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Palm Springs Awakening

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by Steven Foster

Whether actor, producer, or hanger-on I never quite understood what my LA friends saw in the infamous resort town.

“We’re going up to Palm Springs for the weekend,” they would say.

“You have a pool,” I reminded them. “And an ocean.”
So?” They answered incredulously. It was like a joke with a punchline I never quite understood.

Then I went.

And, at last, I got the joke.

The mountains that wall Palm Springs are impressive enough. God-like in their enormity, deceptive in proximity, they are usually white-tipped, capped with snow, almost as if clouds were draping their peaks, like fallen curtains. But the inordinate amount of rain in California has colored the range with a blanket of lush, verdant covering, making the entire range look like some music program wave form zigzag, cool green below, brilliant blue above. It was high season, which meant all rooms were at their premium, with the air crisp, dry, and pleasant at noon, chilly enough for a light jacket at night. This is, of course, the finest time to experience Palm Springs but if you’re into battling temps that can soar to 118°, you can be comforted by finding rooms that dip in price to compensate. It’s your call.

But we’re talking about Palm Springs here and we need to get the real scenery issue out in the open, which is pretty much what most PS resorts do. If you’ve heard about Palm Springs and you’re gay—highly likely considering the publication you have in your hands—you are undoubtedly aware that most gay resorts are clothing optional, a simple fact both titillating and terrifying. PS is dangerously close to LA, so if you do visit Palm Springs, you just might walk into the Ginch Gonch photo shoot of your dreams, or be surrounded in a hot tub by rejects from the most recent Flomax campaign casting call. What you need to know is that, with a little research, you might find exactly what you’re looking for.

There are more than 30 gay and lesbian resorts in PS, most located in two neighborhoods and, with the exception of one or two, the highest concentration of those are in Warm Sands, a collection of resorts that isn’t just nearby, but actually butt up (sorry, couldn’t resist) against each other. Think of it as the Pacific Street corridor, on steroids, with rooms, pools, hot tubs, and misters. What you might not know is that each inn has its own vibe, feel, and décor. It’s almost as if they all got together in some kind of gay town meeting and divvied up style. “Okay, you take the high design angle, like a mini W. You take cozy. You, you’re porny.” Here’s a sampling to get you started.

INNdulge (great place, goofy name) corners the market on comfortable and casual. One section of the motel-like structure borders and views the requisite pool and hot tub and features rooms that are spacious and pampered without being stuffy, with fifties-style kitchenettes refreshingly preserved. PS loves its retro history and most establishments gleefully respect this. There is a poolside happy hour (which most inns offer), and INNduldge probably boasts the most spectacular view of the mountain range nearby. Practically every Palm Springs locale is outfitted with misters to combat the desert heat, but INNduldge has the only pool chiller which, when the heat can soar to skin-melting temperatures is quite a draw. The other ubiquitous feature the gay resorts here have in common are extensive video libraries. Binders by the front desk assemble the collections, the most hilarious notebook here reads “Gay Porn Movies Shot At INNduldge”. Hey, at least they’re honest about it.

While on the subject of homoerotic honesty, no inn wears their pornographic little heart on their bare sleeve with as much pride as All Worlds Resort. Once you pass through an intimidating front desk that borrows heavily from the lock-down louche of a bathhouse, a veritable maze of landscaped, cruisy pathways unfold. Several pools and hot tubs collect in secluded sections, broken up by public play rooms, and a bank of lockers and outdoor showers, presumably for those whose stay here doesn’t involve overnights. Before the final, Roman column pooled area, a long green lawn space is lined with Grecian statues, and hidden in a thatch of jungle foliage is a biomorphic wooden sculpture that, well put it this way, the high sheen probably hasn’t come from a good rubbing with Pledge. Our tour guide through Palm Springs was, naturally, a sunny California blonde named Hillary Angel (no, I’m not making this up) who, all things considered, was a real sport about all of this gay business. Usually, the inns are small enough to announce her presence and most men either throw a towel around their midsection, or zoom off like vampires surprised by a sudden sunrise prayer breakfast. But All Worlds is massive with no PA—that’s public address, not Prince Albert and believe me, we would have known the difference—so no general “Female On Premises” warning was issued. Let’s just say that no one at All Worlds really cared one way or another. And one guest in particular was very proud to show us what was, judging by Hillary’s face, definitely not on the scheduled tour.

On the more stately side of the spectrum is The Century, a futuristic modern retro number with polished concrete floors, glass accents, and circular throws that match the lime, tangerine, and ivory color scheme and disc art that adorns the walls. Flames lick around the glass stones of the fire pit while the deep green glass tiles in the pool shimmer, sparkle, and shine like the crystals that supposedly lie in the aquifer beneath the city, long-rumored to provide Palm Springs with its intoxicating, feel-good, laidback vibe. The Century looks like a gay Jetsons space ship designed by Jonathan Adler and the clientele certainly looks the part. If you’re looking for your photo shoot eye candy, this glam go-to will satisfy your sweet tooth in a big way.

Two other inns worth special mention that are off the beaten path are the Triangle Inn and East Canyon Hotel and Spa, the latter being one of the few gay resorts that are not clothing optional so if you’re staying here make sure to pack your skivvies. East Canyon is one of the few gay resorts that feature an in-house spa offering massage, facials, wraps, and other pampering indulgences. But the vibe is definitely business traveler so don’t expect that swinging sexuality other inns are famous for. Triangle is lush and richly landscaped, with an insulated jungle feel to the place. Bonus points go to the Triangle for lovingly restoring its original architecture, and the Inn also features a fully appointed, four bedroom guest house with its own separate pool with private entrance, yet easy access to the rest of the grounds. It’s a nice touch if you’re traveling with your pack.

To get your drink on, fly on over to Toucan’s, a fantastically kitschy tiki-bar with plastic vines wrapping around the bamboo ceiling that sprout as many stuffed parrots as plastic cocoanuts. The whole place is more goofily hilarious than any Gilligan’s Island episode, but the drinks are deadly serious. Happy hour here means you receive a plastic tumbler half-filled with respectable well vodka and your choice of mixer, and an accompanying Toucan’s business card that gets you another one of these mind-erasers for free. Have a couple rounds of these and you might just be joining the decidedly older drag divas (average age…what? 50? 60?) at one of the other gay hotspots, Hunter’s. As with any dragstravaganza, the Hunter’s show is a mixed bag of old bags, and is often upstaged by the more sedate but infinitely more entertaining wheelchair crowd that comes out for the spectacular, in addition to the usual twentysomething gymbots. There’s something very we-are-the-gay-world about seeing buff Abercrombie cruisers mere steps from a transsexual in a pink suit who bears a striking resemblance to Mamie Van Doren. You’re not gonna see that at Meteor.

Hangover nursing comes courtesy of Pinocchio’s where they pour the mimosas early and the breakfasts bring that homemade, artery-clogging, booze-soaking goodness you need after a night of debauchery, if sweating it out in your hotel hot tub the previous night didn’t do it for you. Dinner, however, belongs to either trendy Trio or sexy Wang’s. Trio offers spectacularly subdued cuisine with a menu reflective of the polished, understated décor. Tender Hokkaido scallops, delicately seared and blissfully chilled for the seafood lover in you, or the tongue-indulgent Wisconsin artisan cheese plate if you’re looking for earthy, oozy richness. Both are fine starter options. For dinner, sate your palate with the butternut squash ravioli with sage and brown butter, a dish most restaurants reduce to unpalatable orange-colored mush but Trio elevates to ethereal elegance. Wang’s (what are they thinking with these names?) boasts a shockingly wallet-friendly happy hour. PS may be close to LA but their cocktail prices, thankfully are nowhere near as bankrupting. But the swank Wang’s is not simply about cocktails, but seriously upscale Chinese cuisine, complimented by luxe interiors as dark and sexy as any hotel bar in Shanghai. You can’t go wrong with any of the entrees but special props go to the chilled peanut noodle appetizer with fresh julienne vegetables in an oh-so-delicate peanut sauce that has a spice bite to match the firmness of the perfectly cooked pasta. PS isn’t breaking any new ground with their menus, but what they lack in innovation, they more than make up for in execution.

Granted, your hotel stay may involve various…um, activities, but there are a few clothing-required excursions that you need to get dressed up for and be sure to include on your Palm Springs stay. Modernism Week, which runs February 18-27 next year, is a must-do. But if you can’t make that architectural extravaganza, be sure to take Robert Imber’s PS Modern Tour. Imber’s famous in PS for his dapper hat and seersucker attire as much as he’s known for his three-hour Harvard-worthy but accessible lecture on the city’s remarkable architecture. Imber’s depth and breadth of knowledge is staggering, with a special emphasis on the many still-pristine works of Lloyd Wright (Frank’s son), the iconic and prolific Albert Frey, and Richard Neutra. Indian Canyon offers breathtaking hikes with stunning camera-ready views and handsome, uniformed tour guides who know this area like the back of their tanned native American hands. (There’s no charge for the guides, but don’t forget to tip. Sadly, most tourists do.) Whether you’re guided through the Canyon or not, check out the almost-hidden, massive adobe-like mansions on the hill, visible from the threatening fence line. Apparently, some exclusive cult of wealthy weirdos live there occasionally and, if you’re lucky, you can actually spot them walking on their extensive balconies, presumably preparing for an Armageddon only they’re aware of. It’s creepy in a cool, California quirky kinda way. More sunny Addams family than Manson family. If it’s too hot outside—and, boy can it get there—seek cool refuge in the Palm Springs Art Museum that in addition to their stunning permanent collection, through June showcases more than 75 sculptures, paintings, installations, and design art from some of the most talented contemporary artists of our time in the massive, flawlessly designed Steve Chase Wing. I’ve been to MOMA, MOCA, and even the skyscraper-set Roppongi Hills museum in Tokyo, and I was blown away that a little town like Palm Springs had a collection these cities would slice off their ears for.

Maybe it’s the fact I’m a bad gay. (I’ve never been to P-town, either.) Maybe it’s the Carrie Bradshaw in me that refuses to find the charm in any hamlet that has half the population of the Galleria on a weekend. But I do see why Lost Angelinos would find themselves at this desert paradise. I can’t say I’d drive four hours from LA on a traffic-heavy Friday to get there, as many Hollywood types are prone to do. To me, that’s a real joke. But a flight there? That I get.

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Ste7en Foster

Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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