19 Jul Wanderings: Palm Desert, California
Imagine living in the shadow of a popular older sibling, the one who has all the fun, gets all the recognition and steals the spotlight. That was once the situation for Palm Desert, California, the younger, humbler sibling of beloved Palm Springs, 14 miles to the east.
Both are part of the Coachella Valley, tucked oasis-like into the surrounding mountain ranges. But when I say Palm Desert is less popular, what I really mean is that it feels more undiscovered, laid back and family-friendly, which seems to suit this city and its residents and visitors just fine.
The legendary Palm Springs became the go-to spot for the rich and famous — think Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra — in the 1930s with the opening of luxury hotels and swanky nightclubs. Palm Desert, on the other hand, went through its growth spurt in the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps initially for snowbirds who wanted to be in the same region as Palm Springs but at a more affordable price tag. It has all of the amenities of a world-class resort town, but less of the hoopla — and less of the nightlife — which is, perhaps, its draw for some. Today, Palm Desert’s population, around 51,000, has exceeded that of Palm Springs, although many locals escape the extreme desert heat of July and August.
I spent a few days exploring Palm Desert last spring and only ventured into Palm Springs once, for a visit to the Palm Springs Art Museum, a glass-and-steel example of Desert Modernism founded in 1938. Here, I was captivated by the extensive collection of works that focus on international Modern and contemporary painting and sculpture, along with Western and Native American art and distinguished rotating exhibits. Opening August 26 at the museum, for example, is Kinesthesia: Latin American Kinetic Art, 1954–1969, which examines the pioneering role of South American artists in the international Kinetic Art movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Desert opened in 2012 as an offshoot. There, a modern building called The Galen hosts ongoing and temporary exhibitions as well as special events, and the 4-acre Faye Sarkowsky Sculpture Garden surrounds the property. When I arrived later that evening, an indie band was playing on the grounds, apparently a regular occurrence during the high season.
The next day, I got my art fix early, coffee in hand, with the city-led Palm Desert Public Art Tour. This was also an enlightening way to get a taste of the local life from the docent, a talkative full-time resident who kindly answered my many non-art-related questions.
The City of Palm Desert was one of the first in the country to implement a public art program; in 1986, they began requiring developers to place art as part of developments or pay a fee to the Art in Public Places fund. To this day, the city has more than 150 pieces on display.
The walking tour commenced at the Palm Desert Public Library, then ventured through the Civic Center Park — a beautiful 70-acre park with a public pool, sports fields, a playground, dog park and plenty of room to roam and laze about. We ended at El Paseo, the heart of Palm Desert’s downtown, referred to lovingly as the “Rodeo Drive of the Desert.”
By the time I hit this main strip, I was ready to cruise on my own. Although it was early February, I shed layers and enjoyed the desert heat. I kept hearing music playing, as if I was walking to my own upbeat yet subtle soundtrack, and then discovered it was coming from speakers tucked into the sidewalk gardens. More than a dozen galleries were preparing for the El Paseo Art Walk, which occurs on the first Friday of every month, November through May, as part of the Palm Desert First Weekend, a citywide celebration that features cultural events in different areas.
Hohmann Fine Art, a contemporary gallery with an eclectic variety of works on display by well-known and up-and-coming artists, was a favorite. Coda Gallery also stood out for its bright colors and the variety of mediums; for Pop Art lovers, walking through Coda is like being a kid in a candy store. And the classy Melissa Morgan Fine Art, in a 6,500-square foot building at one end of El Paseo, is a must-stop for a look at cutting-edge contemporary art.
Although art was my focus, it was clear that there were also plenty of outdoor activities. The Palm Desert hiking map I picked up at the Visitor Center features canyon jaunts, in-town trails and mountain-top hikes. The Rand Henderson Trail features three loops through the desert landscape, and The Living Desert Zoo is the perfect kid stop with trails leading through animal habitats and gardens.
In order to cram Palm Desert’s wide variety of dining options into my short stay, I opted for a Desert Tasty Culinary Tour of El Paseo restaurants. The three-hour walking tour included a stop at Pacifica Seafood Restaurant for refreshing ceviche, mouthwatering homemade gnocchi with a wine pairing at Ristorante Mamma Gina, and a stop into the Savory Spice Shop, among others. Afterwards, with a full belly, I watched the end of the Swing ’N Hops Street Party, part of the First Weekend celebration in February, with dancing in the streets, food booths and a classic car show. For other memorable meals, try the delectable French cuisine and wine at Cuistot, the refined California cuisine at Cork Tree, and lunch in a beautiful setting at the Desert Willow Golf Resort.
My visit would not have been complete without the resortlike accommodations and sprawling swimming pools at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa. I had a much-needed massage at the tranquil on-site spa, a gourmet buffet breakfast spread each morning, and time by the pool, looking out toward the stunning views of the surrounding mountains. Other lodging options include Shadow Mountain Resort, which offers condos, villas or studios; and Casa Larrea Inn, conveniently located one block from El Paseo.
After a whirlwind tour of Palm Desert, it became clear this city can hold its own, with golf resorts, an up-and-coming arts scene, regular events, a thriving downtown, city parks, family activities, outdoor adventures, a plethora of dining and big name acts at the McCallum Theatre. For visitors, a stop into Palm Springs can be the icing on the cake.
If YOU GO…
Big Wheel Tours (bike rentals and Jeep tours)
74850 42nd Ave; 760.779.1837; bwbtours.com
Civic Center Park:
43900 San Pablo Ave; 760.346.0611; cityofpalmdesert.org
Desert Adventures Red Jeep Tours & Events:
74794 Lennon Place, Suite B; 760.324.5337; red-jeep.com
El Paseo Art Walk: (first Friday of every month)
November – May, 4 – 8 p.m.; 760.346.0611; elpaseoartwalk.com
The Living Desert Zoo:
47900 Portola Ave; 760.346.5694; livingdesert.org
73000 Fred Waring Dr; 760.340.2787; mccallumtheatre.com
Palm Desert First Weekend:
(various locations) 760.346.0611; pdfirstweekend.com
Palm Desert Public Art Tour:
September – May; 760.346.0611; palmdesertart.org
Palm Springs Art Museum:
101 Museum Dr, Palm Springs; 760.322.4800; psmuseum.org
Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Desert:
72567 Highway 111; 760.346.5600; psmuseum.org/palm-desert
Santa Rosa-San Jacinto Mountains National Monument:
51500 Highway 74; 760.862.9984; desertmountains.org
73400 El Paseo and Lupine Ln; 760.346.4661; codagallery.com
Hohmann Fine Art:
73660 El Paseo; 760.346.4243; hohmannfineart.com
J. Willott Gallery:
73300 El Paseo; 760.568.3180; jwillott.com
Melissa Morgan Fine Art:
73040 El Paseo; 760.341.1056; melissamorganfineart.com
Ramey Fine Art:
73111 El Paseo, Suite 109; 760.341.3800; rameyart.com
Hotel Paseo: (opening September 2017)
45400 Larkspur Ln; 760.340.9001; marriott.com
JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa:
74855 Country Club Dr; 760.341.2211; marriott.com
73721 Shadow Mountain Dr; 760.346.6121; resortmojave.com
Shadow Mountain Resort and Club:
45750 San Luis Rey Ave; 760.346.6123; shadowmountainresort.com
Westin Desert Willow Villas:
75 Willow Ridge; 760.636.7000; starwoodhotels.com
Cork Tree California Cuisine:
74950 Country Club Dr; 760.779.0123; thecorktree.com
72595 El Paseo; 706.340.1000; cuistotrestaurant.com
Desert Tasty Culinary Tour:
Desert Willow Golf Resort:
38995 Desert Willow Dr; 760.346.0015; desertwillow.com
Mitch’s on El Paseo:
73951 El Paseo; 760.779.9200; mitchsonelpaseo.com
Pacifica Seafood Restaurant:
73505 El Paseo; 760.674.8666; pacificaseafoodrestaurant.com
Ristorante Mamma Gina:
73705 El Paseo; 760.568.9898; mammagina.com
Wilma & Frieda: (breakfast & brunch)
73575 El Paseo; 760.773.2807; wilmafrieda.com