Thanks to the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies that many of us watched as kids, whenever California comes to mind we immediately think of “swimmin’ pools and movie stars”. But this celebrity culture extends far beyond the confines of Beverly Hills or Hollywood, something that I set out to explore on a recent Palm Springs getaway.
I was following in the footsteps of generations of celebrities who have made this once-remote desert city their playground, and I was keen to learn more about what drew them here in the first place. But while I was visiting, I also discovered things to do in Palm Springs that can make any visitor feel like they are a bit of a celebrity, too.
Why Palm Springs Became a Celebrity Getaway
The Greater Palm Springs of today isn’t exactly an exclusive hideaway, as there are more than 450,000 residents who live in a collection of resort cities that include Rancho Mirage, Indio, Palm Desert, Palm Springs and more. (That number swells to over 600,000 when the snowbirds flock here in the winter.)
But it wasn’t always that way: at one time, this desert town was literally in the middle of nowhere and Palm Springs proper boasted only a few thousand residents. It was about as far removed from the lights of Tinseltown as you could imagine – which was exactly why celebrities looking to escape from Hollywood found a Palm Springs getaway so appealing. Far from studio bosses and PR obligations, film stars could come to Palm Springs and relax – or let down their hair and really party.
The Celebrity “2-hour Leash”
There was another reason, too why the likes of Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, and Bob Hope bought or rented homes here: the major movie studios had a rule that stars needed to be no more than 2 hours from Hollywood in case of a casting call or re-shoot, and Palm Springs was conveniently located exactly 90 miles (or 2 hours’ drive) away from Los Angeles.
Most Hollywood Stars Came to Play on Their Palm Springs Getaway
Most of the big names from Hollywood came to Palm Springs to play, and some of the most famous made no secret about it. In fact, when Frank Sinatra would come to town he would literally run a Jack Daniels flag up the flagpole beside his house (named Twin Palms) to let everyone know that the party was on!
John F. Kennedy liked to play in Palm Springs too: it’s where he first met his own celebrity crush, Marilyn Monroe, and where the two of them were rumoured to have hooked up on more than one occasion. And since “Jack” Kennedy and Sinatra were friends, when they hung out with other members of the Rat Pack, they jokingly referred to themselves as the “Jack Pack.”
That must’ve been some party.
Frank Capra Came to Palm Springs to Work
A few celebrities came here not for a Palm Springs getaway but to work, at least that was the case with famed Hollywood director and writer Frank Capra. The story goes that when Capra was staying at the exclusive La Quinta Resort, he co-wrote the screenplay for It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, a movie which went on to win all 5 major Academy Awards in 1934.
After that success, Capra believed Palm Springs was his lucky charm, so we would return here to stay at La Quinta – always in the same casita – whenever he needed to work on a new project.
TIP: Frank Capra’s original typewriter is still in the casita where he stayed at La Quinta, and the room is available for any film aficionado or guest to rent.
Wanna-be Celebrities Come for a Palm Springs Getaway, Too
Today, Palm Springs continues to attract movie stars to its chic hotels and luxurious ‘swimmin’ pools’: Justin Bieber, Gwen Stefani, Leonardo DiCaprio and Halle Berry are only a few of the big names who continue to take time out from their shooting schedules or music tours for a Palm Springs getaway of their own.
And now, thanks to the Coachella Music and Arts Festival that takes place every year in nearby Indio, California, Palm Springs has become a mecca for wanna-be celebrities, too, who follow in the footsteps of their favourite musicians and Hollywood style makers while playing to their own fans on Instagram.
4 “Celebrity” Things to Do in Palm Springs
I’m certainly not a celebrity, or even a wanna-be celebrity (my Coachella midriff-baring days are long gone!). But I did manage to find four things to do on my Palm Springs getaway that made me feel like I was living large. Here’s how to get your ‘celebrity’ on in Palm Springs:
1. Take a Hot Lap at the BMW Performance Driving School
Celebrities drive hot cars, and some celebrities like to drive them really fast (think Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder). You can do the same at the BMW Performance Driving School in Thermal, California, about half an hour outside of Palm Springs. The school promises to teach you to ‘Learn Fast’, and there are different mini-courses you can take that will prepare you to get behind the wheel of a BMW M-class car for a ‘hot lap’ or two on their performance track.
My visit to the BMW Centre was with a large group on a short timeline so instead of taking one of the courses, we were offered the chance to ride along with one of the school’s instructors to get a taste of the experience.
When Adam Seaman, the head instructor asked for the ‘bravest volunteers’ to go on a demonstration lap with him, always a keener, I foolishly called shotgun. I later found out that Adam competed on the professional circuit in drifting, so I should have known better. Here’s how that looked from the outside-in (never mind how it felt from the inside-out!)
My wild ride felt like I was in a stunt car on the set of an action movie, and the rush I got was better than any celebrity sighting – I didn’t come down from this adrenaline high for at least an hour!
2. Be Escorted on a Private Red Jeep Tour
When celebrities want to go somewhere they have drivers to take them from location to location, and people to organize experiences for them. You can do the same by booking a Red Jeep Tour around Palm Springs. Whether you want to take a private tour to stargaze in the Palm Desert, go off-roading into the hills, or combine a driving tour with a guided hike into the Indian Canyons, these open-air jeep tours have already organized it all for you.
I joined a Red Jeep tour that took a group of us to the Indian Canyons, the only National Monument run by Native Americans in the U.S. (the Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians). Here we got to do a short hike to a waterfall (yes, water in the desert!) and see two desert canyons: the Andreas Canyon and Palm Canyon.
Both the Andreas and Palm Canyon have been home to the Cahuilla people for millennia, where they learned to live off the area’s abundant plants and animals. In the Andreas Canyon there are rock petroglyphs, house foundations and centuries-old food preparation areas, too. Our guide pointed out a large flat boulder where women used to grind grain, creating circular depressions like ‘mortars’ that are visible in the rock. He also told us a little about some of the native mythology and the story of creation of the Cahuilla people.
The second canyon we saw, Palm Canyon, is a 15-mile long, unexpectedly lush oasis filled with fan palms that are a striking contrast to the rocky gorges and monochromatic desert surrounding it. The tall palms alongside the stream are like monumental columns and seemed so out of place the whole valley almost looked like a movie set itself.
With the tall palms providing shade, hiking this trail looked like it would be a relatively comfortable way to explore more of the desert canyon, too. But unfortunately, our group had more things to see so we could only admire Palm Canyon from above.
3. Get High in Palm Springs, Too
Getting high in Palm Springs can mean many things (remember, in California marijuana is legal!) but in this case, high means altitude, as in 8500 feet high above sea level. And no Palm Springs getaway is complete without taking the iconic Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the Mt. Jacinto State Park at the top. Here’s why you should go:
Firstly, the Tram’s does have a Hollywood connection: several films have shot scenes here (including the The Wrecking Crew, a 1960s James Bond-style parody with Dean Martin as agent Matt Helm).
Secondly, the Palm Springs Aerial Tram has some celebrity of its own as the world’s largest rotating tram car (a great idea so that every passenger gets a 360-degree view and there’s no jockeying for windows).
And lastly, the views from the top looking down into Coachella Valley and west to the snow-covered peaks of Mt. Jacinto are nothing short of spectacular.
TIP: It can get cool at 8500 feet altitude, even with a desert below, and there is often snow at the top of the Tram until late May, so bring a light jacket if you are going up on the Tram.
4. Stay at a Swanky Hotel
Nothing makes you feel more like a celebrity than staying at a luxe hotel, and depending on what type of Palm Springs getaway you are planning, you can find a swishy address to match. Plus one of the best things about Palm Springs is that many of their hotels are what I like to look for in accommodations: unique, boutique, or both – like the 57-room Colony Palms Hotel. (Plus it doesn’t hurt that Frank Sinatra once made this particular property his part-time residence.)
For golfers, The Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa at Indian Wells has been a destination for celebs who are golfers (and sometimes vice versa) for 30 years, and there’s a pretty impressive pool and atrium including a staircase that was actually dedicated by Bob Hope.
For a spread-out hacienda/casita style of Palm Springs getaway, nothing beats the La Quinta Resort & Club (a Waldorf Astoria Resort). Besides being the place where Frank Capra wrote his movies and where Greta Garbo owned a house, this resort is so iconic that the nearby town of La Quinta was named after IT, not the other way around. How’s that for celebrity.
For a funky, youthful option, check out the Ace Hotel, a former 50s-era motel that has completely reinvented itself as a hip design hotel, converting its old drive-up parking spaces into chic patios with fireplaces and creating indoor and outdoor spaces that are truly unique.
No surprise that the Ace is a popular place for Coachella attendees, but be prepared to pony up during the festival as prices go up to match the demand.
A Palm Springs Getaway From the Everyday
Movie stars and swimmin’ pools will always be a part of the appeal of places like Palm Springs, just like California itself. But I think most of us would probably not choose to live the life of a celebrity every day, 24/7.
But a little Palms Spring getaway that offers just a taste of the celebrity lifestyle?
I think I could act that part for a weekend.