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Travel

Palm Springs, reinvented

Goodbye Merv Griffin's Resort, hello hipster boltholes. The scenesters are back in the desert city

A Coachella festival pool party at Saguaro Hotel, a colourful hot spot that was once just a Holiday Inn.

A Coachella festival pool party at Saguaro Hotel, a colourful hot spot that was once just a Holiday Inn.

Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images for House of Holland

The usual array of private jets glitter on the tarmac of the Palm Springs International Airport the morning I arrive, but one stands out in particular. Looking sharp in its blue and white livery, the 747 emblazoned with the presidential seal and the Stars and Stripes is unmistakably Air Force One, which has dropped off the President for a bit of golf and a summit.

This is reportedly Barack Obama's sixth time in Palm Springs since his presidency began and there are rumours that the first couple are thinking of buying a place here after they leave the White House. They'll be in good company. Leonardo DiCaprio recently purchased Dinah Shore's former estate, a 7,000-square-foot, Donald Wexler-designed mid-century modern masterpiece that you can rent for $4,500 (U.S.) a night. Similarly, Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes celebrated the actress's 42nd birthday at the luxurious Frank Sinatra Twin Palms Estate last month, and Louis Vuitton chose Bob Hope's colossal house (designed by the renowned John Lauter) as the venue to debut their 2016 resort collection.

It's been a while since Palm Springs saw the kind of action that made it a desert playground for the rich and famous of Hollywood's golden age. Celebrities have flocked here since the 1930s, but it was during the 1950s and '60s that the city really came into its own with the arrival of the rat pack and their glamorous entourages.

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Fashion is fickle, however, and after that first round of celebrities decamped for other destinations – in this world or the next – the city lost much of its lustre and devolved into a sleepy haven for retirees and a quiet spot for snowbirds to hibernate during the winter.

The Bob Hope estate is now chic rental site.

The Bob Hope estate is now chic rental site.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

In the past few years, however, that has started to change. Palm Springs is on the cusp of a major revitalization.

Events like Coachella and hip properties such as the Ace Hotel bring the indie-music set, while the Palm Springs International Film Festival, now one of the most influential festivals of its kind, is attracting a whole new generation of celebrities. Social media travel network Gogobot.com has also named it the hippest mid-size city in America.

I'm here to find out what's driving the renaissance of Palm Springs.

Walking along Palm Canyon Drive, the city's main drag, I find plenty of mist-cooled restaurant patios, contemporary galleries and bikini shops, but an entire city block is now a tangle of cranes and heavy machinery. Three new hotels along with dozens of shops and restaurants are being built here as part of a massive downtown revitalization project.

My base is the newly transformed Avalon Hotel, which, up until a couple of years ago, was the Viceroy, but it has a history dating back to the 1930s when it opened as the Estrella Inn. Today, designer Kelly Wearstler has given the bungalows a Hollywood Regency touch with bright, persimmon-coloured doors that peek out from behind box hedges. Mature orange and lemon trees release their perfume into the heat and towering royal palms crown the sky.

Two-year renovation transformed private estate into L’Horizon Resort.

Two-year renovation transformed private estate into L’Horizon Resort.

Jim Bartsch

It's calm and quiet outside my bungalow, but over at the adult pool (one of three on the property) lithe women in expensive sunglasses drape themselves over an inflatable swan and drift around the deep end while buff blond surfer types snack on avocado toast and octopus ceviche. The only thing vintage about the scene is the music: Disco Inferno, a song older than anyone here, is playing from the speakers.

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Later that night I manage to snag a bar stool at Mr. Lyons Steakhouse, a 70-year-old English-style grill that has recently undergone a major update. Gone are the suits of armour and fictitious coats of arms and in their place are sleek, green-velvet banquettes, an art deco bar and dramatic lighting. There's still prime rib, but now it's a 10-hour slow-roasted version (with horseradish and au jus available, too, for the regulars). I order blue crab and kale-stuffed mushrooms, hamachi crudo with yuzu, and the ribeye. The place is packed and everyone seems to know one another. I get drawn into a conversation and end up sharing onion rings with Lisa and her husband, Scott, Texas transplants to California, who just bought a house in the area. "We've been coming [to Palm Springs] for years," Lisa tells me. "It's close and convenient but used to be pretty sleepy. In the past couple of years it's really become more fun, though. You've got great shopping here and the weather's always sunny and now there are places like this."

Mr. Lyons Steakhouse mixes old and new in both decor and menu.

Mr. Lyons Steakhouse mixes old and new in both decor and menu.

Audrey Ma

Mr. Lyons is one of the latest projects from chef Tara Lazar, a Palm Springs local who grew up here and is now one of the young entrepreneurs leading its revitalization. In addition to Mr. Lyons she also runs Cheeky's, a popular breakfast spot, and the Italian restaurant Birba.

I meet up with her one afternoon for a pisco sour by the pool at Chi Chi, her restaurant in the Avalon Hotel, and ask her why she thinks the city is gaining in popularity again. "The problem in the past was that young people didn't want to live here," Lazar says. "It was too far from the ocean and too boring, but then you had the Ace and the Parker [hotels] come along and there was something to come and see. Suddenly you didn't have to be invited to someone's house with a pool; you could come to the hotels and there would be somewhere cool to stay."

All across town, in fact, once staid, humdrum hotels are reinventing themselves. Names like Merv Griffin's Resort, HoJos and Holiday Inn are disappearing. It started back in 2004 with the Parker, formerly Merv Griffin's Resort and Givenchy Spa, which was soon followed by the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, a 173-room hotel in a revamped Howard Johnson. Now places like the Saguaro, a neon scenester's paradise, are in what used to be a Holiday Inn. Sparrows Lodge is a lovingly restored tribute to its 1950s original incarnation – Castle's Red Barn. Later this year the completion of a $15-million renovation will see an old Travelodge, then the Curve hotel, reopen as the boutique V Palm Springs.

Birba restaurant is part of Palm Springs’ bustling dining scene.

Birba restaurant is part of Palm Springs’ bustling dining scene.

David Broach

No restoration has been more dramatic than that of L'Horizon Resort and Spa, though. Originally built in 1952 as a private family retreat by architect William F. Cody, the lavish, 1.2-hectare property featured a residence and 20 low-slung bungalows that served as guest houses which over the years have hosted everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

A two-year, $5-million renovation has turned the resort into an impeccably designed, 25-room hotel. SO-PA, L'Horizon's dramatic al fresco restaurant, is Palm Springs' hottest reservation.

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Redesigns of existing hotels aren't the only thing animating the hospitality scene these days. Last month, Arrive Hotel opened: the first new-build hotel in the city in nearly 20 years. When I arrive, it is still in a soft-opening phase and a small cluster of tattooed men and women are testing out the bean bag chairs by the pool, while two young kids play a game of paddle tennis on the hotel's marble ping pong table.

Arrive Hotel was started by Ezra Callahan, one of Facebook's earliest employees. The company could have opened its first property anywhere in the world, but chose Palm Springs: "We saw that this new generation of traveller was discovering Palm Springs," Kurt Englund, the hotel's managing partner says. "Our market is more for the millennial, social traveller, of which there are millions in California alone. Plus, [thanks to] good flights from New York and all around the eastern seaboard, we felt this was the right spot."

While Arrive was the first of the new-build properties, it won't be the last. As part of the downtown construction boom, a 190-room Kimpton Hotel is going up and next year and Hyatt will open one of its luxury Andaz hotels.

After a long hiatus, Palm Springs is back and hotter than ever.

The writer was a guest of Avalon Hotel and travelled with assistance from Visit Greater Palm Springs. Neither reviewed or approved the story.

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