Tag Archives: California

A Solo Architectural Adventure

I’ve been shivering like a hairless dog for the past few weeks. Why? Because I was in Palm Springs for Modernism Week. And it was miraculous weather. Well, miraculous in that it wasn’t winter in Vancouver—cold, wet and gray for as long as the eye dared to look out from under an umbrella. It was luxuriously sunny with a high of sandals all day and a low of thin sundress at night. For those darling loyal readers, you may remember I went to Palm Spring last year and fell in love. With the topography and architecture—there is a dearth of mature-ish heterosexual available men, so nevermind, I wasn’t there for that.

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During that trip I went on an incredible architectural tour of Palm Springs that was helmed by a masterful storyteller who had an encyclopedic knowledge of mid-century architecture and I was transfixed by his telling and obvious love of the design ethos the early visionaries had when they descended in Palm Springs in the 30’s and 40’s.  It was during that tour I heard a few architects talking about Modernism Week and decided there and then I’d go back and so I did.

Once again I stayed at the Movie Colony hotel which is an architectural gem itself. Initially built by Albert Frey, an architect whose designs saturate the landscape of Palm Springs with over 200 buildings, the small boutique hotel has a certain faded glamour about it that I really adore. For a solo traveler, Frey’s design suits me quite well as there is an intimate courtyard area where everyone gathers for a continental breakfast outdoors, reads their paper, pours coffee, talks about the horrible weather they just came from and likewise at 5:30 pm on the dot everyone comes back and gathers for free martinis and California wine and yaks about their day. It just so happened there were very interesting people there including a group of friends who’d known one another since college and were having a hooray-to-the-west trip together. An invitation ensued and David and Dan, Mike and Mark and I all went out one night to a restaurant that had a lot of buzz but we were all kind of disappointed. I was impressed with the copywriting of the menu however, as it really upsold the food in a creative way. Gravy was described as ‘huntsman’s jus’. I thought that was very clever. Another night I went out with Deb and Tim from Michigan, perhaps the nicest people I’ve ever met, to a night market that seemed to stretch the entire length of the San Jacinto mountains. Truly remarkable and entertaining experience I highly recommend if you are in Palm Springs on a Thursday night. There is nothing not being sold at this market, trust me.

The fact is, Palm Springs is the warmest city I’ve every visited and I’m not talking desert climate. For the first few days I was shocked when people warmly greeted me on the street and said hello. I looked over my shoulder, sure they were speaking to a friend that happened to be walking behind me but no, it was me and I responded, a beat too late, appearing suspicious and well, probably like a Vancouverite. Vancouver is well-known as a cold city, a city that doesn’t say ‘hello’ to strangers on the street, a city that has increasingly become about development—sadly, at the cost of its heritage and many neighbourhoods that were once bustling communities of unique personality and spirit.

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I tried to balance the week with a mix of sun, walking, swimming, tours, reading and lectures. I wanted a true holiday and not one where I was running around trying to find the next tour bus. This is the blessing of solo travel—you have only yourself and your own agenda to live by and if you can be confident enough to sit with five or six couples all talking about their adventures and happily talk about your own then you are likely a good candidate for solo travel. There’s no room for self-pity in solo travel—you have to live each day how you want and not give a whit what anyone thinks.

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One of the highlights of the week was visiting Albert Frey’s house high up the mountain overlooking the city and surrounding San Jacinto mountains. It’s said he liked to hang about nude and put a cow bell at the entrance so folks could alert him should they make their way up to his aerie in the mountains. The house just makes you weep with the elemental design of it, the ideal of desert life distilled down into this architectural gem and it whetted an appetite in me to one day build my own writing retreat in the desert region of Osoyoos.

Lectures on architects and design were held daily at the Palm Springs Art Museum, which is a gem in and of itself. I was very impressed with the collection for a city this size. I really loved learning about designer cum architect Walter S. White who designed affordable small concrete houses throughout the Coachella Valley for ‘real people’. His use of soaring curved roofs with floor to ceiling glass windows in his Alexander House are stunning.

The entire aesthetic of mid-century architecture inspires me in a way that makes me want to build. The low horizontal profiles, the exterior designed for intense privacy, happy breeze ways, patterned concrete, gobs of light, interior transparency, with a respectful relationship to the environment, in particular, the desert sun—all this design thinking continually delights me and I hope I can one day replicate some of it for myself.


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Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate


At the beginning of the week, as I sat in the airport fussing about whether my son would remember to feed the cat, another voice interrupted me and said, in a calm and adult-like voice: Just live the hell out of this week. Forget work. Forget the sore knee, dry eyes and achy neck. Forget about dishes and cat hair on the pillows and the weird niggling sound when the car is in reverse. Just live.

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And I did. I really lived the hell out of Modernism Week and I’ll do it again next year.

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California revisited


Hanging out in Long Beach, California.

I’ve been away–both metaphorically and figuratively–and have ended up untethered from my writing for a while. I think we do that when what we have to write isn’t going to be easy. In fact, it will feel more like a tonsillectomy without anaesthetic I’m sure. But I digress. So, where was I anyway? Long Beach, California. A place that I think once likely had a sheen to it but since the recession has a decidedly tired feel, like a convention town without the big acts playing anymore. But there were still palm trees and a pool and I got to present to universities from across North America on my Transmedia character named Emily who I created for a sustainability campaign last year so that was kind of great.

The highlight of the trip, however, was visiting the Queen Mary. Being a hotel nut, this was on my bucket list and it did not let me down. The old world elegance was there in her bones and as you walked the length of the teak deck you could imagine corsets twisting, tiny umbrellas dipping, waiters whisking drinks away and courtly flirtations all happening along the remarkable length of this stately ship.

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The ship was built in 1939 and the art deco details still remain. Apparently, 1.5 Titanic’s could fit inside the Queen Mary! Still used as a hotel, I ran into guests amidst the many tours that were being hustled around the ship and wished I’d stayed overnight. I did feel that the management could put a lot more effort into the tourism experience since I for one considered it to be a once-in-a-lifetime visit. They could take some lessons from a few of the heritage Fairmont properties in Canada.


Whenever I am in California, I always have the sensation of duality. On one level, I am so happy to look up and see palm trees and feel the warm air on my skin and slurp on beachside margaritas but on another I remember myself as a young woman with dreams and desires who worked, first in my sister’s print shop then in the San Diego regional theatre, and drove the California coast with my ‘official’ Californian licence plates. But my time there was also a time in my life when I had been lost, misguided and searching for a life that would bring meaning, joy and love to me. I found it, just not in California.

I do still like to visit though, mostly because there’s few things more joyful than a palm tree against a blue sky with miles of beach ahead of you.


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How I Found My Sense of Humour: Part Two

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.


Architect Albert Frey

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.

Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House.

Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House.

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’.


The private cabanas at the Colony Palms Hotel.

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.











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