PALM SPRINGS — It's a midsummer afternoon, 118 degrees in downtown Palm Springs. The streets are empty. Dizzying heat waves ripple up from Palm Canyon Drive. The desert breeze is as soothing as the hot exhaust from a jet airplane. You can almost feel the sidewalk sizzle through your sandals. Where is everyone?
The locals are probably enjoying a siesta, having learned how to live amicably with the aggressive sun. They know that by late afternoon, the scorching rays will ease up and are content in the knowledge that their cool desert evenings are the best-kept secret in tourism. Locals readjust their biorhythms just like they do their air-conditioners, scheduling energetic activities for hours when the sun is low in the sky.
While temperatures soar, humidity stays low. The clever chamber of commerce has devised a "comfort factor," which relates temperature to humidity. Similar to the wind-chill factor, it helps determine how a place really feels . Palm Springs' dry heat wins the comfort contest over many other high-desert and tropical resorts.
Dry or not, the intense heat still keeps people away. Air conditioning costs soar and the normal pace slows to a saunter. Museums are closed, the McCallum Theatre is on hold until September, art galleries have reduced their hours and the horse-drawn carriages and hot-air balloons are in mothballs.
So why come here just to feel like a hot-roasted nut?
Because in summer, the desert evokes its old Indian atmosphere and becomes a retreat for peace and privacy. Like the original settlers, visitors are drawn by the sublime scenery and pristine open spaces.
And, because in summer, the bargains are fantastic and there are a surprising number of things to do.
Despite the heat, locals look forward to the end of the high season, because that's when Palm Springs becomes laid-back. Golf shirts and bare legs are de rigueur.
Normally, prim maitre d's smile on diners in shorts and sneakers, tennis clubs overlook their stuffy whites-only dress code, and women in bikinis walk unreprimanded through formal hotel lobbies.
Summer guests don't need a big suitcase. And what they forget can be bought half-price at the ubiquitous summer sales at downtown boutiques and such well-known department stores as Sak's and I. Magnin.
Hotels cool their rates between Memorial and Labor days, and it's possible to indulge in royal splendor at peon prices. You can luxuriate in a private villa at La Quinta Hotel Golf and Tennis Resort, one of the desert's oldest and most atmospheric hostelries.
A cozy Spanish-style casita that rents for $300 a night can be had for less than $100 during the summer season. Since La Quinta has introduced a later 6 p.m. check-out policy for summer, guests can wait until the sun slips behind the layers of lavender mountains to play that last tennis game.
A secluded enclave in the heart of Palm Springs, La Mancha is another first-class villa resort with sky-high winter prices that drop to more plebian summer levels. A hideaway spa villa with pool rents for more than $600 in season, but can be reserved from $135 on summer weekdays. When La Mancha guests tire of perspiring on the croquet court, they can come in to the Nautilus gym for a sauna.
The best bargains may be for golfers. At the new Desert Dunes, the first course ever designed in the desert by Robert Trent Jones, summer rates are an affordable $25 on weekdays, $35 on weekends. That includes a cart. Out in the huge bunkers of PGA West, stalwart golfers can tackle the Stadium course for $75 ($175 in-season) or play the Nicklaus course for $60 through Sept. 27.
At Marriott's Desert Springs course, it's only $50; the winter price is double. With one golf course for every square mile of land in the desert resort cities (84 total), finding a bargain among the competition isn't difficult. And tee times are yours for the asking, although smart people schedule early-bird games from 7 a.m. Accommodating golf starters welcome early-birds, and even sunset golf is a possibility in summer. Just check with your chosen course.
Summer doesn't yield the cornucopia of events available in the winter season, but there are scattered treasures. Baseball fans can cheer on the Palm Springs Angels, the class-A California League affiliate of the California Angels that play more than 70 evening home games.
Wrestling fans can watch a major international match, a benefit for the Angels, next Saturday. There's even a beauty contest: the Miss California competition Aug. 10-11 at the Palm Springs Convention Center.
In the early days, Palm Springs folks kept cool inside thick-walled white adobe houses by day and covered themselves with wet sheets at night. Now everyone has air conditioning, and avant-garde entrepreneurs have outdoor air conditioning.
Installed on patios and outdoor dining areas, the Micro-Cool or Micro-Mist systems create an exotic atmosphere on sweltering desert days.