This past December I attended the LGBTQ Tourism Forum in Fort Lauderdale and was a panelist on a social media influencers panels. I was the sole woman on the panel of gay men, and my experience was vastly different than theirs when it came to being reached by travel marketing. It will shock you to know (just kidding) that I was very vocal about the fact that queer women and trans folks are often left completely out of the travel narrative, even though we do spend money and travel often. After the panel I was approached by quite a few representatives from cities and countries who wanted to talk about how to approach the queer women’s market, but it was Randy Garner from Visit Palm Springs who took me by the hand and officially invited me to the desert city of dates and dreams.
As you probably know, Palm Springs is the home to the world famous women’s party, The Dinah has been rocking the Coachella Valley since 1991, and for a weekend a year, queer women descend upon Palm Springs to party, dance, and celebrate. This is fantastic, but as Randy told me back at that conference, Palm Springs would love lesbian, bi and queer women to know that Palm Springs is a wonderful vacation spot the other 362 days a year as well.
So what’s the deal with Palm Springs? Well, it’s actually part of an area called Greater Palm Springs and includes Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio, and Coachella. Yes, that Coachella. Palm Springs is town of around 50,000, which greatly increases during peak vacation season (October through April). To call it a sleepy town would be a disservice to its vibrance and energy. The city was first settled by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, who still live and play a major part in development of the area and have a reservation located in the city. In the early 1900s, Palm Springs became an area of interest for health and rehabilitation for those with pulmonary disorders like tuberculosis, because of the dry desert heat (temps can reach into the 120s during the summer months). But it was when the Hollywood movers and shakers started visiting the city in the 1920s that Palm Springs developed its iconic reputation. Stars who were with the major studios could safely travel to Palm Springs for some R&R under the limits of their contracts. Starlets would descend upon Palm Springs to lounge by the many pools and hope to be seen. It certainly worked for some. In fact, Marilyn Monroe was discovered in Palm Springs.
Palm Springs is also one of the world’s most well-known spots for mid-century modern architecture, with many homes and businesses built in the style and preserved on the historic registry. The city and residents take much care in preserving and saving these buildings.
LGBTQ culture is everywhere you look in Palm Springs, from bars and restaurants that cater to the community, to an entirely LGBTQ city council, the first in the nation. Rainbow flags fly and snap in the wind everywhere you look, and not just during pride season. Restaurants and businesses proudly display stickers welcoming the community, and my wife and I felt welcome and comfortable enough to hold hands and embrace throughout the city. Yes, while many places have a decidedly gay male presence, we were welcomed with huge smiles and hugs (yes, hugs!) by our gay and bi brothers in all establishments. We also saw many lesbian, bi and queer women couples of all ages walking dogs and holding hands, dining together, and existing as a strong presence in the city. Palm Springs is the perfect spot for lesbian, bi and queer couples or groups that love great food, culture and outdoorsy experiences, and want to vacay in an LGBTQ-friendly and surprisingly affordable city.
We kicked off our trip landing in the small and manageable Palm Springs International Airport. You’ll find non-stop flights to and from cities like NYC, Toronto, Atlanta, Denver and many more. We hopped in a rental car and headed to grab a bite. (Now, if you are staying in the city center, you don’t really need a car as Lyfts and Ubers are plentiful and reasonable.)
We popped into the hipsterific Wexler’s Deli, which is located inside the ultra-cool ARRIVE Hotel. This LA-based restaurant has authentic Jewish deli food, with a hip vibe and lots of queer customers snacking on house-made bagels, pastrami sandwiches and babka.
Randy had an awesome schedule planned for us, so after some down time by the pool, we headed to Tropicale Restaurant and Coral Seas Lounge. Opened in 2008, this LGBTQ-owned restaurant, which also has an out queer chef, was packed with queer folks and straight alike for delicious fusion and Pacific Rim food. Our server Lori was amazing and a wealth of info about the restaurant and the area. She made sure to ask about our allergies, and started us off with martini recommendations. The menu had vegan dishes, and plenty of options for omnivores and carnivores, too. My wife opted for the Masala Cauliflower which she is still talking about, and I had the very yummy Carne Asada, with the freshest and most delectable guacamole I’ve ever had. We initially passed on dessert because we were so stuffed, but Lori suggested taking some fresh-baked cookies to-go. Yes, please.
The next morning we got up early for a tour of India Canyon with Desert Adventures Red Jeep Tours. Our tour guide Darrell was a dream, and a wealth of information about everything from Palm Springs’ very early beginnings to the Hollywood years, to the present. For the next three hours we cruised around in the red jeep, and hiked through lush palm groves and the stunning scenery of the Indian Canyon. Darrell made sure we saw everything from little lizards basking in the sun, to desert plants with medicinal purposes, to the lands once cultivated by the first Cahuilla people. If you are into exploring and seeing incredible sights, then I highly recommend this tour or one of Red Jeep’s other excursions like the San Andres Fault, Joshua Tree, or Sunset Jeep Tour.
95% of the country’s dates come from the Coachella Valley, so how could we resist stopping in for one of Palm Springs’ famous date shakes. All our friends told us to head to Great Shakes, conveniently located on the main drag, to get a hand-dipped shake with luscious date puree. Great Shakes was a warm and super-queer friendly spot, where people were already lined up outside before opening (on a Monday!). We opted for a Chocolate Date Shake and it was the best shake I’ve ever had in my life. The dates shined through, and I’d take a plane to Palm Springs just to get that shake again.
We had worked up an appetite on the tour, so we went to 533 Viet Fusion where manager Primla and server Brenda welcomed us with big smiles. This unassuming spot is located in a small strip mall and prides itself on making dishes with organic and sustainable ingredients whenever possible. They have an irresistible Spring Roll Bar (we opted for Mushroom Soba Roll) and offer dishes like Pho, Lobster Popcorn, Bahn Mi and much more. There are lots of gluten-free and vegan options. Since I’m allergic to shellfish, Brenda and Primla made sure to look at all ingredients in my choices to make sure I wouldn’t have any adverse reactions. Brenda, who was a human ball of sunshine, mentioned how much they love when Dinah happens and the queer ladies come to town. So, be sure to stop by on your next trip and say hi.
I can’t visit a city without hitting up some karaoke so we headed to RetroRoom Lounge, a friendly gay bar with nightly karaoke. We spent some time chatting to the staff and regulars who talked about how the spot attracts all folks, from gay men to lesbians to straight karaoke lovers and happy hour seekers. Vintage records decorated the walls and drinks were inexpensive, so we happily got our karaoke on and made some new friends.
We knew our next day in the desert was going to be an epic one, so we started out grabbing breakfast at one of the hot spots downtown, Wilma and Frieda’s, where they are making their own (and superior) version of the pop tart.
After we filled up, we indulged our obesession with all things mid-century modern, and took the Palm Springs Mod Squad Essentials Tour. Our excellent guide Kurt picked us up and took us on a 90 minute exploration of the city’s mid-mod past and present. We got to see the finest in desert modernism and got lots of info about the highs and lows the city of Palm Springs has endured. Mod Squad offers four types of tours, Martinis and Mid Century Architecture Tour, The Interiors Tour, The Essential Palm Springs Tour and custom private tours.
We met up with Randy at the popular Lulu’s Bistro to talk about our trip so far, and dined on California fare, and a surprise treat of a massive fluffy cloud of cotton candy. Lulu’s has a huge Marilyn Monroe mural painted on its side, and colorful and playful modern decor.
Then we headed to a must-see destination for any Palm Springs visitor – The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Nature loving lesbians, this is for you! The tram is the worlds largest rotating tram car, and gives you 360 views of the San Jacinto mountains and desert valley. It takes around 10 minutes to get to the top, where temperatures drop 30-40 degrees. On the day we went, there was snow on the ground, which was such a fascinating juxtaposition from being in the hot desert minutes earlier. Trams depart every half hour so you can make a day of hiking, picnicking, and depending on the time of year, even snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. You can also camp or take a guided tour of the glorious nature all around you.
After being awed by natural wonders, we headed to EightFourNine Restaurant in the Uptown Design District, which is a bevy of midcentury stores and art galleries. We were greeted by our waitress Delia, who was holding another diner’s toddler so she could enjoy her meal. Talk about heartwarming. On the hostess stand, the restaurant has signage notating that they have been named Best Restaurant Experience in the Best of the Valley’s Ultimate Pride List for the last three years in a row. They even have a trans flag sticker on their door, designating the establishment as trans-friendly. As we headed to our table, Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” began to play and we knew we were definitely in the right place. I felt completely at home at EightFourNine, and we dined on Jerk Chicken and housemate pasta, while sipping cocktails and laughing with Delia and the staff.
We flew out the next day, already looking at real estate listings to see if relocating this this queer little desert oasis was possible sometime in the future. Now that’s a sign of a successful gaycation! From the friendly folks to loads of things to do, you will want to keep Palm Springs on your must-visit list. Here are a few more things, including quick bites, queer-friendly hotels and activities to check out.
Hotels and accommodations
ARRIVE Hotel (1551 N Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs) I mentioned ARRIVE earlier since it’s home to Wexler’s Deli. This hip bungalow hotel is dog-friendly, and has a nice pool with a DJ to lounge by. You also can’t beat the fact that it has a craft beer and cocktail bar, a coffee shop, a killer restaurant and an ice cream shop attached. Very moderately priced during the summer months, with a big uptick in price during the high season. ($150-$500)
Movie Colony Hotel (726 N Indian Canyon Dr, Palm Springs) Movie Colony is an actual neighborhood in PS where, you guessed it, movie stars would have their vacation homes. This hotel honors the glitz and glam of those Golden Hollywood days, with a great central location overlooking the neighborhood and rooms are decked out in mid-mod style. You can score really reasonable rates during the summer months, that stay moderate during the busy winter season. ($70-$250)
Del Marcos Hotel (225 W Baristo Rd, Palm Springs) This funky spot has rooms named after Hollywood legends and the desert architects of Palm Springs. Three rooms are indeed dog-friendly. Rooms are mid-mod at its best and depending how to you want to vacay, they offer suites, pool-side rooms and more affordable standard rooms. They do have a 2-night minimum in the off season and a 3-night minimum on the high season, so you are looking at between $500-$1000 for a stay depending when you book.
Arts and culture
Palm Springs Art Museum (Open all year) Don’t miss this gem of a museum when you are in Palm Springs. You’ll find exhibits on modern art, architecture and design and the American West. There are also many women artists represented throughout the collections. Not too big and not too small, you can spend a nice afternoon at this museum.
Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival (October 4-5, 2019) If you love jazz and women, then check out this very cool music fest this fall.
Cinema Diverse: The Palm Springs LGBTQ Film Festival (Sept 20-23, 2019) Celebrate LGBTQ film in a town that resonates with film history and LGBT friendliness. Check back closer to the festival for a listing of the films playing this year.
Food and beverage
Bill’s Pizza: Don’t want to spend a ton of money but need a quick bite. Try Bill’s Pizza where you can get full pies or just a slice.
Sammy G’s Tuscan Grill: Grab some excellent lasagna and a glass of vino without breaking the bank.
Pinocchio’s in the Desert: Pop in for a quick European-themed breakfast or sandwich, and bottomless champagne brunch on Sundays.