Underground tunnels, nudist hideaways and mobsters: The secrets of Palm Springs revealed

There's a lot more to Palm Springs than retro architecture, pool parties and Coachella. Here's 12 secrets, unveiled.

 

It owes a lot to the Golden Age of Hollywood

During the early 1900s a 'morality clause' was imposed on contracted movie stars stipulating they couldn't wander further than two hours away from Hollywood in case they were needed on set. Exactly two hours east, Palm Springs was the perfect getaway. A huge resort called El Mirador was purpose built as a playground for Hollywood's elite. When they ran out of rooms, houses were built, thus forming the early stages of the 'Movie Colony' suburb that exists today.

Opening in 1928 it hosted many parties through 'till World War II, when it was turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers. It continues to operate as a hospital to this day.

Mobsters made it their desert hideaway

<i>The Al Capone suite at Two Bunch Palms.</i>

The Al Capone suite at Two Bunch Palms. Photo: Two Bunch Palms

Mobsters, wildly rumoured to have connections to Hollywood, also found Palm Springs to be the perfect place to hide. The Two Bunch Palms resort, which has always been a famous spa, is said to have been purchased in the 1920s by Al Capone and was used as his west coast hideout. Capone built tunnels, fortresses and even a runway. If you stay in the Al Capone suite, you'll see the only evidence that remains - a bullet hole, lodged in a mirror.

The location was nicknamed 'Miracle Hill' as mineral water is heated by two tectonic plates. Journal entries dating back to 1840 tell people to "look for the two palms to find rest and water". It was turned into a 'desert spa' in 1940 and remains one today.

Now, where did those tunnels lead? twobunchpalms.com

Polynesia fever hits town and Tiki titillates Hollywood

<i>Fun cocktails at Bootlegger Tiki.</i>

Fun cocktails at Bootlegger Tiki. Photo: Facebook

Tiki fever took the US by storm after World War II, and a former bootlegger who travelled the South Pacific founded the chain of Tiki bars which quickly became popular with Hollywood's elite. 'Don the Beachcomber' opened in Palm Springs and was a frequent haunt of locals like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

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During the last few years, renovations on the site revealed a system of old maze-like tunnels underneath. One crawl-like space just below street level was said to lead under Palm Canyon Drive to the former El Mirador hotel, whose owner was said to have ties to the mob. It could have been used by illegal gamblers to make a quick getaway. Large storage type rooms could have been used for speakeasys, or celebrities could hide away from the paparazzi's prying eyes.

Bootlegger Tiki, now on the site, is a tip of the hat to Don's, and some of the original Tiki torches decorate the site.

Al Capone wasn't the only mobster in town

Detroit mobster Al Wertheimer built the Colony Palms Hotel (Colonial House) in 1936 and the Dunes Club in Cathedral City in 1935, which operated as a casino and nightclub for celebrities. Picture this: A Spanish-style stucco palace in the middle of an empty block surrounded in tall shrubs, in the middle of vast nothingness as Cathedral City was back then. Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich and Errol Flynn counted as some of its guests. Don't bother looking for the site now - it burned down under suspicious circumstances in 1943.

Colonial House also catered to Hollywood's elite and the wealthy, and attracted gamblers and other less salubrious guests with its underground speakeasy and brothel, which was shut down after a raid in 1941.

The Colony Palms Hotel as it is known today is an upscale hotel with old Hollywood charm. If you visit, the Purple Palm restaurant is above what used to be the old speakeasy.

The mobster behind Palm Spring's first bank

<i>The unique Bank of America.</i>

The unique Bank of America.

Chicago mobster Al Hart founded the City National Bank - the entertainment bank of Beverly Hills. Hart was pursued by the FBI for years, but they failed to make any arrest. It was Hart that financed the ransom money for the kidnappers of Frank Sinatra Jnr back in 1963. Hart had a home nearby Frank Sinatra in Palm Springs, which is probably why he opened the bank's first outpost there. Now the Bank of America, the eye-catching blue-and-white building was designed by Victor Gruen and Associates - a pioneer in the design of US shopping malls.

The infamous Naked Bridge or the or "Bridge of Thighs"

In 2001 a new bridge raised a few eyebrows. Nicknamed the 'naked bridge' and the "Bridge of Thighs", it was built to enable guests of the nudist resort Desert Sun Resort and Villas to cross the main road which connected the resort to some new condominiums dressed merely in flip-flops, if they so desired. The bridge, actually named the Lee R. Baxandall Bridge after a leading proponent of the naturist lifestyle, initially gave some passers-by more than what they bargained for when the sun shined brightly against the neck-high fencing, so it received an extra layer of reinforcement - making it safe for guests and moreso, those passing underneath.

Marilyn Monroe's career took off here

<i>Marilyn Monroe in Palm Springs.</i>

Marilyn Monroe in Palm Springs. Photo: Alamy

Although many will claim the blonde bombshell lived in Palm Springs, this is not true - although she did party here regularly, and her career catapulted after an introduction from her photographer to an agent poolside at the notorious Racquet Club. Palm Desert is also the location of her famous tryst with former US president John F Kennedy.

After a world tour and a spit-and-polish, 'Forever Marilyn' - the 26 foot tall sculpture dedicated to her famous scene in The Seven Year Itch - is set to make a comeback to its original home in Palm Springs, date and location to be confirmed.

The first Californian hippy was discovered in Palm Springs

It wasn't just the Hollywood elite coming to Palm Springs to escape. In 1917, a German man called William Pester was photographed outside a wooden hut wearing not much more than long hair, beard and a guitar. A few others followed suite - including a man called Eden Abetz, who wrote a song called 'Nature Boy' - a big hit for Nat King Cole.

So sprung a movement, which depending on your leanings sparked the beginning of interest in naturalism and the hippy movement of the '60s. These counter-culture 'nature boys' made their own clothes, and ate raw food, rumoured to be connected to, and a move against, the heavy industrialisation of Germany and the rise of the Nazis in Europe.

The iconic windmills don't supply power to Palm Springs

<i>A wind farm outside Palm Springs.</i>

A wind farm outside Palm Springs. Photo: Alamy

Only one per cent of the power generated in Palm Springs by its magnificent windmills is used in the Valley - the rest goes to LA, whose population can afford the more costly power source. Palms Springs' population sensibly derives most of its energy from solar electricity on solar farms.

The behemoths have been strategically placed in the Coachella Valley, one of the windiest places on Earth. Tiny antennas on top of the windmills tell it which direction its giant fans should turn. 

That 'big one' rumour

<i>The San Andreas Fault cuts across the Carrizo Plain in California.</i>

The San Andreas Fault cuts across the Carrizo Plain in California. Photo: Alamy

Everyone in Coachella Valley - if not the rest of California - is waiting for "the big one". While it waits, rumours abound on what will happen when it does. Will California break off from the rest of the country and plunge into the Pacific Ocean? Will water rise to the surface turning the whole region into quicksand? Who knows, but survey says there's a 99.7 per cent chance of having an earthquake measuring at least 7.0 really soon, with the last one in 1812 measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale. This means, with one serious earthquake occurring every 200 years, they're currently overdue.

For sale: Elvis' Honeymoon Hideaway

<i>Yesterday's

Yesterday's "House of Tomorrow" Photo: Alamy

The house Elvis and Priscilla used as their holiday home for a year also had an interesting architectural history. Nicknamed the "House of Tomorrow" it was built by the legendary Robert and George Alexander, who employed some of the most renown architects for mid century modern homes. Over ten years they built 2200 homes in Palm Springs. This particular home was special, as Robert built it as a surprise for his wife, Helena. Elvis and Priscilla loved the house but unfortunately tragedy struck, preventing them from keeping it.

All four Alexanders were flying to Los Angeles from Palm Springs for an event when a rainstorm hit. Their plane crashed eight minutes after takeoff, killing all eight passengers. Bob and Helene left a 13-year-old daughter behind who inherited the house as part of her trust.

You can buy the house today - originally on the market for $US10m, the price has dropped significantly to $6m.

A more affordable $US35 will get you a tour of the property. elvishoneymoon.com/tours

Privacy rules in Palm Springs

While you can swing by Leonardo di Caprio's place, you'll never be able to see in as the town has built-in rules over privacy. Hedges and walls keep prying eyes out of glass houses, and homes in residential zones have height restrictions so residents can't shadow their neighbour's pools (there are 50,000 pools in the Greater Palm Springs area) or even have a second story that overlooks your neighbour's backyard.

This is why celebrities can still flock to Palm Springs without being concerned about exposure. Old Hollywood's 'morality clause' sent stars flocking to Palm Springs not only as a getaway, but to come to a free-spirited place where "Anything Goes" - just like Frank Sinatra once sang.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFO

traveller.com.au/palmsprings

visitgreaterpalmsprings.com

FLY

Qantas fly daily to Los Angeles from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane; on the Melbourne route you can experience their new Dreamliner serviceqantas.com.au

VISIT

If you only do one thing in Palm Springs - make sure it's a tour of the mid-century modern buildings with Kurt from Mod Squad. The tours will not only showcase the city's best architecture, but it will also provide you with an insight into the area's fascinating history. psmodsquad.com

The Joshua Tree National Park is easily accessible from Palm Springs. You can tour in a jeep-style hummer with a guide who has excellent knowledge of the history of the Greater Palm Springs area. adventurehummer.com

SLEEP

See why the refurbished Parker Palm Springs is the most talked about hotel in the US; theparkerpalmsprings.com

The colourful Saguaro with its huge central pool and bar is a fun place to stay in central Palm Springs; thesaguaro.com/

EAT

Eight4nine: located in the upscale shopping district, the new restaurant's eclectic pink-and-white design is as eye-catching as the food is fresh, artfully presented and delicious. eight4nine.com

Tropicale: Come for the huge patio, strong cocktails and excellent fried chicken; stay for the amazing service at this local favourite. thetropicale.com

State Fare Bar & Kitchen, Ritz-Carlton: Californian-sourced ingredients in a menu with a latin twist in a five-star setting, with five-star service. ritzcarlton.com

See also: Qantas' new Dreamliner service takes off

See also: 11 things first-timers need to know about Coachella

​The writer stayed as a guest of Visit California and Qantas

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