Zooming really fast in an ultra-speedy M Series BMW may seem like one of those Walter Mitty moments that’s out of your reach. But now those need-for-speed fantasies are available to anyone willing to plunk down a credit card and show up, ready to roll, at the BMW Performance Driving School in the Southern California desert south of Palm Springs.
Splurges with a side of adrenaline don’t get much better than taking part in a high-speed driving classes, conducted year-round at The Thermal Club—a posh, 30-plus-acre racetrack, training facility, and motorsports club just south of Indio. The goal of all BMW classes, stress the course instructors, is to improve your driving skills and let you feel what it’s like to push these high-performance machines to the limit in a safe driving environment.
And push them you will. Instructors (many of them professional racers) first outfit you with ultra-padded race helmets, then show you how to customize your driving position in one of a fleet of gleaming M Series BMWs. Quick tips like “A squealing tire is a happy tire,” and “Don’t be afraid to skid,” are reminders that going fast—or at least faster than normal—is the order of the day.
Feel like James Bond zooming across the desert in an M Series BMW.
Then, seatbelt snugged, you head out on the tarmac. Depending on the course you sign up for, you could be pitted against your classmates in a time trial. Or you could do power laps of the impressive 1.6-mile South Palm Circuit, the largest track at The Thermal Club with banked turns and a pedal-to-the-metal main stretch. Finish off riding shotgun with your instructor, or another top driver, to see (and feel) what it’s like to go really, really fast around the track.
Fed by underground springs, the desert comes alive here, not only with signature palms, but also with a string of resort communities—Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, and others, as well as the namesake town of Palm Springs—sporting a cool, mid-century modern vibe and countless ways to relax. Back in the 1950s, stars like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley built sleek estates, played rounds of golf at championship courses, and wined and dined the desert night away. Today, the region still has plenty of retro hipster swagger but also next-gen energy, with hot new restaurants, luxury lodgings, and fabulous shopping. Plus, there’s the beauty of the California desert all around. Step away for a moment and gaze up at a million stars—nothing but you, your thoughts, and the sound of the desert wind.
You don’t have to be an art aficionado to appreciate Desert X, a 16-piece collection of visual installations housed in a unique gallery—California’s desert.
The free exhibit, which spans the Greater Palm Springs area, started during Palm Springs’ annual Modernism Week in February and extends to April 30 through the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and the Stagecoach Festival in Indio. From a house built out of mirrors to an optical-illusion wall, the pieces, set against the stark contrast of the Coachella Valley landscape, are striking.
Half of the fun of Desert X is actually finding the artwork, says Susan L. Davis, the project’s founder and the editorial director for The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands.
“Desert X is a big, wonderful treasure hunt,” Davis says. “The installations are in places, parks, cities, and areas not often visited by either tourists or residents. I’ve had people tell me that they find the journey of discovery to be a big part of the enjoyment of the art, and that the landscape they travel through as well as the site itself becomes an important part of their experience.”
Both established and emerging artists’ works are on display, with themes that range from serious global issues (immigration, climate change) to lighter topics (gaming, golf). Artist Claudia Comte built a 100-foot-long wall at the base of a Palm Desert hiking trail for her piece Curves and Zig Zag; artist Tavares Strachan dug nearly 300 craters to create a glowing scene that reads “I am” from above Rancho Mirage at night. One of the most conspicuous works is the reflective house built by well-known multimedia artist Doug Aitken, titled Mirage. Another installation features a roaming robotic vehicle (which unfortunately went missing on March 17).
Davis says her inspiration for the project came from her passion for contemporary and experiential art, mixed with her love of the history, environment, and sociopolitical richness of the Coachella Valley. She and the Desert X board hired artistic director Neville Wakefield to oversee the project.
Most exhibits are open sunrise to sundown, with a few exceptions noted on the Desert X visit page. Pick up a map at Ace Hotel & Swim Club, Desert X’s hub, which also houses merchandise for purchase. On weekends, you can purchase tickets for a docent-led bus tour.
As the most dominant doubles team of all time, pro tennis players Bob and Mike Bryan have wowed fans worldwide. But the crowd-pleasing identical twins, known for their signature high-flying chest bump after each victory, echo that there’s no place like home—especially when that home is California’s Central Coast. Though they now live elsewhere, the pair often returns to Camarillo, in Ventura County, roughly halfway between L.A. and Santa Barbara. We sat down with the high-flying pair at the home of the BNP Paribas Open, Indian Wells Tennis Garden near Palm Springs, and asked them to serve up their views on everything from how they’d spend a perfect day in their home state to their favorite local place for soft tacos.
Where do you live?
Mike: We grew up in Camarillo, and I have a second home there, in Santa Rosa Valley. We live on a little five-acre horse farm; my wife’s a big horseback rider so we’ve got some land out there in the same development as Gary Sinise. He’s my neighbor.
Bob: I’m out of state, but I’m hoping to come to get back to California when my kids are older. Maybe when my daughter goes to Stanford, my alma mater, I’ll move out there.
Mike: [My Santa Rosa Valley home is] close to my parents, close to where our roots are. We love the area—we’ve traveled the world and there’s no place like home. It's just beautiful: the mountains, the ocean five miles away. That’s gonna be the place we’ll stay once we’re done playing. We’ll probably die in that house.
Bob: I like the variety and diversity of California—mountains, oceans, deserts—there’s not really any place like it that has it all.
Who or what is your greatest California love?
Mike: It’s tough to beat the Ventura County and Santa Monica beaches. We grew up bodysurfing there. And we love the mountains too—up behind Ojai in the Santa Monica Mountains—my mom and wife go horseback riding there all the time. We love the Channel Islands too—on a clear day and you see them on the horizon. It's a great view.
Bob: The fact that you can escape into nature on a trail and see what the Native Americans saw hundreds of years ago—it’s cool.
What is the biggest misperception about California?
Mike: That it’s all about showbiz and Hollywood. You get a whole range of people here—even cowboy types. It’s so diverse.
Bob: Yeah, everyone sees the Hollywood sign and that’s what they attach to California—but that’s just a very small part of this place.
What is the stereotype that most holds true?
Mike: The language. “Dude”—it’s what we grew up saying. When people hear us talk they know we’re from California.
Bob: Yeah: “Chill out, dude.”
What is your favorite Golden State moment?
Mike: The sunsets on the beach. We always go to the huge sand hill on the way to Malibu. I go up that and watch the sunset and the waves crashing. Mornings are great too—the crystal-clear air, the blue sky, the crispness. You can wake up on Christmas and go outside to a 75º day.
Bob: The cool shade. The air’s a little thicker on the east coast. I like the freshness in California—just throw on a light sweater at night and a t-shirt during the day.
Time for a road trip—where are you going?
Bob: I’d go up Highway 1 and stop at Santa Barbara, Hearst Castle, Big Sur, then spend the night at Ventana Inn. Then go to Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and I’ve gotta stop at Stanford. Then go across the Golden Gate Bridge into Muir Woods and then keep going up to Napa to do some wine tasting. Then come back and do it all over again.
Mike: I'd hit the national parks. We’d go to Sequoia National Park—my wife has never been and I want her to see those big trees. Then we’d hit Yosemite, then Lake Tahoe and go out on a boat on the water. We’d drive around the lake—on the California side, of course—roll all the way up the state, then zoom down the I-5 to Joshua Tree National Park.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be?
Bob: A carne asada soft taco or a chile verde burrito—they seem to get it right in Southern California. I’m always looking for authentic Mexican food.
Mike: We’d always go to Somis Market near Camarillo. It was in the middle of nowhere, and we hit it almost every day. It was pretty greasy and fattening, but it had the best flavor, and you couldn’t match those beans and rice and the sauces and salsas. To this day our favorite is Mexican food. A huevos rancheros breakfast—you can’t beat it.
Bob: Yeah, if we had one last meal on this earth, it would be Mexican food from Somis Market.
Best California song?
Bob: “California Love” by Dr. Dre and Tupac.
Mike: And any songs by the Beach Boys—my dad went to high school with them. He taught us to play music at an early age, and he taught us all the Beach Boys songs—“Surfin’ USA,” “California Girls.”
How would your California dream day unfold?
Bob: We’d wake up early, drop the kids off at school. We’d go on a bike ride in Ojai, maybe take a boat out on Lake Casitas, then swing over to Carpinteria Beach—the so-called safest beach in the world—and do a little body-whomping. Come back down, pick up the kids, go to the Santa Barbara Zoo, maybe do some shopping at the outlets. Then bedtime with some good Mexican food.
Mike: I’d wake up early, go get some great breakfast down in Venice, then go roller-blading along the beach. Take off the blades and go into the ocean for a little dip. Then get some lunch in Bel Air, maybe catch a concert with friends at the Hollywood Bowl…
Bob: Which concert?
Mike: Maroon 5. Then I’d go watch the sunset…
Mike: In Yosemite.
Bob: You’d need a space ship. Sounds like a good day.
Mike: Then I’d come back and do some horseback riding with my wife, then shut it down. Yeah, that sounds like a good day.
The saying “Thursday is the new Friday” is not just a cheeky adage in Palm Springs: Every Thursday evening, this desert city takes on new life for VillageFest, a weekly street fair that brings casual party atmosphere to its downtown neighborhood.
VillageFest first started in 1991 as a way to draw more people downtown, and the event (which runs every week except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s) has grown to over 200 vendors, taking up three blocks of Palm Canyon Drive. Today, you’ll find a large amount of locally made jewelry, pottery, paintings, and other artwork. “Eighty percent of our vendors on the street are the actual artists selling their wares to the buyers,” says Jasmine Waits of the Palm Springs Parks and Recreation Department.
You can also create an easy, local-favorites dinner out of the fair, like the homemade pizza at Livreri’s, tri-tip sandwiches from CV BBQ, or the breads and brownies from Aspen Mills Bakery. The convivial atmosphere, which lasts from 6 to 10 p.m., attracts a happy mix of out-of-towners and locals (the latter often bring their pooches for an evening stroll), while guitarists, drummers, and other musicians keep things humming.
The weekly fair has had an effect on the rest of downtown, too. Many stores on Palm Canyon Drive stay open late, such as Canyon Rose Boutique and Lappert’s Ice Cream (look for the “BOLT,” or Businesses Open Late Thursday, sign in the window). And many bars and restaurants offer Thursday night specials, like $4 sliders at Village Pub, or the half-price appetizers and drinks at LG’s Prime Steakhouse. If you want to see more art, the outstanding Palm Springs Art Museum does free admission on Thursday nights, too. “VillageFest is one of the longest running weekly art and craft festivals around,” says Waits, “because it has our small-town feel: local art, yummy local foods, and lots of good times.”
No California city is as closely identified with mid-century modern architecture as Palm Springs. Visionaries like Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, and Donald Wexler designed futuristic buildings here...
Give yourself plenty of time to stroll along this swanky strip in Palm Desert. First, you’ll want to see all the art. This roughly 1-mile/2-km strip and adjacent streets house one of the largest concentrations of art galleries anywhere in Southern California. As inviting as mini-museums, these galleries let you get close to art, chat with knowledgeable gallery owners and staff, and even meet the artists on during special openings and events. Then you’ll want to get something to eat—perhaps a juicy steak accompanied by jazz (Sullivan's Steakhouse), or oysters on the half-shell (Pacifica Seafood Restaurant), or wood-fired pizza at Sammy’s.
And of course—there’s the shopping. There’s a reason El Paseo reminds people of Rodeo Drive, what with the impeccably appointed boutiques of top designers, including Bottega Veneta and St. John, tempting you to brandish your credit card and come in. Find more shops at the Gardens on El Paseo complex: Saks Fifth Avenue, Ann Taylor, Pottery Barn, Brooks Brothers, Tommy Bahamas, and more.
For all of the desert’s natural splendour and outdoor destinations, creativity comes with the territory, too. Throughout the year, the region finds ways to celebrate art, design, music, and film...
Got 10 minutes? That’s all it takes to go from the hot desert floor to cool, piney highlands, thanks to this engineering marvel. Spinning slowly as it ascends, the tram rises 2.5 miles/4 kilometers in one smooth ascent to 8,516 feet at Mountain Station, on the flanks of towering Mount San Jacinto. On the ride up, you’ll be Instagramming nonstop as you take in incredible views of jagged cliffs and canyons (keep your eyes peeled for waterfalls in spring). Celebrated naturalist John Muir once wrote that “…the view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth,” and he wasn’t exaggerating.
Up top, there’s access to more than 50 miles/80 kilometers of trails into the Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area. The tram operates through winter, and don’t be surprised if fellow tram riders are carrying snowshoes or cross-country skis to explore the snowy backcountry (rentals are available at Winter Adventure Center, at Mountain Station). Tip for outdoor lovers: it’s a short hike to Round Valley, offering picturesque campsites, even in winter.
But you don’t have to hike or ski to have fun. At the top there are two restaurants (fine dining at Peaks Restaurant; cafeteria fare at Pines Cafe), a bar (aptly named The Lookout Lounge), an observation area, natural history exhibits, and a small theater showing documentary films.
Robert Trent Jones Jr., Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus—the list of top pros who have designed championship courses in the Palm Springs region couldn’t get more name-droppy, at least when it comes to golf. Add mountain and desert vistas that make waiting for your tee time a pleasure, and you can see why this is one of the most celebrated golf destinations in the country.
A staggering 110 courses dot the Coachella Valley. Some of the best-known courses are at La Quinta’s PGA West Golf Club & Resort. Three public courses offer tight fairways, multi-tiered greens, deep sand bunkers, and plenty of water features. At Indian Wells Golf Resort, test your skills on the rolling Celebrity Course, or try the peaceful Players Course—it’s road- and house-free surroundings make for especially beautiful backdrops while you play. If you’re aiming to hone your skills, consider taking a lesson with one of the course’s outstanding pros. You can also have your swing evaluated at Indian Wells’ Callaway Performance Center. Some resorts, like Indian Wells, offer stay and play specials.
Sunnylands, the 200-acre/90-hectare former residence of publishing magnate and UK ambassador Walter Annenberg and his wife Lenore, lets you peek into a lifestyle of the über-rich and infamous. The couples’ glass-walled 25,000-square-foot home is a mid-century modern masterpiece that showcases a world-class art collection of Impressionist art. Though many of the Annenberg’s original pieces are now on display in museums, outstanding replicas let you get a sense of how dizzyingly fabulous is—you’ll find works by Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, and other masters. The artistic style unfolds in Sunnylands’ extensive gardens too—many are landscaped in sweeping bands of color to evoke Impressionist art.
While you can stroll through the gardens for free, you must sign up well in advance to purchase a ticket for a guided tour of the house. (It’s worth the wait.) In addition to the artworks, look for familiar faces—presidents, celebrities, royalty—in the some of the rooms, a glimpse at the lofty lifestyle that the Annenberg’s lived. In fact, the property, nicknamed the “West Coast Camp David,” still serves as a meeting place for global leaders. A museum, a theater and an indoor/outdoor cafe (with stunning views of the San Jacinto Mountains) are also housed in soaring glass buildings. Note: Both the house and gardens are closed in August.
Talk about survival skills. The animals and plants on show at the extraordinary Living Desert Zoo & Gardens shed light on the amazing adaptions that make it possible to survive in the desert’s harsh environment. Observe an incredible array—more than 1,400 species in all—of cacti, yucca, and other desert plants that grow in California’s Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, as well as other deserts around the world. You’ll see—and learn about—desert animals too, some of them undeniable charmers. African meerkats rise up on their hind legs, swaying as they pivot their heads and sniff the air. Desert foxes, with enormous bat-like ears, curl up tight for afternoon naps. And giraffes crane their necks and stretch out extraordinarily purple tongues to nibble on grasses outside their enclosures.
This isn’t your typical zoo, where little ones have to strain to see the animals tucked deep inside their enclosures. Here, the wildlife can walk right up to the fence! For an extra charge, your courageous kiddos can ride camels or let the giraffes lick food right from their palms.
Cool morning tends to be the best time to see animals in action, so come early if you can. That’s not to say afternoons don’t have their merits: As the day heats up, tortoises and lizards come out to absorb the sun and, in the late afternoon, the zoo’s nocturnal animals, like owls and bats, start to stir. Evenings are also a pleasant time to stretch your legs on The Living Desert’s trail network, which leads into the nearby Santa Rosa Mountains. Keep your eyes peeled for native roadrunners dashing among the desert shrubs, looking for lizards and other prey.
For education on desert terrain, head to the model train exhibit. Its 3,300 feet of track winds past miniature versions of desert landmarks such as Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon. Or let kids loose in the one-acre Gecko Gulch playground, where they’ll slide through a replica of a saguaro cactus, scale a lizard sculpture, pan for gold, or dig in a sand dune.
This is a sprawling 100-acre complex, so unless you plan on lugging your little ones through the Palm Desert heat, purchase tickets for the park’s shuttle service. It’s free for kids ages 3 and younger. If you will be walking with stroller-aged kids, bring a jogging or all-terrain ride because many of the paths are dirt.
Ironically, luxury never rests. Palm Springs is constantly elevating indulgence to new highs, with swanky, imaginative do-overs of existing luxe lodgings—such as the splashy Hard Rock Hotel and the Saguaro Palm Springs —and subtler, though no less opulent remakes, like the boutique Colony Palms Hotel and Sparrows Lodge, a rustic-chic gem in the heart of town. Palm Springs’ pampering is about the details: crafted after a Mediterranean-style pensione, Korakia Pensione eschews phones and TVs in favor of outdoor film screenings and afternoon Moroccan tea. At the ultra-refined Parker Palm Springs, relax in private villas with intimate hot tubs. With luxury resorts come luxury spas, with treatments that sound as beautiful as the dramatic surroundings. Relax in private outdoor treatment cabanas at Estrella Spa at Viceroy Palm Springs Resort. At SpaTerre at the Riviera Palm Springs, dip into a Watsu pool, heated to your body temperature. Or turn the world off with a soak in natural, hot springs mineral spas in Desert Hot Springs. Decadence, defined and refined.
Palm Springs is the best kind of party town, always evolving and never resting on its laurels. Hip hotels with poolside DJs attract the cool crowd; top spots include the Ace Hotel & Swim Club and the Hard Rock Hotel. Night-time also brings a host of bars serving desert-cool cocktails in outdoor settings: the Sidebar at the Riviera lets you relax on bed-size lounges to watch the stars while you sip. Party music keeps thumping late at Shanghai Reds, Village Pub and Zelda’s Nightclub. For entertainment, see who’s performing at area casinos, which draw headliners ranging from classic crooners (Johnny Mathis) to of-the-moment stars (Robin Thicke). Thursday evenings, a more casual party unravels along Palm Canyon Drive, as locals and visitors enjoy live bands, booths set up by local shops and foods at Villagefest.
Fabulous pool parties. Stylish bars and impeccably designed hotels. Pampering spas and energetic nightclubs. Lavish events. There’s no question that the Palm Springs region ranks as one of the world’s top destinations for LGBT travelers. Whether you’re a couple or looking for a singles scene, Palm Springs and its neighbouring cities offer memorable experiences—from tranquil retreats to clothing-optional resorts.
"The scene really heats up when the weather cools down"
The scene really heats up when the weather cools down in late autumn and winter. Some estimates put the local LGBT population at 40 percent, and in November, the Greater Palm Springs Pride event kicks off the season with an eye-popping parade and block party. It’s among the many signature LGBT gatherings that take place during the year. The party-filled Dinah Shore Weekend/Palm Springs Women’s Weekend (or just “The Dinah”) coincides with the ANA Inspiration LPGA Golf Championship, and is considered the world’s largest lesbian happening. A few weeks later, it’s the guys’ turn, and time for the dancing and pool frolics of the Palm Springs White Party, the area’s biggest gay event.
Back in its glory days, Route 66 began in Chicago and ended along the bluffs overlooking the Pacific, a 2,451-mile journey through farmlands, plains, and desert. The highway crossed the Colorado River and entered California, then after a long stretch through the Mojave (where an extensive section can still be driven) reached the Inland Empire.
In Victorville, the California Route 66 Museum tells the story of the iconic Mother Road through rare artifacts—from a vintage neon motel sign to remnants from Hulaville, a former folk art site on the road. You’ll also find historic restaurants along surviving sections of Route 66. Not far from the museum, there’s Emma Jean’s Holland Burger Cafe, home to a famous patty melt. While in San Bernardino, the Mitla Cafe opened in 1937 and still serves such classics its home-style menudo, a traditional Mexican soup. And be sure to keep your eyes open for iconic Route 66 landmarks, especially the tepee-shaped rooms at San Bernardino’s Wigwam Motel.
This manicured complex snugged up against the pink-hued Santa Rosa Mountains is best known for world-class golf . Outstanding courses, designed by legendary players such as Tom Fazio, Greg Norman, and Jack Nicklaus, include the legendary PGA West Golf Club & Resort, SilverRock Resort, and The Quarry at La Quinta, as well as the five championship courses within La Quinta Resort. Tennis anyone? La Quinta is also ranked among the country’s top tennis resorts. It’s great for families and pets too: collections of hacienda-style rooms all center around a series of intimate swimming pools, and the peaceful spa offers (we’re not kidding) canine massages.
The La Quinta area also has great hiking; try the pleasant Cove to Lake Trail (5 miles/8 kilometers round-trip), or, for a strenuous tromp into spectacular desert, follow the 7.5-mile Boo Hoff Trail (be sure to carry plenty of water, and avoid the hottest times of the day). Refuel with farm-to-table dishes prepared by James Beard award–winning chef Jimmy Schmidt at Morgan’s in the Desert, or maybe just snack on a Nutella or fresh strawberry cupcake at Tiffany’s Sweet Spot. For gifts, check out La Quinta Olive Oil Company, or find a vintage bauble at As Time Goes By in La Quinta’s Old Town district.
For an intimate look at the region’s amazing desert environment, plan a visit to one of the palm canyons that lie within Agua Caliente Reservation land. All of the palm canyons—Murray, Andreas, Tahquitz (pronounced “Tah-quits”), Chino, and Palm Canyons—are beautiful, but Palm Canyon is the showstopper. Easily accessed from the end of South Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, this 15-mile/24-km-long canyon is home to the world's largest stand of California Fan Palm trees—more than 3,000 palms in all.
Native Cahuilla (“Kaw-we-ah”) Indians lived in these cool, natural retreats, and Palm Canyon was a favorite resting spot. Hike along Palm Canyon Trail, moving through a serene world punctuated by birdsong the castanet-click sounds made by the palm fronds moving in the wind. Fees are charged to enter the canyons, and some offer guided tours that shed light on Native American life.