Before there were lively casinos and world-class museums and decadent luxury resorts, there were untouched thermal springs and majestic canyons traversed by resilient Native Americans. Fortunately for today’s visitors, the pristine nature and historical legacy have been preserved, yet the Coachella Valley area remains a world-class travel destination that offers guests every modern convenience.
The Coachella Valley’s first inhabitants were ancestors of today’s Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, more than 2,000 years ago. In 1884, Judge John Guthrie McCallum of San Francisco arrived in Palm Springs with his family after hearing of the warm, dry climate and the healing properties of the “Agua Caliente” hot springs. McCallum, who dreamed of starting a desert colony, hired a surveyor to plan the town of “Palm City” and purchased land from Southern Pacific to build an elaborate aqueduct. His work to bring water to the Coachella Valley spurred its cultivation as a rich agricultural region. By the 1890s, Palm Springs and the surrounding area were effectively branded as a recreational oasis, and in the 1900s it began drawing tourists afflicted with conditions that required dry heat for treatment.
Since the 1920s, Palm Springs has been Hollywood’s desert playground for the glitterati to relax and escape from the stresses of showbiz. The legendary “Two-Hour Rule” of Hollywood studios put Palm Springs on the map as a perfect getaway; contracted actors had to be available within two hours from the studio in case of last-minute film/photo shoots. The biggest stars of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s—Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor—stayed and purchased hideaway homes in Palm Springs; the allure remains strong to this day, as Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio’s 7,000-sq.-ft. spread is available to rent, starting at $4,500/night.
Numerous notable public figures were regulars at the former Annenberg Estate, now called Sunnylands. Located in Rancho Mirage, which declared it an historic site in 1990, the 200-acre property served as Walter and Leonore Annenberg’s winter retreat beginning in 1966. Check out the public visitor center, a 17,000-square-foot building that offers educational and historic information as well as nine acres of desert gardens, including more than 70 species and 53,000 individual plants. Known as the West Coast Camp David, eight U.S. presidents have visited the estate, including the Annenbergs’ close friends Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who celebrated every New Year’s there for 18 years. sunnylands.org
Ritzy Architecture Meets Natural Beauty
Early on, architectural modernists flocked to Palm Springs with commissions from the stars, using the city to explore architectural innovations and exotic back-to-the-land experiences. Buildings today still echo the region’s distinct architectural heritage. The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage pays tribute to the hotel’s desert surroundings, incorporating elements of stone, wood, and fire into their elegant décor. Nestled within the Santa Rosa Mountain range, this esteemed luxury resort is a sumptuous retreat where both palm trees and snow-capped mountains comprise the enchanting visuals.
More enchanting still is the attentive service guests receive from the welcoming hotel staff. From the glass of champagne upon check-in to the attractively packaged s’mores ingredients delivered to your terrace fire pit, this exceptional hotel takes every opportunity to surprise and delight visitors. Guest rooms and suites feature private balconies and patios, cast-iron soaking tubs, and billowy cotton linens, while a full-service salon and spa offer decadent treatments. Guests seeking a heightened level of opulence, exclusivity, and personalized service will appreciate the continuous daily culinary offerings and dedicated concierge offered by The Ritz-Carlton Club® Lounge. ritzcarlton.com
Those seeking additional avenues for artistic appreciation should make a beeline to the heart of downtown Palm Springs, where the Palm Springs Art Museum’s sophisticated collection rivals that of larger metropolitan museums, with works by Chagall, Picasso, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, and more. psmuseum.org
The Palm Springs Air Museum is dedicated to educating the public about the role air power played in preserving the American way of life, with a focus on aircraft from World War II as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars. Many docents are even veterans willing to share their experiences with visitors.
Entertaining All the Options
A calendar of events, from world-class golf and tennis events to multi-weekend music festivals, has ensured the Coachella Valley’s relevance for Millennials. The Palm Springs International Film Festival is held every January, but celebrities such as Clint Eastwood, John Travolta, and Anne Hathaway frequent the area year-round, keeping it in vogue.
With more golf courses than any other region in California – the 100th course was opened in 2001 – Coachella Valley is the state’s most popular golf vacation destination, which is unsurprising given the median resident age of nearly 52 years old. The area is also home to the PGA Tour’s Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation (formerly the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic), the LPGA’s ANA Inspiration, and the Canadian Tour’s Desert Dunes Classic.
Nostalgia buffs will appreciate Big League Dreams Sports Park, which features scaled-down replicas of famous ballparks such as Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field. If baseball isn’t your thing, hit the soccer fields or playground, or have a meal in the Stadium Club, which keeps armchair Olympians entertained with 12 televisions to watch the big game, a perfect view of all three stadiums, and an arcade.
The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Annual Festival, and Stagecoach Country Music Festival are responsible for three consecutive weekends of sweeping sonic bliss. Between the two festivals, more than 220 musical acts perform, drawing myriad music fans to the area. Coachella runs for two weekends in mid-April, and Stagecoach returns to the Empire Polo Club in Indio for its 10th year April 29–May 1.
All that film watching and festival going can really work up an appetite, and the Palm Springs dining scene does not disappoint. Palm Springs Desert Resorts Restaurant Week is held every June, featuring 10 days of dining at over 100 restaurants in the Coachella Valley. Culinary standouts include The Ritz-Carlton’s State Fare Bar + Kitchen, where the avocado fries and mouth-watering State Fare Prime Burger are not to be missed, and The Edge steakhouse, an elegant cliffside fine dining option featuring its own dry aging room and a stellar international wine list.
For animal lovers and conservationists of all ages, the Living Desert Zoo houses a diverse selection of African and North American species, including cheetahs, armadillos, wolves, bobcats, and wild dogs. Participate in one of the twice-daily giraffe feedings or take a camel ride to get closer to the animals than you could at a typical zoo. livingdesert.org
Cheetahs are known to be fast, but drivers at the BMW Performance Driving School might (insert pun here) give them a run for their money. Put your skills to the test with team of expert BMW driver training instructors and a state-of-the-art test track. Choose from the Drivers program, Teen school, M school or Motorcycle. bmwusa.com/standard/content/explore/experience/pds
The most incredible view of the Coachella Valley is undoubtedly from the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The journey starts in Chino Canyon, where you begin with a thrilling (or harrowing, depending on your proclivity) ride in the world’s largest rotating aerial tramcar (cable car). Experience a condor’s eye view of the greater Palm Springs area during the surprisingly swift ascent, soaring 6,000 feet up a steep incline to Mountain Station (8,516 feet elevation). Passengers glide through five unique life zones, from the Mexican Sonoran Desert to an Alpine wilderness, to reach the top and access Mt. San Jacinto State Park’s 14,000 acres of pristine land and 54 miles of hiking trails. pstramway.com