There’s more to our gayest town than the White Party, even in summer
Jews have Jerusalem, Muslims have Mecca, Baptists have Dollywood. But gays? We have Palm Springs.
Oh, sure, New York City is where the Stonewall Inn and all of the West Village are located, and San Francisco has the Castro and legacy of Harvey Milk, and New Orleans has its practiced debauchery.
But in terms of percentages, there is nowhere — OK, maybe P’town and Key West; maybe — that compares to Palm Springs in terms of its Queer Quotient. You can spend an entire day visiting only clothing-optional gay men’s resorts and still run out of sunlight before you’d get through half of them. (Trust me on this.) One statistic bandied about says 54 percent of the population of this lazy SoCal desert community (about 40,000 residents) is gay or lesbian.
So how come Palm Springs is famous mostly in the gay world for its Easter weekend circuit event, the White Party?
It’s a shame, because there are 51 other weeks in the year in which you can find plenty to do in Palm Springs. You just might want to put your expectations in a lower key.
Located several hours east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs has been a haven for Hollywood royalty for decades: Closer than Las Vegas but without the gaudy excess. Like Vegas, Palm Springs is a desert oasis sandwiched between low-slung dusty mountains. Only this oasis isn’t softened by the glistening hum of neon, but the languorously off-handed sense of privilege: When you tell people you are going to Palm Springs, they drift into a woozy reverie, jealous. The people who live here know it well.
That old school appeal (think Rat Pack) has saddled the town with an air of gay retirement community: The faces, except those that have been tucked and lifted, are as cracked and dry as the soil. People here like the sun. The walk from the local airport terminals to baggage claim requires a brief jaunt across an uncovered breezeway — although I doubt anyone has ever groused that the exposure doused them in rainwater.
No question, PS is hot in the summer, but the dry oven of the desert should be nothing to Texans accustomed to the steam-cooker of 30-plus days of 100 degree/75 percent humidity Augusts. The bake in Palm Springs is a balm compared to Dallas heat, but innkeepers still scramble to offer great deals during summer.
Gay-only resorts are notoriously pricier than mainstream hotels, but you can stay for as little as $100 a night, or get great multi-day package deals.
And boy are there resorts to choose from, each with its distinct atmosphere (some quite cruisy, others merely relaxing).
Gay guesthouses galore
INNDulge is one of the most established guesthouses. Located in the Warm Sands neighborhood (an area flush with clothing-optional gay accommodations), this elegant, 24-room facility offers several sizes of rooms, most of which look out on the spacious pool. The hosts for the past 14 years have been John and Jean Guy, a gregarious pair (Jean Guy has a saucy sense of humor and a captivating European charm).
Across the street sits the Century, a splashy, nine-unit resort with classic mid-century modern lines, comfy king-sized beds and a vibrant orange-and-white color scheme. Around the corner, the Hacienda is a cavernous guesthouse with two heated swimming pools (not that you need that in the summer) and breathtaking views of the mountains peeking over the lush grounds.
There are other gayborhoods as well. Both the Triangle Inn and Tortuga Del Sol sit next to one another along San Lorenzo Road. The Triangle serves up both nine individual units and an entire attached house for rental for big groups amid modern architecture. Tortuga’s vibe is more Spanish (and not just because of the name): Colorful tiles, Southwestern dÃ©cor and even a lumbering, decades-old tortoise named Big Daddy who gives the resort its name and its slow-paced style. Hosts Ricardo and Robert are as delightful as the environment.
Another Spanish-influenced facility is the lesbian resort Casita Laquita, with its Saltillo-tiled rooms, beautiful courtyard and elaborate dÃ©cor. There’s even a speakeasy-like party room for use. The bungalows at the comparatively new Casa Ocotillo also bespeak a Southwestern flavor, with hewn-wood beds and colorful art. It’s also dog-friendly, with hosts Vic and Brian playing second-fiddle to their four-legged "concierge."
La Dolce Vita and East Canyon are the two gay guesthouses that offer on-site spas with licensed aestheticians and services such as facials. La Dolce Vita is the only clothing-optional of the two, and most rooms look out on one of two pools, with a cabana providing shelter from the sun and a little al fresco privacy, as well as beautiful, large rooms. The two-story East Canyon boasts some of the largest and best-decorated rooms and suites available in Palm Springs, plus a well-appointed common room.
For more traditional accommodations, the Hotel Zoso is one of the newest luxury facilities in town. And "traditional" is relative here: On Wednesdays, the elaborate lobby becomes a showroom offering great, campy drag performers, attracting an enthusiastic but mixed gay-straight crowd.
The Spa Resort Casino is a large, mainstream hotel that attracts families but welcomes gay travelers as well. (When the mayor of the city is gay, you’re pretty much assured of queer acceptance everywhere.) Even if you don’t stay here, it’s worth a visit for the signature "taking of the waters," a relaxing plunge into the warm, sulphur-tinged springs of the underground aquifer that gives the city its name. Follow it up with a dreamy nap in the tranquility room, or even exercise in the well-equipped gym. The Riviera Resort and Spa claims an eye-popping central pool with fancy cabanas and a garish lobby that rivals Vegas for sparkle.
Food and more
For a small town — consider: Palm Springs has 50 percent fewer residents than Flower Mound — the dining and club-hopping options are fairly extensive. Kick off a breakfast at Pinocchio’s, where you can order inexpensive bottomless bubbly any time of day without a second look from the sassy wait staff. Order the omelettes in the open-air dining room to soak up some of the alcohol. Other options for breakfast are Sherman’s Deli, a New York-style Jewish diner with lox and bagels and to-die-for corned beef hash; and Koffi, a cafÃ© with yummy pastries and designer coffees.
For lunch, Palm Springs of course has the gayest of chain restaurants, Hamburger Mary’s, home of the one-of-a-kind burger (I tried both the kangaroo and ostrich meat varieties to the chagrin of my dining companions, but both were gamey and flavorful). Service is on "gay time," so don’t go there if you’re in a rush.
Jake’s Ready to Eat is slightly out of the way, but worth the search for its lovely sandwiches and salads. Johnny Bongo’s may be the top gayborhood hang. (Yes, even Palm Springs has a specific commercial gayborhood, known as Arenas.) This surfer-style restaurant feels more Miami than desert with its lobster ravioli in saffron sauce, macadamia-encrusted chicken breast and fruity specialty drinks.
The appeal of the islands is carried over in gay-owned Tropicale, with Latin music and a fusion cuisine that included delicious fried ahi futomaki, beef satay and gourmet pizzas in a lively setting. In the cool of the evening, Azul’s provided tapas as well as diet-busting winners like the wonderful gourmet mac & cheese, a clever twist on beef Wellington and great fish specials.
Wang’s in the Desert isn’t as campy as the name suggests; rather, it offers up terrific new age Chinese cuisine in a subdued but beautiful setting (foreign films play silently on TVs over the bar). Tender beef and magical shrimp dishes are just some of the highlights.
Pop down to Arenas to check out the gay clubs (especially Hunters, with its amateur strip contest and pulsing dance music). There are many gay clubs around town catering to leathermen (The Shed) and kitch lovers (Toucan).
Activities and fun
If you insist on staying indoors whenever you aren’t naked by the pool, there’s tons of shopping available along the main strip, and the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies is a mainstay of camp. Famed for its chorus line of elderly chorines — none under 50, one the oldest still-active showgirl in the world (84!) — it’s corny but winsome … and as cold as an icebox.
But even in the summer, there’s plenty to do outside in Palm Springs that is not stultifying. The best option among these may be the Aerial Tramway, which since the 1960s has ushered visitors to the thin, much cooler air of the mountains via a revolving-gondola sky-cab. Head 8,400 feet above sea-level and you drop 30 degrees in temperature, where you can hike 54 miles of verdant trails and overlook the entire Coachella Valley. It’s as unlikely a side of Palm Springs as you could expect.
There’s also hiking closer to the ground through Indian Canyon, located on the Cahuilla Indian reservation and served by Native American rangers who share their culture and history of the area. The main one-mile circular trail cleaves along a river created by melting snow runoff filtered through the mountains, nourishing huge palms and other plants as well as lively fauna.
You can get a personalized tour of Palm Springs’ historic modernist architecture from Robert Imber. His PS Modern Tours are a staple, as he walks and drives visitors on a guided escapade through the mid-century buildings that give Palm Springs its distinctive visual character. Educational as well as interesting, Imber entertainingly dishes about celebrities, designers, businessmen and the people who turned kitsch into a niche with many touches of Hollywood glamour — and a lot of gay ones.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 3, 2009.