The Palm Springs airport really knows how to show off. There is an outdoor walkway from the plane to the baggage area with blazing white canopies for those who want shade under the penetrating heat of the sun. Palm trees stand like desert super models greeting you as you wander, stunned and squinting, to claim your baggage. But who wants shade? I was starved for sun having come from Vancouver where months of rain and cloud had contributed to my dour and rather humourless state of mind.
In typical fashion, I hadn’t planned much beyond an architectural tour that appeared to be run by a couple obsessed with modern architecture. The Palm Springs Modern Tour was the only item on my itinerary for the whole week other than unplanned napping and spontaneous fiction writing and reading. As the sun blasted onto my neon-white face in the taxi, I smiled back up at it and nearly licked the window in gratefulness for its warmth.
I was in the desert and the desert was under my skin.
When I arrived at the Movie Colony hotel (named after a a neighborhood in Palm Springs where famous movie stars owned homes between the 1930’s & 1960’s including Marilyn Monroe, Jack Benny, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore) I had the usual ‘oh, this isn’t what it looked like on the internet‘ moment then quickly schooled myself to just embrace the experience. The voice in my head that always urges me to ‘just embrace the experience’ has really got me into a lot of trouble in my life but in this case I agreed wholeheartedly with it. The hotel was designed by architect Albert Frey and as I passed through into the intimate courtyard area I could see I was in the hands of a master architect. Built in 1939, the hotel initially sat on acres of dry dusty land looking out to an open expanse just far enough from Los Angeles that movie stars could let their hair down–as in really down–in the desert. Albert Frey had studied with Corbusier and fell in love with Palm Springs on a trip there and stayed to claim the small town as his own. He left a trail of modern architecture in his wake and transformed the small desert town into what is now a mecca for modern architecture enthusiasts’ and hipsters who don’t understand what they are referencing.
Albert Frey and many of his contemporaries seemed to be in love with an architectural feature seen everywhere in Palm Springs called the breeze way. Of course you want a breeze way in the desert! Albert Frey’s breeze way at the Movie Colony hotel led out to an idyllic pool surrounded by white deck chairs covered in bright yellow striped towels surrounded by a tall row of green bushes and sky-high Palm Trees that hedged around the pool and provided a natural barrier to the outside world. Instantly, I felt like I was staying in someone’s small, chic modern house. And that, I suspect, is exactly what Mr. Frey wanted you to feel.
My body really had gone through the ringer since I’d wrecked my back in May of 2013 and I had been slowly working my way back to some semblance of fitness and mobility again but had resigned myself on this trip to a one-piece which made me feel old but what can you do? It was not an experience I wanted to embrace but sauntered down to the pool and took my Chelsea Handler book, light as vodka and soda, with me. After dozing in the 103 degree heat, I crept down the little stairs into the pool. Most pools are too cold for me as are most oceans and lakes. The only two times in my life I had the right temperature of water to swim in was in Corfu, Greece and for many years at my two best friend’s houses as a kid.
This pool was the absolutely perfect temperature with low chlorine and a view of the hotel that was white against blue sky with two giant green Palm Trees like Dr. Zeus drawings dotting the zenith above. Heaven.
At Dean Martini hour that night (held at 5:30 everyday, seven days a week), I donned a light cotton dress and joined the other guests around the small outdoor kitchen area in the middle of the inner courtyard. Is there anything better than free martinis, fresh oranges, your hair still wet from pool and warm air on your skin? Being the only single slinging back the martinis, I got the usual questions and comments from the couplelanders: Aren’t you nervous to travel by yourself? Don’t you feel self-conscious doing things by yourself? My, you are far braver than I am!
I wondered to myself as I looked at this very attractive woman in her fifties what she’d been doing with her life if my act of drinking a martini by myself was considered ‘brave’. But each to his own I suppose.
I won’t lie and say eating by yourself doesn’t have its challenges. For one, you can’t choose a place that has all couples drinking wine together because then you really stand out. What you want is a little family place that has just a few oddballs in it so you can relax and just enjoy your meal. I used to live in San Diego and for a time I worked with a Mexican printer–don’t ask, it’s another long story–and I discovered what ‘real’ Mexican food was so I was on a quest to have some in Palm Springs. I walked down the main Palm Canyon Drive in a thin dress covered in a pattern of flowers with flip-flops on my feet at seven o’clock at night and reveled in the feeling of warm evening air on my skin. The street was bustling with business and the restaurants were crowded. I surveyed one after another then stumbled across Las Cansuelas, a little hole in the wall family run Mexican restaurant and promptly ducked into its shady interior. It was quiet save the family eating together at the back, and I ate there for three nights in a row because it was so incredibly delicious. I just told them to make it like they would for themselves–I recommend you do the same if you are ever there.
Pops of colour burst against the sandy browns and beige of the desert everywhere in Palm Springs. After the dull winter, my eyes seized on the bright oranges and yellows and reds like a hummingbird. I spent hours swimming, floating and staring up at the ultramarine sky, admiring the intentionally intimate hotel design of Frey’s who clearly saw the pool as the whole point of the hotel. And it was. In fact, most of the purpose of any good modern house in Palm Springs is the pool life.
Frey is everywhere in Palm Springs and I was glad to be further educated on his legacy by Trevor, the master storyteller from the Palm Springs Modern Tour company, who gave me a three hour modern architecture tour and told story after story on how Palm Springs was ‘colonized’ by architects’ with a new design aesthetic that saw function and simplicity take precedence over decoration and frivolous design. The love for modernism has gone a little berserk in Palm Springs along with the cost of owning an authentic mid-century house. The tour gave me a deeper appreciation for what those architects envisioned, including my favourite, Richard Neutra, and I happily joined the army of tourists’ salivating over the clean, sharp shapes and blissfully simple lines of these architectural gems. Among them, the famous Kaufmann house, an item on my personal bucket list I could now check off. Having been a long-time fan of photographer Slim Aarons, and specifically of his series of photos taken at the Kaufmann house, I was gaga when we stopped to admire Neutra’s genius design. I plan on immersing myself in the heart of it all next February during Modernism Week in Palm Springs.
Leisure living is a kind of sport in Palm Springs. I saw it in full bloom at the Colony Palms Hotel, a chi chi hotel where the elite of Coachella were staying, some of whom were capsized at the bar, smoking and acting as if they were in lawless land. Which of course they were. Hollywood, celebrity, power, stardom–these have the weight of influence here and the private cabana’s and money and champagne swirling around remind you just how the whole thing started out in the desert by a few celebrities who wanted to escape the studio glare and how in fact, it is still going on relatively unchanged since then. And for a time I lived it too in the Movie Colony: hot sun, salty rim of a cocktail, starlet temperature water, blood-red nails and a lemon-coloured cabana towel draped over wet shoulders. It may have been glamour with a small ‘g’ but it felt fabulous with a big fat sexy ‘f’.
More importantly, I remembered what leisure felt like. I remembered my sense of humour. And I made a vow to keep a bit of the Movie Colony alive inside me until I could return.