36 HOURS IN PALM SPRINGS, CALIF.

by Erica Cerulo

originally published in the New York Times 4/12/09


DAY 1

4 p.m.
1) CRUISING ON TWO WHEELS

Because of its modest size, Palm Springs can easily be experienced over a couple days, or even a few hours. Start your trip with a self-guided bike tour. Big Wheel Tours (760-802-2236; www.bwbtours.com) rents bicycles starting at $30 a day (plus $25 for pickup and delivery; bike and hiking tours are available). Free maps are available at the Palm Springs Visitors Center (777 North Palm Canyon Drive; 760-778-8418; www.palm-springs.org). To scope out the dramatic terrain and local hot spots, pedal the Downtown Loop, which can be done in less than an hour, or the 10-mile Citywide Loop that takes you past the Moorten Botanical Gardens.

7 p.m.
2) AUSTRIA AND BEYOND

At Johannes (196 South Indian Canyon Drive; 760-778-0017; www.johannesrestaurants.com), the chef Johannes Bacher bills the food as modern Austrian, combining classic Central European specialties like spaetzle and sauerkraut with decidedly borrowed ingredients and flavors, ranging from polenta to wasabi. But one of the best dishes is also the most traditional: a heaping plate of Wiener schnitzel with parsley potatoes, cucumber salad and cranberry compote ($26).

9:30 p.m.
3) PARTYING POOLSIDE

Back when Frank Sinatra held raucous shindigs at his Twin Palms home, Palm Springs was known for its party scene. These days, the best drinking establishments are in hotels. The white stucco exterior of the Colony Palms Hotel (572 North Indian Canyon Drive; 760-969-1800; www.colonypalmshotel.com) conceals a welcoming hideaway with stone walkways, towering palms and, when needed, patio heaters. At the buzzing restaurant Purple Palm, ask to be seated by the pool and order a plate of Humboldt Fog chèvre, organic honey and local dates ($11) with your drink to top off the night.

DAY 2

9:30 a.m.
4) A MODERNIST MECCA

Along with the moneyed 20th-century tourists came eye-catching buildings: hotels, commercial spaces and vacation homes. Next to a hopping Starbucks on the main drag sits one of the city's oldest architectural touchstones: a concrete bell tower salvaged from the long-gone Oasis Hotel, which was designed by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank) in 1924. This spot is also where Robert Imber, the often seersucker-clad architectural guru and one-man show behind PS Modern Tours (760-318-6118; psmoderntours@aol.com), starts his three-hour excursions, which provide a survey of the city's key structures with a focus on the midcentury sweet spot. For $75 a head, design enthusiasts can press their faces against the windows of Mr. Imber's minivan, catching glimpses of the iconic Albert Frey-designed Tramway Gas Station, Richard Neutra's 1946 Kaufmann Desert House and the mass-produced but stunning Alexander homes that your guide identifies by pointing out the four key components — “garage, breezeway, windows, wall” — in their various arrangements.

1 p.m.
5) CHIC CHEEK

The wait for brunch at Cheeky's (622 North Palm Canyon Drive; 760-327-7595; www.cheekysps.com) should be a tip-off: the bright, streamlined space, which opened in January and feels airlifted from L.A. — in a good way — has quickly become popular. The “devils on horseback” sandwich (dates, prosciutto, Gorgonzola and watercress on a baguette for $9) shares space on the menu with custardy scrambled eggs ($9) and roasted brussels sprouts ($10) — all of which should be washed down with an agua fresca ($3).

3 p.m.
6) USED GOODS

After eating, stroll the adjacent blocks on Palm Canyon Drive, a strip that's terrific for high-end vintage shopping, if a little dangerous for those who quickly reach for their credit cards. Among the many stores that focus on better-with-age décor, just a few have mastered the art of curating. At a La MOD (768 North Palm Canyon Drive; 760-327-0707; www.alamod768.com), nearly 70 percent of the merchandise, which is heavy on Lucite and lighting, is sourced locally, according to the shop's owners. Across the street, Modern Way (745 North Palm Canyon Drive; 760-320-5455; www.psmodernway.com) stocks an eclectic collection of larger pieces like Arthur Elrod couches, Verner Panton cone chairs and Hans Olsen dining sets. For something you can actually take home, head down to Bon Vivant in the Palm Canyon Galleria (457 North Palm Canyon Drive, No. 3; 760-534-3197; www.gmcb.com) where the store's charming proprietors make you feel like a genuine collector for purchasing an $18 engraved brass vase or a $5 tie clip.

5 p.m.
7) STAY SILLY

At the perky Palm Springs Yacht Club, at the Parker Palm Springs hotel (4200 East Palm Canyon Drive; 760-770-5000; www.theparkerpalmsprings.com) playful spa offerings include the Wringer ($150), a deep-tissue rubdown best for pain-seekers, and the Matriarch ($150), a wrinkle-fighting facial. Even if the stay-young schtick gets to be too much (“We believe you can swim right after you eat” reads the spa's Web site), you can't complain about a pedicure that uses only animal-free products ($60) and will last for weeks.

8 p.m.
8) FRIEND OF THE HOUSE

Most of the favored area restaurants have an old-school vibe: tuxedoed waiters, a headwaiter who has worked there since opening day and steak-and-lobster specialties. Though the six-year-old Copley's on Palm Canyon (621 North Palm Canyon Drive; 760-327-9555; www.copleyspalmsprings.com) might not have the culinary history of nearby Melvyn's Restaurant and Lounge, which opened as an inn in 1935, it has a different sort of storied past — it's housed in what was once Cary Grant's estate — and food that incorporates 21st-century flavors (the spring menu included dishes like a duck and artichoke salad with goat cheese, edamame and litchi; $12).

11 p.m.
9) TOASTING FRIENDS

The cocktail craze has made its way to the desert, and the guys manning the bar at the cavernous Amigo Room at the new Ace Hotel (701 East Palm Canyon Drive; 760-325-9900; www.acehotel.com/palmsprings) are leading the way. In addition to measuring, shaking and pouring classic concoctions like the margarita, they offer more offbeat options like the Figa (fig-infused vodka with Earl Grey and honey tangerine; $8) that reek of late-night innovation. The cool but mellow vibe — supplemented by décor featuring burgundy leather booths and glass tables with inlaid pesos — will keep you ordering.

DAY 3

9 a.m.
10) GET CLOSE WITH CACTUS

Those looking for an early-morning calorie burn might prefer the uphill battles of Gastin or Araby Trail, but a hike through Tahquitz Canyon (500 West Mesquite Avenue; 760-416-7044; www.tahquitzcanyon.com) offers a leisurely alternative. An entrance fee of $12.50 gets you access to a 1.8-mile loop and the sights and smells that come with it: desert plants, lizards aplenty and a stunning, 60-foot waterfall. Unless you have an intense interest in beavertail cactus and white sage, skip the two-hour ranger-led tours and explore the trail at your own pace.