More desert tourists are becoming art browsers and shoppers thanks to Desert X, the widely-publicized, site-specific outdoor art exhibition that ran for two months ending April 30. In its last few weeks, Desert X overlapped with the blockbuster Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which boasts its own art installations on the grounds of its Empire Polo Club venue. However, there is art to see year-round in the Coachella Valley, particularly in posh Palm Desert. And while you’re in the neighborhood, you can sample some of the town’s other attractions, from golf to giraffes.
Browse or Buy Art
Palm Desert is an affluent town, and along and around El Paseo, a milelong shopping street, dozens of art galleries are tucked in among high-end retail stores. The larger ones include Imago, Melissa Morgan, Coda and Hohmann. One of the best, Heather James Fine Art, is a little farther afield, on Portola Avenue, off the east end of El Paseo. It’s a whole building unto itself, with various spaces usually dedicated to certain collections, artists or themes. “We like to have our shows look curated,” says gallery staffer Montana Beutler. At any given time, Heather James shows include works of blue-chip international artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder, as well as American favorites such as Norman Rockwell and the California Impressionists.
There’s also public art on El Paseo and sprinkled throughout Palm Desert, thanks to the city’s Public Art Program established in 1986. That year the City of Palm Desert became the first in Riverside County to pass a public art ordinance, which requires real estate developers to integrate artwork into their developments or pay a fee to the Art in Public Places fund.
“There are over 150 pieces of art throughout the city,” says Deborah S. Glickman, who helps run Palm Desert’s public art program. “There’s a map that can be downloaded, and we do also offer free walking tours on the weekends.” Those tours are available on select Saturdays September through May. Private tours for three or more people can also be arranged. Glickman adds that the city produces the biennial El Paseo Exhibition, which places artwork in the El Paseo shopping district, “and we have artists who participate from all over the world.”
For information about Palm Desert’s Public Art Program (including tours, maps and film series), visit palm-desert.org/arts-entertainment/public-art.
The Sporting Life
Of course the area offers other attractions — great golfing (natch!), tennis, swimming, fine dining and wonderful hotels. Quite a few hotels — like the J.W. Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa, Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort & Spa and the La Quinta Resort and Club — have their own golf courses, swimming pools and spas. From the Marriott spa, for example, you can lounge in the sun after your treatment of choice, and have a gorgeous view of the greens. If you prefer an Old World flavor, check out the historic La Quinta Resort and Club with its sprawling but well-maintained complex in Spanish Revival style. Its charming casitas open onto swimming pools in cozy compounds; there are 41 pools in all, plus five award-winning golf courses and 41 tennis courts.
Not surprisingly, golf is one of the main attractions here, and not to worry if your hotel doesn’t have its own links; you can always play at other courses or check out the city-run, world-class Desert Willow Golf Resort (desertwillow.com). It offers two fields of play — the Firecliff golf course and the Mountain View course, both roughly 20 years old and designed by Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and PGA Tour pro John Cook. Eric Johnson did the landscaping with many drought-resistant species. Meanwhile, the water used to keep the greens green is being recycled, important in drought-prone California. For meals and drinks, there’s a clubhouse with views of the greens against the backdrop of the gorgeous Santa Rosa Mountains. Desert Willows will probably be the most well-appointed public course you’ve ever visited — it was for me.
Commune with Nature
As a vivid reminder that Palm Desertites are denizens of the desert — the Colorado Desert, specifically — you might want to visit The Living Desert (livingdesert.org), a combination desert, botanical garden and zoo on 1,200 acres — 1,000 of them pristine. No, not all the animals are native, though most of them do inhabit savanna and desert. One can easily spend half a day here, walking through various exhibitions and listening to experts.
There are a few things not to miss, so make sure to check the daily schedule. The giraffe feeding gives you a chance to look at a giraffe up close; visitors can even climb a platform to see giraffes eye to eye. Yes, they have very beautiful big eyes with long lashes, and also long black tongues to lap up the special snack you can buy for them. The Cheetah Run showcases the world’s fastest land animal, reaching speeds of up to 70 mph. Here cheetahs show their stuff, running from one end of their long enclosure to the other. And do visit the Butterfly/Winged Wonders exhibit in its own building, featuring hundreds of butterflies from 30 species.
For a deeper excursion into nature, take a tour of the San Andreas Fault. Desert Adventure Red Jeep Tours & Events (https://red-jeep.com/) runs a fleet of, yes, red jeeps (CJ-8 Jeep Scramblers) that are open-topped; passengers pile in the back while the driver doubles as a guide. These guys are seasoned pros (I say “guys” because I only saw gents doing the job), and ours told us not only about the geology of the San Andreas Fault, but also about the area’s native plants and animals. And I learned quite a bit from him about the Cahuilla Indians, who used various plants for food, medicine and shelter.
To illustrate the geology of the San Andreas Fault, our guide, Black Feather, held up an Oreo cookie. He squeezed the two dark biscuits together, very hard, until the white filling got pressed out around the rim. The fault, he told us, is the result of two geological plates — the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate — coming together and moving in different directions. Then he says, with proper drama, “We’re going to drive about a mile into the delicious white cream.”
It’s a strange analogy, since things don’t really get squeezed out when there’s a tectonic plate shift — they fall in. Which is what we saw as we traveled into a private preserve, bumping up and down on our course down dusty roads and into a canyon. The fault creates cracks and crevices, which align with underground aquifers. There are places where you can see the jagged faultline running across the land, defined by a line of live palms and vegetation because of those aquifers. One of the most interesting stops was an oasis, where the earth had caved in during a particularly violent shift and become a refuge for a jumble of palms and bushes.
Incidentally, Black Feather was only a nom de guide, so to speak — our guide’s real name was Darrell Eisman, and he hailed from New York City. Apparently, all the guides adopt Native American–sounding names. We learned a lot from Darrell, not only about geology, but about the plants and animals that live in this part of the desert. Red Jeep also offers tours to Indian Canyons and Joshua Tree National Park. Enjoy the ride!