It's Good to Be
On the Road Again
THURSDAY, MAY 27, 2021 -- I'm on the road again--to Palm Springs--and it started off slightly rocky.

SkyPark, my valet off-airport parking lot near San Francisco International, closed during the pandemic. There went my great airport perks: coffee, doughnuts and a free copy of The New York Times. My new perch, Anza Park and Ride, is a stripped-down, park-it-yourself operation in a huge, open lot south of SFO. But it is a bargain at $10.99 a day when you make a reservation, so ...

More importantly, my United Express flight on an Embraer 175 loaded quickly and orderly and offered surprisingly generous legroom. Drinks were poured in first class--but only coffee, sodas and water were available in coach. The flight was packed solid. Social distancing is already a distant memory in the air.

Palm Springs Airport, a 90-minute nonstop away, is small, charming and booming with new capacity. But it is not designed with business travelers in mind. There's no place to work or to plug in. But then this is a resort town that grew up as Hollywood's playground and a refuge for wealthy Californians seeking sun, golf or a quick getaway.

Even though there are countless hotels in Palm Springs, including many historic ones, I chose a newish Hilton Garden Inn a few miles away in Rancho Mirage. The price: Just $79 a night plus tax.

It is certainly not one of those legendary hideaways in the California Desert, but it had everything I needed: gym, pool, business center, spotless rooms, free WiFi, free parking and a small, but sharp and responsive, staff.

Well, it had almost everything. There was no food service even at the hotel's modest on-site restaurant. The kitchen was closed during the Covid lockdown and management hasn't been able to hire a chef--or so I was told. (As with all Hilton Garden Inns, there is a little grab-and-go pantry near the check-in desk and microwave ovens in all the rooms.)

In case you've never been, Palm Springs is the anchor of the Coachella Valley, which is ribboned with hotels, motels, inns and Airbnbs. There is no shortage of accommodations. A friend in the real estate business paid for two rooms for two visitors at the 244-room Saguaro Palm Springs, a colorful 1970s motel that has flown several brand flags over the years.

It did not go well for them. The rate was $350 a night plus tax and a $45 resort fee--steep for May, the tail end of the Palm Springs season. From the outside, I thought the Saguaro looks a bit tired. From the inside, according to reports from my friend's guests, it was tired and tacky.

Except for comfortable bed and nice sheets, there was "no light bulb in a bedside lamp, a weak shower stream, a loud air conditioner and small balcony with disassembled mechanical parts strewn about," one of them reported. The bathroom fan didn't work and there were no wash cloths. "I was shocked. This was a $100 a night room at the most. When I complained, they only subtracted the resort fee for two nights."

If Palm Springs and the hamlets that line Highway 111 have plenty of lodgings at all price ranges, they also have at least an equal number places to dine on diverse cuisines and drink a litany of libations. The trick to enjoying the town these days is to go where the locals go.

Ellen Paris, a Forbes writer friend who lives in Palm Desert, introduced me to John's Restaurant in Palm Springs and talked it up as a great breakfast joint. She was right on the money. Actually, though, it's an all-day American-style spot with a busy charbroiler. Check out the Polish sausage and eggs for $10.75. It's a trencherman-sized meal. The burgers are big, too.

"John" is a popular name among Palm Springs foodies and John Henry's Cafe is a favorite of locals and cognoscenti like Joel Saken, an old high school pal. John Henry's is hidden away and virtually tourist free, but it's no plain-Jane cafe. It's a dinner-only spot with a cozy patio, freely poured drinks, generously portioned food and a mile-long menu at very reasonable prices. The entrees are in the $25-$30 range and include a tender filet mignon. Service is provided by experienced pros, attentive but unobtrusive. There's plenty of free parking, too.

Mediterranean food lovers should not miss Yianni's Taverna & Greek Market Place in Cathedral City. With an outdoor patio (pictured above) and a nearly all-Greek staff and kitchen crew, this authentic place practically demands a voracious appetite. My friend Joel Saken ordered an endless array of delicious, flavorful food that did not bust the wallet or melt the American Express card. It's another local's hideout. The only downside of the lovely patio? The din of cars racing top speed down the boulevard outside.

Bottom line: It's good to be on the road again.