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July/August 2018

The LC in the Desert: Welcome to Palm Springs

As you enter the display hanger dedicated to the World War II European Theater at the Palm Springs Air Museum—one of the best in the country—you have a choice. You can opt (for a small fee) to climb up a small ladder and into a completely restored B-17 Flying Fortress bomber—the plane that dropped more bombs over Germany than any other aircraft.

VVA logoI did. Wow. Once I managed to wriggle through the door (actually a small hatch that crewmembers swung through feet first), I found myself peering in awe into the cockpit, which looked as though the pilot and copilot had just left after completing a bombing mission over the Rhine. Then I tiptoed across a narrow metal path to look down at the bomb doors, exchanged awestruck remarks with a volunteer guide in the radio operator’s area, rapped my knuckles on the non-pressurized steel frame, and peered out one of the machine-gun slits on the side of the fuselage. 

My time inside the B-17 was the highlight of a recent short trip my wife Janna and I made to Palm Springs to report on its history and amenities. VVA’s Leadership & Education Conference will be held at the Renaissance Hotel, just a few blocks from historic downtown.

Two Thousand Years of History

Palm Springs sits in the shadow of the 10,800-foot Mount San Jacinto in Southern California’s Coachella Valley at the northwestern edge of the Sonoran Desert. The city and its environs have been the home of the Agua Caliente (“hot water”), a relatively small band of Cahuilla Indians, for at least 2,000 years.

The Agua Caliente were attracted to the area’s natural hot mineral spring waters. Primarily hunter/gatherers, the Agua Caliente escaped the intense heat of the summers by moving to the cooler, nearby canyons. The men did the hunting; the women gathered acorns, mesquite beans, seeds, fruit, agave, and yucca. Remnants of tribal trails, rock art, house pits, irrigation ditches, dams, and reservoirs still survive in the canyons outside the city.

New Spanish explorers arrived around 1774. Other white settlers, missionaries, and explorers followed, exposing the Native Americans to—among other things—smallpox. An 1863 smallpox epidemic killed thousands of Agua Caliente.

The federal government, in the form of an executive order by President U.S. Grant, created the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation in the American centennial year of 1876. But when the Southern Pacific Railroad came through the town the following year, the U.S. government took half of the land (odd-numbered, one-square-mile parcels along ten miles on either side of the tracks) away from the Indians and deeded them to the railroad.

The government allowed the Agua Caliente to retain ownership of the even-numbered parcels, but they were not permitted to derive any income from them. It wasn’t until 1959 that—after years of intense lobbying by the (all-female) Agua Caliente Tribal Council—the federal Equalization Act became law, authorizing the Indians to lease or sell their lands for profit.

The first lease went to a group of investors who built the Palm Springs Spa. The huge, 30,000-square-foot spa opened on January 21, 1960, on the site of the city’s original mineral springs. Three years later, the Spa Hotel opened on the same spot. The Agua Caliente bought the spa and hotel for $9 million in 1993 with a loan from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Two years later they opened a casino there, near downtown and just a few blocks from the Renaissance Hotel.

Today the small number of surviving Agua Caliente own some three thousand sections of land in Palm Springs, making the tribe and its members the largest single landowner in the city. In addition to the huge, recently expanded and updated Spa Resort Casino, the tribe is constructing a 5.8-acre cultural center a few blocks away. When completed in 2020, the center will contain a cultural museum called the Agua Caliente Spa and Bathhouse showcasing the tribe’s history, culture, and traditions. The tribe also owns the Agua Caliente Casino Resort and Spa in nearby Rancho Mirage, and the Indian Canyons Golf Resort in Palm Springs.

Photo: Marc Leepson

Taking the Waters

Back in 1884 Judge John Guthrie McCallum moved to Palm Springs from San Francisco with his family, mainly to help his son “take the waters” to treat his tuberculosis. The McCallums became the city’s first non-Indian permanent settlers. The judge is best known for building a nineteen-mile-long, stone-lined irrigation canal (with the help of local Indians), bringing water from the Whitewater River into the city. He also is credited with settling on the name Palm Springs for the city in 1890. It had been known variously as Boiling Water, Agua Caliente, and Palm Valley.

The first hotel, aptly named The Palm Springs Hotel, opened in 1886. The first resort, The Desert Inn, started in 1909 as a tuberculosis sanatorium, then morphed into a fancy resort hotel frequented by the rich and famous.

Hollywood stars began flocking to the city in the 1930s. A favorite haunt was the El Mirador, an opulent resort hotel that opened on New Year’s Eve 1928. The twenty-acre, 200-room Mirador located not far from downtown also included the city’s first eighteen-hole golf course. Its distinguishing feature was its sixty-foot-tall Spanish Revival bell tower.

El Mirador flourished during the Depression years. In 1941, though, the federal government bought the hotel and repurposed the property into a military hospital. The government all but abandoned it in 1952, selling it as Army surplus to a group of investors who restored the place to its late 1920s splendor.

That venture lasted into the early seventies, when El Mirador once again became a hospital, now known as the Desert Regional Medical Center. The landmark bell tower was destroyed in a 1989 fire. The hospital had it meticulously rebuilt using the original 1929 architectural plans. The tower and hospital are on the National Register of Historic Places.You can’t miss the grand tower, which sits close to Route 111, the main road into the city from the north.

Palm Springs incorporated in 1938 and experienced a residential housing and business boom during World War II. Today, Palm Springs still attracts Hollywood luminaries among its many visitors. They come for the warm winters, the mineral spas, the golf, the shops, restaurants, art galleries, museums, and other attractions of what Angelinos usually simply call “the desert.”

Doing the Desert

Photo: Marc LeepsonThe Air Museum is adjacent to the Palm Springs Airport, less than three miles from the Renaissance Hotel. It contains sixty meticulously restored aircraft on display inside four huge, climate-controlled hangars. Two are devoted to World War II aircraft, one for planes that flew in the Pacific, the other for those that were used in the European theater. The hangar that contains Vietnam and Korean War aircraft also features a large Vietnam War POW/MIA bracelet display, which includes a wall of photos of former POWs and some folks back home who wore their bracelets.

The Air Museum is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 745 North Gene Autry Trail. Admission is $17. However, the Museum is offering a discounted admission of $10 per person to VVA members during the Leadership Conference week. Just bring your Conference badge for the discount or mention that you’re a VVA member at the front desk. For info, call 760-778-6262 or go to palmspringsairmuseum.org/visit

Photo: Marc LeepsonInterested in seeing cactus and other desert flora up close and learning more about them? Check out the compact but overflowing Moorten Botanical Garden just a few miles from the hotel. Admission’s only $5 for a self-guided tour of the grounds crammed with three thousand types of desert plants. Summer hours begin at 9 a.m., probably the best time, as things in July heat up considerably by mid-morning.

Moorten, which is privately owned and has been around since 1938, is located at 1701 South Palm Canyon Drive. For more details, call 760-327-6555 or go to moortengarden.com

Also not far from the hotel: The world-class Palm Springs Art Museum, just a block off the main strip downtown. Its collection includes work by Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Robert Rauschenberg, Ansel Adams, and many others. You can take in virtually every piece of art (paintings, sculpture, historic artifacts, and much more) in the modern, spacious (and well air-conditioned) museum in a couple of hours. 

The Art Museum, at 101 North Museum Drive downtown, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday and from noon to 8 p.m. on Thursdays. Admission is $10, but is free on Thursday from 4-8 p.m. For info, call 760-322-4800 or go to psmuseum.org

Photo: Marc LeepsonAnother must-see (if you have time) local attraction: The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, located in Chino Canyon a few miles north of town. You drive a couple of miles up to a parking lot (elevation 2,600 feet), and then walk to the station to get your tickets for a ride on the world’s largest rotating tram cars.

They whisk visitors on a ten-minute, two-and-a-half mile ride to the mountain station at 8,500 feet in San Jacinto State Park. It’s about thirty degrees cooler up there, and there’s plenty to see and do: a restaurant, café, natural exhibits, view decks, and fifty-plus miles of hiking trails.

In operation since 1963, the tram is open seven days a week. Tram cars depart every half hour. On Monday through Thursday, the first one goes up at 10 a.m.; on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, the first one up departs at 8 a.m. The last trams up on Sunday through Thursday leave at 8 p.m. and the last one down departs at 9:45 p.m. On Friday and Saturday, the last tram up is at 9 p.m. and the last one down is at 10:30.

You can get tickets on line or when you arrive at the station. The good news is that the tram is free for veterans in July. Just bring a copy of your DD-214 or a VA or VVA ID. Family members and guests of veterans get twenty-five percent off the price of a ticket. Regular ticket prices are $25.95 for adults ($23.95 for seniors). More info at pstramway.com and 760-325-1449.

Aside from its famed golf courses and spring-water-fueled spas, Palm Springs is best known as the place where, since the 1930s, big-name Hollywood film stars have migrated to get away from the madness of L.A. Name a star of the thirties, forties, and fifties and chances are he or she owned a getaway house in Palm Springs, a 100-mile drive from La-La Land.

Here’s a partial list of one-time Palm Springs homeowners: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Kirk Douglas, Gene Autry, Mary Pickford, Merv Griffin, Edward G. Robinson, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Dorothy Lamour, Liberace, Debbie Reynolds, Cary Grant, the Gabor Sisters, Jack Benny, Alan Ladd, Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Loretta Young, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Lena Horne, Robert Stack. You get the picture.

The stars built mostly opulent homes in several sections of the city and its environs, mainly in a section of town called The Movie Colony near downtown and Little Tuscany and Old Las Palmas nestled in the foothills of Chino Canyon. Several local tour bus operators offer guided tours that cruise by the houses. Best of the Best tours has a ninety-minute-plus drive that takes you by dozens of stars’ old homes with fact-filled commentary by witty and friendly driver-guides. For info, go to thebestofthebesttours.com or call 760-320-1365.

Palm SpringWith no Leadership Conference activities scheduled, Thursday evening would be a good time to head downtown for Villagefest. You’ll find the main drag, Palm Canyon Drive, filled with more than two hundred booths offering art, handicrafts, and food, along with many shops and restaurants open late for business. It runs 7-9 p.m.

Click here to read about the celebs
who be attending the Leadership Conference

Desert Delights: Dining in Palm Springs

Historic downtown Palm Springs is just three long blocks from the hotel. It’s crammed with restaurants, cafes, and watering holes. You name a cuisine—burgers, Chinese, diner food, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, seafood, steak, Thai, and more—and you’ll find more than one spot downtown, and plenty more in other parts of Palm Springs and its environs.

The closest breakfast and lunch place to the Conference hotel is Koffi, one of a local chain of coffee shops less than two blocks away. The coffee is great and the patio offers a pleasant place to have a light breakfast (oatmeal, granola, bagels, muffins and other sweet rolls, and parfaits) and enjoy the relatively cool and pleasant mornings.

Koffi is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and offers grilled lunch sandwiches in the p.m. The address is 650 East Tahquitz Canyon Way and the phone number is 760-318-0145.

One block closer to downtown is Sherman’s Deli and Bakery, which offers the full range of standard breakfast items in large portions with excellent service by a staff of seasoned servers who keep the coffee coming. It’s popular with locals and tourists (as is Koffi), and also serves “Kosher-style” lunches and dinners, including mammoth New York-deli-sized corned beef and Reuben sandwiches.

Sherman’s is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and offers an early dinner special from 4-7 p.m. The address is 401 East Tahquitz Canyon Way; phone number: 760-325-1199.

Another good breakfast spot downtown is the very French L’Atelier Café, owned and operated by a young French couple. They came to Palm Springs for the first time on their 2012 honeymoon and liked the place so much that they stayed and opened this small, informal café with a few outdoor tables. It’s open for breakfast and dinner, featuring omelets with French and California ingredients and other egg dishes in the morning, and sandwiches, quiches, and salads for lunch. The café is open from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 129 La Plaza; the phone number is 760-778-7895.

For lunch and dinner, we found a quite good and reasonably priced Vietnamese restaurant on the main street downtown, Watercress Vietnamese Bistro, at 415 North Palm Canyon Drive. Everything we had was fresh and perfectly cooked. That included an appetizer called Banh Xeo, a large Vietnamese crepe filled to overflowing with shrimp and bean sprouts, and onions, and Xao Sa Ot, a chili lemongrass dish with onions, scallions, and peanuts with your choice of chicken, beef, mock meat, or tofu. The service was swift and the ambience cool and serene.

Watercress is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and till 9 p.m. on Sunday. There’s a daily happy hour from 3-6 p.m. The phone number is 760-832-9927.

Gyoro Gyoro Izakaya Japanese restaurant also has a happy hour, from 5-7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 4-7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Located downtown at 105 South Palm Canyon Drive, this traditional Japanese place is spacious and filled with modern, mostly wood décor, and is quite informal.

The menu is extensive. In addition to sushi, sashimi, specialty rolls, and taki tori (grilled skewers), there are steaks (Kobe beef, naturally), rice clay pots, ramen noodle dishes, and more. The service is swift; the drinks are cold; and the food is well above average.

Lunch is served seven days a week from noon to 3 p.m. Dinner is from 5-10, Monday through Wednesday; 5 p.m. to midnight on Thursday and Friday; 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Saturday, and 3-10 on Sunday. The website is gyoro-gyoro.com and the phone number is 760-325-3005.

Bon appétit!

—Janna Murphy Leepson






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