Move over, Palm Springs. The Coachella Valley communities of Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells and La Quinta long known as luxurious, albeit sleepy, vacation destinations...
Move over, Palm Springs.
The Coachella Valley communities of Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells and La Quinta long known as luxurious, albeit sleepy, vacation destinations for golf geezers and blue-haired ladies have awakened to give a lively alternative to the usual Palm Springs getaway.
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In the dozen or so years that I’ve been visiting relatives in La Quinta, I’ve watched as development replaced sand with manicured grass, red-tiled homes and asphalt. But change isn’t always bad: Also fading is the desert’s notoriety for being the Western capital of the early-bird dinner special.
Of course, even today the towns “down valley” from Palm Springs have about as much edge as the ubiquitous kidney-shaped swimming pool, and will likely never eclipse their big-sister-city’s kitschy cool. But there is an air of sophistication swirling amid the hot desert breezes east of Palm Springs on Highway 111.
The cities down valley already blessed with a spectacular palm tree-lined mountain setting and lavish resorts have seen a mini-explosion of first-rate restaurants, shopping enclaves and cultural activities, which are helping the area shed its fuddy-duddy suburban image and expand the parameters of the elite desert playground.
Valley vacationers are being tempted as never before to skip the crowds and preening of Palm Springs altogether.
“We find more and more that people say, ‘I was just in Palm Springs,’ when they never were; they were in Indian Wells or Rancho Mirage,” says Mark Graves, of the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority. “The whole valley is being known as Palm Springs and that’s a good thing … but the whole focus has shifted down valley.”
Here’s a sampling of what’s drawn people’s attention, and their vacation dollars, to places outside the Palm Springs city limits:
Azur, at the La Quinta Resort & Club. At this first outpost of New York’s famed Le Bernadin restaurant, dining on chef Eric Ripert’s sumptuous seafood selections is like discovering an oasis in a once-parched culinary landscape. Prices are steep, even by desert standards, but one taste of Ripert’s poached skate with lemon brown butter, toasted hazelnuts and braised lettuces makes the tab easier to swallow.
On a more modest scale, locally owned restaurants such as Massimo, for genuine central Italian cooking, and Omri & Boni, for unique pan-Mediterranean cuisine, have blossomed. And joining the dining scene is the upscale offshoot of Pacifica Del Mar, Pacifica in the Desert (California coastal cuisine), and the latest Roy’s outpost (Hawaiian fusion), proving that chain restaurants don’t have to be a gastronomic missing link.
Indian Wells Tennis Garden. The biggest names in tennis compete at this state-of-the-art, 16,000-seat stadium facility.
The River at Rancho Mirage. If Southern California is the epicenter of artifice, this new $50 million, 217,000-square-foot retail-and-entertainment complex provides the desert with the latest synthetic jolt. A thoroughly man-made river is the focal point for what is basically a tony mall-cum-stylish-destination. Sure, there’s a multiplex and a Borders and, yes, even a Starbucks. But there’s also something as rare in the Coachella Valley as a puddle: a place to hang out.
Built around the river promenade and various lagoons and coves are cafes with outdoor seating, restaurants, a 100-seat amphitheater for live music, a children’s playground, art galleries, a brewpub and a winery tasting room.
For me, the first sign that the Coachella Valley had seriously grown up beyond Palm Springs occurred a few years back, when the valley’s second Saks Fifth Avenue opened, on Palm Desert’s El Paseo. Until then, the somewhat dated, semicircular, four-lane boulevard’s shining star was a stand-alone Escada boutique with clothes that appeared trapped in the Nancy Reagan gilded smart-suit era.
Saks is part of a two-story, fountain-filled outdoor shopping complex called The Gardens on El Paseo, and its arrival marked a rejuvenation of El Paseo. Suddenly the street seemed to come to life with new shops, restaurants, cafes and galleries. High-end shoppers filled the trunks of their high-end cars and drove back to their high-end hotels without ever having to go to Palm Springs.
El Paseo’s retailers like to market their glitzy thoroughfare as the desert equivalent of Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive and whether you find that appealing or appalling, it fits.