Palm Springs on a Budget

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In America's most famous desert resort, a slew of surprisingly low-cost finds

Celebrity playground or golfer's paradise? Gay resort or hideaway for the filthy rich? Since the Roaring Twenties, the sunny, well-watered oasis of Palm Springs, about a hundred miles due east of Los Angeles in the Colorado Desert of southeastern California, has been widely known for all of the above, with oodles of glamorous eateries and posh resorts catering to a well-heeled clientele. The late celeb mayor/congressdude Sonny Bono, resident legend Bob Hope, streets named after game-show hosts and presidents, and a still-steady stream of stars - from Cher to Brad Pitt - have all kept Palm Springs and its five adjoining desert communities in the national spotlight on a regular basis. What's not nearly as well known is that the town of Palm Springs itself (as opposed to neighbors like Indian Wells and Rancho Mirage) attracts plenty of working-class Americans with some of the country's best resort bargains and prices generally well below destinations such as Provincetown, Key West, and Miami Beach. Rates are lowest in summer, of course, thanks to temps of up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (being dry heat, though, it can still be perfectly fine for those into a not-too-active holiday). But even in peak season (generally January through May), when daytime temps hover around a delicious 70 to 80 degrees, you can score spiffy double rooms as low as $48, and every other eatery along chic Palm Canyon Drive will fill your plate for $10 or less. One tip: if possible, plan your visit during the week, as year-round weekend hordes from L.A., San Diego, and elsewhere send room rates north.

Doing the dunes

So what's there to do here besides shooting the links, hanging out by the pool, or watching the cactus grow? Apart from that spectacularly dry and sunny weather year-round (the prime reason folks started coming all those years ago), you can drive in a single afternoon from snow-capped mountains to sandy wilderness to lush green oases... and back to the "historic district" (meaning early- to mid-twentieth-century) with its clean-cut Mexican-village look. For an awesome view over the valley, jump on the Aerial Tramway's brand-new rotating tram car (one of only three on earth and reputedly the biggest; $19.65, discounts for kids/seniors) on its 8,000-foot climb up the side of Mount San Jacinto - or, for a more up-close run-in with nature, head out of town to visit Living Desert ($8.50, kids $4.25), a natural habitat where eagles, mountain lions, and other native fauna flourish. The dramatic Indian Canyons reserve ($6 admission) is also within easy reach; don't miss the Andreas Canyon, where water springs up from the sand surrounding native palms (where do you think Palm Springs got its name?), local wildlife, and hiking trails for classic Western vistas. Admittedly, though, for many a visitor the great outdoors means one of the 100-or-so local golf courses. Most are predictably pricey, ranging from $50 to $250 in season (less otherwise) for one round including a cart; you can save 5 to 50 percent, however, by buying unsold next-day tee times through Next-Day-Golf (760/345-8463) or 20 to 60 percent through Stand-by Golf (760/321-2665).

Back downtown, check out the Palm Springs Desert Museum ($7.50; free on the first Friday of the month) with one of the western United States' most impressive collections of natural history and western and modern art; also not to miss, the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum (free) offers a captivating intro to the culture of the Cahuilla Indians - who to this day own (and lease out) much of the area. Afterward, stroll along Palm Canyon Drive's chic shops, cafes, and restaurants. It's a downtown blissfully free of billboards, junky shops, and burger joints - truly a boon in a world of crassly overdeveloped resorts. Finally, thanks to its location, Palm Springs also makes an extremely convenient base for touring the highlights of southern California: Hollywood, Disneyland, the acclaimed San Diego Zoo, and even the hopping Mexican city of Tijuana are all a scenic couple of hours' drive away.

Desert digs

For my money, few budget lodgings are lovelier than Las Brisas Resort Hotel (222 S. Indian Canyon Dr., 800/346-5714, lasbrisashotel.com), a Best Western that could almost pass for a Spanish monastery, with no end of arched corridors framed by bougainvillaea, exposed beams, and wrought iron - even a baroque stone fountain near the gorgeous pool area. All rooms have a soothing, upscale look and offer unexpected amenities like fridges, irons, and ironing boards. A full American breakfast is included for $59 on weeknights and $79 on weekends during the slow summer season right up to September; in high season, doubles start at $89 on weeknights and $109 on weekends (here and elsewhere, ask about AAA and other discounts, usually 10 percent).

If you don't mind more motel-like surroundings, the pleasant, three-story Vagabond Inn (1699 S. Palm Canyon Dr., 800/522-1555) ranges $10 to $20 cheaper, its 120 good-quality units featuring nice touches like floral wallpaper friezes. There's admittedly not much in the way of landscaping or shade around the pool and hot tub, but you can cool off in a little poolside coffee shop that serves breakfast and lunch goodies at low prices. Rates run $45 in summer; in high season, they're $78 on weekdays and $86 on weekends, including continental breakfast. Spend even less without compromising on quality at the 149-room Motel 6 (660 S. Palm Canyon Dr., 800/466-8356, motel6.com), which boasts a great location walkable to downtown, a heated pool and hot tub, and sleek rooms with pickled wood and the standard amenities (A/C, TV, phone). The damage: $39.99 all summer and $47.99 in winter. There are also nifty extras like free local calls and no charge for additional people in the room.

Named after a cactus that looks like a dried-up twig, the even prettier Ocotillo Lodge (1111 E. Palm Canyon Dr., 760/416-0678) is a condo hotel that rents out units when owners aren't in residence (fear not, they won't try to sell you one). While not quite Las Brisas, the Ocotillo does feel more like an upscale resort than a motel, with rambling landscaped grounds and a fitness center overlooking the fan-shaped pool, pool bar, and spa area. The condos are low-slung 1950s-style casitas, each with full kitchen, huge bath, separate bedroom (most with two TVs and VCR), even a large-ish patio. Weekday rates start at an unbelievable $59 June-September (add 20 bucks on weekends year-round), October through New Year's Eve is $79, and peak season is still amazingly reasonable at $89.

For a bit of colorful local history, park your bags at the romantic Casa Cody Inn (175 S. Cahuilla Rd., 760/320-9436,palmsprings.com/hotels/casacody), reputedly the oldest operating lodging in town-founded in the 1920s by Buffalo Bill's cousin Harriet. Bougainvillea and citrus trees shade pretty walkways linking five hacienda-style buildings, where guests enjoy up-to-date amenities (including minifridges) with Southwestern touches (rustic pottery and peach walls teamed with teal-blue French doors). Served poolside, continental breakfast comes with digs that start at $49 in summer, $69 in spring and fall, and $79 in winter.

If you're interested in a spa experience, consider The Palms (572 N. Indian Canyon Dr., 800/753-7256, palmsspa.com), its Mediterranean courtyard the centerpiece for a resort offering not only pool, saunas, hot tub, and fitness center but also a variety of health-enhancing and weight-reducing programs, including classes from aerobics to yoga. There are different pricing plans, but the basic all-inclusive cost for one person sharing a double would run $1,015 in high season (October through May), 25 percent less otherwise; that covers all meals and use of facilities, as well as your choice of 13 optional activities daily (beginning with a "power walk" at the crack of dawn).

Finally, for a wide variety of gay and lesbian "miniresorts" (some as little as $60 a night), see the article on gay travel in BT's November/December 2000 issue.

California dinin'

Restaurants are also a remarkable bargain, with scads of stylish eateries up and down Palm Canyon Drive vying for your dollar. Most have shaded sidewalk tables, under pergolas and vines, cooled in summer by fine misting systems and creating a fancy resort feel that would not be out of place on the Riviera-only here you'll pay a third of the price and you don't even have to speak French. Top favorites serving full meals for less than $10: for Mexican, two branches of Las Casuelas (368 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 760/325-3213 and 222 S. Palm Canyon Dr., 760/325-2794); for a funky musical experience, the Village Pub (266 S. Palm Canyon Dr., 760/323-3265), with live bands and a multinational menu; great Greek grub at Mykonos (139 E. Andreas Rd., 760/322-0223); tasty Taipei Chinese Cuisine (155 S. Palm Canyon Dr., 760/318-0717), and good, solid fare and romantic ambiance at Bubba's Pub (476 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 760/318-1165). For more dining details, plus our "big splurge" on lodgings, log on to frommers.com/supplements.

Springing into Palm Springs

Keeping in mind that rental-car rates fluctuate constantly, check around for the best deals at any given moment; generally, Avis' airport location (760/778-6300) charges about $175 weekly plus tax, gas, and insurance for a compact car in low season and about $180 in high; you can do a bit better off-airport with Aztec Rent-a-Car (760/325-2294), which will pick you up at your hotel on arrival; rates run about $159 in low season, $179 in high.

For a wide range of information on the area, call the Palm Springs Visitor Information Center at 800/347-7746 or log on to palm-springs.org.

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