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Hollywood glamour in Palm Springs

KATE MEAD
Last updated 15:54 12/08/2012
Saguaro Palm Springs
Greater Palm Springs CVB

HELLO SUNSHINE: Poolside at The Saguaro Palm Springs.

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Marilyn Monroe's measurements, as supposedly recorded by her dressmaker, were 35-22-35.

The Marilyn Monroe that stands before me today is 7.9 metres tall, 5.2m wide and weighs in at 15,558 kilograms.

She may have been trying to rest in peace for the last 50 years but in downtown Palm Springs, Monroe is causing quite a stir.

Sculptor Seward Johnson's Forever Marilyn work sees the movie star immortalised in the Seven Year Itch pose (of course), her white dress frozen in a permanent flail. In bronze and stainless steel, as in life, people are snapping portraits, taking cheeky photos of her behind and posing with her, although they only come up to her mid-shin.

This Marilynzilla was relocated from Chicago and arrived in Palm Springs in May.

Monroe, who was a frequent visitor to the area, is not the only celebrity to leave an indelible mark here. In the 1950s, Palm Springs was known as a celebrity playground because of its close proximity to Los Angeles. Screen sirens and crooners had to stay within a two-hour reach of Hollywood in case they were needed for last-minute shoots.

Celebrities used to run this town (Sonny Bono was a former mayor), and to see the star effect just head down Frank Sinatra Dr and turn left into Bob Hope Dr. Or visit the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway, where Presley and his wife, Priscilla, retreated.

We're here in early July, when temperatures are nearing a Hollywood ego-melting 40 degrees Celsius.

Our refuge from the desert comes in the form of The Saguaro (said 'suh-war-oh') Palm Springs, a hotel that is a fury of colour against the light browns of the earth and mountains that encapsulate the city.

In the lobby, metal art installations the colours of skittles shock us out of our road trip- induced lull.

The staff, who wear neon polo shirts, hand us neon pink towels to use in the neon blue pool. Inside my room the colour saturation continues, with a bright red feature wall and orange splashes in the shapes of a desk, mirror frame, drawers, curtains and headboard, and there's a bowl of mandarins for good measure. The hotel's rainbow rooms represent the hues of local desert flowers. It certainly makes for a memorable stay.

The mandarins remain ornamental, because tonight we're indulging in the summer prix-fixe menu at The Saguaro's restaurant, Tinto. Iron Chef Jose Garces is at the helm here and he gives a modern kick to his menu, which is inspired by southern France and the Basque region of Northern Spain. I begin with a mini chicken kebab with grapes that comes dipped in a shooter glass with garbanzo puree and truffle jus. From then it's a blur of crockery and cured meat. Andalusian mountain cured ham? Yes please. Serrano ham-wrapped figs? Of course. Duck confit with serrano ham and black cherry? You know it. Countless sharing dishes pass through my hands, with much of the contents somehow ending up on my plate. This food frenzy ends with bunuelos - donuts with date jam, spiced honey and date-olive oil icecream. I'd try out that pool if it weren't for the fear I'd sink.

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The greater Palm Springs is made up of eight different cities all encased by mountain ranges. I probably spend half my time here looking up, bewitched by the constant sight of mountains and palm trees.

Palm Springs is known for its plentiful modernist buildings, most of which are low-rise to ensure the looming mountains are always on display. It's also in keeping with the movement by architecture enthusiasts, local historians and others, to preserve the city and its historical abodes. Palm Springs celebrates its style with the annual Modernism Week.

Today we're exploring Palm Desert, home of El Paseo, the "Rodeo Drive of the desert". We peel off to investigate the tail end of the Fourth of July sales. The Gardens on El Paseo is like the Eden of Palm Springs shopping. It's a compact block in a pretty setting with manicured landscaping, a native palm grove and water features mixed in with upscale boutiques like Louis Vuitton and high-end department store Saks Fifth Avenue. I don't have the bank balance of a movie star but it's a short stroll to the main strip where you'll find more affordable favourites like Juicy Couture and Banana Republic.

The credit card gets some breathing space when we reconvene for lunch. Tommy Bahama's Restaurant is casual glam. There are people lunching in heels and heavy makeup and there are just as many strolling in wearing jandals and shorts.

The food is approachable and sophisticated with offerings ranging from tortilla soup to blackened fish tacos.

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Marilyn Monroe ForeverThursday nights in downtown Palm Springs come alive with VillageFest, a street market where you'll find everything from fruit and vegetables to jewellery and sunglasses. Attracting thousands of shoppers each week, it's a great spot to people-watch.

We're still feeling the heat as the sun goes down, casting geometric shadows on the mountains on its way. We enjoy the last moments of light at Ace Hotel & Swim Club, a laid-back, seriously stylish hotel built on the foundation of a 1965 Howard Johnson motel and an old Denny's restaurant. We have a peek into the rooms, all vibrant with their vintage furniture, record players and unique art.

The original motel bar was frequented by the Rat Pack and it hasn't changed, so you can walk in the footsteps of Sammy Davis Jr and Frank Sinatra.

Thursday nights here are famous for the taco party dinner - a buffet selection with meats, taco shells, salsas, jalapenos and salad fillings.

To experience a different kind of culture in Palm Springs, it's worth visiting Old Town La Quinta. There's plenty to see in the serene historic village, whether you want to gape at the beautiful buildings, or go inside them and shop.

Many people visit Palm Springs for the golf courses in particular, teeing off at PGA West in La Quinta. Just a chip away is La Quinta Resort & Club, which boasts two of its own golf courses. It's also the oldest resort in Palm Springs, where the likes of Clark Gable and Greta Garbo would seek refuge. The entrance is grand with big wooden doors, plants growing up the walls, small bridges over streams and that distinct Southern California architecture that contains a fleck of Spanish influence.

We're here for lunch at Twenty6, one of the resort's six restaurants (and we'd really like to swim in one of its 41 pools). The menu is a combination of meals that are simple and a bit special - the grilled cheese and tomato soup sounds just as delicious as the jumbo lump crab cake.

After the mains, we are delivered a bounty - a shock of sugar, with whoopee pies arriving on their own wooden tray with a small carton of milk, then there's the peanut butter mousse cake and sour cream sorbet. We leave very satisfied and with a sugar rush.

It's impossible not to fall for the charms of Palm Springs, with its proud culture, 350-plus days of sunshine and constant backdrop of rippled mountains. Besides, if it's good enough for Monroe...

FAST FACTS

Where to stay: The Saguaro Hotel, 1800 East Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs

Where to eat: Tinto and El Jefe at The Saguaro; Tommy Bahama's Restaurant, 73-595 El Paseo, Palm Desert; ACE Hotel & Swim Club, 701 E. Palm Canyon Dr Palm Springs; La Quinta Resort & Club and PGA West, 49-499 Eisenhower Dr, La Quinta.

What to do: Visit the Forever Marilyn statue, cnr Tahquitz Canyon and Palm Canyon Dr; El Paseo Shopping Avenue, El Paseo, Palm Desert; Old Town La Quinta, Main St, La Quinta; Agua Serena Spa at Hyatt Grand Champions, Resort, Villas & Spa, 44-600 Indian Wells Lane, Indian Wells; For more information, visit palmspringsoasis.com.

How to get there: Air New Zealand flies twice daily to Los Angeles. Hire a car for the two- hour drive east to Palm Springs.

Kate Mead visited Palm Springs courtesy of Air New Zealand and Visit California.

- Sunday Star Times

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