Young hipsters were splashing around the pool at the Ace Hotel while gay men sipped margaritas at the rainbow-hued Saguaro Hotel only a half-mile away — all while queer cosplayers vied for photographers’ attention up the street at Palm Springs Comic-Con. It all may sound like another winter vacation at the famed desert oasis and gay getaway, but in reality it was merely another weekend in August, when temperatures peaked at 113 degrees.
The surging popularity of greater P.S. (a nickname even locals use) invited visitors to flock to the desert community — about two hours east of Los Angeles — in what was formerly known as the “off-season,” when only committed locals braved the intense heat. But months after spring festivals like Coachella, White Party, and Dinah Shore have wrapped, the communities of P.S., Palm Desert, Indio, and Cathedral City continued to draw envious crowds. In fact, the area broke its own tourism records last year, with hotel room revenue being the highest ever recorded.
The swank lobby of the Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs
The roaring success of Palm Springs may be its willingness to adapt to changing times, evolving from a Hollywood playground to an LGBT retirement community and now an increasingly hip destination that welcomes all sexualities, gender identities, and ages. Where small resorts were once squarely aimed at either gay men or lesbians, now you’ll find a mingling of everyone, so a pool party at Ace will bring young trans, no-binary, bisexual, queer, lesbian, and gay revelers all at once. In fact, the year-round population of Palm Springs is thought to be over 50 percent LGBT-identified. The city made national news this month when residents elected a trans woman and a bisexual woman to its city council, effectively making P.S.'s leadership completely queer.
While gay destinations like Provincetown and Fire Island feel mostly unchanged from decades past, one would hardly recognize downtown P.S. from its ’80s incarnation. Recent openings of younger-skewing hotels — like The Hard Rock and the Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs — are cementing the hipster day-party vibe first established by the Saguaro and Ace, which opened last decade. All those properties include bars and restaurants that would feel right at home in Hell’s Kitchen or Silver Lake, including eateries like El Jefe, King’s Highway, and Juniper Table.
A Friends and Smugglers cocktail from Bootlegger; interior of Draughtsman
That’s not to say that predominately straight events, like the summer pool party known as Splash House, are chasing away queer visitors. Quite the contrary, small gay hotels proliferate all over the desert. The website for the Small Hotel Group, a collective of local properties, features at least 15 resorts catering to gay and bi men: everything from the beautiful mid-century INNdulge resort and the hyper-specific Bearfoot Inn, to the massive All Worlds Resort, where guests let it all hang out at the clothing-optional pool.
The queer nightlife on Arenas Road, the city’s micro-gayborhood, is bumping, with two new hotspots packing them in. Chill bar is popular with the city’s 20-, 30-, and 40- somethings, while Blackbook is even luring some hetero folks with disco fries and a whiskey wall.
It’s certainly a mixed crowd that’s flocking to the city’s three drag brunches. At The Hard Rock, guests get treated to Adele, as interpreted by Ariel Trampway (a queen named for the city’s famous mountain-side transportation system). At Rio Azul and Georgie’s Alibi Azul restaurants, patrons plunk down 20 bucks or so for some hearty grub and a side of pop perfection.
Maybe the most impressive transformation taking place in Palm Springs is in the city’s north end, known as the Uptown Design District. Previously a moribund shopping strip selling expensive mid-century furniture, the area has exploded with new eateries, hotels, and foot traffic not seen since Sinatra stalked the streets.
The Arrive Hotel, part of the Small Hotel Group, is a standout on the scene. Hotel designer (and partner) Chris Pardo kept with the city’s iconic mid-century theme and built a butterfly roof and clerestory windows to let light in, while the pool and inside/outside restaurant seamlessly blend into each other (guests actually check-in at the bar instead of a standard registration desk). Next door is a hip ice cream shop and a beautiful gastropub called Draughtsman, also designed by Pardo. A short walk south offers a plethora of other cocktail and culinary options, like Bloody Marys at Jake’s or a wood-fired rib eye at Workshop Kitchen + Bar.
Koffi (yep, coffee in the desert!)
For a city that’s regularly over 100 degrees five months of the year, Palm Springs is a great coffee town. Gay-favorite Koffi offers three locations in the desert, with the downtown P.S. outpost sitting next to the mod gift shop known as Just Fabulous, and both located in front of a small green space perfect for guy gazing.
Portland-style Stumptown brews are served at Uptown’s Ernest Coffee, designed by the aforementioned Pardo. Behind that adorable coffee shop is Bootlegger Tiki, another Pardo creation, which operates in the former location of Don the Beachcomber, a themed restaurant from the 1950s. The cozy, dimly-lit space, where Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers of indeterminate sexuality sip South Seas-inspired cocktails, feels like the perfect embodiment of a city honoring its funky past while simultaneously moving toward the next incarnation.
Executive editor Neal Broverman is also a regular contributor to Los Angeles magazine. (@NBroverman)