hauling your clubs to the desert? Call ahead and rent a set of Callaway X-20 irons with Big Bertha drivers to use on the resort’s two breathtaking courses.
While in Palm Desert, visit the Spring spa for a detoxifying and calming clay-and-sandalwood body wrap that’ll rejuvenate your winter-worn skin. Follow the luxurious treatment with a two-hour soak in the 105-degree natural mineral baths, which are rich in therapeutic silica. Emerge from the spring and you’ll feel reborn. It’s divine, dah-ling.