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Published: Sunday, 4/3/2011

Leave behind gray skies and winter doldrums in desert hot spot

BY ROB OWEN
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
The Palm Springs Convention Center reopened in the fall of 2005 after a $34 million expansion. The 261,000 square foot facility includes up to 112,000 square feet of exhibit space, 19 total breakout rooms of various sizes, including a 20,000 square foot ballroom. The Palm Springs Convention Center reopened in the fall of 2005 after a $34 million expansion. The 261,000 square foot facility includes up to 112,000 square feet of exhibit space, 19 total breakout rooms of various sizes, including a 20,000 square foot ballroom.
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- After months of gray skies and chilly temperatures, a few days in the warm Southern California desert, drenched in sunshine, felt just about right during a winter trip to Palm Springs.

During the day, high temperatures in winter months average between 70 and 80 degrees, which is why October to May is the town's high season for tourism. Visit in the summer and you might just melt: Daily high temperatures average between 100 and 110 degrees.

With a population of a little more than 48,000, Palm Springs is a small town but it's part of a growing region, the Coachella Valley.

For tourists from chillier climes, the appeal of Palm Springs -- beyond the sensation of bare skin absorbing much-needed warmth -- might be as simple as this: architecture, a show, and a ride with a view.

The Palm Springs Modern Committee sells a $5 map on its Web site (psmodcom.org) that offers a driving tour of some of the most interesting architectural examples. The group also helps to put on Palm Springs Modernism Week (modernismweek.com) every February.

But even without a map or tour, it's not hard to spot the modern architectural touches of Palm Springs. Driving down South Palm Canyon Drive, a visitor can't help but notice several shops selling midcentury modern furniture. Even the local KFC fast-food restaurant showcases the clean architectural lines that are the hallmark of midcentury modern style.

The best examples, perhaps, are single-story homes found in the Las Palmas subdivision, between South Palm Canyon Drive and Mount San Jacinto. Actually, it appears we were walking through two adjacent subdivisions, Vista Las Palmas (vistalaspalmas.com) and Old Las Palmas (olpno.com).

Wandering these streets is like stepping into a time machine to see cutting-edge home design circa 1959. The houses in these subdivisions were designed by the father-and-son team of George and Robert Alexander, whose company built more than 2,000 homes in this area from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s.

The homes became known as "Alexanders" and feature peaked rooflines, some that imitate a butterfly's wings. Built for about $20,000, the homes today can sell for $600,000 and more.

Other tourist destinations in the Palm Springs region include desolate, rocky Joshua Tree National Park, a 60 to 90-minute drive from Palm Springs depending on which park entrance you use, and hot-spring spas in the aptly named Desert Hot Springs, a 20-minute drive.

In Palm Springs proper, the big draw is the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, now in its 20th year with a show titled Follies Forever. Patterned after the Ziegfeld Follies of the early 20th century, the Palm Springs Follies gives the Folies Bergere concept a twist by focusing on mature performers, primarily women ages 55-80, adorned in elaborate costumes that bring to mind a cross between a peacock and Carmen Miranda.

Housed in the Plaza Theatre, a converted movie house built in 1936, the Follies show runs two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission and often features a special guest performer. Earlier this year, that was Lesley Gore ("It's My Party"), and now the show is featuring The Four Preps ("26 Miles -- Santa Catalina") through the end of the Follies season in mid-May.

The notion of aging showgirls in colorful headdresses dancing to oldies music conjures a potentially cheesy scene, but Follies impresario and host Riff Markowitz keeps the mood light with his humor that mocks the audience as much as he plays to it.

"So many new faces," he said, looking out into the audience. "Same people, but a lot of new faces," a reference to some local residents' affinity for cosmetic surgery.

Ticket prices for the current season range from $50 to $92. The Follies do not offer shows during the summer, but the revue returns each October with a new production.

Despite abundant sunshine and temperatures in the mid-'70s in the valley during our stay, Palm Springs does offer the familiar sight of snow -- but only if you take the Palm Springs Aerial Tram (pstramway.com) from the valley floor (elevation: 2,643 feet) to the peak of Mount San Jacinto (elevation: 8,516 feet).

Completed in 1963 -- with new, rotating tram cars installed in 2000 -- the ride takes about 15 minutes and each car can hold 80 passengers. (Ticket prices: $23.25 adults, $16.25 children 3-12, and $21.25 seniors age 60 and up.)

At the mountain station, a short film delivers a history of the tram, but the real attraction is the 14,000-acre Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area, covered in what appeared to be at least a foot of snow during our visit. Some families came prepared with plastic sleds for their children to slide down trails.

During our visit to the mountaintop, the temperature was a comfortable 50 degrees under a sunny sky with snow under foot. We tried to follow a trail on the tour map that the staff handed out with the tram tickets, but trampled snow paths yielded only a hint of where the real path should be.

But that was OK. We got to hike on top of snow under a brilliant blue, sunny sky. Most important, a warm reception awaited us later in the day upon our return to the desert floor and Palm Springs.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen writes for the Post-Gazette. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com



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