THERE'S NOTHING like a sprinkling of stardust to add a touch of glamour to the occasion and after sipping cocktails in a piano bar that has attracted the likes of Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor and Goldie Hawn, eating breakfast by pool where Marilyn Monroe enjoyed a dip and dining in a restaurant owned by Frank Sinatra's personal chef it didn't take long to realise Palm Springs oozes showbiz style by the shedload rather than a token smattering.
The stretch of California's Colorado Desert once inhabited by the Cahuilla Indians became a hideaway and playground for Hollywood stars back in the 1920s when their contractual 'two-hour rule' meant they couldn't be more than a 100 miles away from Los Angeles during filming in case they were needed for last minute shoots. With a distance of 97 miles, and less than a two-hour drive, Palm Springs fitted the bill perfectly.
A world away from Tinseltown's brash neon lights - in fact street lights are limited in Palm Springs so they don't undermine the brightness of the night-time desert stars - the city with a population of just 45,000 has a retro and kitsch sense of style. With 350 days of sunshine, winter temperatures in the 20s, summertime pushing into the high 30s and less than six inches of rain, you can be sure it's not going to rain on your parade.
Single-storey fifties hotels and motels such as the ultra-cool Ace with casual 'glamping'-style rooms furnished with vintage items and torn out magazine pages on the walls and Rendezvous, where Marilyn Monroe's favourite room is now called Pretty in Pink, rub shoulders with unashamedly romantic retreats with no televisions or telephones to distract the occupants. A no-brainer luxury option - Einstein once stayed there - is The Willows, which has the look and feel of a grand Mediterranean villa with huge rooms filled with antiques.
After its glitterati hey-day the recession of the 80s and 90s took its toll on Palm Springs until new life was breathed into the city with predominant investment by the gay community, which in turn led to it becoming an inclusive and laid-back destination as well as a pensioners' paradise. Today it attracts a diverse crowd and has entertainment and accommodation to suit all tastes.
Like most places in town it has a showbiz story to tell ...
I stayed at peaceful Casitas Laquita on the southern side of town. Lesbian owned and lovingly restored from its former guise as a crumbling hotel, it offers an equally welcoming retreat for groups of girlfriends or solo female travellers. Guests have their own key to get through the 'members only' outside gate which opens onto 15 beautifully equipped casitas, complete with kitchens, set around a fish-shaped pool shaded by palms. My one-bedroom casita suite, decorated in a warm Spanish colonial style, had a roomy lounge and large fireplace - not that I needed the latter - and a delicious home-made cranberry cake waiting in the kitchen. Like most places in town it has a showbiz story to tell and it was the location for the 1986 TV movie Slow Burn starring Eric Roberts, Beverly D'Angelo and a very young Johnny Depp
One morning we went on the Rich & Famous tour run by Best of the Best, a brilliant way to take a peek at star-studded homes, many of them still occupied by celebrities today, and some of the mid-century modern architecture for which Palm Springs is also famous. Elvis and Priscilla's honeymoon love nest, Bing Crosby's pad, Liberace's ornate house with a piano-shaped mailbox, the list was as endless as the various roads named after stars. In the downtown area the Walk of Stars, with celebrity names embedded on the pavement, is also an amusing if temporary distraction from the very tempting shops.
Showing that you're never too old to strut your stuff a visit to the Fabulous Follies show is another must. Think of an old fashioned review complete with gravity defying ornate and feathered costumes and you start to get the idea. Then add the fact the show 'girls' with their perfectly honed dancing pins and taut figures are from their mid-50s to 81 and you'll be as transfixed as we were.
America is often synonymous with fast-food and supersize portions but in Palm Springs the accent is on something more tasteful, in every sense of the word. For amazing Mexican food, to say nothing of potent margaritas, try El Mirasol restaurant at Los Arboles hotel or go the Italian way at Johnny Costa's owned by Frank Sinatra's former chef. That night we continued the Rat Pack theme with a visit to Melvyn's, at the Ingleside Inn, for a nightcap and to listen to contemporary crooners, including one who could easily have stepped off the set of The Godfather.
If you get bored with the celebrity scene (not that I did!) there are manicured golf courses and serene spas to explore. For a spot of culture Palm Springs Art Museum is a fantastic venue with stunning pieces of artwork and sculptures, many quirky and a real talking point, showcased in a vast exhibition space.
It would be easy to spend an entire stay in Palm Springs without leaving town, and I'm sure many do, but conversely it would be also be a shame to ignore the unique landscape around the city. Much more than just a barren desert, and surrounded by beautiful mountains that can be accessed on the dizzying rotating aerial tramway ride, you can see the real palm springs that gave the city its name and experience how the original inhabitants lived.
An exhilarating jeep tour with Desert Adventures taught us that palm trees are not trees but actually a type of grass, albeit "grass on steroids" according to our guide Morgan who drove us to the San Andreas Fault, where the clash of the earth's North American and Pacific plates has shaped the landscape. Once again we had plenty to talk about over that night's cocktails, including the novel Indian names that had been bestowed upon us by Morgan.
If you want to follow in the footsteps of the stars and live the luxe celebrity lifestyle, even if it's for an escapist holiday rather than a real-life connection with Hollywood, then Palm Springs is the place to be. And if you visit during the annual January film festival, which attracts present day A-listers such as George Clooney, Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio et al, you never know who you might see.
Jeannine Williamson 22/3/12