Midweek at the Oasis

It’s remarkable how unfamiliar I am with Palm Springs, considering I grew up in Orange County and my parents have called the Coachella Valley home for twenty years. But they live in Indio, and whenever my husband, Adam, and I go to visit, Palm Springs just seems too far away. So when our friend Barry announced that the politics in Florida are wearing on him and he might want to move to Palm Springs—he hadn’t looked into the state-tax situation—the three of us decided to check out the city for a few days.

Plus, Santa Barbara’s Acme Hospitality (The Lark, Loquita, et al) recently opened a hotel called Azure Sky there. It’s a few minutes’ drive south of downtown, near where S. Palm Canyon Drive makes a sharp turn to the east.

The hotel is just 14 rooms, but in the public spaces, it punches above its weight. The lobby is handsome and the pool area quite large, and we were especially fond of hanging out around the fire pit in the evening. The contrast of lushness and dryness in Palm Springs never ceases to astound, although the issue of sustainability does tend to nag at one.

Staying at a new hotel has its benefits—namely, a certain freshness. But it also comes with risks. For example, when I walked to a nearby café at 6:30 a.m., I returned to find myself locked out of the property. The hotel is locking the gates while it awaits electronic locks than open with a fob, which is fine, but I would put the possibility of being stuck outside all night high on the list of things to warn guests about.

The rooms have style, as you’d expect; Acme knows how to set a scene. I particularly liked the bathrooms, tiled all the way to the ceiling and with toiletries that are a cut above. Our room also had a kitchenette, which I would have traded for a closet (instead of four pegs on the wall).

At the end of the day, all I really need from a hotel room is that it be clean, dark, and quiet. Ours was clean enough, and it was dark, once Adam figured out how to dim the incredibly bright light on the split-ductless HVAC unit. (We also tried to remove the yellow energy-efficient sticker, out of principle.) But whether a room is quiet will depend on the other guests. We were next to a young couple whose every single word we could hear through the wall, and it made sense why the hotel doesn’t allow kids or have TVs.

The rate for our midweek stay was $330 per night; once the taxes and fees were added—including a $40 resort fee—the total was $417. (Both the rate and resort fee get taxed. Guests might be fooled into thinking the resort fee isn’t part of the rate, but the tax authorities aren’t falling for it.) Part of me thinks the experience should be a bit better for the expense, but it’s probably in line with what you’d find elsewhere, now that hotel rates have generally gone through the roof.

And as every budget traveler likes to say, how much time do you really spend in your room? Our first stop was the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which I highly recommend. The gondola is kind of like a tin can where the floor rotates as it ascends, so the view keeps changing even as you stand still. The terminal is 8,516 feet above sea level, with dramatically different weather—30 degrees cooler the day we were there—than on the valley floor. You can hang out and enjoy the view, or maybe have a drink or a bite to eat, but there are also a bunch of hiking trails, including a short loop with views of the valley.

And we had to pay our respect to the 26-foot-tall statue of Marilyn Monroe outside the Palm Springs Art Museum. I had seen the statue before, and it’s amazing what personal maturation and a wave of societal change have done to the experience. What on earth would the woman herself have made of it? To pose sexily for a brief movie scene is one thing; to have people standing under you and gawping at your panties is something else altogether. Creepy in a different way: David Černý’s “The Babies,” a statement about the dehumanization of society.

My favorite excursion involved taking the hotel’s free bikes for a ride through the residential neighborhoods and then downtown to Gelato Granucci for excellent gelato. The bike seats can only be adjusted with a hex key, so when my seat collapsed mid-ride, I had no choice but to tootle around like a clown.

One afternoon, while I helped my parents clean out their garage, Adam and Barry went to the Coachella Valley Preserve, where a short walk leads to the Thousand Palms Oasis—an actual oasis, with a natural spring and palm trees. It’s like something out of a cartoon. A more artificial wonder is Sunnylands, the midcentury estate of Walter and Lee Annenberg that now serves as “a private, high-level retreat center.” The property—200 acres in Rancho Mirage—is spectacular. The house, however, hasn’t really held up; the egoism of the Annenbergs is off the charts; and the golf course, rarely played by anyone, is indefensible. When Adam asked where the water comes from to maintain it, the guide said, “Oh, we take it from the lakes!”—as if they’re not manmade, too.

I expected midcentury architecture in Palm Springs, of course, but there was more of it than I had thought there’d be, based on my few visits in the past. We had lunch at the Ace Hotel, which has been ridden hard and put away wet, but the interior of its coffee shop is a winner. And we loved walking the main strip at dusk.

Adam and I often swim laps when we travel—it keeps me sane, for one thing, and the experience tends to differ in surprising ways. Check out the alfresco locker room at the Palm Springs Swim Center! And the freaky child sculpture! That said, the Palm Desert Aquatic Center is only $6 for out of towners and walk-ins are welcome, vs. $16 in Palm Springs, where you also have to reserve a lane.

We had been warned that the city’s restaurants aren’t all that, and I won’t argue. There was fine and there was worse, and we tried not to dwell on it. The dramatic room at Workshop Kitchen + Bar definitely made an impression, and Adam loved the scallops. But the best meal, by far, was at Bar Cecil (third photo below). With the style and buzz of a restaurant in a real city-city, it’s worth the hassle of a tough reservation.

Within hours of arrival in Palm Springs, Barry announced that he couldn’t live there, and for an unexpected reason: it’s too cold. (Apparently, he’s used to Florida’s extreme humidity.) I’m not moving there, either, but I do now see the appeal of visiting. I don’t know when I’ve been as happy lately as on a morning walk in the area around the Azure Sky or stargazing around the hotel’s fire pit. There’s something elemental about the desert. And as much as I love Santa Barbara, I found it refreshing not to be chilly at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m.


Previous travel coverage:
••• A Summer Swing Through the Northeast
••• Why Is Everyone Going to Portugal?
••• Patagonia Made Easy
↓↓↓ A Quickie in L.A.
••• From Penthouse to Pavement in Mexico City
••• Do Greek Islands Live Up to the Fantasy?
••• Splendid Isolation at Utah’s Lodge at Blue Sky
••• Three Reasons to Visit Paso Robles Now
••• The Rebirth of the Cuyama Buckhorn


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One Comment

Caitlin Jennings

Love your perspective on Palm Springs- it’s spot on. I always want the food to be better, but it’s come a long way from 10 years ago.

I take a short trip there with my mom every few years. We love the Desert Star – it’s a historic home made up of several apartments around a pool and located two blocks from the Ace in a residential nabe