Palm Springs has become synonymous with the Coachella festival but its history spans far beyond flower crowns and selfies. SPY's Ricardo Simich finds the other side of this old Hollywood hangout

It's only two hour's drive from Los Angeles off Interstate Highway 10, but arriving in Palm Springs feels like arriving in a swanky New Zealand beachside settlement. Except of course you're in the desert.

It is the first of nine cities of Greater Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley, east of the San Jacinto Mountains and the region has many attractions to draw you down the highway from LA — hiking, shopping, national parks, spas, resorts, and 124 golf clubs.

The Valley has become famous in recent times for the hip Coachella Music Festival, but years before this new generation of celebrities and millennials arrived in town, Palm Springs was famous for its connections to Hollywood.


In the 1920s and 30s, Palm Springs emerged as a resort destination, drawing the elite of Hollywood and affluent vacationers from the east to become a playground for the rich and carefree.

It also became a base for many Hollywood stars who were contractually obliged to stay no more than two hour's drive from the studio lots, in case urgent reshoots were called for.

Rudolph Valentino, Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Ava Gardner and Kirk Douglas all spent time here. In the 50s and 60s, Marilyn Monroe used to rent a house down the road from Peter Lawford, (President John F. Kennedy's brother-in-law), who used to party in style with the rest of the Rat Pack, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis jnr.
Elvis Presley had his Honeymoon Hideaway here.

Palm Springs continues to draw Hollywood stars; Leonardo DiCaprio has a house here, which can be rented for US$6000 a night, and every January, the Palm Springs Film Festival brings in Hollywood's biggest names.

But shining even brighter than its all-star history is the city's architecture. For a follower of 50s modernism — or anyone who appreciates stunning design — the homes are out of this world. There is a village feel and you arrive to an exotic multi-visual experience.

Architectural tours of the city will help give you a sense of location and history, leaving you with volumes of "did you know" facts to impress friends.

Our tour guide was an absolute snob when it came to which houses were originals of the modernist movement, and those that are imposters. One of the trendiest things to do as a new home owner in Palm Springs now is park a vintage 50s car outside.

Imagine sleek, modern homes that have embraced the desert environment. The dramatic geographic surroundings of the Coachella Valley inspired a design aesthetic in the middle of the 20th century, now called Desert Modernism, notable for its use of glass, clean lines, natural and manufactured resources and indoor/outdoor spaces. You'll notice an abundance of carports built at the front of the houses, with Flintstones-style rock walls and neat hedges (think the Brady Bunch house). Behind these hedges you'll find swimming pools and privacy, allowing the celebrities to be sure that "what happens in Palm Springs, stays in Palm Springs".


The front of one simple white house has become a millennial must-do-selfie, because of its pink front door (search for #thatpinkdoor on Instagram).

In 2015 Louis Vuitton showed a collection in Bob Hope's famous house in the mountains, in what has been described as the best location for a catwalk show ever. Sadly the house is off the accessible tour route, having recently sold for US$13 million.

Surrounded by all these beautiful homes, it's easy to see yourself getting together with a big group of friends and family and renting houses to hang out for a week or so. And you don't need to let DiCaprio's price tag put you off; you can rent a house for about the same as you would pay for a well-maintained Kiwi bach in summer.

Among the fabulous houses in Palm Springs are some of the world's most distinctive ultra-modern hotels. If your idea of rest and recreation is lounging poolside under palm trees, with cocktails and nearly all-year sun, this is the place for you. When Coachella kicks off next week, prices all over Palm Springs pretty much triple and the average chic boutique hotel goes from NZ$350 a night to almost NZ$1000.

But when the Coachella kids leave, you'll find copious hotels to choose from.

ARRIVE Hotel Palm Springs.
ARRIVE Hotel Palm Springs.

Spotting a floating unicorn in the pool, I felt that ARRIVE had a party feel, but the manager very politely advised that it's much more chill and all about relaxing, and it was. Billing itself as a place that is "Built for the Neighbourhood", the architecture reflects the surrounding culture, and sets the tone with a pared-back bronze and timber facade helping to blend into the desert, and minimalist chic rooms of cool parquet floors and timber ceilings juxtaposed with baroque wallpaper.

The restaurant/bar Reservoir focuses on excellent Mexican cuisine and cocktails not seen before by yours truly.

With touches like table tennis, movies by the pool, homemade icecream at Ice Cream & Shoppe and bikes you can use to cruise around the hood, it is a great place to stay with the family.

The Saguaro is a kaleidoscope of colour. Poolside, bright yellow umbrellas contrast with the multi-pastel colours of the hotel, and in the lobby you'll find kitsch touches like foosball tables and an impressive Barbie and Ken display. In the rooms, the pastel exterior turns into bold, bright, rainbow interiors . . . take sunglasses if you're looking for sanctuary.

The Saguaro Hotel Palm Spring.
The Saguaro Hotel Palm Spring.

Come night-time, this hotel knows how to party. Have a date night at the pool and in the hotel bar, which serves great Mexican food and an almighty tequila selection. This is one bar where shots are mandatory.

The focus is on the younger demo, but everyone is definitely welcome; we saw some kids in the pool in the daytime and everyone was pretty laidback.

Still in the ultra-cool stratosphere is Ace Hotel and Swim Club. More rustic than its counterparts, the hotel's rural chic will relate to the hipster crowd, but what makes it a little more grown-up is the hotel's full-service spa. There are also two outdoor pools and an outdoor fireplace.

The place to stay in Palm Springs is The Parker, even if it's just for one night.

The property is the former ranch of singing cowboy Gene Autry and was decorated by ceramics and interiors designer Jonathan Adler, in mid-century style of course.

The orange lacquered lobby doors and tall white lattice block walls scream that you have arrived in Palm Springs, and walking through is like walking through a modern art and design museum.

The insurance prices must be astronomical.

The free-standing villas with private one-bedroom suites are divine. Featuring large, enclosed patios with a separate service entrance, they are ideal for a romantic dinner or outdoor massage. Each has a king bed, marble bath, and hanging chairs in the living room, which also has a separate wet bar.

It's also possible to book a stay in Autry's actual former residence. Called "the ultimate Palm Springs experience", this two-bedroom, two-bathroom residence has an enclosed patio as well as a large living room, dining room, terrace and kitchen.

If you're unable to stay here, book in for a bite to eat. Norma's Restaurant, recommended for breakfast or lunch, will make you feel like an old-school movie star with its indulgent comfort food.

Most of the menu prices are affordable, but if you really want to splurge, go for
the US$1000 lobster and caviar omelette.

At night, bistro restaurant Mister Parker is old-world chic with prices to match the grandiose feel.

Take a stroll around after eating — the Autry pool is next level and the maze-like walks take you through an oasis of different displays.

Away from the surplus of hotel and pool bars in north, south and central Palm Springs, you'll find an array of great restaurants, bars and clubs.

The Downtown Village is a great place to commence the night, with classic American and Mexican restaurants galore. And in a place where Hollywood stars' secrets were kept in the past, there is also a vibrant gay scene for all ages.

Getting there: Air New Zealand has daily flights to Los Angeles. Palm Springs is a two-hour drive from LAX.