Whether it’s hikes and bikes or Marlene and Bing, there’s something for everyone among Palm Springs’ deserts, mountains, culture and history — and you don’t even have to golf
A Palm Springs traffic jam is the best. My first visit to the Dinah Shore Weekend (see below) featured bumper-to-bumper roadster convertibles from Los Angeles — two stunning lesbians in every glittering Beemer, Mercedes and Jag — as some 20,000 women converged on the desert city for a weekend lesbian smorgasbord of concerts, dances and pool parties.
That was just over 10 years ago. Now it seems that the gay and lesbian set who have been coming to this desert oasis to party over the years — like the young Hollywood celebrities in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s — decided to make this city home. After the 2008 economic meltdown knocked the stuffing out of real estate prices here, young gay retirees and middle-aged career changers have been snapping up gorgeous desert modernist bungalows built by Old Hollywood stars, opening funky restaurants, art galleries and boutiques. They’ve made this little city of 45,000 one of the gayfriendliest towns in the US of A or, dare I say, on the planet.
Palm Springs doesn’t just embrace queer folk with big warm hugs (though they do), it’s that the gays themselves are down-home friendly. Every clothing store, yogurt joint or bike rental shop seems to be run by a queer brother or sister who all greet my partner and I like we’re long lost cousins returned home for a family reunion.
Another traffic jam, this one of stretch limos and Hummers dropping stars off at the first night of the Palm Springs International Film Festival (see below), which was founded by the late great Sonny Bono. One of the largest in North America, it swells the size of Palm Springs by some 145,000 people. That’s why my partner and I are here. I have co-written the feature Margarita, which won the audience award at Toronto’s Inside Out Festival and is getting a gala screening here. (There’s another screening in Toronto on Wed, Mar 13.) Ahead of us, two film execs in tuxedoes stroll to the red carpet, hand in hand, followed by dyke co-directors Laurie Colbert and Dominique Cardona, who get to attend the festival kick-off awards dinner with the likes of Richard Gere, Sally Field and Helen Mirren. Alas, my partner Nancy and I are relegated to standing outside with townsfolk hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars walking the red carpet — ah, the lot of the writer, write them a role then watch them stroll (from afar).
Still, it’s an exuberant crowd and a pretty prime area for stargazing. Fans let out screams of “Sally, Sally” when Field arrives, and they cheer others onto the red carpet as if at a football game, everybody that is except for the jaded spawn of heterosexuals standing beside me, a girl, maybe nine. When she spots a starlet emerging from a limo, she scoffs loudly: “That girl in the red dress? She’s nobody!” I cannot help trying to brighten her outlook with a little fairy dusting. “Oh, honey,” I say, “We’re all somebodies, even you.”
The next morning, I meet up with people who are soon to be my new best friends in Palm Springs, members of the LGBT Front Runners and Walkers (psfr.org), which have chapters in just about every major North American city. Weekday mornings, close to 100 people gather to walk; on weekends, the runners meet up for a 15-kilometre jog to Indian Canyons. Joining them is a fantastic way to get the low-down on real estate and good restaurants, make instant friends and maybe even score invites to BBQs and pool parties. By the end of our jog along the base of the snow-covered San Jacinto Mountains, my new gay pals are all coming to see our film, and my new best pal, Kathi, a retired pharmaceutical exec in her early 50s, who splits seasons between here and Seattle, offers to take me on a tour of celebrity houses for our next run.
That takes us through the Las Palmas neighbourhood where we’re actually staying for the week. The directors have rented a house in the hood which, by the way, is a fantastic way to get a taste of living here (mornings, I pick lemons and grapefruits off trees growing by our backyard swimming pool) as well as soak up the old Hollywood vibe.
Las Palmas is adjacent to the defunct Racquet Club where stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, Rudy Vallee, Judy Garland, the Gabor sisters and, of course, Dinah Shore came to play tennis, party and make the club’s New Year’s Eve parties legendary. Now, this hood is a prime stop on architectural tours, with its mix of old Spanish Revival houses and modernist butterfly and A frames built by the Alexander brothers. As we jog our way up and down palm-tree lined streets, Kathi points out Barry Manilow’s pad, Elvis’ former house (with a sculptural outline of his face on the chimney) and the pile where he spent his secret honeymoon with Priscilla, “The House of Tomorrow,” or such as it was in the 1960s with its Jetson-style furniture, lava rock wall and electronic controls that manipulated indoor climate, outside lights and automatic rain.
On another day, Kathi takes me for a trail run through Indian Canyons (where we get lost — though, thankfully, not for long — on its more than 100 miles of trails winding through ancient palm groves, canyons and mountain ridges of the ancestral homeland of the Agua Caliente Chauilla Indians.) Another run takes me through the Tahquitz Canyon, which is a 5K hiking trail that leads to a waterfall plunging from the peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains. And on yet another day, my partner and I ride the aerial tramway (pstramway.com) some 8,500 feet up to the top of the San Jacinto range where we hike over snow-covered trails to outlooks that offer stunning views of Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley below. All the hiking venues are on the edge of town and easy to get to.
Our days are packed like this, enjoying the active outdoorsy desert lifestyle, hiking, cycling around town (the wide flat boulevards away from the main drags are pretty quiet), and walking the main street lined with boutiques and cafés. On one stroll, we stop into the Palm Springs Art Museum (psmuseum.org) and, for a couple of hours, lose ourselves amidst its impressive collection of contemporary, Western and Native American art. It’s part of the unique delight of Palm Springs — for a small town, it packs some big city culture and entertainment with its queer circuit party weekends, film festival, modernist week, music festivals and on and on.
The next traffic jam we hit is in the spa of the Spa Resort Casino (sparesortcasino.com). After spending the afternoon drinking margaritas by the pools (a regular one plus two mineral pools fed by hot springs), we head inside at sunset (which comes early in this mountain-ringed valley, about 5pm). The hotel spa was built over the ancient healing waters where the Caliente had established an early Americana bathhouse — a wooden changehouse beside a steaming, spring-filled oasis pond. Now the resort has an elaborate process of tripping from steam sauna to hot sauna (which, oddly, is packed with a gaggle of church ladies and their female pastor) to mineral bath and then, finally, to a tranquility room to sleep off all that relaxation.
All that spa decadence primes us for the traffic jams that I like best: The film festival lineups. Filmgoers here take their films seriously. Rather than screening Hollywood blockbusters, the fest offers an impressive slate of indie and foreign films, and it seems everyone in town attends. Gossip in the shops for that week is about who’s seen what not who’s seen who. It’s the friendliest fest I’ve ever been to.
Our film does really well, sold-out screenings and overflow crowds. It’s a huge rush. One line-up stretches around the block, and it’s packed with golf-loving lesbians, art-loving gay guys, partying wives of Calgary oil executives, straight folks who look like former Hollywood studio execs, and really cool, liberal retirees. The film’s themes of immigration, gay marriage and downsizing after the housing crash strike a chord here in cash-strapped California. I recognize quite a few faces, new friends I’ve met during the week, and they introduce me to pals they’ve brought along. Truly, it feels like a gala in my hometown of Toronto, full of family and friends and, damn it, I wish that little star-dissing girl was here to see what the magic of films is really about, these connections.
WHEN TO GO
Jeffrey Sankers White Party. Fri, Mar 29-Apr 1. jeffreysanker.com.
Dinah Shore Weekend. Celebrities such as Katy Perry, The Pussycat Dolls, Chely Wright and even Lady Gaga have all made appearances. Fri, Apr 5-7. dinahshoreweekend.com.
Cinema Diverse. The LGBT film festival. Sept 19-23. cinemadiverse.org.
Palm Springs Pride Festival. Nov 2-3. pspride.org.
Palm Springs Leather Pride. Nov 7-10. desertleatherpride.com.
Palm Springs International Film Festival. Jan 3-14, 2014. psfilmfest.org.
WHERE TO STAY
House rentals. Many with backyard pools. vrbo.com/vacation-rentals/usa/california/deserts/palm-springs/central/old-las-palmas.
Hotel Avanti. Offers 10 luxurious rooms in a boutique-like setting with touches of Old Hollywood. avantihotelps.com.
Colony Palms Hotel. The former playground of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Howard Hughes. colonypalmshotel.com.
Bearfoot Inn. The latest addition to many gay men’s resorts, located in historic Movie Colony district. bearfootinn.com.
Casitas Laquita. Luxurious rooms with full kitchens that surround a pool, making this a fave lesbian getaway for extended stays. casitaslaquita.com.
Queen of Hearts. The first lesbian-friendly resort in Palm Springs is still going strong with comfy affordable rooms with full kitchens surrounding a pool. queenofheartsps.com.
The Atomic Dog. 100 percent beef dogs, a cheap treat to enjoy during Villagefest, when main street closes down Thursday nights to arts vendors. facebook.com/theatomicdog.
Cheeky’s. Has the best brunch and lunch in town, with a healthy twist on Mexican and southwestern faves. cheekysps.com.
Workshop Kitchen and Bar. A bit of New York sophistication in both setting and food. workshoppalmsprings.com.
Blue Coyote Bar and Grill. The happening meet-and-greet spot, serving wicked margaritas and southwestern/Mexican fare. bluecoyotegrill.com.
MARGARITA Inside Out screening with directors in attendance. $10. 7:30pm. Wed, Mar 13. TIFF Bell Lightbox. 350 King St W. insideout.ca.