Elvis and Sinatra fell in love with Palm Springs – and its iconic buildings and glitzy past mean this Californian desert city still has the power to charm

There's nothing particularly glamorous about the drive from Los Angeles to Palm Springs. It runs past concrete commuter builds, shopping malls, roadside banners advertising discounted cosmetic surgery, and rows and rows of motionless wind turbines. So much for the romance of the open road, I thought, as I motored into the city through desert that looked more like rubble than soft, scalloped sand. Palm Springs itself didn't seem to be quite the glamorous retro playground I'd imagined either, with its desultory clusters of bungalows, motels and kitsch shops grouped along wide roads.

I felt a bolt of panic. I'd understood that the nearby Coachella music festival and the popularity of local modernist design had made Palm Springs, formerly known as a pensioner's paradise, hip again. Had I actually elected to spend a week in what could turn out to be a glorified al fresco retirement home in need of a makeover and heated to 100 degrees?

That was before I met architecture buff Robert Imber, whose tours of Palm Springs are the only way to start a stay here. His passion for modernism is deeply infectious and brings alive one of Palm Spring's most seductive features. The city is considered to have the highest concentration of mid-century modernist buildings in the world, and there's something compelling about the combination of optimism and imagination that these sleek temples to the American dream represent.

Imber's tour casts the city in a new light. He showed me a perfect snapshot of America at the height of its cultural influence; a place which draws the visitor in gradually, which keeps twinkling swimming pools and architectural audacity tucked discreetly away from the first glance. It whispers of self-indulgence and a glitzy, hedonistic past, rather than screaming it like Las Vegas.

I could see why my French friend – a Le Corbusier obsessive – came back from Palm Springs in raptures over the Bank of America. Designed in 1959 by Victor Gruen Associates, it was inspired by Le Corbusier's chapel in Ronchamp, in eastern France, and has curved blue walls with a flat white roof that looks like it has been rolled out of a thick slab of marzipan.

It wasn't the first stop on Imber's tour, however, which was conducted from his car thanks to the baking heat. He starts his story with the Tramway Gas Station, designed by Swiss architect Albert Frey and Robson Chambers in 1965, which now acts as a visitor centre and the gateway to the Coachella Valley. Viewed from the side, the building's huge triangular porch roof (technically speaking it's apparently a hyperbolic paraboloid, but to the layman it looks like a star destroyer spaceship from Star Wars) slopes gradually upwards, but viewed from the front it seems to soar skyward. Frey came to Palm Springs in 1934. He was the first disciple of Le Corbusier to emigrate and work in America. He wrote in a letter to his mentor that, "The sun, the clean air, the pure simple forms of the desert create perfect conditions for architecture."

Frey is the best-known of all the architects who worked in Palm Springs. Besides the City Hall and the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station, his most-loved building is probably the Frey House II, built on the side of the San Jacinto mountain and completed in 1964. It's a quintessential piece of desert modernism: low, angular and spare. Built of industrial materials such as corrugated metal and thin concrete panels with plenty of glass, it's designed to blend into the landscape. A giant boulder from the hillside even acts as a partition between the living and sleeping areas in a symbol of the way in which modernist buildings embrace the harsh desert environment, rather than acting as sealed fortresses against it.

Most of the notable buildings – such as the 1946 Kaufmann Desert House – are private homes, so we were able to view them only from the road, but the futuristic House of Tomorrow is an exception. Resembling a UFO from the front, it's an intriguing combination of the visionary design and showbiz glamour for which Palm Springs became renowned. Elvis and Priscilla Presley spent their honeymoon in the house in 1967, with the King carrying his doll-like 21-year-old bride over the threshold singing a Hawaiian love song.

The house's interior furnishings aren't original, but they have been faithfully recreated – from the white sofas down to a white china monkey statue in front of the TV. The clues to its original décor came from a 1962 photoshoot in Look magazine: it depicted Robert Alexander, a prominent local architect who commissioned the house, and his wife Helen in their chi-chi home. Part of the Palm Springs in-crowd, the pair would invite people round to show off new dances and songs. When the Twist became all the rage, Chubby Checker came by and ended up leading a conga around the pool. Now the emphasis is firmly on Elvis, and our guide pointed out a few features you have to be a real fan/voyeur to appreciate, such as the bed where Lisa Marie was conceived – accompanied by the information that after they crossed the threshold the honeymooners were in the bedroom for an uninterrupted three hours.

By the time Elvis arrived, Palm Springs was already firmly established as an out-of-town hideaway favoured by the likes of Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. Probably the most celebrated visitors, though, were Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.

In 1947, Sinatra commissioned what can only be described as a swank-pad, with automatic sliding glass doors, hi-tech recording equipment and a flagpole with a Jack Daniels emblem flag. The jewel in the crown is a heated swimming pool shaped like a grand piano, and a pergola which casts shadows resembling the black keys. Anyone who wants to see the chipped sink where Frank chucked a bottle in a rage, or stand on the drive where he threw then-wife Ava Gardner's possessions after she appeared at the house in an attempt to catch him with Lana Turner, can rent it.

Whenever Sinatra fancied cocktails and company he would invite people round by hoisting his flag. Drinking is still an established diversion in Palm Springs. (Golf features highly, too, as does visiting a spa to soak in the natural V C mineral waters, and outdoor activities such as hiking in the Indian Canyons or taking an aerial tram up 8,516ft at the Chino Canyon.) While there are numerous bars in Palm Springs, the best places to pay an alcoholic tribute to the Rat Pack are the hotels. The Viceroy and the Parker are two of the most chic.

The Viceroy, once favoured by Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Bing Crosby, is an up-market boutique hotel designed in a modern interpretation of the Hollywood Regency style popular in the Thirties. Like so many buildings here, it looks unassuming from the road, but once inside it opens into a secret, achingly stylish world of manicured low box hedges, statues of sleek greyhounds and lemon trees around three pools.

The Parker is a more sprawling, eclectically decorated hotel with extensive and less regimented gardens in which you can play tennis, croquet or pétanque. Fusing louche 1960s style and dark wood-panelled walls, the restaurant Mister Parker's has apparently been decorated to look like "Mick Jagger's Scottish castle", and in the lobby there are two full suits of armour standing amidst retro furnishings.

In the main, the Parker attracts wealthy movie industry insiders from LA looking for some weekend R&R. A younger, more edgy crowd is to be found at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club. This converted mid-century motel is part of a small chain with outposts in New York, Portland and Seattle. At 3pm on a Saturday afternoon the scene around the pool resembles a Terry Richardson photoshoot for Vice magazine, thanks to the plethora of hipsters in their uniform of American Apparel swimwear, coloured Ray-Bans, tattoos, porn-star moustaches and pork-pie hats knocking back Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on the sun-loungers.

I broached the subject of the hotel being "noticeably cooler than anywhere else in Palm Springs" with a man at the reception desk who looked like one of the Kings of Leon. His verdict was that the hotel is still a fairly isolated enclave of cool, attracting a new crowd that is yet to integrate into the rest of the town.

However, historically Palm Springs has always attracted new and eclectic constituencies. Hollywood stars, modernist enthusiasts, elderly sun-seekers, plastic surgeons, spring-break students, passing bikers and a big gay community have accommodated each other as they have overlapped. The hipsters are starting to venture forth from the Ace into the town, too, savouring Palm Spring's kitsch nightlife in the form of its traditional supper clubs. At these they have the chance to, as the Kings of Leon lookalike put it, "watch the old, rich white ladies puke in the bushes after six martinis".

The entertainment around the Coachella Valley isn't all supper clubs, Hawaiian tiki bars and camp shows. In addition to the very glossy Coachella festival, there's a contemporary art and music scene around the Joshua Tree area, a 45-minute drive from Palm Springs. Art happenings, music festivals, sculpture gardens, artists' studios and swap-meets (similar to flea markets) all provide a rather more "alt" scene. For something really out of this world, there is the Integratron, a dome built in the 1950s by George Van Tassel and based on telepathic directions from extra terrestrials. Yes, really. It's now open for UFO conventions, concerts and "sound baths", which are billed as "kindergarten nap time of the third kind" and involve listening to music created with crystal bowls.

Beyond the city limits, the Joshua Tree National Park itself is one of the most intriguing, atmospheric places I've ever been. The cartoonish, twisted Joshua trees could be straight out of a Dr Seuss tale, while smooth, giant boulders look as if they have erupted from the earth, ready sculpted to scramble over. The cactus park is particularly surreal, full of cacti with so many closely packed white spines that when I walked amongst them at sunset they seemed to glow with furry halos.

Closer to the city are the Indian canyons, where the original inhabitants of the valley lived long before the arrival of modernist architects. Before the heat of the day could take hold I went for a walk through Tahquitz Canyon, one of three canyons with signposted trails in the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. I followed a small stream up a hidden gorge to where it culminated in a 60ft waterfall and a clear green pool shaded by the rock.

What looked like rather underwhelming dry scrub and rock from the road came alive as I walked to the waterfall. Petrol-hued lizards shimmied across the paths and red-tailed hawks swooped on the thermal currents overhead.

In spring – the best time to come to Palm Springs thanks to more clement temperatures, with highs in the 80s rather than well over 100 in summer – the desert bursts into vibrant bloom. It's the raw, wild quality of the surrounding desert and mountain ranges that prevents Palm Springs from feeling like a fussy holiday suburb of LA. Just outside the kitsch bubble of cocktails, pool-side bars and vintage-car showrooms is a rugged mountain range. Here, as I walked at dusk, I could hear the haunting howls of coyotes mingling with the strains of Frank Sinatra.

Travel essentials: Palm Springs

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk), which flies daily from Heathrow to Los Angeles from £499 return. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) and United Airlines (0845 8444 777; unitedairlines.co.uk) compete on the same route.

Getting around

* A small economy car can be hired through Avis (avis.co.uk) from £130 for a week.

Staying there

* The Riviera Resort & Spa (001 866 588 8311; psriviera.com). Doubles start at $259 (£173), room only.

* The Ace Hotel & Swim Club (001 760 325 9900; acehotel. com/palmsprings). Doubles start at $109 (£73), room only.

More information

* Visitors to the US must complete an Esta form (esta.cbp. dhs.gov/esta/) costing $14.

* Palm Springs Modern Tours: 001 760 318 6118

* Palm Springs Tourist Office: 001 760 778 8418; visitpalmsprings.com