Exploring Palm Springs [Beyond Big Brand Resorts, Golf Courses And Casinos]

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I’d always pictured Palm Springs in California to be a place for luxury travelers looking to lounge around the Marriott pool, spend their days on the golf course and place bets at the casino. I’d heard so much about the Hollywood Stars who all had homes there, figuring it couldn’t possibly cater to a traveler like myself, who gets antsy at the mere thought of “lounging” and who is currently renting out her own bedroom to be able to pay her rent.

This is why on a recent trip to the destination I was pleasantly surprised to find there was A LOT there totally unrelated to luxury travel that immersed me in local culture and provided authentic, sometimes alternative, experiences. Note: Some of the below-mentioned experiences are actually slightly outside of Palm Springs, but are all part of the Greater Palm Springs area.

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Snapshots of Two Bunch Palms. Photos courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Stay: Two Bunch Palms

My home-base was located a bit outside of Palm Springs in Desert Hot Springs, at the Two Bunch Palms. As I was traveling with my boyfriend, Chris, the $149 a night starting price wasn’t so bad and allowed us to enjoy a more romantic resort than a hostel, our usual accommodation choice, could provide. Plus, they offered a ton of free things to enjoy onsite: wellness classes, guided meditations, wine tastings, a steamy stone grotto, tennis, hiking trails, a meditation labyrinth, a turtle pond, a pool, native plant gardens — not to mention lots of cozy nooks under hanging plants for us to enjoy the wine and cheese we’d purchased in Temecula prior to arrival. Being a responsible tourism advocate, I was also into the fact they are becoming 100% carbon neutral by the end of November 2014.

There’s also a historical angle to the property: it was once Al Capone’s hideaway! While not accessible to guests, under the grounds are tunnels the gangster would use to escape the authorities. You can see where he used to live, and even stay in his old home if it’s available, and you have the cash to spend on the most sought after room.

If you’re really on a budget, the Red Roof Inn is also just outside of Palm Springs and starts at $60.99 per night.

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Hiking through Joshua Tree National Park. Photos courtesy of Jessica Festa.

1. Hike Through Joshua Tree National Park

Okay, so this is not in Palm Springs, but only about an hour away is an awesome national park with otherworldly scenery: Joshua Tree National Park. Here you’ll have tons of trail and climbing options, from hour-long strolls to multi-day treks. Parking is $15 per vehicle, a steal considering how much the park has to offer.

Chris and I opted to summit Ryan Mountain, which takes about 2-3 hours round trip. It’s listed as “strenuous,” but I’d say it’s more moderate-to-challenging. While somewhat steep at points, there was never a time during the trek when I felt completely out of breath. What I loved about this hike was the mesmerizing views throughout, from Dr. Seuss-like Joshua Trees to giant rock piles to sharp peaks to speckled bits of mountain that Chris described as “looking like cookies.” See above to catch my drift.

A closer option is Big Morongo Wildlife Reserve and Covington Park, located about 25 minutes away by car and free to enter. We visited this park, too, and really enjoyed the scenery, although note the hikes here are all beginner and you probably won’t see too many animals, at least we didn’t (aside for lizards, a Western Wood-Pewee and red ants, if they count). If you’re looking for a challenge, head to Joshua Tree.

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A taste of Cheeky’s. Photos courtesy of Jessica Festa.

2. Have A Bacon Flight At Cheeky’s

Yes, you read that right. Bacon. Flight. Meaning you’ll get five delicious slices of bacon that have been rubbed, seasoned and marinated in unusual flavors like Korean BBQ and Apple Cinnamon. That’s not the only reason to go. Pretty much everything on Cheeky’s weekly-changing menu is delicious, with Chef Tara Lazar using global inspirations as well as local and sustainable ingredients to make never-before-seen meals that are realllyyyyy good. Chris and I shared an Israeli Couscous with feta, chicken, cranberries and almonds, as well as a grass-fed burger with pesto fries (oh yea, and a warm house-made chocolate chip cookie…so what if it was only 10am?). Delicious, although beware! The wait to eat here can be long as the venue is really popular, so bring a book or head to the next door beer garden for a bit.

As the restaurant is located in Palm Springs’ Uptown Design District, you can walk off your meal by browsing the art galleries, antique stores and furniture shops on the adjacent blocks. There was one space I really loved and I highly recommend called the Jorge Mendez Gallery, where Latin artists showcase thought-provoking pieces. Plus, the artist bios are as interesting as the works themselves (escaping Cuba on a home-made raft in the middle of the night? Wow!).

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Chris and I enjoying views from the top. The first stop was taken with my DSLR and the second was taken with iPhone4s using HDR Pro. Photos taken by Jessica Festa.

3. Ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

It was getting dark by the time we’d arrived back to Palm Springs from Joshua Tree and we didn’t have our jackets; however, we were too lazy to go back to the hotel first and then go to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, something we were both keen to experience.

Needless to say, I was cold, I was whining, I was hungry, I was complaining about the ticket price, I was…amazed. As soon as I got onto the tram, I stopped complaining, although my mouth stayed gaped open in complete awe of the beauty that surrounded me.

Now, let me state I’ve ridden a number of trams on my travels, and this one was really special. First of all, the floor rotates 360 degrees so that everyone can get a peek at the different views. Moreover, the tram goes all the way to 8,516 feet (2,596 meters) in 15 minutes. There are four towers the tram passes along the way, each one making the tram do a belly-dropping swoop motion, which makes it feel almost like an amusement park ride.

It’s pretty surreal starting on flat ground and then slowly ascending past jagged peaks and alpine woodland. We went at sunset, and the views of the Coachella Valley shrouded in vibrant colors made me forget the goosebumps prickling up on my arms and legs. They serve alcohol at the top, too, so that helps.

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A taste of Wilma & Frieda’s Cafe. Photos courtesy of Jessica Festa.

4. Have brunch at Wilma & Frieda’s

I ate at some pretty stellar restaurants on my road trip through SoCal; however, Wilma & Frieda’s Cafe by far won the I’m-Going-To-Have-Dreams-About-This-Meal Award. Everything is made-from-scratch, and you can taste it in every scrumptious bite. The farm-to-fork recipes are based on dishes made by owner Kelly McFall’s own grandmothers, named Wilma and Frieda, but with a modern twist added in, bringing nostalgia into the present. Chris and I split the Mark’s Short Ribs Egg Benedict atop homemade homemade English muffins and the house-roasted turkey sandwich with avocado, bacon, lettuce and tomato (and a cheesecake brownie — man, do I love dessert!). I’d recommend going with people who are willing to share because there are lots of yummy things to try here. Next time I go — and I WILL be back — I’m getting the griddled meatloaf with eggs and Kim’s Banana Caramel French Toast drizzled with sour cream.

Hmm…is it weird to plan a meal a few years in advanced? Actually, I don’t even care.

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A glimpse of our trip off-roading through Coachella Valley. The reason you see palm trees at all despite the lack of rain is that the fault lines act like dams and stop underground water from flowing, allowing plants to grow over the faults. Photos courtesy of Jessica Festa.

5. Off-Road Through The Desert

One outfitter I toured with was Desert Adventures — my guide was Morgan, whom I highly recommend. They offer all sorts of interesting tours focused on everything from Native American culture to local agriculture to windmills to desert safaris. The tour Chris and I partook in was their San Andreas Fault Jeep Eco-Tour, which allowed me to do something I never knew I’d wanted to do: ride around on top of an active earthquake fault. We learned a lot about the landscape, plants, animals and eco-system.

Fun Fact: Did you know a Palm Tree is actually not a tree, but a type of grass? Mind. Blown.

That being said, the highlights for me were the active parts of the tour, off-roading through box canyons, hiking slot canyons, visiting a small Cahuilla Indian replica village and taking photographs of a beautiful palm oasis so different from what I’m used to in New York City.

Oh, and did I mention Chris and I saw not one, not two, but THREE rattlesnakes in a matter of five minutes? Morgan told us that in her 27 years of guiding, she’d only seen that many rattlesnakes in such a short period a handful of times. Seeing a live rattlesnake in the wild — and not having it bite me — was at the top of my Palm Springs’ Bucket List. Check.

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Artist Jessica Schiffman at work in the Backstreet Art District. Photo courtesy of Backstreet Art District.

6. Wander The Arts Districts

I love art galleries. And what I love more than art galleries is neighborhoods where there are so many art galleries I don’t have to do any planning or log onto Tripadvisor to see what’s worth my time. The Backstreet Art District is a must for anyone who enjoys gallery hopping in a funky hood and getting inspired by others, as it’s home to 10+ galleries as well as studios where you can watch artists at work. Start at 2600 South Cherokee Way and just wander. Bonus: On the first Wednesday of every month they host a free art walk from 6-9pm.

As I stated above, there’s also the Uptown Design District, although this is more focused on concept furniture and antiques than art galleries. There are, however, a few of those, as well.

Do you have a Palm Springs recommendation of your own? Please share in the comments below.

Also Check Out:

Cheap Travel: Los Angeles For Less Than $25 A Day

California Adventure: Hiking The Otherworldly Landscapes Of Joshua Tree National Park [Photo Essay]

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