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A Family Afar: Palm Springs Then and Now

Our travelling dad learns how to redefine fun for the whole family in a city he loved before kids

By Jon Bailey

A Family Afar: Palm Springs Then and Now

A Family Afar: Palm Springs Then and Now

Illustration by Daniel Zalkus

Growing up in Northern California in the ’70s, my view of Palm Springs was from afar. To me, the desert oasis wore a glittering halo of sun-drenched poolsides, with towering palm trees and celebrities on every corner sipping martinis in wide hats and gigantic sunglasses. It was like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, and Liberace were just hanging out, waiting to play canasta with me under the pool umbrella.

At age 14, friends from Palm Springs whom I’d met at camp invited me down for a visit. In my romanticized perspective I was trekking to Hollywood East, so I packed my steamer trunks accordingly. That first visit surpassed my expectations. Everything was a little brighter, a little more glamorous, a little more Southern California postcard-perfect. I fell in love.

When I moved to San Diego in the late ’80s, Palm Springs became a regular draw. In those days, we thought nothing of lying in the sun slathered in baby oil with lemon juice in our hair. Tanned as a collection of Louis Vuitton bags, my friends and I would slosh our way down Palm Canyon Drive hitting all the bars and cocktail lounges along the way. Although we never did run into Frank or Liz, I always felt welcome and comfortably at home.

All that sloshing and sunning took a hard stop when our kids were born, and our trips to Palm Springs had new meaning. The allure didn’t fade—it just morphed into kiddie pools, floaties, and other kinds of daytime pursuits.

Instead of sleeping in after boozy late-nights, we’d wake up early with the kids and head over to The Living Desert, Coachella Valley’s very own zoo and gardens. Triton and I took great joy in watching our girls grow up under that same glamorous sun. Days by the pool became lunch picnics on the adjacent shady lawn. Evening ventures into downtown became daytime shopping excursions, ducking into Watercress Vietnamese Bistro for a delicious respite from the heat. Rented party houses became comfortable hotel stays at lovely central locations like the Hyatt Palm Springs, where we could push a stroller easily out the door for a sojourn through the neighborhoods.

Now with the girls in their teens, our visits to Palm Springs have become even more enjoyable. We take family outings to explore Mount San Jacinto on board the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, and hop into Red Jeep Tours for a spin around the San Andreas Faultline. The kids actually listen, absorb, understand, and comment on what we’re learning and seeing (especially when we take their phones away).

On our last stay at the Hyatt, we walked and shopped Palm Canyon Drive, ventured over to the festive Tropicale Restaurant for dinner and, yes, lazed by the pool while a nice young lady brought us umbrella drinks.

Full circle? Not exactly. But we did manage to take a ride with Palm Springs Celebrity Tours to catch a glimpse of the homes where Marilyn, Barbra, Frank, Dino, Ava, and Bob all lived at one time. Still no celeb sightings, but that romantic and sunny feeling is present just the same.

I’m still in love—and luckily, so is my family.

Jon Bailey writes the travel blog

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