Desert chic in Palm Springs

Tall, twin outrageous orange doors welcome visitors to the latest outpost of desert chic in Palm Springs. As a suntanned man in a hot pink jacket ushers you inside the Parker Palm Springs, a new luxury hotel, it's clear that change is afoot.

The once-formal Merv Griffin Givenchy Resort and Spa has been transformed into an upbeat distillation of "the admirably immoderate essence of Palm Springs," its decorator, Jonathan Adler, says. That means lawn hammocks, spangled pillows, leopard upholstery, zebra rugs, Adler's pottery and bamboo chairs that swing beside a sparkling fire pit.

Palm Springs, that desert oasis, that Hollywood hideaway, that tired and abandoned retirees' retreat, is busily burnishing its past and reinventing its future as a glamorous-again getaway. The main target? The young, the sophisticated, the discriminating upscale visitor with taste and money in equal measure.

Yet the retirees and snowbirds who loyally filled the condos during Palm Springs' downturn in the 1980s and early '90s are still there.

They are old enough to remember when the Rat Pack and its imitators sipped martinis and crooned in nightclubs. Now that same easygoing lifestyle is appealing to other generations who find ironic comfort in lounging by the pool, crowding into a piano bar and visiting quirky little hotels with vintage kitchenettes.

As one of nine cities in the Coachella Valley, about 130 miles east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs finds itself at a tricky crossroads. It's hard to inject cutting-edge ideas in a city long gone gray (40% of its residents are senior citizens). Palm Springs must sell the attractions of the entire region while also luring new visitors to stay within its city limits. It must not alienate the retirees, ignore the growing gay and lesbian population, overlook full-time residents or out-price budget-minded newcomers such as families and young singles.

"There's one thing that we're hyper-aware of," says Jeff Hocker, director of communications for the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism. "There are 22 million people in Southern California. We can go after people in other cities, but we are a backdoor community for L.A. and San Diego. We need to maintain a level of hip and coolness to keep that audience."

Just over half of the city's visitors are from Southern California.

Five stars?

Meanwhile, the city is trying to bridge a perception gap.

"In terms of hotels, what we don't have are super-premium, deluxe properties," says Gary Sherwin, vice president of development at the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority. "We don't have five-star anything, even though we're perceived as a five-star destination."

Yet luxury is what the city is trying hardest to sell these days.

Virtually every new development to come across director John Raymond's desk at the city's office of economic development aims at the upper incomes. There are plans and proposals for $800,000 townhouses, five-star hotels, luxury additions to existing resorts and the ongoing $35-million convention center expansion that the city hopes will attract a richer slice of business.

The city-owned Tahquitz Creek Golf Resort is aiming to draw more visitors with a planned banquet facility and new 150-room hotel. Raymond says the city also has approved the Indian Oasis Resort, which includes a 400-room luxury hotel and championship golf course that will bolster the city's rather puny choice of five public and three private courses. Recently, the former Canyon South course was renovated and renamed Indian Canyons, an 18-hole, now championship-level public course.

The neglected motels that filled with college kids on spring break some 20 years ago are getting makeovers. Of the 15,000 hotel rooms in the valley, 6,500 of them are in Palm Springs, the vast majority retro properties of seven to 35 rooms.

A shining symbol of change is the Pepper Tree Inn on Palm Canyon Drive. Four years ago, it was, Raymond says, "a tear-down, a $25-a-night prostitution haven." Now the adobe hotel shares space with a well-regarded bookstore and is so wholesome that the annual Miss Teen USA pageant booked rooms there this August.

Across the street, the former Palms is converting from a once-Spartan health spa into the plusher Colony Palms.

Across from downtown's Vegas-style Spa Resort Casino -- which the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians developed from a dusty tent operation to an elegant indoor casino in just 10 years -- the formerly shoddy Holiday Lodge has been remade into the Springs, an upscale retreat with fireplaces and Jacuzzis in the rooms.

Those motels are only the latest to build on a decade-long media fascination with the city's Modern architecture. As popular culture reembraced cocktail party chic, tourists shunned air travel post-9/11, and prosperous gay couples snatched up comparatively affordable second homes, Palm Springs began to recapture its Rat Pack heyday.

Now the city's wealth of mid-century architecture and interior design is driving tourism.

Visitors can stay in restored hotels such as the Movie Colony, Del Marcos and the Orbit In, which is decorated in signature Modern furnishings. The Palm Springs Preservation Foundation's ModCom map to notable buildings is a hot commodity at the public library and visitors center. The formerly boarded-up northern end of Palm Canyon Drive has become a locus of vintage furniture stores.

And last weekend's Modernism art fair has, in five years, grown from a two-day preview and show into a four-day festival complete with a charity gala, museum lectures and a show with more than 4,000 visitors and 75-plus dealers.

"The people who come to visit our show are a real indicator that there's a very young, groovy crowd that's either living in Palm Springs or visiting their weekend homes," says Gordon Merkle, spokesman for the Palm Springs Modernism Art Show and Sale.

Now support is in place to keep the momentum going.

"We voted in a city administration that understands the importance of design," says William Kopelk, president of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation. "We have a whole contingent of voters here who bought properties, fixed them up, increased their value and generally created a good buzz about Palm Springs."

New arrivals spread the word with friends back home, who discover the desert city's landscape and its escape from urban pressures.

"You turn the corner, and L.A. is gone," says Gary Anderson, a Los Angeles marketing executive who shares with his lawyer partner a mid-century Modern house on a large lot. Like many weekend residents, they mostly stay home and entertain friends, a defining mode of Palm Springs life.

When weekenders or natives can be coaxed from their private desert oases, they may wander into downtown Palm Springs, one of the few pedestrian-friendly areas in the valley. When Anderson and his partner ventured to the weekly street fair there recently, they appeared to be the only couple younger than 40. (The median age in the city has finally inched downward by a decade -- to 47.)

Every Thursday night, regional vendors and local restaurants set up booths, tents and tables along six blocks of Palm Canyon Drive, creating a combination artsy-crafty street fair, outdoor buffet and halfhearted farmers market.

On offer: $6 homemade soap bars, $3 watermelon licorice and CDs by a variety of slightly cheesy musicians. On this night, in one booth, Deana Martin was signing her book "Memories Are Made of This" ($24, Crown Publishing), an account of growing up with her father, Dean Martin.

As a child, she often visited friends in Palm Springs, and as an adult, she continues to witness the city's embrace of the Rat Pack's legend.

"I'm amazed, but I'm not shocked by it," she says. "The music was timeless." And so, it seems, is the indelible legend of Palm Springs.

Past and future

On the city's western edge, a one-block stretch of South Belardo Road provides a snapshot of Palm Springs' evolution.

To the south, at the corner of Ramon Road, Melvyn's Restaurant at the Ingleside Inn is a chandeliered throwback to the glory days of Continental cuisine. Decorated like a great-aunt's parlor and staffed by tuxedoed waiters who serve a consistent menu, the restaurant has a mood that strikes an oddly formal contrast to the increasingly casual desert scene.

Even so, "I'm getting more young people than I did when I first opened 30 years ago," says proprietor Melvyn Haber, a suntanned fixture of the local celebrity scene.

If customers don't want authentic retro glamour, they can get the re-created kind a little to the north at the Viceroy Palm Springs. There, hipsters in designer jeans soak up decorator Kelly Wearstler's mirrored ode to bygone Hollywood glamour.

Two years ago, the Viceroy opened as the Estrella, but the Kor Hotel Group changed the name to capitalize on the connection with its Santa Monica Viceroy. The 74-room compound has a new 1,600-square-foot conference center and, after the former La Serena property next door is converted, 11 more villas and a bigger spa.

The Viceroy is attracting professionals in entertainment, advertising and fashion, says general manager Kurt Bjorkman, whose mind races with new luxuries to offer. The latest: a martini shaker and mixers in the mini-bar and a service that stocks the villa kitchenettes with gourmet treats.

At the other end of the block, at West Baristo Road, is the low-slung Del Marcos Hotel, a rehabbed, moderately priced boutique hotel designed in 1947 by William F. Cody to encourage poolside socializing.

Dotted throughout the rest of Palm Springs are signs of how quickly it's embracing the future. Just a short drive east of Belardo Road, the Parker is a wittier, more aesthetically interesting place that pushes its design past pure Modernism. In addition to the eccentrically appointed villas (sample contents: a biography of Bob Mackie, Hermes soap and sheepskin pelts), there are gourmet restaurants and a conference center.

Its high-end service is punctuated with the unexpected: Sweet, minty Moroccan tea is served upon check in; mornings dawn with coffee delivered by a tray-toting tricycle.

Spencer's, a new upscale restaurant at the Palm Springs Tennis Club, was designed by L.A.'s trendsetter Dodd Mitchell and offers the opportunity to sip a bellini on the patio while watching a tennis match.

Philippe's Cafe, a casual bistro-style place on Palm Canyon Road, just introduced a new tapas menu to go with wines by the glass, crepes and panini. There's even a downtown hookah and cigar bar, Howard's Hollywood Hangout, opened recently by former L.A. actor and stuntman Howard Allen.

"It's not the sleepy town I bought into in 1990," says Peggy McCloud, a Los Angeles painting contractor with a second home there. "They used to shut down in the summertime because it was so hot. It's a year-round place now."

Even so, the town can sometimes feel like one vast retirement village, with wheelchairs and canes far outnumbering strollers and skateboards.

And the changes are lurching forward awkwardly.

Political battles about hillside development have emerged. Touristy T-shirt shops, underachieving restaurants and gone-bust businesses still occupy chunks of downtown, which lacks upscale stores. The city shuts down by 10 p.m., except when big events invade.

Shades of gray

It wasn't so long ago that the city divided along the lines of gay or gray.

"If you were young, hetero or middle-aged, there was nothing to do," says Charlie Sharples, a longtime resident who is executive director of the Desert Business Assn., which promotes gay-friendly businesses.

"The city is reaching out to other people now, to families," he adds.

Still, unless your kids hike or collect cactuses, most activities are pool-oriented or outside Palm Springs proper.

Perhaps the city's best resource is its ability to mine its rich irony. Who would think that a conservative retirees' resort would become a homosexual haven?

A city once known as the province for rich Republicans is now an international destination for gay men, who flock by the thousands to the annual Easter weekend White Party, a series of dances and parties in hotels and the convention center.

On the same weekend, the overflow from the LPGA's Kraft Nabisco Championship (formerly the Dinah Shore tournament) in Rancho Mirage has turned Palm Springs and environs into "an excuse for the world's biggest, sexiest lesbian pool party," according to Michele Kort, author of "Dinah! Three Decades of Sex, Golf and Rock 'n' Roll" (Out Traveler Books, $18.95).

The city's embrace of this is so seamless that most official tourism guides include lists of gay and lesbian resorts along with mainstream attractions.

Though the city sells itself as a celebrity retreat -- it's currently home to Barry Manilow -- many decamped over the decades "down valley" to outlying Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells. Yet, Palm Springs is recapturing some of that old Hollywood glamour with -- what else? -- Hollywood.

The Palm Springs International Film Festival in January drew 100,000 moviegoers in 10 days, festival chairman Earl Greenburg says. It attracted top-tier talent such as Nicole Kidman, Kevin Spacey, Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson and Kirk Douglas, who were honored with special awards, and has become part of the Oscar campaign season.

"That's not what you associate with a lazy, small town," Greenburg says. There's also a downtown walk of fame and statues of celebrities, such as Lucille Ball and onetime Mayor Sonny Bono, who called Palm Springs home.

Further, the regionwide Coachella Valley Film Alliance last year lured three dozen film crews, whose productions helped boost the desert's profile.

"It adds a level of prestige and glamour that you can't create or buy," tourism official Hocker says.

Some creative city leaders are hatching plans to lure more younger tourists to stop in Palm Springs on their way to the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, one of the country's premier pop music festivals in the spring.

Of course, the reality of living or visiting Palm Springs is still somewhat different from what the busy brochures would have you believe.

According to Sherwin of the convention and visitors authority, in nearly 30 years of surveys, most visitors list their top reason for coming as the opportunity to do "nothing." Sherwin adds that "nothing" actually means hanging out with friends and playing the occasional round of golf.

But that's the ageless appeal: In the amount of time you'd allot to get on an airplane, you can be in Palm Springs feeling compelled to do not much of anything purposeful at all.

These days, that's the ultimate luxury.