California: Hard Rock in the heart

By Leena Tailor

Palm Springs is party-town again, writes Leena Tailor.

Coachella's music fans have transformed Palm Springs into an exciting resort town. Photo / Getty Images
Coachella's music fans have transformed Palm Springs into an exciting resort town. Photo / Getty Images

It isn't your average hotel check-in. "The restaurant is through the speakers and the rock shop's behind the Lady Gaga moped," I'm told, after being handed a key card accompanied by a code to download music and a number to call if I want a Fender electric guitar brought to my room.

The speakers refer to a giant, electro-acoustic structure created by Berlin artist Benoit Maubrey made from 500 recycled speakers and mesmerisingly perched inside the Hard Rock Hotel Palm Springs' entrance. Come Friday night it will double as a DJ booth and transform the lobby into a pumping club.

And the moped? That would be the Vespa scooter from Lady Gaga's Isle of MTV show in Malta.

Add in Rihanna's Only Girl video outfit, a guitar from U2's 1987 Joshua Tree tour and a Rat Pack-themed business centre and it is like checking into a music museum.

But it is on the journey to my room that the real fun begins, and the two-minute walk turns me into a kid on a treasure hunt.

A lighting structure above the bar has a hidden greeting, a picture of Michael Jackson outside the elevator turns out to be a mosaic of records and after wandering down the hallway, curious to see which classic record adorns our door (Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's Long After Dark) I collapse on to the heavenly bed, covered by a duvet which is subtly embossed with guitars.

Music memorabilia is nothing new to the Hard Rock chain, but these little touches set its latest property apart.

Opened in October last year, the 163-room resort sits in the heart of downtown Palm Springs, and features rooms with patios merging on to the pool, Broadway-style rock shows free for guests and 78 memorabilia pieces from the Rock Vault, Hard Rock International's Florida warehouse, where more than 74,000 items are stashed.

But it's the crowd the hotel attracts rather than the impressive decor that is set to make a mark on Palm Springs.

It is still perceived by many as a retirement town, golfing destination and rich man's playground, but it is increasingly attracting the younger masses - largely due to music festivals like Coachella and Stagecoach - and while hip hotspots like Ace Hotel and The Saguaro have been keeping the party scene alive, the arrive of the Hard Rock is set to cement the town as a popular spot for younger tourists. And not just during festival season. Thanks to a partnership with promoters Goldenvoice, the hotel will host concerts from acts associated with Coachella year-round.

Owner Andy Carpiac brought the brand to town after noticing the change in visitor demographics.

"In the late 90s, boutique hotels started coming back and more arts, entertainment, culture and restaurants were coming into Palm Springs," he says. "That combined with Coachella in the early 2000s started to change the demographic.

"Coachella has expedited the renaissance and resurgence of Palm Springs as a young and exciting resort town. It is up there with Nashville and Hollywood as a true American music city, so it made sense to bring one of the best music and entertainment brands to town."

Carpiac, 37, has been visiting Palm Springs every week since he was 22, so knows all too well that it's anything but a huge retirement village.

It has an average of 350 days of sunshine, so the main strip has holiday-makers perched on sunny patios enjoying all-day happy hours. On Thursday nights, the road turns into a bustling street fair VillageFest, featuring everything from marshmallow-toasting to Ask-a-Rabbi.

For sporty holidaymakers, spots like Palm Canyon, the San Andreas Fault and Joshua Tree National Park have become popular with hikers.

Those who prefer their credit cards get the workout can head 20 minutes west to the Desert Hills outlets, buy art and jewellery direct from artists' galleries in the Backstreet Art District or browse downtown's eclectic little boutiques.

We have only perused a couple of stores before we notice a blaring prevalence of the colour orange and pink flamingos - on furniture, clothing, ornaments and souvenirs.

"It's a flamboyant town, so flamingos make sense," guesses a local.

Whatever the reason, a game of spot-the-flamingo makes for a fun meander down the main drag.

Keen to explore further, we hop on an open-top red jeep with Desert Adventures' Bob Gross, who whisks us through town uncovering the rich history of Hollywood glam hidden behind what appear to be modest homes.

Many were owned by celebrities, including the Rat Pack, who flocked to town in the 1950s and had incredible houses built by mid-century architects.

Our first stop is Twin Palms, the former digs of Frank Sinatra - one of the key players in bringing Hollywood to Palm Springs. He had the one-storey estate (with a piano-shaped pool) built for himself and first wife Nancy Barbato in 1947. It's now rentable for $2600-a-night.

The home's two palms were the tallest in the area and legend has it Sinatra would raise a Jack Daniels flag between them at 5pm each day to alert movie star neighbours like Carey Grant of cocktail hour.

By the time he married Ava Gardner, the home became the scene of "spectacular parties and spectacular fights" and there is still a crack in the master bathroom from when Sinatra famously hurled a champagne bottle at his wife and missed.

Something tells me those parties would rival even the craziest nights at the new Hard Rock Hotel.

Next, we drive by Elvis Presley's honeymoon home, where he spent his first year of marriage with Priscilla. The couple initially planned to marry there, until a gossip columnist leaked the news, forcing them to jump on Sinatra's jet and wed in Las Vegas.

Sinatra and Presley were instrumental in bringing celebs to Palm Springs, but by the 70s and 80s the city's star power had dwindled.

"It had deteriorated into this blue-haired lady retirement area," says Gross, as he points out Marilyn Monroe's former home. "It was boring. They had outlawed Spring Break activity because it was too disruptive and it became a conservative area - until Sonny Bono was elected mayor and brought back the Hollywood hip."

Bono was in the restaurant business but became increasingly fed up with local government rules and codes. After being told he could not erect a "Bono's" sign outside his restaurant, he ran for mayor in 1988 - winning the day after ex-wife Cher won her best actress Oscar for Moonstruck.

Bono helped revive the "energy, sexiness and excitement" that put the city on the map and launched the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which attracts throngs of stars every January.

With celebrities flocking to town once again, and music festivals attracting hordes of younger travellers, properties like the Hard Rock are only set to grow.

The next hotly anticipated opening is Arrive, spearheaded by Facebook millionaire Ezra Callahan. The 32-room boutique hotel promises to cater to a "new wave of social travellers" and will feature a poolside restaurant and concerts.

Next year will also see the expected openings of Hotel Palomar and a Dolce Hotels resort.
However, there will still only be one hotel with electric guitars on the room service menu.

Where to eat and drink

The sprawling Riviera Palm Springs has a whole evening's worth of entertainment and eateries. Arrive at sunset for a Cheeky Monkey cocktail at the poolside firepits then dine on tamarind duck and lobster sliders under a canopy of lantern-adorned trees at Circa 69. After dinner, head to the Arcade Lounge where a crystal-encrusted pool table, portraits constructed from Guatemalan coins, oversized chairs and mirrored walls will make you feel like you've stepped into Alice in Wonderland.

For dinner in front of a live band, head to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra's old stomping ground, The Purple Room, and don't leave without trying the dreamy Salted Caramel Pot de Creme dessert.

El Jefe at celebrity hangout The Saguaro offers fun Mexican fare, such as goat tacos, esquites and a tequila menu boasting a variety of Patron at $100-per-shot.

You'll need a hearty breakfast to soak it up the next morning so if the queue at local favourite Cheeky's is too long, head to King's Highway at Ace Hotel. With its unique modern diner vibe, chef Billy Deaver offers traditional diner fare alongside creative dishes like Green Eggs and Ham, his Dr Seuss twist on eggs benedict, served on crispy lomo (pork), chorizo bread and drizzled with avocado hollandaise. For dessert, try a Palm Springs speciality - the date shake.

Music festivals

Country fans convene at the Stagecoach festival, but Coachella remains the drawcard for international visitors, including Kiwis.

The three-day event takes place twice in April at the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, and this year's line-up includes OutKast, Muse and two New Zealand acts - Lorde and The Naked and Famous, who were thrilled at the invitation.

"Some of our best tour memories have come from festivals," says The Naked and Famous keyboardist Aaron Short. "Performing at Glastonbury, Fuji Rock, Lollapalooza and Big Day Out have been quite the experience. Coachella has always been one we've been hoping for, so we were excited when the offer finally came in.

"Until now, the closest we've come to Coachella has been the live web-stream which frequently freezes so the real version may come as a shock!"

IF YOU GO

See the following links for additional details:

hrhpalmsprings.com
psriviera.com
red-jeep.com
villagefest.org
purpleroompalmsprings.com
acehotel.com
thesaguaropalmsprings.com
premiumoutlets.com
backstreetartdistrict.com
coachella.com

Further information: See visitgreaterpalmsprings.com and DiscoverAmerica.com.

- Herald on Sunday

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