California's Palm Springs is just right for sun-starved families
Josua Tree National Park, about 45 minutes from Palm Springs, California, offers hiking trails and is popular with rock climbers. (Chris Riemenschneider, Minneapolis Star Tribune, MCT / January 30, 2012)
"Cute kid," he lazily remarked as he passed our table.
My 4-year-old daughter had caught his and many other brunchers' attention by lifting a shot glass to her mouth and downing its contents like a spring breaker cutting loose in Cancun. And then she gulped another.
It was an unusual way to drink a strawberry smoothie, sure, but a good example of Palm Springs' unfamiliarity with — yet unlikely appeal to — young kids and their parents. While it hardly caters to families, inland California's favorite getaway town has a surprising amount of cool attractions for children to gulp down, and just enough of a laid-back vibe for their parents to feel welcome there.
Best known as a desert decampment for seniors, gays and rehab-seeking actors, Palm Springs has become my young family's warm-weather destination of choice. Many of our friends and even some native Californians we know have trouble understanding why.
Florida was never our thing. We won't do Mexico with kids anymore (spoiled by all the folks we saw in surgeons' masks our last time there, right when the 2008 swine-flu epidemic hit). Who can afford to go anywhere else?
Sure it has no ocean, but Palm Springs is cheaper and much hipper than most coastal destinations, and still provides the palm-tree escapism every Minnesota family wants this time of the year.
Best of all, we all find something to love about the place. My wife enjoys the classic celeb lore, the regal yet relatively affordable spas, the vintage stores and other swank shopping and dining options. Our daughter digs the fascinating Living Desert Zoo, the downright trippy Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert, the breathtaking Palm Springs Aerial Mountain Tramway and the city's cool, palm-tree-lined, oasis-like parks. Those smoothie shots at the Parker were certainly a hit, too.
The main draw for me is the excellent hiking and biking opportunities in the so-close-yet-so-far-out mountains, including the San Jacinto range and all the wondrous formations in Joshua Tree National Park, which I first discovered years ago while attending the Coachella Music Festival (happening again April 13-15 and 20-22; it has played a big role in giving the area a younger, trendier sheen).
Best of all, we can rent a midcentury house with a private pool for the price of a hotel room in most other resort towns. (The Parker was only a brunch destination for us.)
Rentals have become surprisingly affordable and plentiful in the area, thanks to the real estate crunch still buckling much of Southern and inland California. A quick search on the vacation rental hub VRBO.com last month turned up almost 400 listings in Palm Springs proper, with assorted properties trumpeting discounted spring rates.
We so enjoyed our first trip to Palm Springs in 2010 that we talked another young family into joining us there in late October from Austin, Texas. Also recruited was our friend Albert, who had never been there despite being a world traveler and gay man; the joke was we needed him along to get better service from the waiters.
In the end, the picky parents had as good a time as the demanding toddlers, and — thanks to his visits to the Palm Springs Art Museum and other attractions during naptime — so did Uncle Albert, fussiest of all.
We rented a five-bedroom house close to downtown at $1,300 for five nights, which came to a mere $260 total per adult. Like hotel rates, the area's rental prices go up by about a third from mid-November to March. Whenever you go, you're pretty much guaranteed a sunny day: The city averages 350 of them per year.
Our "cabana" was quite a palace. Stretched out on a single floor (like most Palm Springs houses), its long layout provided us with ample privacy, lots of room for the kids to go damage-deposit-testing wild and a pool table that added greatly to the make-me-a-highball-and-call-Sinatra vibe.
"I feel like I'm in the 'Big Brother' house" was reality-TV junkie Albert's assessment.
Each day at our hacienda went something like this: family activity in the morning before it got hot, such as the zoo or children's museum; followed by lunch at a restaurant (the best time to dine out with young kids); rounded out by an afternoon hanging out poolside, when some of the adults sometimes went off to do their own thing around town.
With our own house we could grill our dinners, a perk for young families. After the kids went to bed, some of us adults went out to do the things adults do. We just knew we couldn't roll out of bed at 10:30 the next morning.
One of our favorite hangouts by both night and day was the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, a renovated 1960s hotel that's a flagship for the chain with properties also in Los Angeles and Brooklyn. By "hip," I mean there's a turntable and guitar available in the lobby for guests' use.