Photo courtesy of Karen Kenyon

The extensive gardens at the Sunnylands estate in Palm Springs, California, are reminiscent of Monet's garden in Giverny, France. 

From the days of the native Agua Caliente Cahuilla Native Americans to the Hollywood stars, the emergence of mid-century modern architecture, the Dinah Shore Golf Tournament and the reign of Sonny Bono as a celebrity mayor Palm Springs has always been growing and changing while still retaining its history. It is currently experiencing a rediscovery as a vacation spot for everyone from families to the LGBT community and anyone else looking for escape or enjoyment. 

I’d been to Palm Springs before and didn’t expect rain, but since the sun hides for only five days a year, I felt lucky to experience that rare atmosphere, too. 

I loved being greeted by the mountains that present themselves to all visitors as they arrive, offering beauty and a kind of strength and comfort. The mountains are visible from most areas of town and surroundings (San Bernardino Mountains to the north, Santa Rosa to the south, San Jacinto to the west and Little San Bernardino to the East).

I also loved sitting around fire pits at night and looking at the stars (the celestial kind). These fire pits are easy to find in Palm Springs. Most hotels seem to have them, including the Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel and on this recent trip the Westin Mission Hills on Dinah Shore Drive in Rancho Mirage, where my companions and I stayed.

I loved looking in the little shops in the downtown area, then topping this expedition with lunch at Las Consuela’s Terraza, which has served delicious Mexican food in a cozy atmosphere since 1979.

I loved seeing the way colors of the landscape change from the bright colors of day to soft pastels each evening in this desert atmosphere.

I loved visiting the Parker Palm Springs, a chic, trendy, ’70s-influenced hotel, with a wall of macrame, a fire pit in the bar area and a slew of enclosed gardens where we wandered through little gates and across grassy lawns, swung in hammocks and heard Frank Sinatra singing as if from the trees.

I loved visiting Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium — sweet and with an intimate feeling, opened in 1938 by Chester Moorten, one of silent films’ original Keystone Kops. His son, Clark, is still in charge, caring for 3,000 species of desert plants.

I loved the food at the Westin Mission Hills restaurant, Pinzimini, serving modern Italian cuisine. Chef Joel Delmond, from the Culinary School of Orleans, France, and a James Beard Honored Executive Chef, has been with the hotel for 19 years. I had the scrumptious Day Boat Scallops and one of my dinner mates had the Chicken Parmigiana — “the best I’ve ever had.” To top it off, our waiter’s name in this food temple was Angel. He shared stories of parking Bob Hope’s car when he was a teenager and of running into Leonardo DiCaprio and Drew Barrymore in the town recently.

I loved Sunnylands, the 200-acre former Annenberg estate that features a mid-century modern residence and three cottages by architect A. Quincy Jones. The property also includes a private golf course, 11 lakes, a tennis court and swimming pool — as well as a collection of artwork. Touring the house is by reservation only, and visitors must book months ahead.

The grounds are comprised of more than 70 species of native and drought-tolerant plants. In addition, migratory and resident species of wildlife live in or visit Sunnylands – cottontails, monarch butterflies, tarantula hawks, hummingbirds and vermillion flycatchers.

For 40 years Ambassadors Leonora and Walter Annenberg welcomed world leaders from American presidents to English royalty to Sunnylands. The Annenbergs are among the 20th and 21st centuries’ most generous philanthropists. They also owned one of the world’s most significant Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art collections, including works by Renoir and van Gogh.

The Annenbergs envisioned Sunnylands as a retreat center for world leaders – a “Camp David of the West” — where intimate and solution-driven meetings could take place. As their mission statement says, “to address the serious issues facing the nation and world.” They wanted to promote world peace and international agreement through high-level retreats and meetings.

Guests at Sunnylands have included Presidents Barack Obama, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, King Abdullah of Jordan, Secretary of State John Kerry and creative artists John Legend, Renee Fleming and Norman Lear.

The reception area is designed to blend the indoors with nature. The view of the extensive and artful succulent gardens seems almost part of the interior. After watching the introductory short film we wandered the garden paths and walked the labyrinth. The entire garden of 70 species creates an atmosphere reminiscent of Monet’s garden in Giverny, France. Both gardens fill the space on all sides and up toward the sky. We learned also that classes in yoga, tai chi and bird-watching events are held at Sunnylands.

I loved the Palm Springs Art Museum in nearby Palm Desert, which is always an oasis for art and art enthusiasts, offering a wide variety of exhibits. You can see Henry Moore’s work here and currently a glass art exhibit — “Glass for the New Millennium” –and “Go West! Art of the American Frontier” on loan from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Also here are an extraordinary glass piece by Dale Chihuly and works by Marc Chagall, Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder and Robert Rauschenberg.

It’s easy to want to return to Palm Springs — to go on that desert hike, ride the Aerial Tramway (the largest rotating tramway in the world) or revisit the art museum. There’s also the Village Fest, a Thursday night street fair with crafts and food, and the opportunity to see film stars or at least the concrete ones embedded in the pavement of the downtown area. 

Excellent restaurants include Las Consuelos, and Pinzimini at the Westin Mission Hills.

I stayed at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa. Other possibilities are Parker Palm Springs; Karokia Pensione; and Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel.