By: Andrew Collins*/Special to TRT—
A desert hideaway nestled beneath the dramatic San Jacinto Mountains, Palm Springs has been popular with LGBT travelers for decades. It’s home to dozens of gay-owned clothing-options resorts, friendly bars and lounges, hip restaurants, and stylish shops, and it’s also surrounded by spectacular natural scenery that’s perfect for hiking, wildlife watching and photography. Easy to reach by car or plane, it’s a perfect destination for a leisurely weekend in the sun.
Palm Springs has its own airport just a couple of miles east of downtown with direct flights from most big West Coast cities as well as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, New York City and Toronto. Fares can sometimes be a little steep, especially during the late fall–early spring high season, but you may save money by not having to rent a car, as much of central Palm Springs is within walking distance, and cabs work for short trips. If you’re staying outside the downtown core or planning many side trips, a rental car is helpful, though.
Another option is to fly into one of the many major airports in Southern California, which may offer more competitive fares or better direct flights from your home city. The closest big airports are Ontario (75 minutes), John Wayne in Orange County (90 minutes), Burbank (2 hours), Long Beach (2 hours), Los Angeles (2 hours), and San Diego (2.5 hours). From much of the country, if you catch an early flight, you can be tanning by the pool of your Palm Springs hotel by early afternoon.
Here’s one itinerary for making the most of three days in Palm Springs, with a mix of lazy downtime and more scenic exploring. If you do plan to ride the aerial tram, as recommended here, be sure to pack at least one outfit for cooler weather (and possibly a light hike) – the temperature at the upper tram station is usually about 30 degrees lower than in town.
Upon arrival, spend time relaxing by the pool and, ideally, combining this with a spa treatment or perhaps poolside cocktails and appetizers. Obviously, the earlier you get to Palm Springs, the more time for planning time at the spa. If partaking of a massage, facial, or body scrub is a priority, you’ll probably want to stay at a property with an on-site spa, although you can always book a visit at a spa elsewhere in town (most of those inside hotels welcome day visitors).
Among gay resorts, both the upscale East Canyon Resort (www.eastcanyonps.com), which primarily draws gay men but also welcomes women (swimsuits are required at this property) and the men-only La Dolce Vita (www.ladolcevitaresort.com) have intimate, relaxing full-service spas offering an extensive menu of treatments. Both facilities are open to nonguests, but these are great places to stay on property, too, with their expansive pools (two of them at La Dolce Vita) and attractive rooms.
Many of the other LGBT-exclusive properties in town do have massage services, some with separate massage rooms and others providing in-room treatments. For example, at the well-established clothing-option women’s resort Casitas Laquita (www.casitaslaquita.com), you can book Swedish, deep-tissue, and reflexology. Palm Springs’ other popular women’s resort, Queen of Hearts (www.queenofheartsps.com) also has on-site massage.
Additionally, some great mainstream but very gay-popular resorts have fabulous spas as well as big, gorgeous swimming pools. Consider the boldly colorful, moderately priced Saguaro Palm Springs (www.thesaguaropalmsprings.com), where you can enjoy date-shake wraps and hydrating facials, perhaps before dining at the superb on-site restaurants El Jefe (fun for tacos and cocktails) and the swankier Tinto (specializing in Basque cuisine). Down the street, the ultra-hip Ace Hotel & Swim Club (www.acehotel.com/palmsprings) is another fine place to sip cocktails by the pool and book a spa treatment. Also consider the lavish Palm Springs Riviera Resort & Spa (psriviera.com), an alluring crash pad for a decadent weekend in Palm Springs – its SpaTerre offers Thai and Indonesian-inspired treatments, and the pool is among the prettiest in town (for dinner, Circa 59 restaurant is exceptional).
Of course, at mainstream properties, you’re going to have to keep your swimsuit on – if you prefer tanning and swimming au naturel, stick with one of the clothing-optional gay resorts mentioned above. These may have smaller pools, but the intimate vibe can also make it easier to meet new friends, and with fewer guests than at the bigger hotels, these smaller gay hideaways can actually feel less crowded in and around the pool. Check out gaytravel.about.com/od/hotelsresorts/tp/PS_GayHotels.htm for a list of notable Palm Springs resorts, from the laid-back, friendly, and well-kept Triangle Inn (www.triangle-inn.com) to the new-ish, bear-centric Bearfoot Inn (www.bearfootinn.com). Another newcomer with a lovely pool is the 29-room Skylark Hotel (skylarkps.com), the stylish transformation of the former Camp Palm Springs – it’s still gay-owned, but the clientele is mixed and the pool area is no longer clothing-optional.
As the sun sets over Palm Springs your first night, if you’re looking for a terrific dinner option, head for the Tropicale (www.thetropicale.com), an eclectic and fun restaurant-lounge that’s perfect for just about any mood or budget, and very popular as a gay-date venue – everything from gourmet pizzas to Asian-inspired tapas to creative takes on Southern fried chicken and Cuban-style skirt steak are served. Dine inside in a space that has the sophisticated ambience of a modern supper club, or out on the quieter patio beside the gurgling fountain. The owners are planning to unveil a stylish, mixed gay/straight nightclub, Copa Room (www.coparoomps.com), next door toward the end of 2013.
Now that you’ve hopefully settled in a bit, worked your tan, and perhaps refreshed your skin and body, your second day in town is an ideal time for some outdoor recreation. Start your day at what might just be the best breakfast spot in town, Cheeky’s (www.cheekysps.com), but beware that the crowds tend to inundate this cheerful cafe with indoor and outdoor seating. If there’s a wait, put your name on the list and spend some time strolling around the lively Uptown Design District (www.palmspringsuptowndesigndistrict.com), checking out the many shops and galleries specializing in everything from Mid-Century Modern furniture to contemporary photography and art. Cheeky’s serves a tantalizing bacon flight, featuring five slices, each a different variety (perhaps jalapeno or brown-sugar). Open just for breakfast and lunch, it’s a good pre-hike source of sustenance, serving such hearty treats as eggs Benedict with cheddar scone and grass-fed burgers with pesto fries.
Next, make your way to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (www.pstramway.com), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013. From the tram base, a rotating car carries passengers to the 8,516-foot tram station, which offers access to miles of hiking trails in beautiful Mt. San Jacinto State Park.
When you walk out the door of the upper tram station (you can obtain trail maps and advice at the small visitor center inside), proceed down the winding paved pathway a short distance to the bottom. For a longer hike, turn right and stop inside the ranger station to sign in and obtain a free backcountry permit. Hikes from here include a 5-mile round-trip jaunt through mountain meadows and a rigorous 11-mile round-trip trek to 10,834-foot San Jacinto Peak. For a shorter, easier hike with amazing views, turn left at the end of the concrete path and follow signs for the Desert View Trail, a 1.5-mile loop with five short side legs leading to spectacular panoramas of the Imperial Valley, from Salton Sea to Joshua Tree National Park. Many visitors stop for drinks or dinner at the Peaks Restaurant or more casual, cafeteria-style Pines Café in the tram station – the food is decent, but it’s the views that make it worth dining here.
Returning to Palm Springs, assuming you’re still in the market for dinner, head back to the Uptown Design District. Trio (www.triopalmsprings.com) is one of the hip, see-and-be-seen dining options in this lively neighborhood, serving globally inspired modern dishes like pan-seared rare scallops with honeydew-watercress sauce, and center-cut pork chops with tangerine-horseradish marmalade. Nearby, the owners of Cheeky’s operate a couple of outstanding – and reasonably priced – dinner venues. Birba (www.birbaps.com) serves modern Italian fare, while newcomer JIAO (www.jiaops.com) turns out creative Pan-Asian cuisine, including addictively delicious tempura cauliflower with a tangy dipping sauce, roasted pork buns with kimchee, and miso black cod with sautéed spinach and coconut rice. Don’t miss the roster of regularly changing house-made ice creams.
From here you’re a short walk to several very fun downtown bars, including LGBT-favored Azul Tapas Lounge/Georgie’s Alibi (azultapaslounge.com), the chic new Clinic Bar & Lounge (www.clinicbarps.com), the darkly seductive craft-cocktail spot Bar (www.barwastaken.com), and the always packed gay dance spot Hunters Nightclub (www.huntersnightclubs.com).
How you spend your final day in town again depends largely on how early you have to leave. With any luck at all, your flight isn’t until late in the day, and you can arrange to store your bags and linger by the pool a bit longer. In the morning, you might consider one of the other inviting breakfast options in town, such as King’s Highway in the Ace Hotel (www.acehotel.com), which serves delicious chilaquiles; the uber-gay java spot Koffi (www.kofficoffee.com), with two locations serving superb espresso drinks and pastries; or open-air Norma’s in the glam Parker Palm Springs (www.theparkerpalmsprings.com), where the lobster-caviar frittata ranks among the most decadent and expensive breakfast meals in California.
If you still have a little time on your hands, check out the excellent Palm Springs Art Museum (www.psmuseum.org), continue your shopping adventures downtown, or pop into Great Shakes (www.greatshakesps.com) for a sweet treat on your way out of town – the unusual flavors here include a fun take on the traditional Palm Springs date shake (with crushed walnuts) to the imaginative blueberry-butterscotch.
*Andrew Collins produces the site GayTravel.About.com and contributes to many other travel magazines and websites. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.