Away: Down in the Valley

A giraffe seen through palm trees at The Living Desert in Palm Desert. Kathryn G. Menu photo

My mother moved my twin sister, Johnna, and I to Amagansett when we were three years old. But we were born in Palm Springs, which is part of the Coachella Valley, and whenever I see the San Jacinto Mountains on the horizon it still feels like going home.

Growing up, we spent summers in Palm Desert — the fact that we wintered in the Hamptons and summered in Coachella Valley was an irony lost on my sister and me until we were teenagers — as well as a number of school breaks with a large family, including our father, Dean, and beloved grandparents, Marge and Tom, deeply rooted in the desert. Despite soaring temperatures — trust me, even a “dry heat” of 115 degrees is very hot — those vacations to southern California contain some of my favorite childhood memories. My grandparents’ motorhome took us from Carlsbad to Disneyland and Malibu, with camping trips to Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada mountains. But the valley itself, which stretches 45 miles from the San Bernardino Mountains to the Salton Sea, is a resort destination in itself where “snowbirds” flock during the winter months.

The famous car wash sign in Rancho Mirage. Kathryn G. Menu photo

The Coachella Valley includes Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta and Indio. I could write a book on things to do in the valley — take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, check out the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in April, or Stagecoach, the country music festival on the same festival grounds in Indio. The Palm Springs International Film Festival celebrates 30 years in January and world-class tennis can be found at The Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Love art? There are more festivals January through April dedicated to art than I could fit on this page, including the avant-garde Desert X, a biennial exhibit that returns in 2019 to sites throughout the Coachella Valley, February 9 through April 21, where contemporary artists, writers, architects, musicians and more are invited to make unique art installations using the desert as their canvas.

For our family, food is a priority and specifically the food that makes Coachella Valley a destination for the culinary obsessed. Driving from one end of the valley to the other in my grandmother’s Lincoln Town Car, my sister and I were treated to dates, date shakes and virtually anything and everything you could make out of the caramel-flavored fruit harvested from the date palm farms sprinkled across the valley.

For breakfast and lunch, we favor Sherman’s Deli & Bakery (I was raised in New York, after-all), a kosher deli in Palm Springs with a second location in Palm Desert that is famed for its pastries and cakes, lox, hot pastrami and corned beef and its beef n’ latkas sandwich, which is what it sounds like — corned beef or pastrami piled in between the restaurant’s famed latkas. Keedy’s Fountain Grill in Palm Desert is a treasured old-school diner with delicious hot cakes and a 1950s vibe that feels just right in the desert.

Mexican food is abundant in the Coachella Valley. Above is a feast at Macario’s Grill in Indio. Kathryn G. Menu photo

And while Palm Springs and Palm Desert are home to a tremendous number of delicious and impossibly hip places to grab a nice farm-to-table meal, we gravitate toward Mexican cuisine when we are in town. Macario’s Grill and El Mexicali in Indio are two family favorites and the Rincon Norteño Mexican Restaurant, also in Indio, may not look like much, but the Flores family has the best chilaquiles and Huevos Rancheros in the valley.

Johnna introduced me to Two Bunch Palms, a resort and spa in Desert Hot Springs during my last stay in February, where we quietly floated in water from a 600-year-old natural spring, rich in lithium. And while my husband, Gavin, would scold me for not discussing the various world-class golf resorts he enjoys when we visit Palm Desert, I gravitate more toward places like The Living Desert botanical garden and zoo, where I hope to spy big horned sheep traversing mountain slopes, explore gardens native to deserts around the world and watch my niece, Mary, delight in feeding carrots to the giraffes.

Mary feeds giraffes a lot at The Living Desert — Johnna eventually decided to make the valley her home. Apparently the call of the San Jacinto was impossible to ignore for my older sister by three minutes, giving me many more excuses to head back to my other home whenever I can.