Palm Springs Weekend Getaway: A Quick Trip to Slow Down
While it's a quick drive to Palm Springs from LA (or an easy flight from anywhere with its international airport), once we arrive we immediately slow down. We wander. We check out a museum or botanical garden; we eat ice cream. And always, we lounge by a pool. A weekend in Palm Springs helps us re-connect with each other without the hassle of air travel, without needing to plan long and hard. It's an easy way to re-charge our batteries, worn down from city life.
Where to Stay
Palm Springs is packed with lovely hotels, so it's definitely worth searching around for specials - they abound. If you're looking for a comfy little boutique hotel that caters to hipster families, you can't do better than The Ace which is biking distance to the heart of town. Weekend rates run in the mid $200s a night, but there are mid-week and off-season specials. Even closer to town and fun (in a kitschy, ratpack, resorty kind of way), with several big loungey pools, is The Riviera, which will run you around $200 a night. And it doesn't get more convenient than the Hyatt Regency Suites, which sits right in the middle of downtown. For a more upscale resort experience, try The Parker, which has gorgeous gardens, several pools, and a spa that makes you feel like you're in the home of a 1950s WASPy bohemian who just returned from Morroco. Children are welcome at The Parker, but make sure that the adults take turns hitting the spa child-free. The La Quinta Resort is right down the road, and similarly stunning, with a view of the mountains all around. On the other end of the spectrum, camping in the desert is fun and obviously makes the trip more affordable, if more dusty. Many of the local campsites have pools. And if you fall in love with Palm Springs (as we have), you may eventually find yourself investing in a time share (as we have).
If you're sneaking in a Palm Springs weekend from LA, try to leave work early. It's best to hit the road before 2pm on a Friday afternoon to avoid trouble on the 10.
Driving into Palm Springs is a little like driving onto the moon (if one could). First you pass a field of wind turbines, surrounded by cacti and palm trees - surreal. The mountains loom right at the edge of the town, pock-marked like moon-rocks. The mid-century houses perched on cliffs look like space ships. Not sure how the life-sized bronze sculpture of Sonny Bono fits into the moon theme, but there he is, the former mayor, welcoming you to another dimension. You can almost hear the groove, "The beat goes on..."
When you arrive in Palm Springs with children, check into the hotel and swim immediately! Work up an appetite. Order from one of the local Chinese restaurants (they all seem to be pretty good, probably because of the number of retired city folk who can't imagine life without good Chinese food) - Wangs in the Desert, Great Wall, or our favorite hole-in-the-wall, old-school joint, China King. Spread out towels on the bedspread and indulge in our favorite Palm Springs tradition: "the bed picnic." Nothing symbolizes a break in routine like eating dinner on the bed. Time to fit in another swim after dinner (nighttime swims are beyond thrilling to children), and then watch your children fall into bed like a ton of bricks.
Saturday Morning / Brunch
Cereal and bananas (brought from home) will give everyone enough energy to get right back in that pool. Desert temperatures generally allow swimming to begin nice and early. A morning swim should (dare I say "must"?) be followed by brunch at Cheeky's, the best restaurant in the world (author's humble opinion). Cheeky's ever-changing menu of the week features local, organic delicious food, including...wait for it...wait for it...a "flight of bacon." Order the flight of bacon. Even if you're a vegetarian. Be prepared to wait a bit to be seated. Put your name on the list and wander the cute local shops. Buy a bird feeder. Browse through greeting cards.
After lunch, wander with a coffee from yummy Koffi, and let your children explore the grassy area behind the shop, watch a vintage water sculpture periodically tip into the fountain, climb on bronze Sonny Bono. Children love space to run and explore: the desert is full of space (like the moon). Depending on the age of your children, you may wish to sneak in a bit of time in the Palm Springs Art Museum, which features a small but lovely contemporary art collection.
Most Local Option: Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Everyone should ride up the mountain on the rotating aerial tramway...once. It is a gorgeous and exciting ride, and often there is snow at the top. However, it costs $24 for adult tickets and $17 for children (ages 3-12), so it adds up. And once at the top, the nature walk is pretty well trodden. Some families bring up sleds, but I find the snow too packed and the hills not sled-worthy. Better to just wander, breathe in the high altitude air, and have a hot chocolate at the restaurant. The tram ride is the most exciting part.
Best "Not too Hot a Day" Option: The Living Desert
The Living Desert is a full day of fun (though check the hours before going as they grow shorter as the season grows hotter; from June-September it's only open until 1:30pm). Camel rides, giraffe feeding, and an incredible model train exhibit complement the conservation zoo and indigenous gardens. The Living Desert's mission is desert conservation through preservation, education and appreciation and they do a great job. Don't miss the Wildlife Wonders animal show, the endangered species carousel, and the Discovery Center, where volunteers introduce animals up close and personal. At $14.25 per adult and $7.75 for children 3-12, it's a great deal. Check at your hotel for coupons to make it even better.
"Hotter than Hades" Day Option: Knott's Soak City
On a really hot day, there's nothing better than getting sopped to the bone at Knott's Soak City, though as an environmentalist, it requires a little denial: a water park in a desert? Hmmm. Much less crowded than equivalent parks in the city, and surrounded by those magical mountains instead of the 405, Knott's Soak City Palm Springs is pretty awesome. The wave pool, the giant water slides, that seductive lazy river...before long you stop putting on your cover up and just wander around in your bathing suit like everyone else. Online, tickets are only $25.99 for adults, $22.99 for children 3-11.
Rainy Day Option: Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert
When it rains in the desert, it tends to be dramatic, stormy, and exciting. One option is to stay at the hotel, play games, watch the rain, soak it in. But those of us with children know that option is only appealing for so long. Then it's time to find an activity. The Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert was a perfect half-day activity when my daughter was four years old. I'm not sure how much there'd be for her at age seven. I remember painting a car, doing easy science experiments, and balancing blocks. It's no Exploratorium (the hands-on science experience in San Francisco), but it's a good deal at $8 per person. The food options aren't great; plan accordingly.
After the day's activity, weather permitting, there should be more swimming, more lounging, and then heading into town for dinner. Palm Springs' dinner options lean toward too-heavy steakhouses and overpriced tapas. Best meals we've had (Cheeky's is unfortunately only open for breakfast and lunch) were at Matchbox, a "pizza bistro" with a good happy hour, and Rio Azul, a Mexican bar and grill. Probably the most delicious dinner in Palm Springs is the authentic schnitzel at Johanne's, but I was child-free that weekend; you'd want to make sure your children were up for both the flavor and the grown-up atmosphere (it's fancy). Right in the middle of town there's a CPK and a few casual burger joints, which also work for many families. If you happen to be able to sneak out mid-week, every Thursday night Villagefest, a vast outdoor craft and food market, takes over Palm Canyon Drive from 6pm-10pm.
When traveling with children, generally there isn't much night life to be had. After dinner usually comes bedtime, and hopefully you find a hotel with a balcony or other outdoor space to hang on once the kids nod off. If you happen to be traveling with another couple who will trade off childcare, sneak out to Melvyn's Restaurant at the Inglewood Inn for some seriously old-school piano bar entertainment. According to one of the musicians I chatted with, Palm Springs local Barry Manilow still shows up now and then to jam. The vibe is great; the locals are fun, and you keep glancing around to see if Sinatra might have just strolled in.
By the time you wake up on your second morning in Palm Springs, you're really starting to relax. And if you're just there for the weekend, it's almost over. The great thing about Palm Springs is that you can stay until late afternoon and still get home before bedtime. Sunday is a good day to take it even slower: enjoy the pool until check out, then pack up and head into town. Plan to hit Cheeky's one more time, or okay, some people tell me there are other good brunch options, like locally-owned Elmer's Restaurant. I've also seen lines outside Trio, which serves a prix fixe brunch in addition to the regular menu. Then wander a little more. Palm Springs' mid-century architecture is significant, funky, fascinating, and everywhere. Even if your children are too young to fully appreciate Neutra, Lautner, and Frey, you can enjoy a self-guided tour of the history of California design while they pick up desert rocks and explore the terrain. Before you get back on the road, really let that desert sun sink in (through your sunscreen of course), and remember that this place is only two hours away from the manic pace of life in Los Angeles. Try to bring a little of the desert calm back home with you and stay as connected to each other as you were out there on the moon.