Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away.” Frank Sinatra sings to me on the speakers of my red open-top Jeep as I zip along the Californian highway to visit one of his desert homes.
It may be more than a century since Ol’ Blue Eyes was born in 1915, in the rough end of New Jersey, but he will always be a legend, one of the greatest singers of all time, and it was here, in his playground of Palm Springs, that he lived the life that millions around the world envied.
It’s still a playground. It has golf, tennis, horse riding, hiking in the mountains, cocktails and pool parties, with desert-dry, year-round sunshine. But it’s also a global hotspot for lovers of architecture (it has the biggest concentration of Modernist architecture in the world) and the golden age of Hollywood.
Palm Springs once attracted the biggest names in entertainment, eager to enjoy a post-war lifestyle that had nothing to do with conflict and austerity and everything to do with prosperity, growth, glamour and fun.
Located at the western end of the Coachella Valley, surrounded and protected by mountain ranges soaring from the desert floor to 3,300m, the city claims 350 days of sunshine a year.
At the wheel of my red Desert Adventures Jeep is friendly tour guide Bob Gross, who shares anecdotes about Sinatra’s life in the desert as we tour the neighbourhood where he lived, Vista Las Palmas. The singer made the desert his home and was a generous benefactor, hence the street, Frank Sinatra Drive, named after him. Twin Palms was his first desert home, and the house is an architectural peach.
The story goes that in May 1947, he showed up at the new Palm Springs architecture firm Williams, Williams & Williams, having made his first million. He wanted a house, a grand mock-Georgian pile, as a badge of his arrival.
Young architect E Stewart Williams had a different idea, but gave Sinatra the choice of the Georgian estate versus his Modernist low-slung, steel-and-glass, inside-outside bungalow. Sinatra chose the latter and Twin Palms, complete with its trademark piano-shaped pool, was ready for his wife, Nancy, and their three children to move into that Christmas.
You name it, Sinatra sang it – Strangers in the Night, New York, New York, I’ve Got You Under my Skin, My Way. The songs earned him a huge number of Grammy Awards and even more nominations, over a career of more than seven decades until his death, aged 82, in 1998.
His reputation as a drinker, a womaniser and a gambler, prone to violent outbursts when drunk and with connections to the Mob, which he always denied, only added to his appeal, but he was also extremely generous and a big tipper. At one of his favourite hangouts, Melvyn’s at the Ingleside Inn, the maitre d’ tells me Sinatra liked to sit in a booth by the kitchen (he was as fussy about his food as he was about his cleanliness) and would pop back-of-house to hand out $100 bills to the staff.
I go for a midweek lunch and order an hilarious avocado salad in the shape of a wide-mouthed frog. It’s quiet, but I’m told by a Palm Springs resident, an uber-successful LA based interior decorator to the stars, that the hip crowd love it exactly because it’s the Melvyn’s of yesteryear, and it’s heaving at the weekends.
After its mid-century heyday, Palm Springs lost ground as its stars migrated to other cities in the desert and beyond. In the past decade, however, the area, once known as God’s Waiting Room, has shaken off its “golf and retirees” reputation. Cool, laid-back, small-scale boutique hotels have opened, including the Saguaro, which has given a new look to an old Holiday Inn with a paintbox of colours inspired by the desert’s flowers, and has also recreated the Palm Springs’ pool-party vibe.
Elsewhere, the historic buildings all over the city have been saved from the bulldozer and are being given a new lease of life. Downtown, for example, is buzzing – there’s a funky market, Villagefest, on the main street, Palm Canyon Drive, every Thursday evening. Not to be outdone, uptown, once deserted, is now the Uptown Design District of boutiques, specialising in vintage and modern-retro homewares, furniture, clothes and jewellery.
The region is also home to a 20,000-strong, active Jewish community. Many of the first Jews who arrived in the desert were connected to Hollywood and Temple Isaiah was founded more than 50 years ago. Today there are synagogues, schools, kosher shops and eateries and a Holocaust Memorial in the Palm Desert municipal park, built at the initiation of two local survivors.
Take the aerial tramway or a hike up into the mountains for the views, go horse riding in the desert, visit the jaw-dropping splendour of Sunnylands Center and Gardens, and enjoy authentic Italian dishes at Johnny Costa’s, family run by Sinatra’s own personal chef.
Or just hang out by the pool, as Sinatra did. As it says on his headstone: “The best is yet to come”. If you haven’t been to Palm Springs yet, that is certainly true.
Where to stay
Laura Irvill was a guest of the Palm Springs tourist board, www.visitpalmsprings.com
Air New Zealand, airnewzealand.co.uk, flies daily from London to LA, from £435 return in economy and £1,351 in premium economy. Laura stayed at the Saguaro Palm Springs, thesaguaro.com.
For Desert Adventures Jeep tours, visit www.red-jeep.com; for Palm Springs Historical Society walking tours, visit pshistoricalsociety.org and for architecture tours, go to www.palmspringsmoderntours.com