If you've never been to Palm Springs, you can be forgiven for thinking it's a sleepy, geriatric town. But scratch the surface and you'll find a desert oasis with cool midcentury architecture, temperatures that encourage minimal attire, and a higher concentration of queer accommodations than almost any place on earth.
Just a two-hour drive from LAX, Palm Springs was practically built as a gay celebrity retreat. Rock Hudson and his supposed lover George Nader decamped there for alone time, as did Liberace, Tab Hunter, and Hunter's sometime boyfriend Anthony Perkins. Along with some hip heteros, Tinseltown's gay talent created a slick image for the desert town: Few places so close to Hollywood offered much-needed privacy, far from the madding crowd, yet remained a stone's throw from glitzy amenities--and lots of sparkling swimming pools.
When long-distance courting the man who would become my husband, I lured him to Palm Springs on several occasions, usually to the Ace Hotel (AceHotel.com), a gay-owned and gay-popular (but not gay-exclusive) resort with sleepaway-camp-themed designs. He loved the heat, the margaritas, and the private outdoor patios, and those trips may have been a tiny factor in his decision to relocate to Los Angeles. It was in Palm Springs, in a lovely rented house shaped around a courtyard pool, that our family and friends gathered for a week before our autumn nuptials. We swam, barbecued, made cocktails, and soaked in the sun. I've been in Palm Springs in more amped-up times, like during Pride, the music festival Coachella, the lesbian mega-party Dinah Shore Weekend, and the White Party--that circuit bash that won't give up the ghost. But in off times, when nothing much is happening in town apart from sun worshippers angling for a lounge chair, the word "laid-back" hardly begins to describe the lax vibe.
Dining is casual but still legit at gay-owned joints Wang's in the Desert (WangsInTheDesert.com) and the Tropicale (TheTropicale.com), as well as at the Basque-inspired Tinto at the Saguaro Hotel (PalmSprings.TintoRestaurant.com). There are gay bars (piano, karaoke, dancing) on Arenas Road, gambling at the Spa Resort and Casino (SpaResortCasino.com), and signs throughout the city of its utopian vision of the future: Houses, churches, and civic buildings are often decked in metal--a picture of desert modernism.
Gay-owned Trio is casual in attitude but features refined SoCal cuisine, warm-weather outdoor dining, and a substantial bar menu. TrioPalmSprings.com
The gay resort Century Palm Springs (pictured left) is cozy and intimate, with a retro, pop-art design. It also has its eye on eco-friendly amenities, like energy-efficient lighting and pool heating. CenturyPalmSprings.com
If you insist on skipping the pool, hiking and biking trails offer alternatives. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway takes passengers up to an 8,500-foot elevation atop the San Jacinto Mountains, with unparalleled views of the valley and access to 54 miles of trails. PalmSpringsAerialTramway.us
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