Sandland Seduction: The New Palm Springs Weekend, Two Ways
In 1963, the Beach Party film dried up. Well, not literally. But for all of its faults, Palm Springs Weekend, a dopey ensemble flick about a bunch of L.A. rich kids indulging their “primitive, instinctual urges” to spend Easter Break in the SoCal desert, was a paean to the sandland escape fantasy: a place where there’s nothing for you and your friends to do but fantasize, copulate, immerse your bodies in thoroughly modern in-ground pools, and feel good about being part of the civilization that imposed its pleasure drives on a raw, serene landscape.
Of course, the Palm Springs of the 1960s and earlier was the preferred fast getaway for slow-traveling Hollywood stars, just two hours east of Hollywood on a straight road. Al Capone hid away in the Desert Hot Springs spa now called Two Bunch Palms. Elvis honeymooned in a midcentury modern just below the San Jacinto mountains. And Sinatra was as fulltime a resident in Palm Springs as he was anywhere else, while some of the best modernist architects — Neutra, Frey, Lautner — left monuments to the low-slung, indoor-outdoor lifestyle that changed California living — and weekending — forever.
But something changed — perniciously, it seems — for Palm Springs in the 70′s and 80′s: the retirees multiplied, early bird specials popped up, and the classic 60′s hotels with magnificent pool scenes that had staged true Palm Springs Weekends fell into disrepair. People either realized (and got critical about the fact that) there seemed to be Nothing to Do in the area — precisely the reason to visit a spa, party, or cut off from a busy life if you don’t enjoy the rustic outdoors. Or they simply moved on to the next vacation trend: Acapulco, say, or Love Boat cruises. One thing is certain: air travel picked up, and having a haven a few hours by car from your house never seemed to matter less.
Today, in a lot of ways, it’s the early 1960′s again, and there’s more to this sentiment than our culture’s recent proclivities for wearing skinny ties and watching Mad Men. There’s a national mood of change afoot, as if you need to read about that in a travel essay, and in response, people are indulging in a particularly accessible facet of the Slow Travel movement, staying close to home more often, choosing to “vacation” in locations within short distances from their houses and ever-tenuous jobs — looking within (their borders) for divertissement and solace.
Throughout, Palm Springs still stands, and, for better or worse, has now resumed its previous role as party spot and rest escape, the place you head to literally Get Away. A few years ago, two major hotels — the Parker Palm Springs and the Viceroy, both artfully interior-designed within inches of their lives — reinvigorated what was already a newly burgeoning boutique hotel-spa-resort scene, where smaller redesigns — for example, that of the Orbit In — had already started to draw young adults out from Hollywood to bake in Bertoia chairs by a saline pool and drink saketinis at a boomerang bar.
Now, however, the influx of revisioned Palm Springs getaways meant to bring the 60′s escape-feel back has reached a critical mass. There’s the Movie Colony Hotel, the Horizon. Even the Holiday Inn looks cool again. So, in the wake of having written a comprehensive Palm Springs Refresher service package a couple of years ago (don’t chide me for the torturous assignment; I was writing about cancer at the same time), I decided this year to offer a brief study of two of the best new attempts at the Palm Springs Weekend 3.0. Places that my wife and I actually choose for personal breaks, one of which even staged the epic Palm Springs Weekend movie. Places that don’t just show up in magazines.
The aforementioned movie-set hotel is the most closely associated with the Springs-that-Swing air wafting throughout the desert once more these days. It’s called the Riviera, and driving past its grand fountains up the driveway to the retro-Hollywood-glam lobby, it’s not hard to imagine why a movie was made there, even before its extensive $70 million renovation, which set the stage for a recent Playboy bash and Trina Turk fashion show. Of course, this stuff never personally impresses me — I’m much more inclined to research a hotel’s sordid history — but it did offer a stark contrast from what most people experience at generic luxury hotels, which have become so passé you cannot remember their names as they swindle you.
It’s not PR spin to remind oneself that the Riviera also catered to the Rat Pack, specifically, and as you walk through a deliciously ornate lobby past a blinged-out pool table and Mad Hatters’ chairs (laugh, if you want; the furniture doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it will tell you as much after a couple of drinks), you notice mosaics of celebrities on the walls as if this was some sort of temple for those who would call popular culture their religion. More significant, perhaps, the bones of the place, which is built with a chain of modernist duplex buildings dotted along the perimeter of a huge pool in the shape of an overwatered three-petal flower, render it ideal for group socializing.
That’s pretty much all that happened while we were there. I noticed two wedding parties on the grounds along with disparate small-group vacationers cliquing with each other but also cross-pollinating new pods. Waitresses in bikinis and other skimpy outfits sauntered about as I made notes of new social connections made (I even met a Filmmaker From Hollywood!) and sipped a minty cocktail on an outdoor bed. But the Server Flesh Show wasn’t so egregious as that of the Las Vegas Hard Rock, which is something of a low-rent porn reenactment. I know it’s hard to believe, but neither my wife nor I felt that these women were for sale (at least not yet); perhaps they just wanted to remind you that you were having a Palm Springs Weekend, that it was OK to disrobe: physically as well as mentally.
Too many Palm Springs hotels now flaunt interior room furniture that sacrifices function for form, but for all of its cool, the Riviera was unusually comfy for bedheads like me. I even chose to spend one sunny, warm afternoon watching a movie inside my cool, dark room. I’d never done that before in Palm Springs, and even if I’d never decorate our house with such over-the-top flashiness, I didn’t mind the excess, choosing instead to view it as a way to truly consider myself cut off from even a standard hotel weekend. This only works, of course, if you turn the Blackberry off, but I did that, at least for a few hours, and I’m pretty sure I spent more time in this room than in any other desert hotel over the last five years.
Later, at dinner, in the hotel’s Circa 59 — and let me say that for all the “authoritative” reviews of Palm Springs’s newish restaurants outside the hotels, none of them, not even the beloved Copley’s, is worth your money — the service staff actually seemed to give a damn about how you liked your unctuous pork belly appetizer and medium rare rib-eye. As a New York native, this isn’t especially unusual, of course, but coming from LA, where wait-people in even some of the best restaurants don’t know a thing about the food or care if you will enjoy it when it arrives (late), it was a refreshing touch. I’d attend this actual restaurant — poolside, of course — even if I was staying at another resort, and I enjoyed the eminently logical equation it helped me balance out about Palm Springs eateries you see on the main drag, with its tcochke shops and the wandering SoCal socially secure set.
That said, and this may sound arbitrary, but hear me out, the fact that I wasn’t given a cocktail menu full of over-designed drinks, gave the night a classic air. I could order my vodka with lime and receive respect for keeping my spiritual exploration simple. Is dinner cheap there? No. But cheap is not the same as inexpensive. And do you really want to pay the same money for rhinoceros pizzle in an equally high-end setting? Charge it all to your room, I say, and then pretend next month, when you’re viewing your statement, that you were wedding-crashing. If that doesn’t work, at least you’ve won some more frequent flier miles. I’m a big fan of not worrying about money during a Palm Springs Weekend. If you don’t completely subsume the life of a Desert Escape Character, if you don’t sell yourself that you’re not just playing make-believe, you lose out on the true benefits of the trip: disassociation.
At the Colony Palms Hotel, which we visited a number of months ago to celebrate a birthday, a reality disconnect of a different order rules one’s stay. It’s not about pretending to be a modernist; it’s about sequestering yourself in a compound that looks like real (rich) people took their time to build it a long time ago after a trip to Morocco. Certainly, there’s rarely something more relaxing than sitting among clean Neutra-esque lines as the sun crisps your skin with a view of craggy desert hills; but there’s an artifice at so many of the new hotels that try to offer this experience — and the Colony Palms chooses to play an entirely different, more genuine, game, perhaps aware of the ontological stress caused by too much mod-mimetic-experience-planning. And, mind you, you’re hearing that from someone sitting in an Eames chair as he types.
Maybe it’s just me, but a resort that was once owned by Jewish mobster Al Wertheimer back in the 30′s, when a speakeasy and brothel stood where people now receive spa treatments and the most tender short ribs east of my favorite Los Angeles Le Creuset, puts you in a worthwhile kind of nostalgic mood. It’s not quite fatalistic — as in let’s go for broke, we’re stars! — but it’s more than just carefree. You know that even though the stylish, dark wood furniture suggests North Africa you’re in the California desert, but it’s fun to retrace the steps of yesteryear when backlot royalty rolled out here in environment-killing guzzlers to waste nights away drinking Sidecars and Jack Roses in the cool night air.
Speaking of air, my wife felt a whoosh of some, when doors in our rooms closed without us. We’d been sitting in a private Jacuzzi on our patio, next to a room where Kathy Griffin had once reportedly stayed and thought she’d seen or experienced a ghost, and we saw the lights go on in an empty room and then our patio doors shut. It was windy, to be sure, but when I brought this issue up with the extremely friendly hotel manager, he said that there was a mystique about this place. Nothing scary, mind you. Just something a little special, a tad of otherworldly intrigue. As if the trim humans sitting by the extremely clean rectangular pool that separates the restaurant from the lobby may not be the only regular guests.
In fact, the weekend that we took up residence at the Colony Palms, there were a few unexpected people there with us. The Palm Springs Film Festival was happening that weekend, and there was something of a to-do related to the screenings at the restaurant. My wife called it right: It wasn’t close to disruptive as a wedding party might be — it was evidence that we were in the so-called right place. Let’s just say that a few A-listers you would never run into at a café on the Entourage shoot-list were skipping around the private vacation space we had secured for the weekend. Men who actually look like men, and women who don’t dress like slutty high school sophomores. I won’t utter the words “Clooney” (!) and “Portman” (!!) but the classy populace dotting the patio could have easily jibed with people referred to by the best casting directors as having A Quality.
More important, however, I had the best massage of my life — and I have actually received massages pretty regularly for years, thanks to some excellent if pricey health insurance — at the Colony Palms spa. In fact, I’m sorry I didn’t include this place in the spa feature I linked to above. This wasn’t some clichéd new-agey experience with low lights, silly music, lots of oil, and a booklet of bad marketing-speak. I swear that the masseuse outshined every other top Palm Springs practitioner: she got as targeted as necessary on a carcass that has seen way too much battle, and I felt the effects of this magic for days. (Of course, everything was on the level. I shouldn’t even have to say that. But I know how some minds work, so there it is. In virtual print. )
What’s my thesis? I asked myself this very question with a tumbler of vodka in my hand as my wife and I parsed out how we should spend the rest of the month last winter. You see, we had a few big decisions to make that weekend, and some involved going after money in our professions despite how terrible it would make us feel. My best explanation for how we proceeded relies not on what sounds like a decadent weekend (the Colony Palms is actually quite affordable); in fact, we both chose simplicity. A weekend at this elegant spot with the Beautiful People had helped us feel very good about ourselves — less scared by the world and its ridiculous demands that you break every rule you stand for just to keep on thriving. It wasn’t an extroverted party weekend but an inner celebration.
Three months later, when I drove out from L.A. again to hit up some other new Palm Springs joint for a travel magazine review, I didn’t even absorb a hint of the restorative vapors with which either of these escapes had infused us. In fact, I felt so much like I was just spending the day in Beverly Hills, I decided to watch Palm Springs Weekend, the movie, all over again. Lying on my “retro” hotel room floor, the ornate bed du jour to my right, as the riff-raff by this spot’s figure-eight-shaped pool screeched in each other’s direction so loudly through the windows I could hardly hear the terrible dialogue spewing from the TV’s design-y but inferior speakers.
Finding one haven in the desert should have been enough. But that I had found two (before this gig) — and that I could not return to them — made me so depressed, I conked right out and didn’t even think to drink.
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