Palm Springs, California A Gay Friendly Vacation Destination
By Victor Weinblatt
The surrealistically beautiful San Jacinto mountains rise straight up at the desert’s edge, like a cosmic, not quite to be believed movie set, Nature’s version of the ultimate special effect.
All day long the colors and the play of light, shadow and geometric form transform the mountain range. No matter how late you may have partied the night before, get up a half hour before dawn and watch as the sunrise turns the range into an exquisite terra cotta expanse. This only lasts for about 20 minutes, so don’t be late.
Forget everything you know about Palm Springs: this is not the PS of Dinah Shore, Gerald Ford, or rich Aunt Martha. Forget the renowned golf courses and the Rodeo Drive like shopping (unless you are a gay golfer in need of a pair of Bruno Maglis).
For a provincial easterner whose image of the desert was formed by vintage Lawrence of Arabia movies and whose idea of a warm weather vacation always involved the shore, PS is nothing short of a revelation. Beware of getting bitten by the bug: one week-end quickly turns into more, and the real estate search usually starts by trip #Two.
Palm Springs first came on the map as a place for Howard Hughes and Hollywood moguls to keep their mistress du jour, as well as a retreat for stars to dry out and lose weight at the fat farm.
The first heyday spans the years from Marilyn Monroe’s discovery to her death. In the seventies and eighties it went into a tailspin and became the elephant’s graveyard for bluehairs with money. PS has preserved the largest collection of mid-century modernist architectural masterpieces by accident: during its decline, there was no economic incentive to do tear downs.
When Sonny Bono became mayor in 1989, he started to bring out his Hollywood pals. With the 90s retro revival, PS once again became hot: along with martinis and cigars, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, it was once again back in vogue.
35 Gay Resorts
There are 35 gay resorts. Estimates run as high as 40% for the permanent gay population. The mayor is an openly gay black progressive, and this in a very conservative region.
What makes Palm Springs idyllic is that it has something for everyone: the strong gay presence is relaxed, laid back and unselfconscious, with a small town friendliness and comraderie, and without the cliquishness and self imposed ghettoizing of so many gay meccas.
For the butch among us, it is an outdoorsman’s paradise. Few places on earth can boast over 120 superb hikes in such a concentrated area, ranging from easy and wimp-like (o.k., I have an excuse, just four weeks out of arthroscopic knee surgery), to advanced iron-man caliber.
Before you go, get a copy of Feranti’s “120 Great Hikes In And Near Palm Springs.” Before very long you notice that there is no humidity and no mosquitoes, reason enough to fall in love with the place.
First on your list should be Indian Canyons, a short ride by car or bike from town. Indian owned and run, you will pay a $6 charge at the gate house. A paved road will take you to several different parking areas, jumping off points for your hike. Start at Palm Canyon, with its tiny Trading Post stocked with all kinds of useful pamphlets. Bond with the Indian ranger guides who are all about: they are friendly, eager, habitat interpreters with a wealth of information.
I met ranger Chris Fritsche, an Indian from the Mid-west, who could not have been more helpful. Ranger led tours are also available, taking about an hour and a half, covering a mile of trail, for a $3 charge. Here the enormous groves of luxurious California Fan Palms, with their long dried beards, rise out of oases and waterfalls juxtaposed with rocky gorges and stretches of desert scrub. The abundant waves of yellow and lavender spring wildflowers bloomed early this year after record setting January rains, and the usually browner ranges were startlingly verdant.
Palm Canyon ’s moderately graded foot path winds down into the canyon proper for picnicking and awestruck contemplation beside the stream. This is also a good starting point for a whole range of more challenging hikes.
The hummingbird feeders next to the Trading Post are overrun with several important species, including the Anna and very rare Costa varieties. But you really don’t need a feeder to find one: they are all over Palm Springs. As one local put it, Palm Springs is the “south” where birds go to escape winter. Roadrunners are everywhere, from your hotel garden to the canyons. Before you go, try to find a copy of “A Birder’s Guide to Southern California ” by James A. Lane, an invaluable guide.
Head the short distance next to Andreas Canyon, a lush oasis with 150 species of plants within a half-mile radius. The rock formations here are otherworldly in their graphic, geometric compositions: Nature as the ultimate sculptor, with a bold, modernistic sense of form and a dynamic flow of line, color, light and shadow. Think Georgia O’Keefe. The Andreas creek winds throughout the area. This is the best spot for bird watching: a few inept amateur bird calls will quickly draw an avian crowd scene. Check out the bedrock mortars and metates used by the native Agua Caliente Indians for preparing food.
An easy hike south from Andreas is Murray Canyon, criss-crossed by equestrian and walking trails. Murray Canyon, less visited than the others, also gives you the best chance for a glimpse of the Peninsula Big Horn Sheep (endangered) and the wild mule deer. Also be on the lookout for the rare and endangered Least Bells Vireo bird, a small, grey, migratory songbird which inhabits the dense thickets of willow and the cottonwood trees along the stream.
At the more strenuous end of the spectrum are the Tahquitz Canyon hikes, which are ranger guided only. If you are old enough, or if you are a Frank Capra aficionado, you will remember the stunning 100 ft. waterfall here from the 1937 LOST HORIZON with Ronald Colman & Jane Wyatt. Also remember that this was a movie about Shangri-la. They had to winch the horse to the top of the waterfall for that famous scene. The winch is still there, the horse, mercifully, is not.
Consider horse back riding with Smoke Tree Stables. Before you shake your head, Wrangler Paul Cusenza will tell you that the majority of his customers are novices or those who have never ridden before. What a blast! Grab a bunch of friends, head out on the trail, and finally put that dusty old Village People cowboy hat to some manly use. Telephone Casey Johnson, owner, at 760-327-1372.
With 35 gay hotels, the diversity and range of choice is remarkable. The hotel owners camaraderie and lack of competitive spirit is a godsend to all. Many owners live at their inns, and 99% are owner managed. As one pointed out, coming to stay in a Palm Springs Inn is like being invited into the owner’s home. Owners will often interview a prospective guest on the phone and recommend another inn instead: the practice, unheard of in the industry, almost guarantees a good match between host and traveler, and in the long run has paid dividends in making this a repeat destination. Each Inn has a distinct personality, and it requires the wisdom of Solomon to narrow the list.
Triangle Inn is Tops
My top personal choice is the Triangle Inn. Designed by renowned Palm Springs architect Hugh M. Kaptur and built in the 1950s as the Impala Lodge, it is the only gay inn with a historical preservation designation. It is perfectly scaled (9 beautifully appointed, spacious suites, all with kitchen amenities) with a lush garden setting, charming pool and Jacuzzi, spectacular mountain vistas and a stone patio where an extensive Continental breakfast is set up each morning.
Atlanta transplants Michael Green and Stephen Boyd are perfect southern hosts: warm, engaging, attentive, with a totally professional and unobtrusive style that makes you want to remain a guest in perpetuity. The Inn is a mid-century architectural treasure, with original wood and metal architectural details and whimsical folk art carved and painted totems on the façade. The interiors are stylish and roomy, without that “decorated”, contrived look. The Suites range from a reasonable $115 through $165 in season and the Inn is clothing optional. A two bedroom suite, perfect for sharing, is $195.
But the VERY BEST TRAVEL SECRET in all of Palm Springs, which I would confide only to my best buds, is the unique four bedroom house which directly adjoins the Inn.
The house comes with its own private spectacular pool, Jacuzzi, terrace, elegantly landscaped garden, and the very best view in all of Palm Springs. Two bathrooms, a fireplaced living room, and a large kitchen and dining room make it the perfectly appointed vacation home. At $1695 a week in season, it is also the best value in town.
The house has one more unique feature: a private entrance opening directly to the street, while the gate into the main property is controlled from the house side.
Therefore, the house guest has complete access to the main property, while the house itself remains private, allowing you the best of both worlds, and an ideal situation for bringing along parents, children or families (oh hell, leave them at home and have a really good time!) These thoughtful subtleties are what make the Triangle Inn #1.
My next personal favorite is the Las Palmas Hotel, designed with a Moroccan inspired aesthetic. The Indonesian furniture of teak and mahogany is offset with sisal carpeting. Casual, laid-back, but very upscale, the hotel is built around a large pool, with a Tuscan garden setting: citrus trees, Queen Palms and bougainvillea create a feeling of California hip & cool. It is situated in Palm Springs Uptown Neighborhood and is blessed with hotel co-owner Tony Spleen’s wit, intellect and easy charm.
Be prepared to fall in love with Las Palmas and with Tony. Co-owner Thom Thompson’s humor and irony will immediately win you over. The 17 exquisitely appointed rooms and suites range from $129 to $239. Clothing optional, it should be at the top of your list. You could hear bit of traffic. The guests and the surroundings are equally sexy.
East Canyon Hotel and Spa
Sharing top billing is the very distinctive East Canyon Hotel & Spa, the only gay hotel with an on-site Day Spa offering massage, facial and body treatments staffed with licensed professionals. It is luxe to the enth degree, an understated vision of elegance and comfort at the stylistic intersection of Ralph Lauren and the Ritz. Just stepping onto the property conveys an instantaneous sense of manly pampering. Sexy New York corporate veteran Richard Weiss, detail oriented host, runs a very tight ship. It is the only gay resort that is not, interestingly enough, clothing optional.
The clientele is 30s and 40s L.A. and New York, affluent, attractive and quite comfortable in their expensive swim trunks. When asked about the clothing issue, Richard wryly pointed out that “he liked his Christmas presents wrapped”, a preference obviously shared by his guests.
Down the street from the Triangle Inn is Tortuga del Sol, with a strong Southwestern flavor and a turtle theme. Spectacular views, lush landscaping, and 12 charmingly appointed suites and studios make this a top choice. Here, as in each of my favorites, it is the personality of the owners that infuses the property and makes it a winner: Ricky and Rob set the stage for a wonderful stay the minute you arrive. A warm, relaxed, friendly and unpretentious resort, you are immediately made to feel as if you are at home (you should be so lucky!).
In the PS spirit of something for everyone, there are three hotels that cater to more specialized tastes. The Desert Bear specializes in “Bears and their admirers”. Chestnutz proudly boasts that they host an older crowd. The Black Palm, with very intense and elaborately equipped theme suites, caters to the man serious about his fetish.
The women luck out with Casitas Laquita, situated on one of the most stunningly beautiful properties in all of Palm Springs. Almost makes a guy jealous. Old Spanish Mission in style, cozy fireplaced casitas with full kitchens are furnished with a handcrafted décor and with Tribal Indian Artifacts. The Rustic Tranquility points towards a more profound sensibility: there is a spiritual sense of place here, a feeling of being in a special, nearly sacred spot that I am at a loss to further describe.
For loveable hosts and owners Joanna Funaro and Denise Roberson, this is a 24-hour job. They project an uncanny warmth and friendliness that makes you feel like an old friend. They are also heavily involved in the Gay Tourism Guild and in events that surround Dinah Shore Weekend. As Joanna describes it: “Dinah Shore is a right of passage for all lesbians. If you haven’t been to Dinah you are just not out.” Rates for Casitas and Suites are from $135 to $350.
Continued on Page Two
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