Sunday, October 31, 2010

Palm Springs Hideaway and Las Vegas at the Vdara & Encore

Palm Springs
I have always loved renting a home on vacation.  We love the privacy, the spaciousness, the ability to shop locally and prepare our own meals if we want to.  This year, we chose Palm Springs because of the climate, the history and the mid-century modern architecture. October is the ideal time to visit because it is not as oppressively hot as it can be in summer.

This trip had so many facets and I took so many photos, in order to make it easier to follow I am going to break up this posting into sections with separate slideshows for each one. 

When we arrived by rental car from Las Vegas late Saturday night our vacation home was lit up and waiting for us.  The carport led us through a lovely little path to the front door.  I immediately saw a plaque:  "Peace to all who enter here" and it couldn't have been more prophetic.  The first thing we saw when we opened the door was the wall of sliding glass doors revealing the patio area and a beautiful blue lit-up pool shimmering in the moonlight.  I resolved to use the pool that very night before bedtime.  On the side of the house was another sliding glass door that led from the bedroom out to another seating area and the hot tub.   We could tell already this was going to be a great week!  Best of all, the entire yard was surrounded by 12 foot hedges and totally private.

As so many homes in the area this home was built in the late 50's by the Alexander architectural firm and utilizing many design elements from William Krisel.  Those included beamed tongue and groove ceiling, a carport,  a courtyard between the open carport and house, a butterfly roofline and interesting indoor/outdoor relationships.  The interior is decorated with vintage retro pieces throughout, in keeping with the 50's aethetic. 

To rent this beautiful vacation home, click HERE.

I took pictures of everything in the house so I could remember every detail.  Click on the picture to be directed to a full screen slideshow:

In order to get a sense of the history of the area I went on a tour of the homes in Palm Springs with PS Modern Tours, which I found online.  The gentleman leading the tour was Robert Imber, who is actively involved in the historical preservation of Palm Springs and who, I am sure, could keep us entertained with stories for weeks on end.  There were a small group of us on his van tour, with Robert talking as he was driving and cramming in as much information as he possibly could in the three hours.  

He explained that Palm Springs was settled by the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla indians, (whose name literally means "hot water".)  People used to come here for cures, long before the area became the celebrity mecca of the middle of the century.  The city went through many incarnations, from agriculture in the early years, to a military town in the early thirties during the war, to the mid-40's to 1970 boom.  In the 70's it lost it's cache and was forgotten until GQ, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker started publishing articles and photos of the city with its fascinating architecture and suddenly it was rediscovered and became fashionable again.  Robert told us of many of the most prolific and famous architects, including the Alexander family (who tragically died in a plane crash, which ended their empire).  They included the aforementioned William Krisel, John Porter Clark, Buff and Hensman, A. Quincy Jones, Swiss architect Albert Frey, Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright), among others.

He drove us through many of the city's neighborhoods:  Little Tuscany, Old Las Palmas (with its very private estates), Canyon Estates (the site of Palm Springs first golf course), The Mesa (home to the late Sonny Bono, and Suzanne Somers),  Twin Palms (which was the Alexander's first neighborhood and where the sale of each house included the front landscaping, including two palm trees).  Palm Springs boasted many famous Hollywood and other celebrities who had homes there and still do, including Kirk Douglas, the Gabors, Dinah Shore, Elizabeth Taylor, Hepburn and Tracy, Lawrence Olivier, Lilly Tomlin, Liberace, Gable and Lombard.  Elvis and Pricilla Presley spent their honeymoon in the arguably most famous house of all, aptly named, "Honeymoon Hideaway".  High up on a hill overlooking the city was Bob Hope's 17,000 foot mansion, whose architect was the famed John Lautner.  These are photos from the modernism tour:

Another day we visited the Palm Springs Aerial Tram, the world's largest rotating Tramcar (built in Switzerland) which ascends 2-1/2 miles to the peak of Mt. San Jacinto.  We could see that the peak was enshrouded in clouds, but we decided to take the ride anyway.  We could see the surrounding area clearly from the tram almost all the way up to the top.  The difference between the arid desert from which we began our drive to the pine covered, dewy peak was dramatic.  The temperature can drop 40 degrees in the course of the 10 minute ride.  There is a restaurant at the top where we would have had lunch if the weather had permitted.  Another time I would like to return to do some hiking at the peak as well.

One of the most beautiful hiking sites in the area is Indian Canyons, so named for the Agua Caliente tribe of Cahuilla Indians which settled the area centuries ago.  There are numerous hiking trails, with signs warning of rattlesnakes (which I found about later, after I had been on a rather extensive solo hike!)  The huge boulders precariously and delicately perched upon one another reminded me a little of Virgin Gorda.  We drove our car through two of them that looked like they would fall over any minute.  Down a steep trail I found myself in a cool grotto of palm trees (aptly named Palm Canyon).  It was what I imagined finding a real oasis in the hot desert would be like.  Other hikes would bring you to a 60 foot waterfall (which was not running at the time we were there.)  At the trading post I had a wonderful time photographing my favorite bird: the hummingbird.  Their feeders were teeming with them and they were not afraid of me.

Palm Springs is reputed to only get three days of rain a year.  Wouldn't you know it, we were here for all three of them!  There was a record rainfall on one of the days which occurred while we were driving.  It actually made national news.

During our week in Palm Springs, thanks to the suggestions of our local friend, we visited several restaurants: El Mirasol for authentic Mexican; Spencers, a beautiful place for Sunday brunch with a fantastic outdoor eating space; Cheeky's, another good breakfast spot; and we had drinks poolside at the Colony Palms Hotel, which has been restored to it's former Hollywood heyday glory. Other activities included a visit to the Art Museum where we enjoyed a special exhibition by Richard Avedon and the Thursday night Villagefest in downtown, a street fair with artist's booth and food tents. I wish we had not eaten first, because one of the food tents was serving freshly made paella for a pittance! There were also food tents from local date farms. If you have not tasted a fresh date, you are in for a treat.

Las Vegas

On Saturday, we sadly took our leave of our wonderful Palm Springs hideaway and took the long drive back to Las Vegas.  Check-in at Vdara (an all-suite hotel that was originally built for condos) was quick and seamless.  This is one of the newest hotels, located in the City Center area, adjacent to the Aria.  I had signed up for promotional emails at all the hotels I was interested in, and as the offers came pouring in, I kept upgrading to the best offer.  What I ended up with at Vdara was $119 a night with a free flight back to Vegas in the next year.  The room was state of the art, which began at the front door where all you had to do was wave your plastic card room key in front of the door for it to unlock.  Inside were electronic controls that opened and closed the drapes and night shades, tuned on and off all the lights and a control panel at the door which let the maid know if you wanted the room made up or wanted privacy.

I loved the decor of this hotel.  Simple, modern, urban chic and minimalistic in muted colors.  The living room had a flat screen TV, couch, chairs, coffee table and desk. On the other side of the partition was the huge king bed, plush with triple sheeting, six pillows and another flat screen TV.  The bathroom had a separate water closet, glass enclosed shower and a deep soaking tub.   

Our first order of business was getting something to eat. The city center tram was just outside the door and up the stairs from Vdara and the first stop was Crystals, a shopping and dining mall. We opted for Todd English P.U.B. and we were so happy with our choice. I had my first ever lobster roll, with big chunks of lobster lightly dressed in mayo on a split buttered and toasted bun. I am dreaming about it still.

Georg is a big fan of TV's "Pawn Stars", a show about a Las Vegas pawn shop where people bring their unusual items to be sold.  He wanted to visit the actual store while we were there, so we drove to the Silver and Gold Pawn Shop, about twenty minutes from our hotel.  None of the principals were in the store that day, but there were a lot of curious tourists there.  In the parking was a car decorated with "Just Married" and a big limo from the Venetian Hotel.  Inside, Georg recognized many of the items he had seen on some of the episodes on television. 

In the evening we had tickets to see "Jersey Boys", a show about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. I had heard so much about it but had never seen it. It was as good as had been reported to me. Our eyes were glued to the stage the whole performance. One of Eric's high school friends, Deven May, played one of the leads and he and the rest of the cast were just superb. The music rang in our ears the rest of the night.   We topped off the evening with a late supper at Julian Serrano, a Spanish tapas restaurant.  The decor and the food were absolutely over the top.  Another meal I am still dreaming about!  Georg had the lobster gazpacho, I had the ahi tuna tempura, the brava potatoes and the mushroom risotto (blush).  Of course, I shared with him!!! Each was wonderful.  I would return to Vegas just to revisit this restaurant.

After two days at Vdara, we made a move to Encore at the Wynn Hotel.  We had a great email offer from them, so I decided we would spend our last two nights here.  Again, it was $119 a night with two free admissions to the famous Wynn buffet ($80 value).  The Wynn/Encore properties are much more opulent and garish in design than the minimalistic elegance of Vdara.  Both had state of the art electronics in the room, both had hi-def flat screen tv's and separate bedroom and living room areas.  The difference was the casino and more restaurant options at Encore.  Both were equally nice and the beds were extremely comfortable, which made for a very cozy sleep, especially with the room darkening shades.  The swimming pool area at the Wynn is definitely more beautiful, with many different pool areas.  Unfortunately the weather was not conducive to spending time at the pool, so we will have to save that experience for next time. 

Our last night in Vegas we opted for Le Reve at the Wynn.  It is a Cirque du Soleil production which, like "O" at the Bellagio,  has a pool on the stage and the actors perform in and above the water.  The performers do some of the most death defying stunts I have ever seen, in a surreal, sensory overloaded, otherworldly setting.  I couldn't take photos during the production, but I was able to get some of the stage area before and afterward.  It was a lovely way for us to spend our last night on vacation.  After the show our last dinner was at Wazuzu, an Asian restaurant in Encore.  Typical of a Wynn property, it was opulent in design, with a huge white sparkling dragon on the back wall.  We enjoyed a light meal of sushi before spending a little time in the casino and heading up to our room for our last night of luxury. 

Finally, if you really are a glutton for punishment,  here is a link to all the photos I took on this trip.