Sun, sand—Palm Springs has everything you need for a vacation except the surf. This city of wide, palm-lined boulevards, meticulous gardens and its world-famous cluster of Modernist homes really is an oasis in the desert, especially for the diverse groups of émigrés who have made the valley their home over the past century. Native Americans, Hollywood stars, European architects, snowbirds, golf enthusiasts and, most pertinently, gays and lesbians have found their inspiration in Palm Springs.
The largest of the desert cities in California’s Coachella Valley, the city is flanked by the San Jacinto Mountains to the west and the San Bernardino Mountains to the east. In its sheltered basin, the community enjoys perfect weather year-round, and I’m not exaggerating. Even in the dead of winter, when I visited, locals shivered and complained about the freezing air during a brief windy spell—though the thermometer remained firmly in the mid-60s.
The ideal climate and welcoming, friendly atmosphere set a grand stage for Club Skirts Presents The Dinah, the annual five-day blast of lesbian pool parties, concerts and comedy showcases, which founder and producer Mariah Hanson proudly dubs “the biggest all-girl event in the world.” Now celebrating its 23rd year of trend-setting music and entertainment, The Dinah brings several thousand women to Palm Springs every April. This year, The Dinah organizers, the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism are teaming up to show visitors much more of this effervescent destination.
“There’s so much to do here in Palm Springs, and one of my goals is to incorporate working with the city more so that people have a reason to come and stay longer,” said Hanson. The best place to start loading your itinerary is Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism’s website, visitgaypalmsprings.com.
The first thing I noticed when I got off the plane at Palm Springs International was the city’s matchless sense of style. The open-air airport, the angular, low-slung buildings, the retro lettering on signs and the pastel-hued shops all echoed the city’s Atomic Age heyday, when Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore and Elvis brought their celebrity to the desert. From the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, architects who were strongly influenced by the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier designed homes and estates for Palm Springs’ wealthiest residents—which can be viewed on Robert Imber’s exhilarating Palm Springs Modern Tours (760-318-6118, palmspringsmoderntours.com). Imber, an architecture nut and enthusiastic proselytizer of Modern iconography, leads visitors on immersive three-hour tours (by minivan) of Palm Springs’ mid-century icons, including the famed steel Alexander houses, the futuristic Palm Springs Visitor Center designed by Albert Frey, and the Kaufmann House by Richard Neutra, commissioned by the same department store mogul who employed Frank Lloyd Wright to build his masterpiece Fallingwater.
Today, design addicts have opened home design and clothing stores with a decidedly vintage feel in the Uptown Design District, a stretch of North Palm Canyon Drive brimming with studios, art galleries and boutiques. Trina Turk Residential and Boutique (891 and 895 N Palm Canyon Dr, trinaturk.com) nails the quintessential Palm Springs look for home and body: bold graphic upholstery, psychedelic prints and effortless cool. Just Modern (901 N Palm Canyon Dr, justmoderndecor.com) offers a hard-to-define mix of cutting-edge and old-school home furnishings, like wooden fretwork wall art and modular fireplaces. Unashamed retro enthusiasts can stock up on new Jamz shorts and loudly patterned Hawaiian muumuus at MacMillan’s Resort Wear (886 N Palm Canyon Dr, 760-323-2979).
Palm Springs’ village-like downtown area, blissfully free of fast-food outlets and chain stores, offers a top-shelf restaurant scene with new restaurants and older favorites serving California-fresh cuisine. Lesbian-owned Casa de Frida (450 S Palm Canyon Dr, casadefrida.com), which opened in November 2012, serves sophisticated Mexican dishes inspired by Chef Victor’s family recipes—and the vibrant earthiness of artist Frida Kahlo, the restaurant’s namesake. Decorated with Mexican folk art and subdued lighting, the dining room is an inviting place for artful margaritas (try the chili-rimmed tamarindo, served in a fishbowl glass) and the authentic Mexican shrimp ceviche. On the other end of the décor spectrum, the white tufted-leather banquets and supersized crystal chandeliers at Lulu (200 S Palm Canyon Dr, lulupalmsprings.com) give diners a show even before the meals arrive. The extensive food and cocktail menu emphasizes bistro favorites like sauteed tilapia with mango salsa and chicken piccata. The daily three-course prix-fixe menu, with app, entrée and dessert, is a steal at $19.99. Nearly all Palm Springs restaurants offer sidewalk seating, and the outdoor tables at Zin American Bistro (198 S Palm Canyon Dr, pszin.com) give diners a front-row seat to the Villagefest community arts fair on Thursday nights. The French/American menu includes unusual inventions like crispy fried olives stuffed with bleu cheese and classics like a grilled filet mignon. Palm Springs’ unofficial cocktail, the martini, gets a modern makeover at Zin with the addition of mint or cucumber. The go-to spot for hangover brunches, or carbo-loading before a hike in the canyons, is Pinocchio in the Desert (134 E Tahquitz Canyon Way, pinocchiops.com), a casual café with a mind-boggling menu spanning breakfast through midnight snacks. The bottomless glass of Champagne for just $3.95 might leave you too buzzed for that hike.
If it does, clamber aboard a bright red Jeep and tour outfitter Desert Adventures (red-jeep.com) will ferry you to one of the many natural recreation areas ringing Palm Springs. On the 20-minute drive to Indian Canyons, for example, I got a complete lesson in Palm Springs’ Native American history, geology, botany and recent vacation-home developments from Darryl, our certified naturalist guide—and that was before we reached the parking lot at Andreas Canyon, a serene palm oasis carved out of sandstone bedrock and abutted by enormous, jagged promontories. An all-too-brief hike began at the bottom of the canyon, along a snowmelt stream, and rose via a sandy path to a high plateau with a panoramic view of the rugged San Bernardino Mountains. It’s abundantly clear why the Indian Canyons are the locals’ favorite spot to commune with nature.
From the depths of a canyon to the top of a snow-covered granite peak in about an hour—it’s possible in Palm Springs’ varied topography. Hop on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the world’s only rotating tram car, in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains, and be whooshed upwards along cables at 21 miles an hour to the summit of Mount San Jacinto. At 8,500 feet, it will literally take your breath away. The bracing air is 40 degrees cooler at the peak, and the snow-covered slopes, hardy pine trees and postcard views will make you feel like you’re in Switzerland instead of the Sonoran desert. Grab a casual bite at the Peak Restaurant (pstramway.com) before your roller-coaster ride down the mountain.
In its topography and culture, Palm Springs has continually reinvented itself over many decades. The trend carries over to one of the region’s biggest annual events, Club Skirts Presents The Dinah. Twenty-three years ago, Hanson threw the first women’s weekend with parties at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Unfortunately for the venue, the event was such a raging success that “they had to rewrite their bylaws so I could never have a party there again,” Hanson laughs. “The Dinah has become this very diverse, action-packed weekend. There are so many different types of women here; they’re from all over the country, all over the world. We somehow get together and get past all our differences and have the time of our lives. My team and I are most proud of that.” This year, Hanson is excited to partner with the Hilton Palm Springs Resort and its general manager, Aftab Dada, to secure a long-term home for The Dinah.
“Aftab is so committed to this group, and he really goes to bat for us with the city, because he knows how important this group is to the city,” Hanson says. “He wants to city to appreciate us. I feel so lucky to be working with him.”
Set in the heart of downtown, the 261-room Hilton Palm Springs Resort (400 E Tahquitz Way, palmsprings.hilton.com) is putting the finishing touches on a $10 million renovation that brings a fresh jolt of glamour to the 32-year-old property. The new look is immediately evident in the open-plan lobby, with a two-story mercury-glass mirror and contemporary seating area as its centerpiece. The guest floors enclose a spacious, sun-drenched patio with a pool, whirlpool, lounge and bar area, which will be the scene of The Dinah’s official pool parties. The rooms themselves—each upgraded with more than 20,000 dollars’ worth of new furnishings, baths, bedding and electronic conveniences—feature private balconies with views of the pool area. “As a hotel with nearly every room overlooking the pool, the Hilton is perfect for the Dinah because the girls love watching the pool. Of all the hotels in our town, this hotel is our friend, and they mean it sincerely. I’m really happy to be here,” Hanson adds.
Hanson has also signed up officially sanctioned hotels to accommodate the overflow crowd, all of which are within walking distance to the Hilton. The Renaissance Palm Springs (888 Tahquitz Canyon Way, marriott.com), the Courtyard Marriott (1300 Tahquitz Canyon Way, Marriott.com) and the Palm Springs Marquis Hotel (140 S Calle Encilia, diamondresorts.com) all offer special rates for guests who mention The Dinah. The Spa Resort and Casino (401 E Amado Rd, sparesortcasino.com), across the street from the Hilton, features a spa with mineral baths sourced from natural hot springs—perfect for your post-Dinah detox. And the Hotel Zoso (150 S Indian Canyon Dr, hotelzoso.com) is the site of several Dinah concerts over the weekend.
Speaking of live entertainment, this year’s lineup continues Hanson’s personal mission to “make it so fantastic that nothing else comes close.” Pop duo Karmin headlines the massive ‘Dinah goes to Monte Carlo” party at the Palm Springs Convention Center on Saturday, April 6. Up-and-coming dance divas K. Rose, Anjulie, Havana Brown, Kat Graham, and Katy Tiz entertain a crowd of thousands at the afternoon pool parties and nightly shows. Dancehall legend Diana King, who came out as a lesbian last year, plays the annual Sunday tea dance, and returning Dinah veterans Uh Huh Her headline the Sunday night concert at a location to be announced. Two local bands, Life Down Under and Playboy School, rock on Saturday and Sunday respectively. “Our shows always bring lots of energy. There’s lots of jumping, rapping and crowd participation,” say Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan of Karmin, who promise a full concert with their live band. “We’re huge supporters of the LGBT community, and they have been huge supporters of Karmin, so we’re happy when we can perform and celebrate with them!”
“This is my first time at Dinah and an event like this, so I’m very excited to just be there, especially as a newly out lesbian artist. I’m looking forward singing to people like me,” says Diana King. “For me, The Dinah represents freedom and a dream come true. I remember watching it years ago on an episode of The L Word and I’d watch clips online. I wondered if I’d ever get the courage to be myself 100 percent one day. And now that I’m out and fearless, all these dreams are [so close]. I just feel extremely grateful to be a part of it all.”
The focus on soon-to-be-stars and lesbian favorites is something Hanson has virtually trademarked. “I started [about six years ago] with the Pussycat Dolls—it was pretty fun having the Pussycat Dolls sing to thousands of women, ‘don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?’ Then we went with Colbie Caillat, India.Arie, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga,” Hanson recalls. “We’re on top of the curve; we’re making those decisions that help launch artists. The entertainment industry is watching us now. Our track record is pretty good—and I think that’s just incredible for lesbian visibility; it’s something I’m really proud of.”
Aside from music, The Dinah offers a comedy show with Suzanne Westenhoefer, Jackie Loeb and Fortune Feimster (who kills with her Honey Boo Boo impression); the 4th annual Battle of the Lesbian Webseries hosted by Doria Biddle, Westenhoefer and Feimster, and the world premiere of the new independent sitcom “Second Shot,” hosted by Jill Bennett. Created by the folks behind We Have To Stop Now, 3Way and We’re Getting Nowhere, Second Shot stars Bennett as Kat McDonald, a woman who left her small hometown to seek fame and fortune as a pro soccer player. Things didn’t go as planned, and now Kat’s back where she started. She finds that you can go home again—unfortunately.
Finally, a celebrity poker tournament on Saturday will raise funds for the Human Rights Campaign, this year’s designated beneficiary, to support its campaigns for LGBT equality on a national scale. The organization will host a special soiree for Dinah-goers to meet, mingle and learn more about HRC’s work. “We want to remind everyone, as you’re having the time of your life, that we still have work to do and we gotta take that home with us,” Hanson notes.
In Palm Springs, words like paradise and Shangri-La sneak into your thoughts. Even hardcore east coast lifers will be transformed by the city’s enchanting spell.
Palm Springs has not one, but two lesbian resorts that are friendly and affordable. Queen of Hearts (435 Avenida Olancha, queenofheartss.com), a cozy one-story complex circling a heated outdoor pool and patio planted with orange trees, welcomes women from all over the world based on word-of-mouth testimonials. Nine comfortable rooms feature kitchenettes where guests can prep kabobs for the outdoor grill or make sandwiches for the day’s hike. Owner Michelle Secor will even pick up requested items at the grocery store and have them in your room for your arrival—that’s the kind of service you can expect at Queen of Hearts, which has earned awards of excellence from TripAdvisor. Just around the corner, a foliage wall screens Casitas Laquita (450 East Palm Canyon Dr, casitaslaquita.com) from the outside world. Beyond the gate, a charming village-like resort unfolds around an oval pool and patio. Each guestroom has its own entrance along walkways shaded by tropical plants; inside, rooms feature cushy queen beds, sitting and dining areas and full kitchens with décor evoking old Mexico. Guests can also enjoy live entertainment and drinks in the on-site Wine Cellar bar and music venue.