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The wine cellar at Le Spiga, a fine dining restaurant in Coachella Valley, California owned and operated by Vince and Connie Cultraro of Edmonton. (Handout)
The wine cellar at Le Spiga, a fine dining restaurant in Coachella Valley, California owned and operated by Vince and Connie Cultraro of Edmonton. (Handout)

KELLY CRYDERMAN

In Palm Springs, the warm touch of Canada’s winter exodus Add to ...

Connie Cultraro and her chef husband Vince changed their menu when they moved their restaurant business from Edmonton to Palm Desert, but they didn’t necessarily change their clientele.

The Cultraros, who serve up Italian veal chops and pasta dishes drizzled with truffle oil at the upscale La Spiga restaurant in California’s Coachella Valley, now cook for many of the same customers they served in Alberta’s capital throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

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“All of our top customers in Edmonton have now bought places here,” said Ms. Cultraro, whose family opened their first restaurant in the area a dozen years ago. Canadians, she said, “are a large market, because they’re also the ones that are quite affluent. They can afford to go out and eat every night.”

Palm Springs and the wider Coachella Valley area became famous as a retreat for Hollywood stars. But in recent years, the desert oasis of both the Rat Pack and blue-haired retirees has transformed into a hip destination, a major gay and lesbian community and a celebrated locale for mid-century modern architecture. The combination of the weather, a short flight and the charm of the area about 175 kilometres east of Los Angeles also means it has become a seasonal enclave for Western Canadians – particularly those from Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary.

A spokeswoman at Canada’s consulate in Los Angeles said their shorthand is the population of Palm Springs triples in the winter thanks to Canadians looking for a reprieve from the cold. The economic crisis in the United States six years ago that saw real estate values drop, combined with the formerly high Canadian dollar, allowed wealthy Western Canadians to pay cash for property there. The non-stop flight from Calgary is under three hours, allowing white-collar workers and corporate types to travel to their southern homes in Palm Springs, or one of the other cities of the Coachella Valley, numerous times a year.

There might be some grumbling about Canadians’ lack of tipping, but Palm Springs businesses are warily keeping an eye on the dropping value of the Canadian dollar, worried at some point it could have a chilling effect on the flow of visitors and money from the north.

“It’s not only the cost of buying a property when the dollar is soft, it’s also the cost of living there,” said Calgary businessman and former Alberta cabinet minister Rick Orman, who has owned property in the area for 18 years.

Far from being just a winter playground for snowbirds, the area in recent years has become a place where working-age Western Canadians live or invest, or at least make a weekend escape.

“I do the weekend thing with my friends. We’re looking at one again so it actually might be three times I’m going this year,” said Calgarian Adrienne Jorgensen, 38, whose parents and in-laws also spend part of their winters in Palm Springs. “For us girls it’s very quick. The flight is very short,” said Ms. Jorgensen, who works in corporate communications.

Palm Springs Realtor Jeff Miller says during the recession of the early 1990s, the people who still had expendable income – mostly showbiz industry types – kept the real estate market going in Los Angeles. In the recession of 2008, which hit hard in a number of U.S. vacation destinations, he credits the Canadians for helping Palm Springs pull out of the economic doldrums.

“The Canadians recognized, ‘Oh my God. It’s a rough time for the Americans. But this is the perfect time for us to buy,’” said Mr. Miller, who keeps a “lucky loonie” on his office desk and posits that Canadians account for 80 per cent of his Palm Springs-based business, thanks to referrals in B.C. and Alberta political and business circles.

The Canadian imprint is everywhere. A recent letter to the Desert Sun implores the Palm Springs newspaper to add more Canadian political content. In April, Calgary-born pop duo Tegan and Sara will headline the 24th annual Dinah Shore Weekend, the massive music festival that caters to the lesbian community. The Los Angeles Times coverage of the Palm Springs film festival in January included a reference to “a flock of winter-escaping Canadians.”

While it’s mostly Western Canadians who converge on Palm Springs for shopping, golf and sun – including a new wealthy cohort from Saskatchewan – a few Ontarians and Quebeckers are also going west. Mr. Miller recently got a call from a man in New Brunswick interested in property. “Some people don’t care for Florida,” he said.

Some Canadians are taking the extra step of investing in the Coachella Valley. The Desert Dunes Golf Club is co-owned by Edmonton Olympic curler Kevin Martin. A group from Alberta and B.C. has bought and revived the Palm Desert Country Club, which went bust in 2008. After being a regular visitor to the Palm Springs area for 25 years – and buying a large Indian Wells home in 2010 – Edmonton banker Russ Dalgetty bought the Palm Desert Tilted Kilt franchise in 2011 after it had been shuttered for 14 months.

“It was a very good value proposition for me. It was a bank-owned property,” Mr. Dalgetty said. “Now we have a lot of staff.”

While just as many or more Western Canadians travel to Arizona or Hawaii for winter getaways, Palm Springs is viewed by many as more quaint, more exclusive and easier to manage than hitting the freeways of Phoenix or catching a longer flight to Maui. In Palm Springs, you’re more likely to run into a fellow citizen while walking down the street, especially in Alberta business and political circles.

Rod Love, the long-time chief of staff to former premier Ralph Klein, quips there are more Calgarians in Palm Springs in the winter than there are in Calgary. The gaggle of corporate and political leaders who regularly visit include Alberta Premier Alison Redford, former Alberta treasurer Jim Dinning, WestJet board chairman Clive Beddoe, and reclusive billionaire and Oilers owner Daryl Katz.

The second annual Canada Fest, featuring Nanaimo bars and Coffee Crisps, was held at the beginning of March. Bette King, the organizer of the Canuck-themed festival, said there are a few complaints about Canadians driving too slowly, creating traffic jams and not tipping enough. But she argues the influx of dollars to retail shops, restaurants and house sellers during the dark days of the recession is reason enough to celebrate all things Canada.

“A lot of people did short-sells to Canadians,” Ms. King said. “They’re responsible for saving the housing market here.”

Follow on Twitter: @KellyCryderman

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