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SoCal Close-Ups: A date with the Coachella Valley

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Sure, you could go to the beach again. Or you could turn your back on the Pacific and head instead for a desert land of date shakes and camel races, jumbo windmills and creationist dinosaurs, native palms and gay parties, mountain views and midcentury buildings. We'll get to those details later, but by now you know we're talking about the Coachella Valley.

It's about 110 miles from Los Angeles City Hall to Palm Springs — a few miles longer than the drive to downtown Santa Barbara, a few miles shorter than the drive to downtown San Diego. But the light here is different from that on the coast. The pace is different. The entire man/landscape relationship seems to change as you slip through windy San Gorgonio Pass and find Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, La Quinta and Indio lined up along State Highway 111 (a.k.a. Palm Desert Drive) like camels in a caravan.

Just don't come in July, unless you're looking for an average high of 108 degrees.


FOR THE RECORD:
Southern California Close-Ups: An article in the Nov. 25 Travel section about the Coachella Valley reported that California 111 is known as Palm Desert Drive. It is that in the city of Palm Desert, but in Palm Springs and Cathedral City, it is known as Palm Canyon Drive. —


Here are nine desert micro-itineraries, designed to get a newcomer started or remind an old-timer that things keep changing even in a territory that dearly loves the 1950s. This package is part of our ongoing series of Southern California Close-Ups. (To see others, go to latimes.com/socalcloseups.)

1. Designers and dinosaurs

Even before you get to Palm Springs, the spending opportunities begin. A little east of Banning on Interstate 10, the Desert Hills Premium Outlets (48400 Seminole Drive, Cabazon) include about 130 upscale retailers with names such as Armani, Ferragamo and Gucci, along with a few more that aren't Italian. Then come the Cabazon Outlet Stores (48750 Seminole Drive, Cabazon), about 15 retailers with a sporty slant, including Puma, Rip Curl, Oakley and Columbia. It's a generic atmosphere raked by gusty winds, but the prices are good. If you have a child in tow, reward his or her patience with another stop just beyond the towering Morongo Casino Resort & Spa — at the looming Cabazon dinosaurs (50770 Seminole Drive, Cabazon). Created by sculptor Claude Bell in the '70s and '80s from leftover freeway-building materials, the towering creatures Rex (a Tyrannosaurus rex) and Dinny (an apatosaurus) these days are presented by new owners with a creationist spin. "By design, not chance" is their slogan, and management has printed a children's picture book to explain how the dinosaurs were created, not evolved, thousands of years ago, not millions. Unless somebody in your traveling party really needs to climb up and look at the freeway traffic through the gaps in Rex's teeth, don't bother with the Robotic Dinosaur Exhibit and T-Rex Museum (adults $7.95, children $6.95). Instead, admire the concrete beasts for free from the parking lot or flop on the grass at their feet.

2. Long live modernism

On the way into Palm Springs, stop at the Palm Springs Visitors Center (formerly the Tramway Gas Station) and marvel at its midcentury modernity. Browse the brochures for free, or plop down $5 for a map of modern architecture landmarks in the Coachella Valley. From the visitors center, continue down Palm Canyon Drive to the Uptown Design District, a formerly grim stretch now humming with stylish design shops and galleries, including Not Neutral (pillows in cool patterns; 800 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs) and Shag (modernist beach towels; 725 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs). You might grab breakfast or lunch on the patio at Cheeky's (622 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs); lunch or dinner in the bold, white interior of Workshop Kitchen & Bar (800 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Suite G, Palm Springs); dinner or a nightcap in the buzzing dining room of Trio (707 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs). To sleep amid yet more modernism, head for the vintage Orbit In (562 W. Arenas Road, Palm Springs), its sibling the Hideaway (370 W. Arenas Road, Palm Springs) or perhaps the Del Marcos Hotel (225 W. Baristo Road, Palm Springs), which has been splendidly updated in recent years. To wallow more deeply in all things modern, come during Palm Springs Modernism Week (Feb. 14-24, www.modernismweek.com). But if you want a quiet time, don't visit during those days — or during Dinah Shore Week (April 3-7, www.thedinah.com) or the weekend of Jeffrey Sanker's White Party (March 29-31, www.jeffreysanker.com), when the city's lesbian and gay party scenes rev up like Formula One Ferraris.

3. San Jacinto, floor to ceiling

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is a standard tourist stop — and at $23.95 per adult, not a cheap one. But it's also a wondrous thing: a 10-minute ride up the steep, rocky slopes of Mt. San Jacinto from 2,643 feet above sea level to 8,516 feet. Hike near the top, or throw a snowball if it's winter. Trams run until 8 p.m., so you can catch the glimmer of distant desert city lights after dark. There are a couple of restaurants up top (one fancy, one cafeteria), and in Round Valley, two miles from the top of the tram, there are 28 campsites (www.pstramway.com/camping.html). Then again, you might rather sleep on a bed. You can often find good prices at the Riviera Hotel (1600 N. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs), where Vegas '59 meets Studio 54 around a big pool done up with posters of bathing beauties from the age of Eisenhower.

4. Downtown Palm Springs

Come to where the restaurants hiss (it's the misters, keeping customers moist) and "Marilyn" stands tall. The best night to do downtown Palm Springs is Thursday, when cars are banished from part of Palm Canyon Drive and Villagefest invites pedestrians and farmers market vendors to take over. The Palm Springs Art Museum (101 N. Museum Drive, Palm Springs), open Tuesdays-Sundays, is full of fascinating works such as Indian blanket designs and contemporary glass. (The museum has also taken over a glass-walled midcentury modern bank building on Palm Canyon Drive and is redoing it as a center for architecture and design, aiming for a 2013 opening.) The people watching is top-notch as you stroll past big, popular restaurants such as Las Casuelas Terraza and Kaiser Grille at South Palm Canyon Drive and Arenas Road. Sit for your own lunch or dinner at the big, new LuLu California Bistro (200 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs) or the smaller Zin American Bistro (198 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs). Don't miss the 26-foot-high "Forever Marilyn" statue by Seward Johnson at Tahquitz Canyon Way and Palm Canyon Drive. ("Marilyn," who arrived this May, is due to leave next June.) When your energy runs out, sleep at the stylish but humble Alcazar Palm Springs (622 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs) or Los Arboles Hotel (266 Via Altamira, Palm Springs), which, unlike most small Palm Springs hotels, welcomes families. You can also dream about the near future, when local boosters say that Desert Fashion Plaza, an indoor mall that's been shuttered for more than a decade despite a prime location on Palm Canyon Drive, will be razed and replaced by a redevelopment project underwritten by a voter-approved increase in local sales tax.

5. Coffee and canyon

Start early with caffeine at Koffi (1700 S. Camino Real, Palm Springs), then head to the Indian Canyons (38500 South Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs), which open at 8 a.m. Yes, Indian Canyons sounds like a mall, but — are you sitting down? — it's actually a trio of canyons owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Your destination is Palm Canyon, which is 15 miles long, its floor shaded by some of the few native palm trees in all of Southern California. You don't have to hike 15 miles. In fact, you could go just for the view of palms and canyon and the dozen or so hummingbirds that congregate at the feeders by the Palm Canyon Trading Post. But if you're able, do the three-mile loop hike that begins with a mile at the frond-shaded bottom of Palm Canyon. You'll return following a ridgeline with commanding views. The hike takes about 90 minutes. For more advice on what to do and see, look around for tribal junior ranger Raven Longbow, who wears a long pony tail and says, "I look at this place like a cathedral." (In Tahquitz Canyon, closer to town, there's a two-mile loop trail and seasonal waterfall.) After your Palm Canyon adventure, load up on a Mexican dinner at El Mirasol (140 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs). Then flop at the hipster-friendly Ace Hotel (a former Howard Johnson at 701 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs) or the color-drenched Saguaro Hotel (a former Holiday Inn at 1800 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs). For a more intimate setting where children are basically banned (and TripAdvisor ratings are boffo), try the Desert Riviera (610 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs) or Hotel California (424 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs).

6. European theater, Pacific theater, senior theater

Start with the Palm Springs Air Museum (745 N. Gene Autry Trail, Palm Springs) and its colorful collection of World War II aircraft. The museum stands next to the city's airport, and one hangar is devoted to the Pacific Theater, with large, helpful maps and other exhibits; another hangar covers Europe. There are more aircraft outside, many featuring stylish girly "nose art." For a more personal perspective on the exhibits or the war, you can count on a healthy presence of volunteer docents. Later, head to the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies (128 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs), where cast members are all in their 50s and beyond. The show, a playful revival of old vaudeville, runs November through late May.

7. Busy children

The Living Desert (47900 Portola Ave., Palm Desert) is a great place to tiptoe into the landscape. In addition to its extensive cactus and succulent gardens, the institution has a large collection of animals, including giraffes, camels and bighorn sheep that roam on a steep but enclosed hillside. The institution's daily "wildlife wonders" show might include a golden eagle, a New Guinea singing dog and a long-legged African cat known as a serval. There's an epic model train setup too. Expect to spend hours here. But if your family includes indefatigable kids, you might want a next stop. That could be the Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert (71701 Gerald Ford Drive, Rancho Mirage), which has a host of hands-on activities. Don't miss the laser harp, with red light beams that take the place of vibrating strings. When day is done, repair to the massive JW Marriott Desert Springs (74-855 Country Club Drive, Palm Desert), where the water features (and two golf courses) seem to go on for miles. Yes, those are real pink flamingos near the entrance.

8. The good life

A few decades ago, before Palm Springs proper got its mojo back, a lot of wealthy desert dwellers shifted their focus (and their retail habits) farther southeast to Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and environs. To get a taste of that prosperous world, head for the El Paseo shopping district, which includes scores of shops and restaurants along El Paseo Street between Portola Avenue and Highway 74. Most of the busiest shops are national chains such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Coach and Pottery Barn, not local creations, and you'll probably spot a few vacant storefronts near Portola Avenue. But the goods are plentiful and the scene is pleasant. Then you can head over to Sunnylands (37977 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage), where the late TV Guide mogul and philanthropist Walter Annenberg and his late wife, Leonore, held court from the 1960s into the 2000s, entertaining seven U.S. presidents and other world leaders. Since February, nine acres of the Sunnylands gardens and a handsome, glass-walled Sunnylands Center building have been open to the public for free, Thursdays-Sundays. The carefully arranged gardens and twin reflecting pools are a great haven, and you can grab a salad or sandwich at a cafe on the grounds. For a deeper look at the Annenbergs' desert sanctuary (and a big dose of luxe modernism), you can take a 90-minute tour that takes you inside the main house ($35, reservations required, no children younger than 10).

9. The '20s roar again

Begin the day by waking at La Quinta Resort & Club (49-499 Eisenhower Drive, La Quinta). This sprawling Spanish-style retreat, about 40 minutes southeast of downtown Palm Springs, has 796 hotel rooms (often available for less than $200 a night) on 45 acres, along with 41 pools, 23 tennis courts, seven restaurants and five public golf courses. The resort's history dates to 1926; hence the name of its restaurant Twenty6, where you can choose among 11 versions of eggs Benedict. For another echo from the '20s, make the 10-minute drive to Shields Date Garden (80-225 US Highway 111, Indio), which dates to 1924 and is as homespun as La Quinta resort is salubrious. Saunter up to the counter, get a date shake ($4.25) and duck into the theater in back for the free video on the sex life of the date and the history of Shields. Also, if you're near Indio on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon in January, February or March, think about the Empire Polo Club (81-800 Avenue 51 off Monroe Street, Indio), where you can often watch polo matches for free. But remember that for several weekends every year, those polo grounds are taken over by thundering tunes and hordes of young music fans. Next year, the polo club will host the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival on April 12-14 and April 19-21 (www.coachella.com), and the Stagecoach country music festival on April 26-28 (www.stagecoachfestival.com). Also, the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival (that's all one event) is scheduled for Feb. 15-24 at the nearby Riverside County Fairgrounds (82-503 Highway 111, Indio; www.datefest.org). As is customary, camel and ostrich races are planned.

chris.reynolds@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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