The perfect trip: Southwest USA
When Elvis needed to leave the Vegas madness behind for a while, it was to Palm Springs that he escaped. Just across the Californian border, Palm Springs is another desert city, baking in the small flatland between four mountain ranges. Compared with the showmanship of Vegas, Palm Springs is more private. Rows of walled-off houses and small hotel complexes, most with a deliciously inviting pool just visible through a gate, testify to a place that takes its undisturbed leisure very seriously.
This penchant for privacy started in the 1950s, when scores of Hollywood stars and singers turned the place into a sort of Tinseltown-on-tour. Many were on studio contracts that forbade them from being further than a day’s drive from LA in case they were needed for shooting; Palm Springs was just far enough away for a real retreat, but near enough should a director call. Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra made this their home at different points in their lives.
There remains a faded but tangible sense of mid-century glamour. Palm Springs’s desert location was a blank canvas for architects after WWII. It was fashionable for those moving to the city to commission boundary-smashing modernist houses with long, straight lines, jutting overhangs and sleek walkways – true machines for living. Most still look as futuristic as they must have in the 1950s, and after seeing a few blocks, it is hard not to feel like a character in a David Hockney painting. Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House gets the most plaudits, but the A-framed abode where Elvis and Priscilla spent their honeymoon is just as impressive – like a rocket about to take off.
Unlike the architecture, many characters from Palm Springs’s prime have drunk their last martini. But at Johnny Costa’s Ristorante, there is still a link to the Rat Pack era. Johnny’s a grizzled 80-year-old Italian- American who, since 1977, has provided Palm Springs with what must be the finest foccacia anywhere outside of the Old Country; in the 1980s, Sinatra used to come to the restaurant where Johnny worked.
"He was a bit of a big shot," says Johnny in his thick, Italy-via-New Jersey drawl. “Normally, I cooked for him, but one time, when I wasn’t working, he ordered his usual linguine and clams, took one bite and then threw the plate at the wall. From then on, I had to be there every time he came in.” Frank liked Johnny’s cooking so much he employed him as his personal chef at home for two years. His speciality was what is known as Steak Sinatra on today’s menu – steak with onions and peppers.
Johnny remembers when Palm Springs still had sand on the roads, the desert encroaching much more than it does today. “But then Sinatra died; the old mafia guys who came in, the Rat Pack – all dead. But you just have to meet new people, make a new family.” Things move on, even in a place as suspended in time as this.
Where to eat
See why Sinatra loved Johnny's cooking by ordering Steak Sinatra at his restaurant (from £10).
Where to stay: Orbit In
The Orbit In, together with its sister motel The Hideaway, is a slice of classic Palm Springs glamour. The rooms, which surround a pool, are kitted out with genuine 1950s equipment and the complimentary Orbitini cocktails, served at sundown, will have you thinking you are Clark Gable (from £80).
If Robert Imber's tours don't inspire a love for modernist architecture, nothing will (from £47; firstname.lastname@example.org).