Delights of the Desert

date palms

Just when all the snowbirds had flown home for the summer, my mother, my sister, and I arrived in the desert. 

By the first of May, the Canadian semi-residents of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley have returned north. Everyone here knows it, and we were greeted with surprise by one merchant on learning our nationality: “I thought you had all gone home!” On a bus tour, our fellow visitors were all Americans, although the tour guide’s remarks still reflected the regular presence of Canadian visitors with references such as “Mary Pickford, America’s sweetheart-- who was Canadian, by the way.” For those of us from a temperate zone, the summer months here can bring challenges, but the upside is found in the relaxed pace and the diminished crowds in restaurants and shopping districts. You can get a sense of what this part of the world is really all about. 

Immediately upon arrival at the Palm Springs International Airport, you know that you have reached a friendlier, more serene environment. The airport is small and as stress-free as it is possible to be in these difficult times. You are instantly welcomed to the desert as you cross the sun-drenched courtyard that lies between the gates and the security checkpoints. Baggage claim is quick and then you are away in your taxi or rental car, driving along the wide, palm-lined thoroughfares with names like “Gene Autry Trail” and “Frank Sinatra Drive”. 

desert architecture

The Coachella Valley contains a number of adjacent cities (Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert among them) centering on the city of Palm Springs. This area, surrounded by mountains, combines the beauty of the desert with the glamour of old Hollywood. The community was essentially created by the California celebrities of old, who built their private enclave here in this oasis east of Hollywood and south of Las Vegas. Bus tours will take visitors through their old haunts in Las Palmas and the original Movie Colony, where the stars once played, in a manner far different from their successors today in their gated communities. These celebrities were more than wealthy visitors; they were much-loved members of the community, and are remembered by the locals with pride and affection. 

Many Canadian visitors come for the golf; however, we were on a ladies’ weekend, and this is a perfect place for the shopping-and-eating activities that form the core of such getaways. We spent an afternoon wandering along El Paseo, an elegant shopping strip in the city of Palm Desert. There is a feeling of southern California glamour to this lovely street lined with palm trees and lively art installations. The shops here are at the higher end, but it isn’t necessary to buy to enjoy browsing the bright colours and filmy fabrics, and there are abundant cafés for quick rejuvenation, and lovely restaurants for patio lunches. (We joked that, for Palm Springs ladies, white pants and gauze blouses are de rigeur on the lunchtime patios!)

Sherman's Deli

In funky downtown Palm Springs, we wandered the “house and home” neighbourhood, where shops are filled with fun and funky elements of desert décor. Souvenirs and pool fashions can be found here on Palm Canyon Drive, along with a variety of restaurants of all levels and styles. On Thursday evenings, the street is closed to traffic for the appropriately-named “Village Fest”, which features artisans, vendors, and a lively atmosphere which makes for a fun evening stroll. 

The River

Rancho Mirage has a delightful social centre at The River, a charming mercantile development arranged along a series of fountains in the shape of a “river”. The water features are surrounded by restaurants, cafés, and shops, and make a wonderful evening stroll before or after a movie or a patio dinner. One coffee stop was enjoyed to the accompaniment of a piano player as we enjoyed the morning air and watched the ducks in the water. 

While the economy of the valley owes much to tourism, that is not the only element here. The date palms of the valley produce most of the world’s dates, but must be pollinated by hand as the native insects do not live here. Big, juicy medjool dates are found in all the markets and shops; we enjoyed date milkshakes, an absolutely delicious and very popular treat in the valley. Build-it-yourself frozen yogurt shops are also hugely popular. 

Visitors arriving at the airport or driving into the valley from Los Angeles are greeted by a massive wind farm. These are quite impressive to drive through, tall and white on the horizon, with their slowly turning blades. The windmills are privately owned, many by native Americans. It was of great interest to me, coming from Canada where things are very different for our First Nations, to learn that the native populations of the Coachella Valley are very prosperous, due to the high value of their land. 

Spanish architecture

The Hispanic influence is of course very strong here. Mexican restaurants are everywhere, and while they are not all equal in terms of quality, there are many that are head and shoulders above anything we can get in western Canada. Little gems of Spanish-style architecture are found all over, mixed in with the prevailing contemporary desert style.

All this creates a charming, escape-friendly community. And it is only the beginning, because just outside its boundaries is the wider world, with the natural beauties of the surrounding mountains, of Joshua Tree National Park and the San Bernardino National Forest, among many others. And not so far beyond that, a few hours’s drive away, lies the California coast and the many activities available in the area around L.A. There’s no need to be bored on this sunshine getaway!

Photos: date palms; Church of Saint Paul in the Desert, Old Las Palmas; Sherman's Deli; The River at Rancho Mirage; courtyard detail

© Leslie Wilkes 2016