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SPRING TO LIFE; L.A.'S FAVORITE DESERT OASIS HAS REBOUNDED IMPRESSIVELY FROM ITS DOLDRUMS IN THE 1980S.

Byline: Story and photos by Eric Noland Travel Editor

She was quite a knockout in her prime. Fresh. Frisky. Possessing a beauty that smoldered - often literally. Famous entertainers frequently made the trek from Hollywood to spend time with her, to bask in her sun and her glory.

In time, however, younger, brighter rivals began to emerge, and the rejection that followed was not a pretty sight.

By the 1980s, Palm Springs, Hollywood's desert playground in the '30s, '40s and '50s, was helplessly observing an exodus, as travelers drifted deeper into the Coachella Valley - bound for lavish, glistening, new resorts in the communities that sprouted to harbor them: Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta.

Before long, Palm Springs was in imminent peril of becoming a pathetic dowager in cracked pink stucco, sifting through the black-and-white photos of a long-gone era - look, here's Jayne Mansfield in repose with a Chihuahua perched on her back.

But Palm Springs fooled them all. It tidied up, moved the dining tables outdoors and introduced a relatively foreign concept - foot traffic - to Southern California. It invited the film community for a festival and established a weekly street market. It launched a kick line in which no hoofer under age 50 would be permitted. (Take that, spa bunny.)

The town played without a hint of apology to its colorful history. Then, funny thing: Nostalgia and kitsch suddenly became cool. And everyone came streaming back.

It's a thoroughly delightful place once again - all the more so at this time of year, when it offers a dry, sun-washed antidote to the damp chill that often constitutes winter in Los Angeles. And yet Palm Springs hasn't lost its quirkiness.

On a recent morning walk along Palm Canyon Drive, Sinatra music was heard streaming from the open door of a sidewalk establishment. Not Frank. Nancy.

Casually dressed desert bums jockeyed for position at open-air cafes with the clad-in-black, cell-phone crowd.

One eccentric soul happened by, leading a dog by a thick leather leash; the bug-eyed pooch was no bigger than a rat.

The entire scene was punctuated by a veritable car show of Detroit excess. You thought all the gas-guzzling sedans were phased out during the '70s oil crunch? Not quite. They're still being manufactured and sent directly to Palm Springs, where they line up hood ornament to tail fin, windows up and air conditioners blasting. Really big cars - Cadillac Broughams, Lincoln Town Cars, Chrysler New Yorkers - driven by a curmudgeonly set that thinks Japanese compacts are tinker toys and SUVs ride like bread trucks.

These are the signs of a community's prosperity, its rebound.

``We've held our own,'' said Sally McManus, who grew up in Palm Springs and now is director and curator of the Palm Springs Historical Society. ``We had a little period where we weren't doing that well, but we're going strong now.''

The revitalization began in the late 1980s, when the late Sonny Bono was mayor of Palm Springs. ``Downtown was in need of rehab,'' said Brian McGowan, a city economic development specialist. ``The decision was made to make it into an arts and entertainment district.''

The process was numbingly slow, for a variety of reasons. In order to promote foot traffic in the downtown area, ordinances had to be overthrown. One prohibited sidewalk lighting - a remnant from the '50s that sought to enhance star-gazing. Another barred outdoor dining; McGowan isn't sure how that one got on the books. The recovery was also conducted at a snail's crawl because of the early-'90s recession, which tended to linger longer in communities whose economies were tourism-based.

But dogged strides were taken to make the region more appealing. Lights went up. Tables went outdoors. Proprietors were encouraged to install French doors, swing them wide and share the music with the outside wCorld.

Now Palm Canyon Drive teems with activity day and night, particularly in the area of Tahquitz Canyon Way. In fact, the Starbucks on that corner is said to be the second-highest-grossing franchise in the Seattle-based coffee chain.

``It's funny,'' says McManus, ``because nobody used to stroll. Certainly not at night.''

It's an inviting place, and it feels like a downtown district - something those resort communities down valley can't offer.

This is a great spot for people watching and window shopping, or for long, leisurely moments on one of those restaurant patios. On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks back, a band was doing a pretty fair impersonation of Los Lobos at Las Casuelas Terraza.

The setting is difficult to beat, with the San Jacinto Mountains providing a backdrop to the cleaned-up Mission Revival architecture of the town. The best time for savoring the mountains' beauty is in the morning, when the rising sun fires them in brilliant shades of purple and pink.

The Palm Canyon Drive scene is further punctuated by thick strands of mature bougainvillea vines - they cascade over walls and eaves, spreading their red blossoms everywhere.

For a random chuckle, don't miss Palm Springs' ``Walk of Stars.'' Cheeta the chimp, from the Tarzan movies, has a star here, right next to Chevy Chase's, in fact. And it wasn't enough to honor Elvis Presley; his manager, Col. Tom Parker, has a star, too.

Palm Springs' comeback is also reflected in a recent explosion of organized events.

An international film festival was established nine years ago. This year's event is scheduled for Jan. 13-24 at the Palm Springs Festival of Arts complex. Box office: (760) 322-2930.

VillageFest, a Thursday night street fair, has been going strong for eight years, offering visitors a feast of music, food and vendors' wares (Palm Canyon Drive between Amado and Baristo roads).

The Fabulous Follies, a chorus line of veteran hoofers (currently ranging in age from 55 to 85) that has Cshown no signs of flagging - either in popularity or in energy - since its first kick at the Plaza Theatre in 1990. The group's handbills read: ``They're sexy, they're beautiful, they're talented . . . they're old.'' Reservations: (760) 327-0225.

Next summer, a major renovation project will begin at the Desert Fashion Plaza. ``They're literally going to take the roof off the thing and make it into an outdoor walking-shopping area,'' McGowan said.

Palm Springs' rejuvenation is evident in a sprouting of boutique hotels.

One in particular, Korakia Pensione, has drawn fawning praise from publications as disparate as Los Angeles magazine and the London Sunday Times. But a visit to Korakia in mid-November produced a decidedly uneven experience.

Lying a few blocks west of Palm Canyon Drive, the inn is actually two properties, a 1920s Moroccan villa on one side of Patencio Road, a Mediterranean villa on the other. Together, they're composed of 20 rooms which range from $120 to $260 nightly.

Publicity materials for the inn take pains to list the celebrities who have stayed there, among them Laura Dern, Andy Garcia, Chris O'Donnell, Alicia Silverstone and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Perhaps because Korakia has proven so popular with Hollywood and received such favorable press, it operates under policies that wouldn't fly at most lodgings.

It doesn't accept credit cards, for example, accepting payment only in cash, check or traveler's checks. It also requires a two-night reservations deposit in advance. Payment for the balance of your stay is required upon arrival.

If you find your accommodations unacceptable after one night of a planned two-night stay - as we did - there is no refund for the second night. What was even more curious, when we checked out a day early, the desk clerk didn't seem the least bit interested in inquiring as to whether the stay had been enjoyable - or why it was being cut abruptly short.

Guest enjoyment at Korakia probably has a dirCect correlation with the room assigned. Particularly on the Mediterranean side of the street, rooms are tucked away in quiet, poolside settings. (Two free-standing bungalows looked particularly inviting.)

Our room was the Library, which shares an extremely thin wall with the lobby, on the Morrocan side. Music - best described as New Age desert nomad funk - throbbed through that wall until 11 p.m. (ceasing only because we searched out the stereo in the otherwise-deserted lobby and turned down the volume ourselves). The music resumed in the morning promptly at 8.

The tromping of the occupant overhead, in the Upper Studio Balcony room, was intrusive, too - particularly since it started at 5 a.m. and persisted for an hour.

The room was said to contain a ``handmade four-poster bed,'' but comfort was very much an issue - the feather-bed mattress mounded dramatically in the center, playing havoc with neck vertebrae in the night.

Maybe these annoyances would have been mitigated if we'd been able to enjoy a cheery blaze in the fireplace. The desk clerk who checked us in noticed the empty rack and said, ``I'll have some logs sent over.'' ``Yes, we'd like to have a fire,'' my wife responded. But the clerk seemed more concerned with answering the ringing cell phone on her belt, and the wood never materialized.

Korakia is located on a street crowded with apartment buildings and private residences. This can have its drawbacks. Continental breakfast on the front patio was serenaded by nearby leaf blowers. And though the pool on the Moroccan side of the street is luxuriantly warm, its view of the San Jacintos is marred by power poles, transformers and the neighbor's roof.

It's a pity Korakia was found to have such bothersome flaws, because owner Douglas Smith has decorated it thoughtfully and tastefully, and - aside from the indifferent service - has created a warm, enchanting environment reminiscent of a desert hideaway. At night, the place is ablaze with candles, and both pools are borderedC by open fires - a rock fireplace on the Moroccan side of the street, deck torches on the Mediterranean side.

After being bid a curt (and costly) farewell at Korakia, we moved on to another hotel with roots deep in Palm Springs' past. The Estrella Inn, which was popular with the Hollywood crowd in the '30s and '40s, takes great pains to preserve that legacy.

It is done in rough, salmon-colored stucco, with flowering vines and several shady, mature citrus trees (beware the overhanging grapefruits when you're sitting in the whirlpool).

As with Korakia, it's helpful to know in advance which rooms to request. The property includes three motel-like rectangles built in the '70s, and the rooms therein are unexceptional - though ours was clean, spacious and mercifully quiet. (In winter, standard rates range upward from $125.)

Much more intriguing are the Estrella's 14 villas - which were undoubtedly called cottages when they were built in the early '30s. They are free-standing units, many of them engulfed in bougainvillea, and feature tile floors, arched hallways and shower stalls, kitchens, dining rooms, living rooms, private patios. Walking through the front door is like stepping into a Raymond Chandler novel.

They're named after various stars of the era - Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, etc. - and it's not purely gimmick. Estrella staffer Charles Ziino says that the inn's previous owner, stumbling upon a box of guest records in the hotel's basement, was intrigued to discover that some movie stars were known to specify a particular cottage on each visit. The rooms were christened - and decorated with photos - accordingly.

A one-bedroom villa rents for $200 (including breakfast), a two-bedroom for $300, although those rates will rise to $250 and $360 after the first of the year.

Whenever possible, dinner in Palm Springs should be taken out- of-doors, and there are numerous such options along Palm Canyon Drive.

For perhaps the best fine-dining option in the area, however, headC to Le Vallauris, a few blocks west of the main drag at 385 W. Tahquitz Canyon Way. Tables are set up on a tree-shrouded patio, romantically lit, and the French-California selections are delectable. Recently, they included a rich and savory Maine lobster ravioli with basil bisque sauce ($14 as appetizer, $24 as main course); a salad of baby spinach, endive, pear, walnuts and Roquefort cheese ($9.50); filet mignon with black trumpet mushrooms ($30); and a roasted, stuffed pork loin with dried cranberries (the tart cranberries were delightfully complemented by thin-sliced parslied potatoes).

Two other restaurants, LG's Prime Steakhouse and the Kaiser Grille, have also attracted attention, in part because of their participation in a kind of reverse exodus. In the '80s, according to McGowan, Palm Springs' finer dining establishments were fleeing to the resort enclaves down valley.

LG's and the Kaiser Grille, however, are highly regarded Palm Desert restaurants that branched out into Palm Springs.

The owners decided that something special was happening there:

A dowager was in recovery. And looking sharp once more.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Palm Springs is 110 miles due east of Los Angeles and can be reached via I-10.

LODGING: At the Estrella Inn, standard winter rates range upward from $125. Its charming villas are priced from $200, though rates are scheduled to rise the first of the year. Address: 415 S. Belardo Road. Phone: (760) 320-4117. Reservations: (800) 237-3687. Web: www.estrella.com. The rooms at Korakia Pensione are priced from $120 to $260. Address: 257 S. Patencio Road. Phone: (760) 864-6411. For a spa experience in Palm Springs, try The Palms, a sister property of The Oaks in Ojai. Standard rates range from $135 to $215 (rates to increase on Jan. 1). Address: 572 N. Indian Canyon Drive. Phone: (760) 325-1111. Reservations: (800) 753-7256. Web: www.palmsspa.com.

DINING: The finest dining in the area can be found at Le Vallauris, 385 W. Tahquitz Canyon WaCy, (760) 325-5059. For a more casual setting along the main drag, try the Mexican/Southwest food at the Blue Coyote Grille, 445 N. Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 327-1196. A great spot for an afternoon drink is the patio of Las Casuelas Terraza, 222 S. Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 325-2794.

INFORMATION: For general tourism information on Palm Springs, to order a free tourist brochure or to make lodging reservations, phone (800) 347-7746. Web: www.palm-springs.org.

CAPTION(S):

7 photos, box

PHOTO (1 -- 2 -- color) The San Jacinto Mountains provide an impressive backdrop for the Mission Revival architecture in a revitalized Palm Springs. Foot traffic was practically unheard of on Palm Canyon Drive until the community lifted a longstanding ban on bright street lighting.

(3 -- color) Korkaria is a small Palm Springs inn that has the look and feel of a desert hideaway. It has its quirks, though, and may not be for everybody.

(4) Palm Springs had to overturn an ordinance prohibiting sidewalk dining in order to coax visitors back. Now Palm Canyon Drive is liberally peppered with such establishments.

(5) The Library at Korakia Pensione is a pleasantly furnished room, but the mounded dry measures such as metal or plastic cups ranging from 1/4 to 1 cup for dry s feather bed on the handmade four-poster bed was not found to be particularly comfortable.

(6) The villas at Palm Springs' Estrella Inn date to the 1930s. Many are tucked away beneath mature citrus and palm trees.

(7) On Palm Springs' ``Walk of Stars,'' even Elvis' manager rates a star.

Eric Noland/Travel Editor

BOX: If you go (see text(
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 19, 1999
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