JUST up there is where Marilyn Monroe was discovered,” says Palm Springs local Jade Thomas, who runs walking tours around his home town in order to highlight its impressive history to suitably dazzled visitors.
He’s pointing toward a building that used to house the Racquet Club, where the great and good of Hollywood once played tennis, sipped on cocktails, and just came to be seen, something easily done in this little desert town whose population is still fewer than 50,000.
Marilyn, the legend goes, was lounging by the pool when her good looks caught the eye of a visiting casting agent. The rest, as we know, is history.
Today, Palm Springs is still somewhat a byword for glamour, but what draws people here now is the town’s happy – and savvy – decision to honour its past.
Back in the 1920s, it was a small, barely developed settlement which sat at the foot of the towering San Jacinto mountains.
But over the next few decades, as the film business boomed, its stars searched for somewhere to escape the hectic city’s heat and humidity.
They found it in this little enclave, which just made it under the “two-hour rule” that Hollywood placed on all its actors: they had to always be within two hours’ travel time of a studio, in case they were urgently needed for reshoots.
It’s easy to see why the area appealed to them: it gets nearly 300 days of sunshine a year, it’s small and easy to get around, and there are golf courses galore around the outskirts.
The arrival of big names such as Cary Grant, Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Gary Cooper, Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor put the place on the map. Soon these A-listers were snapping up, or having built, summer homes, sparking a boom in a new form of architecture that came to be known as mid-century modern.
They were characterised by having only one level, were often laid out in an “L” shape around a courtyard (or, this being California, more often a pool), with a flat roof, floor-to-ceiling glass windows and, charmingly, little cactus gardens in the front.
The more I walk around, the more envious I get. In the upmarket neighbourhood of Indian Canyons on the outskirts of town, everyone’s decided to paint their door a different fabulous shade, from candy-floss pink to sunshine yellow, from brilliant turquoise to pistachio green.
Today there’s still a touch of glamour hovering around Palm Springs, which continues to attract celebrities – Leonardo DiCaprio has a home here, and the likes of Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr come on holiday.
The main downtown area is based around Palm Canyon Drive, lined with bars, restaurants and shops.
The northern end is known as the Uptown Design District, and here you’ll find antique stores where you can pick up original artefacts from the 50s or 60s.
I enjoyed rummaging through the rails at high-end vintage boutique The Frippery, and mentally furnishing my dream mid-century home with furniture from A La Mod. There’s a fantastic brunch scene here, and I headed to Lulu on Palm Canyon Drive for Eggs Benedict and refillable mimosas.
Sitting on the pavement – sorry, sidewalk – to people-watch, I drank in the cool, kitsch and colourful characters out strolling in their Sunday best. And who knows, maybe the next Marilyn Monroe is among them.
Top 10 places to visit in Palm Springs
1 Saddle up for a horse ride through the beautiful desert scenery with Smoketree Stables (smoketreestables.com), which organises three-hour outings through the nearby Agua Caliente Indian Canyons.
2 Get up close to wild animals galore, from bobcats to giraffes, at the impressive Living Desert zoo and gardens (livingdesert.org).
3 Shop till you drop at Desert Hills Premium Outlets (premiumoutlets.com), with brands from Banana Republic to Gap and Marc Jacobs.
4 Hike at the Joshua Tree National Park, with trails through the iconic trees the park is named after.
5 Peabody’s (peabodys cafeandbar.com) claims to do the best-ever Bloody Mary.
6 Wallow in nostalgia at Sinatra’s former hangout, The Purple Room (purpleroom palmsprings.com). On Fridays and Saturdays they do dinner and a cabaret show.
7 Visit Villagefest (villagefest.org), an old-fashioned street fair with musicians, food, arts and crafts stalls and a farmers’ market.
8 Get a culture fix at the Palm Springs Art Museum (psmuseum.org), which has an exhibition of works by Andy Warhol till May 28.
9 Take a tour of the house where Elvis Presley spent his honeymoon with Priscilla (elvishoneymoon.com).
10 Hop on the world’s biggest rotating cable car, the Aerial Tramway (pstramway.com), for mountain walks and incredible views.