If you’re thinking of a road trip through southern California and Palm Springs is on your list, I’m going to use this post to highlight some of my favorite places to visit and eat. I’ll add to the list as I experience new and notable things to see, eat, and do in the desert. It’s definitely a boss lady-approved destination for a luxury spa retreat, romantic couples weekend, girlfriends getaway, bachelorette party and even a birthday party.
Palm Springs remains pleasantly warm in the fall, winter and spring months but during the summer it can become a fiery inferno best left to the imagination and Italian allegories. Clocking in at 100+ degrees during the hottest months, one summer my spray tan literally melted off of my skin and onto the towel within minutes of laying down to read a magazine whose pages nearly burst into flame in my hands.
You might not believe it from my incendiary recollection above, but here’s the other thing about Palm Springs that you should know: it’s super fun! There’s something for almost anyone in Palm Springs, just wear your sunscreen and stay hydrated.
While it’s not exactly touted as a foodie paradise, that is changing pretty quickly. You will dig the history, architecture and art that preserve an Old Hollywood vibe set against a natural southwestern backdrop. There are gorgeous places to hike (early in the morning and with plenty of water), cycle, and golf. It’s flush with relaxing spas featuring a decadent menu of treatments, really cool hotels (and airbnb options) to bunk down in overnight, and it can be quite affordable if you time your visit correctly.
What’s not to love with such a winning combination of mid-century style, natural hot springs, road runners, and even drag queens?
WHERE TO STAY:
Traditional Spa Retreat Resort
Hyatt Regency / Agua Serena Spa (technically Indian Wells) – Can be a good value and definitely feels like a traditional resort hotel. The on-site spa facilities are great, and be sure to check their hotel specials prior to booking. I did the math and the “Girlfriends Spa Weekend” package was a much better value than the “Romance” package — so I booked the Girlfriends Spa Weekend and they didn’t mind at all that it was actually for my boyfriend and me. Takeaway? Don’t get caught up in the labels. Look for opportunity and take advantage of it, especially in the off season (summer).
El Morocco Inn (pictured above and technically in Desert Hot Springs) – A great value over all, but off the beaten path. Highly recommended for couples and girlfriend getaways but probably not a rowdy bachelorette or birthday party as it’s very peaceful and intimate. With less than 15 rooms total, this is an exotic Moroccan-inspired gem featuring cozy suites with incredibly comfortable canopied beds and a satisfying continental breakfast. Some rooms feature kitchens for your convenience, and spa services are available with pre-arrangement through the hotel. The pool and mineral hot spring-sourced spa are perfectly portioned, plus there is a yoga tent, life-sized chess board and other games to keep you amused. I love the rosewater hand washing ceremony that precedes their daily Morocco-tini happy hour.
Korakia Pensione – A pricier villa style B&B near the heart of Palm Springs with a Greek/Moroccan style of both architecture and decor. It’s quite gorgeous as well as rustic with no TV/phones in the rooms. Some feature stone tubs/showers, fireplaces and even kitchens. The included breakfast was appreciated but average, and while I enjoyed the rustic feel of the property I still felt it could use a little better maintenance when I visited in 2012. The complimentary bikes are also a nice touch.
Hip and Colorful
The Saguaro – A nice budget- and dog-friendly option that really delivers on visual appeal. A great birthday or bachelorette party venue, in my opinion. It’s like a Pantone paradise with its rainbow color palette, ping pong table, bocce court, well appointed pool area and cheeky Barbie doll diorama. The rooms are clean, water pressure is strong, A/C works, and the beds are comfortable. The original building itself is a renovated motel although most guests find that to be part of its charm. They allow you to bring your well-behaved fur baby along, and the on-site restaurants are both pretty solid.
ACE Hotel & Swim Club – A little more expensive and quite popular with the young and hipster-y. It looks pretty rad, and allegedly plays host to raging weekend pool parties. This hotel is also dog-friendly. I haven’t visited yet, so I can’t comment on anything else.
The Parker Palm Springs – Another luxury class hotel that’s on the expensive side but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a pit stop to check out their amazing brunch, or lounge around in their mid-century-meets-Morocco-meets-modern-art-museum common areas. This place is a #selfie wonderland for sure, and the food and service are phenomenal. Directly across the street from The Parker are antiques shops full of vintage furniture, fur coats and jewelry, and other heirlooms and novelties.
THINGS TO DO:
On your drive out from Los Angeles, take a pit stop and snap a free selfie with the Cabazon Dinosaurs. They are the giant dinosaur statues you might know from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Access them by using the Main Street exit off the 10 freeway, which is about 15 miles west of Palm Springs. Unless you dig creationism, you might pass on the museum tour.
Hike Tahquitz Canyon to the waterfall. Park entry is $12.50, and the 2-mile loop takes 45-60 minutes depending on your pace, but it’s pretty flat.
Take the aerial tram to the top of Mt. San Jacinto State Park for a hike, a meal, or even to camp. The tram takes about 10 minutes to reach the summit and will run you $25 roundtrip, but the park hosts over 50 miles of hiking trails. Bring a picnic or dine in one of several cafes. Wear layers in fall/winter/spring as it does snow up there! You can even go cross-country skiing in the winter months.
Enjoy a spa day at any number of the spas and natural hot springs. They are everywhere.
Check out the Palm Springs Art Museum located downtown. Their collection includes works from Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Donald Judd, Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Robert Rauschenberg, Antony Gormley and Ansel Adams.
Visit Joshua Tree National Park (pictured above). It’s about 30 minutes northeast of Palm Springs by car, and while it’s definitely cool to road trip through the park, you can also stop to go rock climbing if you pre-plan. You can camp inside the park as well.
Drive 90 minutes southeast to Niland to see Salvation Mountain and take some truly colorful pictures while exploring the outdoor art installation that is Leonard Knight’s tribute to God and love.
En route to Salvation mountain you’ll encounter the Salton Sea on your immediate righthand side. There is a very interesting story about this man-made body of water that has been suffering pollution from agricultural runoff for decades. The high salinity makes it impossible for most fish species to survive, and if you stop along its shores you’ll see that much of the beach is actually comprised of crushed fish bones. It is eerily serene (if not a bit stinky) and I wouldn’t advise swimming in it although you can certainly rent a kayak.
You also don’t want to miss the International Banana Museum! Stop here for a bathroom break, peruse their extensive collection of all things banana, and enjoy one of their delicious made-from-scratch chocolate banana milkshakes or a chocolate covered frozen banana! We bought banana ketchup and some banana moon pies as souvenirs.
WHAT TO EAT:
Tonga Hut – Kitschy tiki bar that’s conveniently located near the shopping and hubbub of downtown Palm Springs. The drinks are strong and presentation is impeccable. Apparently they go through 50-100 fresh pineapples each night so order one of their classic tropical beverages like the rum-based Pi Yi served in a real pineapple. If it’s your birthday they bring out a flaming pineapple volcano too!
Purple Palm – Allegedly named after a group of Jewish mafiosos who dubbed themselves the “Purple Gang”, the Purple Palm is both chic and old school. Located inside the Colony Palms hotel, it is small and intimate but the service and the food are excellent for a romantic dinner. I recommend a reservation.
Cheeky’s – One of the best breakfast spots in Palm Springs with both healthy and rich options. All pastries are baked on-site and where else can you get cherry waffles and a flight of different flavored bacon?
El Jefe (inside The Saguaro hotel) – I wouldn’t drive out for a meal but if you’re staying nearby then put it on the list. Their menu is a nice mix of options with everything from a stack of pancakes to a short rib skillet, or even yogurt and granola. El Jefe specializes in small plates for lunch and dinner and over 100 tequilas and mezcals. Go for the charred pineapple margarita and the ginormous nachos.
Over the Rainbow Bakery – Celebrating a special occasion or just want to sample some wild cupcakes? I first discovered OTR in 2010 before they even had a brick and mortar storefront. Roman and his team do wedding cakes and birthday cakes and everything in between. The store is closed on Sunday and Monday, but check the schedule and then prepare to have your mind blown by cupcake flavors like Green Apple Brie, Chocolate Jalapeño, Lemon Coriander and White Chocolate Kalamata Olive. He even has some vegan and gluten-free items.
Swiss Donut – Because the title of this post mentions donuts, I can recommend this little family owned and operated donut shop in the desert. They have the standard chocolate and sprinkled variety, in addition to huge pecan cinnamon rolls, cherry danish, and apple fritters.