(Editor's note: This is our Palm Springs, California travel blog for Sunday through Tuesday, April 12-14. The Day 1 blog on Sunday can be read HERE. The Day 2 blog on Monday will be updated if time permits. You can also follow KenWilliamsSanDiego on Facebook, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, and #kensd on Instagram.)
Palm Springs, California has been a popular getaway for movies stars since the golden era of Hollywood. And what better way to learn about the desert playground’s glamorous past than by taking a “Gay Icons Tour” led by gay guide Bob Gross in an open red Jeep as part of the Desert Adventures Eco-Tours & Events.
Bob is affable and attentive as he shifts gears and chats on his mike with our party of four. If you want to take a photograph or a brief video, he will let you. Just ask. We were especially fascinated by the former homes of Liberace and Marilyn Monroe, and he pulled over and let us do our thing.
The Liberace house was a mid-century modern classic with a mailbox shaped like a grand piano and white marble statues of humans and lions. Then there was another home which Liberace owned, on the corner of Alejo and Belardo, where the flamboyant entertainer once hosted lavish party for his European boys and where he died.
Marilyn Monroe is said to have rented, not owned, a charming home on Las Palmas, where she allegedly entertained President John F. Kennedy. Bob also shares a fascinating story of how Frank Sinatra got pissed off at JFK for not using his lavish home on the other side of town as his Western White House, and the Chairman of the Board was so upset by being slighted by Kennedy that he switched his political allegiance to the Republican Party after being a lifelong Democrat.
I was particularly impressed with the Kaufmann House on Vista Chino, built in the late 1940s in the style of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Kaufmann owned high-end department stores in the East and built this stunning home that would later be owned by Barry Manilow, who lived there from 1973 to 1993.
Our guide drooled over the former home of Dinah Shore, the singer and TV personality who has the famous lesbian party named after her. Shore was not known as being a lesbian, but may have been the first well-known cougar who bedded down with Burt Reynolds and other younger men. That house on Hermosa, designed by architect Donald Wexler, is now owned by Leonardo DiCaprio.
The tour winds past the former homes of Clive Jones, Harvey Milk’s confidente and an LGBT icon of his own, and Lily Tomlin, Cher, Errol Flynn, Mary Martin, Peter Lawford, Elizabeth Taylor and more.
Bob also pointed out the places where LGBT pioneers began coming to Palm Springs as early as 1914, where Lois Kellogg rolled into town to prove that a woman could do the same job as a man. She built Fool’s Folly, where Moroccan palace which has a pool with underwater lighting (something rare in those days). He touches on the historical impact that LGBT people have had on Palm Springs from the beginning, how closeted celebrities could be themselves in the desert away from the prying eyes of the gossip columnists. He noted how 20 to 25 years ago, the LGBT community began moving in earnest to Palm Springs, either to retire or to start up businesses. The rebirth of the gay “clothing optional” resorts help focus international attention on Palm Springs, bringing tourists from all across the U.S., Canada and Europe. The Warm Sands area of Palm Springs has become the playland for many gay men across the world.
Today, the city is one of the largest cities in the U.S. for LGBT people, per capita. Some believe that anywhere from 40% to 50% of the population is LGBT.
For many years, Palm Springs did not have a gay bar until 1992 when the Street Bar Named Desire, now simply the Street Bar, opened on Arenas. Now Arenas is to Palm Springs what Castro is to San Francisco.
With the annual White Party, coming up at the end of the month, and the Dinah, Palm Springs has become an international destination for the gay tourist.
A light breakfast at Ernest Coffee
We started out day with a light breakfast at a new hot spot, Ernest Coffee.
Partners Chris Pardo, a local architect, and Jaime Kowal bought the rundown but famous restaurant called Don the Beachcomber, which was known for its tiki bar. They turned the front of the building into Ernest Coffee in tribute to the restaurateur who was named Ernest. If you look closely, you can see homages to Don the Beachcomber throughout the building.
The Tiki Bar is carved out of the rest of the structure, and the small space is a tribute to tiki bars in the tropics. A thatched ceiling and the drink menu harking to the islands give poetic justice to the building’s historic roots.
Three of the tiki torches survived the neglect and were restored to great fanfare last year. They are lit every night, according to Kowal. Both businesses are open from 6 am to 2 am, so there is always something to do on that busy corner.
Since opening last year, Ernest Coffee has been named Small Business of the Year and the owners will be feted on June 4 by the local chamber.
And Conde Naste named the Tiki Bar one of the Top 5 tiki bars in the U.S.
Lunch at Lulu’s
Seems like everybody who comes to Palm Springs has to eat at LuLu’s Palm Springs.
The contemporary restaurant, opened in 2011, has a varied menu and a 12-hour Happy Hour. Bottoms up, ladies! Even on a Monday after Coachella, when the town should be much quieter, there was a 10-minute wait to be seated on the popular patio across the street from the historical homes that were moved to a park.
The service was excellent, the food was filling, and we enjoyed watching the world walk by. Alas, our new friend Bob, got a parking ticket while waiting for his next round of customers. Sigh.
OK, folks, we are on an afternoon break. Maybe I will finally get down to the pool and relax for an hour as the temperature climbs into the low 90s.
The evening rush hour
We were supposed to have cocktails on the patio of HooDoo Lounge at the Hyatt, but it was closed. So we crossed the street to Bar, where we enjoyed a beer-infused cocktail.
Then it was off to The Tropicale Restaurant, a stylish place on Amado Road that was packed to the gills on a Monday night. We sat out on the patio, enjoying the atmosphere and the stars twinkling above. This was, by far, the best food we've had in Palm Springs, from the appetizers sent out by our hosts to our entrees -- I had medium rare flank steak with lobster mashed potatoes and a tomato and bleu cheese dressing -- and the two incredible desserts. The menu is awesome, and the cocktail and wine list is impressive. This should be a mandatory stop whenever visiting the desert.
Afterward, it was off to the Ace Hotel to participate in Trivia Night with local drag ambassador Bella da Ball. We finished at the bottom of the Top 10, out of 21 team contestants. Sigh.
The hotel has a spacious pool and deck area just outside the Amigo Room, something to check out on a future visit to Palm Springs.
It's 11 pm and bedtime for Bonzo. See you tomorrow when we take the tram and go out to the desert!
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Ken Williams was invited by the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) to write a travel blog about Palm Springs, California. The Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism is the host agency, and the INNdulge is the host hotel.
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.