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An architectural oasis

Defrost in the desert amid Palm Springs' modernist masterpieces.

It’s no secret that San Franciscans pine for a real summer. Granted, we do tend to get a few hot days in September and October—but assuming you can’t wait that long, Palm Springs is barely two hours away. Once you step off the plane in the desert, you’ll wish you could swap your boring black suitcase for a vintage Pan Am bag, a circular hatbox, and a highball. This town is a virtual Hollywood set of midcentury modernism saturated with Rat Pack cool. There are buildings by major architects such as Albert Frey, Donald Wexler, and Rich­ard Neutra, and antiques stores packed with rare finds culled from area estates. So stash your luggage in a PT Cruiser, navigate streets named for Sinatra, Shore, and Hope, check in at one of the city’s restored landmark resorts, and relish a retro weekend in Old Hollywood’s backyard.

In a city known for its atomic-age color palette of orange, green, and silver, it’s no surprise that the Parker Palm Springs tapped master potter–cum–interior designer Jonathan Adler for its interiors. The sprawling resort feels like a chic summer camp, with its pools, gardens, pétanque and tennis courts, and the Palm Springs Yacht Club (below, photo courtesy of the Parker Palm Springs)—a landlocked spa with a menu based on Dr. Hauschka skincare. Enroll in Camp Bespoke, and activ­ities director Micah Bing will create a customized itinerary at your behest: architectural tours, antiquing, go-go dancing. If Hollywood Regency is more your style, try the Kelly Wearstler–designed Viceroy Palm Springs, in the historic hotel district. Built in 1933 and redesigned in 2003, the Viceroy is awash in white, black, and lemon yellow, with white whippet statues standing guard over the property. Nosh on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream from your room’s fridge, then recover at the Estrella Spa, stocked with Red Flower and Sundari skincare.

The area’s best design shops are all on North Palm Canyon Drive. Start at number 891, at Trina Turk. The clothing designer, famous for her resort-ready style, tapped Wearstler to design the interior of the 1960s Albert Frey building. Fitzsu Society, located next door in the same Frey building, stocks modern accessories for the home and office. Don’t miss the unique stainless steel and silver flatware. For furniture by Charles Eames and George Nelson, stop at Studio One11; and for Harry Bertoia and Russel Wright, browse through ModernWay. House 849 has a large trove of design books, in addition to antiques and accessories, and Jim Gaudineer’s Galleria is a ’40s shopping arcade, with 10 stores offering an eclectic mix of antique furniture, glass, and photography.

For bargain buys, the area’s best-kept shopping secrets are the Desert Hills Premium Outlets and adjacent Cabazon Outlets. Known to the faithful simply as Cabazon, this sprawling complex 20 minutes west of Palm Springs on Interstate 10 is the holy grail of outlet malls. Exit at Fields Road, where more than 130 shops await: YSL, Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Space (a vendor of Miu Miu and Prada), Theory, Barneys New York Outlet, Dolce & Gabbana, and MaxMara, with Diane von Fürstenberg, Diesel, and Kate Spade slated to open by summer. Park beside chartered buses depositing stylish Japanese tourists, or retrieving them and the spoils of their shopping excursion.

Dine at citrus-hued Citron (below, photo courtesy of the Kor Hotel Group), inside the Viceroy’s lobby, where you can keep an eye on who’s going and coming (Eva Mendes, Dennis Hopper, Lindsay Lohan). Acting executive chef Josh Smith’s menu blends Mediterranean and North African dishes. Next door is Melvyn’s Restaurant & Lounge, where Frank Sinatra held a rehearsal dinner before his wedding to Ava Gardner. If the mercury rises, beat the heat poolside at the Purple Palm Restaurant—equipped with an automatic misting system—inside the newly renovated Colony Palms Hotel. Its menu changes seasonally, but must-orders include the charred ahi tuna steak and the housemade sweet-potato agnolotti.

Much of Palm Springs’ best modernist architecture has actually been restored or remodeled to resemble its original design. Pile into local arch­itecture expert Melody Winston’s minivan for a citywide tour. She starts on Sunnyview Drive and Molino Road with seven prefabricated Alexander steel houses designed by Wexler. Each was erected on-site in one day, with a flat roof called a “top hat” or “folded plate." Winston knows many of the owners, and she’ll knock on doors if you ask to see inside. For a sneak peek at houses, including Frey’s Palisades Drive residence, flip through Palm Springs Living (Rizzoli, 2007), written by San Francisco’s contributing interior design editor, Diane Dorrans Saeks.