PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Like most of the people soaking up Sunday brunch at the Parker Palm Springs hotel, the hungover-looking dude in slacker attire with the fashionista girlfriend looked as if he had just rolled out of bed at 10:30 a.m. He also looked strikingly familiar — like a richer version of me from about 10 years earlier, pre-child.
"Cute kid," he lazily remarked as he passed our table.
My 4-year-old daughter had caught his and many other brunchers' attention by lifting a shot glass to her mouth and downing its contents like a spring breaker cutting loose in Cancun. And then she gulped another.
It was an unusual way to drink a strawberry smoothie, sure, but a good example of Palm Springs' unfamiliarity with — yet unlikely appeal to — young kids and their parents. While it hardly caters to families, inland California's favorite getaway town has a surprising amount of cool attractions for children to gulp down, and just enough of a laid-back vibe for their parents to feel welcome there.
Best known as a desert decampment for seniors, gays and rehab-seeking actors, Palm Springs has become my young family's warm-weather destination of choice. Many of our friends and even some native Californians we know have trouble understanding why.
Florida was never our thing. We won't do Mexico with kids anymore (spoiled by all the folks we saw in surgeons' masks our last time there, right when the 2008 swine-flu epidemic hit). Who can afford to go anywhere else?
Sure it has no ocean, but Palm Springs is cheaper and much hipper than most coastal destinations, and still provides the palm-tree escapism every Minnesota family wants this time of the year.
Best of all, we all find something to love about the place. My wife enjoys the classic celeb lore, the regal yet relatively affordable spas, the vintage stores and other swank shopping and dining options. Our daughter digs the fascinating Living Desert Zoo, the downright trippy Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert, the breathtaking Palm Springs Aerial Mountain Tramway and the city's cool, palm-tree-lined, oasis-like parks. Those smoothie shots at the Parker were certainly a hit, too.
The main draw for me is the excellent hiking and biking opportunities in the so-close-yet-so-far-out mountains, including the San Jacinto range and all the wondrous formations in Joshua Tree National Park, which I first discovered years ago while attending the Coachella Music Festival (happening again April 13-15 and 20-22; it has played a big role in giving the area a younger, trendier sheen).
Best of all, we can rent a midcentury house with a private pool for the price of a hotel room in most other resort towns. (The Parker was only a brunch destination for us.)
Rentals have become surprisingly affordable and plentiful in the area, thanks to the real estate crunch still buckling much of Southern and inland California. A quick search on the vacation rental hub VRBO.com last month turned up almost 400 listings in Palm Springs proper, with assorted properties trumpeting discounted spring rates.
We so enjoyed our first trip to Palm Springs in 2010 that we talked another young family into joining us there in late October from Austin, Texas. Also recruited was our friend Albert, who had never been there despite being a world traveler and gay man; the joke was we needed him along to get better service from the waiters.
In the end, the picky parents had as good a time as the demanding toddlers, and — thanks to his visits to the Palm Springs Art Museum and other attractions during naptime — so did Uncle Albert, fussiest of all.
We rented a five-bedroom house close to downtown at $1,300 for five nights, which came to a mere $260 total per adult. Like hotel rates, the area's rental prices go up by about a third from mid-November to March. Whenever you go, you're pretty much guaranteed a sunny day: The city averages 350 of them per year.
Our "cabana" was quite a palace. Stretched out on a single floor (like most Palm Springs houses), its long layout provided us with ample privacy, lots of room for the kids to go damage-deposit-testing wild and a pool table that added greatly to the make-me-a-highball-and-call-Sinatra vibe.
"I feel like I'm in the 'Big Brother' house" was reality-TV junkie Albert's assessment.
Each day at our hacienda went something like this: family activity in the morning before it got hot, such as the zoo or children's museum; followed by lunch at a restaurant (the best time to dine out with young kids); rounded out by an afternoon hanging out poolside, when some of the adults sometimes went off to do their own thing around town.
With our own house we could grill our dinners, a perk for young families. After the kids went to bed, some of us adults went out to do the things adults do. We just knew we couldn't roll out of bed at 10:30 the next morning.
One of our favorite hangouts by both night and day was the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, a renovated 1960s hotel that's a flagship for the chain with properties also in Los Angeles and Brooklyn. By "hip," I mean there's a turntable and guitar available in the lobby for guests' use.
Lunching there at the Ace's adjoining King's Highway diner was refreshingly untrendy, with comfort-food options like white-bean turkey chili and corn bread. We gentlemen also enjoyed the rich tap beer selection and retro-soul DJ-ing one night — unfortunately not a Monday, when the famous "Sissy Bingo" takes place with singing host Linda Gerard.
The Parker — originally Gene Autrey's private estate — boasted the spa of choice for the women, who were once again greeted with a shot glass upon arrival (no smoothies this time). My wife's other favorite afternoon escape was driving around gawking at the homes of the rich and famous and mostly dead, from Liberace's famous Cloisters palace to Elvis and Priscilla's honeymoon getaway (guided celeb-home tours are available but not necessary in the Google era).
To my pleasant surprise, two favorite getaways for the entire group involved hiking. We had to pay $24 per adult to ride the aerial tramway to the top of Mount San Jacinto State Park, but the easy, alpine-wooded hiking trails there were to die for — which at least two of the heights-fearing adults feared would happen on the ride, as the kids laughed hysterically.
Everyone also enjoyed strolling through the palm-lined trails and historic huts in the Indian Canyons just on the outskirts of Palm Springs. The Agua Caliente of Cauhilla Indians maintain the canyons parkland better than the cash-strapped California State Parks ever could. The tribe's nearby casino no doubt helps.
"This looks like the kind of place where dinosaurs used to live," said our friend's 5-year-old son, Zac, during the canyons hike — a line one might have applied to Palm Springs itself in years past.
Dinosaurs came up again at the Living Desert Zoo, where there's a faux bones dig in the massive Gecko Gulch playground and the descendants of prehistoirc tortoises and amphibians to see. The kids' favorite zoo perk might've been the safari-style push carts that kept them from getting exhausted or overheated as we covered the sprawling spread, never mind the sweating parents.
Which was just another excuse to bring us back to the pool. As happy as we were to take in the sights, everyone seemed most content back at the house, where the palm trees and panoramic views of the surrounding mountains reminded us we weren't in just any back yard.
Our leisurely afternoons and poolside barbecues seemed to evoke the spirit of Palm Springs. Whether or not having the young kids there to splash up the vibe (literally) is how everyone else thinks of Palm Springs, it seemed picture-perfect for us.
OUR PALM SPRINGS BREAKDOWN
At Parker Palm Springs, the spa treatments come with good people-watching and free use of the hotel's other facilities (www.theparkerpalmsprings.com). Shopping hubs include the Galleria (www.gmcb.com/galleria), an outdoor hamlet with several vintage and modern decor boutiques; the Route 66 West jewelry outlet (www.route66west.com) and the massive Trina Turk store (www.trinaturk.com).
Joshua Tree National Park has two entrances about an hour from Palm Springs (www.nps.gov/jotr). Much closer, there is also ample hiking at Indian Canyons, which offers scenic, palm-tree-lined trails with historic Native American sites (www.indian-canyons.com). Big Wheel Tours offers several guided biking and hiking treks (www.bwbtours.com).
FOR THEM (THE KIDS)
The Living Desert Zoo boasts many African and Central American animals but not a lot of shade, so go in the morning (www.livingdesert.org). The Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert is an arty play mecca good on a hot day (www.cdmod.org). Even the city's Ruth Hardy Park is a cool hot spot for kids (700 Tamarisk St.).
FOR ALL OF US
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway ascends 8,500 feet into the foresty San Jacinto Mountains; $24 for adults and $17 for kids (www.pstramway.com). The aforementioned Indian Canyons are also family-friendly. And everyone in our group had fun strolling Village- fest, a downtown street fair and art crawl held every Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. (www.villagefest.org).
The international vacation rental sites VRBO.com (Vacation Rentals By Owner) and HomeAway.com each boasts hundreds of private listings in Palm Springs ranging from under $100 a night for a one-bedroom to $15,000 a month for an "estate." Bing Crosby's old place goes for $21,000 a week at VacationPalmSprings.com. We found our affordable and cozy five-bedroom hangout at another local site, AcmeHouseCo.com, which lists about 40 mid-range homes.
Southern California's plethora of airports helps make Palm Springs a cheap destination. Sun Country flies direct to Palm Springs Airport through mid-May. You can also try Ontario International (45 minutes away by car), John Wayne Airport in Orange County (90 minutes) or LAX in Los Angeles (2 to 3 hours, depending on traffic).
Chris Riemenschneider: firstname.lastname@example.orgCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times