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Retro Palm Springs

From motels to martinis, visitors can experience the mid-century style that's making the city sizzle again.


Two marvelously decorated vintage motels have recently opened on the north side of town. Ballantines, where I stayed for two nights, is a small white enclave restored by Fraser Robertson, a Scotsman, and his artist wife, Sarah. They canvassed the country to decorate the place with furniture of the era: Marshmallow sofas, surfboard tables, Raymond Loewy desks and pink and yellow vinyl headboards. Fifties music plays by the pool, where an intimate house-party atmosphere prevails. I stayed in the Courtney Room (beautiful, but a little too close to the traffic on Indian Canyon Drive), lit a fire and watched "Bad Day at Black Rock," one of the B-movies that play nightly on the in-house channel.

Down the street, the Indianola Tiki Guest House resurrects a mid-century offshoot, bright and cheerful Polynesian Pop, which spoke volumes to World War II veterans back from the South Pacific. Owners Jeff Bennett and Jon Powers, two men in their 30s from L.A., give their guests artificial leis, hula skirts and rum and pineapple drinks on arrival. It caters to the gay crowd but doesn't encourage nudity by the pool, as some of the city's other gay hotels do.

Miracle Manor, in windy Desert Hot Springs, across Interstate 10 from Palm Springs, was the first stylishly decorated mid-century hotel in the Coachella Valley. L.A. designer April Greiman gave Miracle Manor its clean, Zen-like interiors, but God provided its thermal pool. Earlier this month, two other L.A. designers, Mick Haggerty and Steve Samiof, opened Hope Springs, a '50s motel nearby. It's a beauty, with a terrazzo floor and a round pit fireplace in the entryway, lime-green tiled baths in the guest rooms and three small thermal pools surrounded by a rock-and-cactus garden.

Indolence is still the most popular way to pass the time in Palm Springs, and you can spend whole days by the pools at these places, drinking in martini modernism. But I was thirsty for more, so I went window shopping.

At One Eleven Vintage Cars, near the intersection of Palm Canyon Drive and Ramon Road, I saw a 1957 Chevy Bel Air, a red 1964 1/2 Mustang and a 1946 Lincoln Continental, all in mint condition.

Nearby I poked my head into Alan Ladd's Hardware, opened in the early '50s by the late actor ("Shane"). The store has attractive light fixtures, place mats and planters, but I found real treasures at several shops on the north side of town that showcase mid-century styles.

At John's Resale Furnishings there were modular fiberglass seating units, dinette sets and oval coffee tables by celebrated designers such as Charles Eames and George Nelson. Next door, Bandini Johnson specializes in vintage barware, and the owner told me he can't stock enough Old-Fashioned glasses and fondue sets to meet demand. Jay Margrey, a Palm Springs real estate agent I talked to, explained the craze for these items. "It's the baby boomers," he said. "They used to think this stuff was awful, but now it looks kind of fun."

Shops in Palm Springs' now-bustling center (locals call it the "village"), stretching along Palm Canyon Drive between Alejo and Ramon roads and closed to traffic for a street fair on Thursday nights, still offer standard resort-life accouterments: swimsuits, inflatable rafts, T-shirts, sunglasses and gift boxes of dates. But the burger and fajita restaurants have been joined in recent years by some more stylish places to eat.

Muriel's Supper Club is a swank retro nightclub where the doorman wears a porkpie hat. There I listened to a salsa band and sampled appetizers like a confit of warm goat cheese, leeks and duck. I also tried the tasty chicken curry at St. James at the Vineyard and had a petit filet at LG's Prime Steakhouse nearby.

Martinis accompanied these meals, of course, all suitably dry and well-mixed. But the bartenders at some of the older spots in town, like Melvyn's at the Ingleside Inn, where the '50s atmosphere is authentic and thick, really know how to handle a cocktail shaker.

I had my best in the Bamboo Lounge at the Racquet Club, founded by actors Ralph Bellamy and Charlie Farrell in the early '30s. The Racquet Club was favored by such movie stars as Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and Natalie Wood, whose pictures line the walls of the lobby. The bar in the Bamboo Lounge is dark and intimate, with a big-screen TV showing an old Gary Cooper movie when I settled in for a cocktail. Sitting there, I got the feeling that it was the 1950s again, that modernism was new and that any minute Ol' Blue Eyes might walk through the door.

One slightly blurry morning, I took a bus tour that cruised past the palatial home of Bob and Dolores Hope on a ridge at the south end of town, the exclusive Tamarisk and Thunderbird country clubs in Rancho Mirage and the Eisenhower Medical Center, home of the renowned Betty Ford Center for addiction treatment.

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