“Okay, this house on your right is one of the homes that Cher bought and restored,” Bob Gross points out, as he pulls our seven-person Jeep onto a side street and slows down. “She bought it for $650,000, added an extra 2,000 square feet, and sold it in 2007 for $1.9 million. Not a bad investment!”
“I think we’re the eighth top international destination for gays,” he says while manoeuvring up Indian Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, California. He has already told us that just over 50 percent of the full-time population of the city is gay, including the mayor and several city councillors.
“I think that’s right,” says Brad Fuhr, publisher of the Gay Desert Guide, who is sitting in the back of the Jeep alongside a wide-eyed family from New Brunswick who has joined us on the Gay Icons Tour of the city, run by Desert Adventures Eco-Tours and Events.
For the next hour or so, we are treated to more gossip and trivia about gay, bisexual and straight celebrities who live, or lived, in Palm Springs.
We see the house that Marilyn Monroe lived in when she and President Kennedy were supposedly conducting a torrid affair; the mini-grand-piano-styled mailbox outside one of Liberace’s homes; the huge gates to Barbra Streisand’s seven-bedroom, seven-bath summer pad up on the mountainside.
We drive past the old home of Mary Martin, who was Larry Hagman’s mom and the original Peter Pan on Broadway back in the day — and rumoured to be a lifelong lesbian, with Janet Gaynor as her main squeeze. Who knew?
Desert Adventures offers a wide variety of tours in and around Palm Springs, but this one by Bob Gross is fun, campy and contains absolutely useless knowledge. I love it. At 90 minutes on Tuesdays through Fridays at 10:30am, it will set you back $60, but it’s the least expensive tour offered.
Be a culture vulture
The Palm Springs Art Museum is a must-see for anyone interested in contemporary work (including glass), Western and native American art, and sculpture. Through Sept 7, California Dreamin’: Thirty Years of Collecting showcases acquisitions from 1984 to 2012, including work by Nathan Oliveira and David Hockney. Admission is free from 4 to 8pm the second Sunday of each month; otherwise, it’s $12.50 per adult.
Stores featuring mid-century modern furnishings and décor, antique shops, art galleries, cafés and more are abundant in the Uptown Design District along North Palm Canyon Drive, from Alejo Road (south) to Vista Chino (north). It costs nothing to window shop and inhale the money changing hands, and cheap eats can be had (see below) when you want a nosh.
For a dose of compact gay culture head to East Arenas Road, a tiny street downtown between Indian Canyon Drive and South Calle El Segundo. There you’ll find bars, cafés and small stores.
Your daily bread
Quite a few eateries offer prix fixe dinners for about $20. If you’re a fan of eating early, these are the spots for you.
The Purple Room, aptly named and the former supper club haunt of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, has been given a tony facelift and serves some very tasty dishes. From 3 to 6pm daily, your $19.99 three-course dinner may include their “veggie ceviche” to start, blackened catfish for a main, and an ice cream sundae to finish. Chances are you’ll be tempted to stick around for the evening’s live entertainment.
Lulu California Bistro is big, busy, full of eye-candy, and smack in the middle of downtown. Everyone knows where it is, and it’s smart to make an advance reservation. Its daily cheap-and-cheerful three-course menu is available after 11am for $19.99, but between 3 and 5pm, it’s $15.99 per person plus tax. You could start with a bowl of vichyssoise and then dive into some lobster ravioli, followed by a flourless triple chocolate cake. Now you’re ready for the clubs!
In the Uptown Design District, I find a small Thai restaurant — Chada, at 1418 N Palm Canyon Dr — that serves an excellent $7 two-course lunch. A little further south is the charming Jake’s (664 N Palm Canyon Drive), which offers amazing watermelon gazpacho ($6) and delicious salads ($10–14). In the same area is the popular Trio and its $19.99 menu, served 11am–6pm. Try the fried artichoke hearts, perhaps followed by a roasted half-chicken, with bread pudding to finish. The choices on this prix fixe menu and the food and service are all top-notch.
Downtown, if you’re craving Mexican, try the Rio Azul Mexican Bar & Grill. Besides being known for its $5 margaritas, the parrilladas by Chef Ernesto are sure to satisfy. At $20 per person, dig into a combo of grilled shrimp, quail, chicken and steak, all served over onions and peppers, rice and beans (requisite guacamole on the side).
The Tropicale Dining & Lounge is almost a must. Happy-hour samplers include Moroccan lamb meatballs with chermoula pesto ($10), Gorgonzola-stuffed dried plums in crispy bacon ($9), and Korean-style barbecue chicken drumettes with sesame spinach ($12). Happy hour is 4 to 7pm daily; dinner is served until 10pm (11pm on weekends), with live jazz on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:30pm.
Gym bunnies unite
If you simply can’t take being away from your gym for any length of time, Palm Springs’ biggest and best gym is uptown at World Gym Palm Springs (1751 N Sunrise Way). The pure energy and enthusiasm of personal trainer Ted Guice is impressive. Incredibly fit at 56, he’s developed his own twice-daily “G-force” workout. “It’s 45 minutes of body-weight resistance training with step aerobics done in a boot-camp style,” Guice says, grinning. “I’ve got an 83-year-old regular, but the majority of those who come to class are in their 40s and 50s.”
Passes are $18 for a day or $60 for a week; fees include all group exercise classes and towel service, but you must bring your own locker padlock.
Heads in beds
I had never visited a pocket-sized city destination before Palm Springs that offered as many small accommodation properties and, with more than four dozen gay resorts from which to choose, certainly never as many geared to gay men. Palm Springs is often billed as the city with the most clothing-optional resorts in the world. With that much accommodation competition, there are plenty of specials. Your average gay Joe can find quiet basic accommodation or places for the sexually adventurous, including specialty resorts for the leather and bear crowds. The popular Queen of Hearts and Casitas Laquita cater to the ladies.
INNdulge, a very social spot in the Warm Sands neighbourhood with sparkling-clean guestrooms and suites in a laid-back atmosphere, offers a $99 Sunday through Thursday special in December and January, and your seventh night is free if you’re there for the full week.
Desert Eclipse, just a few doors up the street from INNdulge, is a fair bit smaller in size but makes up for that in guestroom comfort and a superior continental breakfast. It, too, offers seven nights for the price of six; check the website for periodic seasonal specials.
Uptown, and a few minutes walk from the Design District, is the East Canyon Resort & Spa, a finely appointed property offering peace, quiet and a generous continental breakfast. (Unlike many, it does not offer clothing-optional swimming or sunning.) The spa is certified and professional, with four treatment rooms. Women are also welcome. Depending on the season, your fifth or sixth night is free.