Inspired by a recent LA Times article on Palm Springs, which begins “1959 was a swinging year in Palm Springs” and brought to mind images of Frank Sinatra and other Rat Pack types lounging pool-side in skinny ties, I set off two hours east of Los Angeles to Palm Springs to experience mid-century modern in the desert for myself. Canvassing for recommendations, all signs pointed in one direction: The Ace Hotel and Swim Club, not even a year old and half a mile outside of downtown Palm Springs. Lesbian friends raved about the hotel, which was the site of last year’s Dinah Shore (festival billed as “the” annual lesbian party spot), as did almost every other east-side Angelino who had any opinion on the subject.
Arriving at the Ace Hotel, it makes sense. It’s like the whole of Silver Lake or Williamsburg or the Mission in San Francisco uproots and weekends at the Ace. Bring your skinny jeans, oversized sunglasses, tattoo sleeved arms and dog. The hotel has the look of a converted 50’s motel. Clean and white, with two pools, a diner (the “Kings Highway Cafe”), a bar (the “Amigo Room”), and a dog park. (I wasn’t kidding about the dogs.)
It is half modestly luxurious weekend getaway, half hostel. Check-in at the lobby, which has a vintage looking photo booth against the wall, along with board games and a hodgepodge of books stacked on shelves. Beach-cruiser bicycles are available for rent at no charge. Vespa motor scooters are available for rent, at a steep charge of 60 dollars for a half-day. (Too steep for my guest and I.) I booked less than a week in advance for our Friday and Saturday night stay, granted it was Christmas Day and the following night. At $128 a night, it felt like a steal, and competitive against other spots that two days of internet surfing turned up. There’s an additional and mandatory $20 per night for a “resort fee.” That covers a small gym, with a half-inflated yoga ball, two or three treadmills and cycles, and a set of free weights, as well as the sauna and steam. More on that below.
We checked into our room, which had concrete floors, comfortable enough linens, a record player and four or five LPs in one corner, Heeb Magazine on the bed side console, and body wash, shampoo and conditioner in the shower that smelled of Licorice / Fennel. The mini-bar was stocked with bottles of liquor, 3-D glasses, healthy snacks of the sort one would find at Whole Foods, and other hipster-friendly items. The room had a front enclosed patio, enormous, easily 10 by 15 feet. We could have invited a dozen friends over and entertained outside. But it was bitterly cold most of the weekend, and so we didn’t have the chance to enjoy it. Some of the patio rooms also have a fireplace, but those were sold out, although I asked several times to upgrade me if one became available. (No such luck.)
After check-in, we visited the pool / Jacuzzi and fell into conversation with a couple from LA, by way of San Francisco, and before that New York. Both graphic artists, 40ish, and with their dachshund “Ira”, who was anxious and trembled, but friendly, and we agreed he looked like an “Ira.” This is what the Ace Hotel does best. The crowd is approachable. Conversations begin spontaneously, like hostelling through Europe. It is where hipsters and yuppies alike go to vacation, and meet on common ground. On the other side of the Jacuzzi was a couple (woman was 40ish, boyfriend was 20ish), and a precocious 13 year old joking with her mother and the boyfriend about how fall-down drunk they were the previous night. I’ll withhold judgment, and underscore how enjoyable it was to sit and talk with Ira’s owners. Other guests lazed nearby, either in chaise lounges or hammocks, plenty of both just feet from the pool and Jacuzzi, smoking cigarettes, petting dogs and enjoying the hour or two midday when it got up to the high 60s or even 70 and you could manage a bathing suit. The spa is perhaps the one spot that’s more hostel and not nearly enough hotel / resort. There is a multi-sex sauna, which was rather enjoyable, as the two of us could sit and chat together, and that’s a rarity in spas, where the sauna and steam are ordinarily unisex. And another four or five folks packed in and we all started talking. The steam room next door looked drippy and dirty, and guests told us it wasn’t working, at any rate, and a steam room is one place where I’d rather be in a high class resort, with Eucalyptus piped in. This one had the look of a high school gym locker.
Guests raved to us about Kings Highway Cafe, which made tasty Mediterranean dishes with pita, hummus, babaganoush, and a few olives, delivered pool side. We went to the Cafe for dinner and found it full of hits and misses. Far more misses. The arugula, fennel and parmesan salad was tasteless, with grated parmesan but not chunks, so that there was none of the saltiness or sharpness or any taste whatsoever to the cheese. It was wet, but presumably dripping with water, because there was not even a hint of dressing, balsamic, olive oil, nothing. The tomato and fennel soup similarly disappointed. We expected a creamy soup to warm us up on a cold desert evening. It came cold, and was more of a minestrone, with chunks of tomatoes and vegetables, a thin broth, and little taste. The ALT (avocado, lettuce and tomato sandwich) held up better, as did the hand-cut fries, not perfect, but exactly what one would expect to get at a diner called “Kings Highway.” The highlight was a “corn off the cob” dish, mixed with cheese, spicy peppers, fried up and served piping hot in a dish. I could have ordered that the following day again. Another highlight is the 60 or 70-something hostess who hushes the Café’s diners, I presume every hour on the hour, and breaks into song and dance tunes of the sort I assume my parents and other fans of Liza Minnelli or Babs Streisand might enjoy. Both mornings I delighted in a walk in the cold, just across the street, to “Koffi: A Palm Springs Espresso Cafe.” They make a strong cup of coffee, and coissants and other cold-behind-the-glass-counter food. And my guest told me they made a good mint tea latte (whatever that is.) We followed that up with a trip 20 minutes downt he road to “Off Road Rentals”, along Highway 111, which rents four-wheel ATV’s at 40 dollars for 45 minutes. (But once you’re on an ATV and zipping up and down the sand dunes, no one keeps watch, and you can stay out a while longer if you’re the sort of person on whom the novelty doesn’t wear off too quickly.) You’re outfitted in a shower hat, helmut, goggles, given two minutes of training on how to start your ATV, and you’re off. It was my first time on an ATV, and entirely enjoyable as a day-after-Christmas activity. And after that we were headed back to the hotel for lazing, another trip to the sauna (this time, empty, and I stretched and practiced a few yoga moves on my own in there.) And then a shower, a nap, and off to dinner. But not back to the Cafe.
By: Laine Mervis