Travel: Hot times in the capital of cash

There are 110 golf courses and Bob Hope keeps a house just for parties. Ronald Atkin visits Palm Springs, desert playground of the Californian super-rich

There is a white Rolls-Royce tooling around the Palm Springs area with a number plate bearing the message I AM RICH. Its owner is not alone. In this Californian desert resort the list of millionaires is lengthy, with Bob Hope at its apex. Even the native Americans are rich. Especially the Native Americans, in fact, since this is one of the few spots in North America where the red man managed to get the better of the white man's forked tongue.

The Agua Caliente tribe had settled some 500 years ago in the canyon clefts of the 10,000ft San Jacinto mountain range where there is plentiful water because of the thinness of the earth's crust on the San Andreas Fault.

In the mid-19th century this land was regarded as worthless, so, as an incentive to build a railway through that part of the desert to the Pacific Ocean, the US government offered the Southern Pacific Railroad the odd- numbered parcels of land stretching 10 miles either side of the track.

The American Indians were fobbed off with the even-numbered plots. Of the 32,000 "worthless" acres they were allocated by lot, 6,700 now form the major part of the priceless real estate of Palm Springs which, after a century of litigation, they were finally permitted to lease or rent by President Eisenhower in 1959. The lucky ones became multi-millionaires, the less fortunate merely millionaires. Places such as the airport, many hotels and the convention centre stand on leased native land.

The beneficiaries, a tribe 330 strong whose leader is called Richard Milanovic, tend to live quietly with their wealth in the brown, crinkled hills overlooking Palm Springs. One has a garage with space for 100 cars; another keeps a collection of 32 vintage Maseratis.

Even Bob Hope, now 94, has trouble matching that style, though he does his best with three houses, the biggest and most pretentious of which, under a vast mushroom-shaped roof, has only two bedrooms but a dining room seating 300. Bob uses the house solely for parties.

Traditionally, it has been the wonderful winter climate of Palm Springs that has attracted visitors, though these days the scorching summers are almost as tempting (relatively cheap, and air-conditioned).

Its proximity to Los Angeles, 110 miles to the west, has been another attraction: especially to the movie colony and other West Coast celebrities since the 1930s when two actors, Ralph Bellamy and Charlie Farrell, founded the Palm Springs Racquet Club reportedly (and possibly apocryphally) because a pesky female by the name of Marlene Dietrich was hogging the tennis court at their hotel. Since then, most of the great Hollywood names have lived or still make their homes there.

Though guided trips are anathema to many, I enjoyed and recommend the escorted tours of "homes of the rich and famous" and the Indian Canyons. The one-hour coach trawl of the stars' homes yields not much more than views of walls and high hedges but a fund of anecdote and information. "Lena Horne still lives there, she's 82, doesn't look a day over 60"; "Kirk Douglas is often outside cleaning his car and is happy to chat with visitors and sign autographs."

The surprisingly modest residence Bob Hope calls home can be identified by the golf bag pressed into service as a mail box, while the house formerly owned by Liberace, now owned by an Elvis Presley fan, has candelabra lights out front.

Presley spent his honeymoon and the first year of married life in Palm Springs. What is known as the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway is privately owned, but plans are afoot to open it to the public as a historic homes museum. Meanwhile, its owner, a Boston businessman, gets many people ringing the doorbell. "They stand there and shuffle their feet. I say to them, `You want to know if I've seen him, don't you' and they nod. Well I never have and if I ever did I would take off down the road."

The three-hour canyon tours are by nine-passenger jeep. Mine was driven by Alexis (Lexi) Carson - "I am thrilled to share my desert with you" - and included drinks, a snack, a Polaroid snap of yourself in the wilderness and a torrent of info about such desert flora as the smoke tree, the salt bush, the arrow weed and the cholla cactus, a nasty piece of nature's work which advances stealthily to sting anyone unwary enough to stand too close.

One of the canyons is named after a shaman, Tahquitz, who apparently had "an anger management problem"; in other words he was a murderer. His ghost, said to haunt the streets of Palm Springs late at night, would not be difficult to pick out since he has a spear through his head. Should you run across Tahquitz, Lexi warned, "do not look into his grey eyes because evil will surely befall you".

Though it has a town council (former mayor Sonny Bono) and a year-round population of 45,000, Palm Springs has called itself a village since its incorporation in 1938. The central shopping and restaurant area has a self-styled "Mediterranean charm" since building ordinances are strict. No utility poles, no blatant commercialism, very little neon, no building above two storeys - with the regrettable exception of a six-storey Hyatt hotel which produced a rare victory for the commercial over the environmental. Even McDonald's is not permitted to put its golden arch on the single-storey roof.

Visitors are encouraged to do that most un-American thing, walk, as they explore the shops, bars, restaurants and the (mainly post-war) "historic" section. The oldest building, an 1884 adobe structure, is now part of the Heritage Centre. To encourage perambulation, as well as business, the main street, Palm Canyon Drive, is closed to vehicles on Thursday evenings for Village Fest, an attractive mixture of stalls, refreshments and music, where one of the highlights is to stroll while eavesdropping passing fragments of conversation, such as "I needed one more operation but I already owed them $130,000".

The Hyatt excepted, the plentiful and varied accommodation is in lodges or inns - the dread word motel doesn't get an airing around here - which virtually without exception boast one or more pools. I spent a couple of nights at the Estrella Inn which has three pools and is popular with British groups, as well as being put up in the Einstein Room at the Willows, a delightful eight-room historic home where the great man really did stay in 1933.

Car hire is essential to get around, even to the nearby attractions such as the Joshua Tree National Monument and the Aerial Tramway which climbs 8,500ft to a terminus in the Mount San Jacinto State Park. Or point the vehicle down fairly empty roads named after former residents - Frank Sinatra Drive, Gene Autry Trail, Dinah Shore Drive - and head into the Coachella Valley if your desire is to sample some of the 110 golf courses which carpet this part of the desert at a keep-fresh cost of a million gallons of water per day per course.

On a personal pilgrimage, a car was necessary for a visit to Sinatra's grave at Desert Memorial Park in the small and seriously misnamed community of Cathedral City. A simple tablet set in the ground, Frank's stone bears the message of one of his most memorable songs, "The Best Is Yet To Come".

The 80F winter delights of Palm Springs already attract enough British visitors to the Coachella Valley, making them the biggest contingent from outside the US. But June to September, when Fahrenheit temperatures regularly top 100, is the time when Mad Dogs and Englishmen come out, as well as shirtless and dauntless Germans riding motor bikes through the desert. If Palm Springs' easy opulence becomes too much, you might want to join them.

PALM SPRINGS

GETTING THERE

American Airlines flies to Palm Springs from Britain via Los Angeles, Dallas or Chicago. Tailor-made specialist operator The Destination Group (tel: 0171-400 7000) offers flights in May and June at pounds 431, including taxes, and accommodation at the Estrella Inn from pounds 49 per person per night between May and September.

All the major car hire companies have offices at Palm Springs airport. British company Holiday Autos (tel: 0870 400 0011) offers a week's fully inclusive hire from pounds 159, payable in sterling.

WHAT TO DO

Covered Wagon Tours (tel: 619 347 2161) travel through the old west of Coachella Valley Preserve in mule-drawn vehicles. These guided tours give guests detailed information on the desert environment and enable visitors to learn more about the green palm oases and the wildlife that inhabits them. Guests also learn how the American Indian tribes used the desert's indigenous plant life for food and medicine. A dinner tour costs $55; without dinner the tour costs $40. There are cheaper rates available for children.

Desert Adventure Jeep Tours (tel: 760 324 5337) offer guided trips in an open-top jeep through oases and canyons, the Santa Rosa Mountains or along the San Andreas Fault. Guests can learn about the American Indian heritage, the local wildlife and rock formations. A two-hour adventure costs $69 per person or $99 per person for four hours. There are cheaper rates available for children.

FURTHER INFORMATION

For a free information pack, call the Palm Springs tourism office (tel: 0171-978 5233).

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