PALM SPRINGS, Calif. —Ruby Montana steers her VW convertible past the former homes of Liberace, Dinah Shore and Sammy Davis Jr., and I start to panic.
The idea of doing California's Palm Springs on a budget seems a bit like traveling to the French Riviera in search of a Motel 6.
"There's money here," she told me earlier as we lunched at Tyler's, a walk-up burger palace in a converted bus depot. And it's not all coming from Southern California.
Montana, 62, sold her cowgirl-inspired Pinto Pony boutique in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood nine years ago. She now owns the seven-room Coral Sands Inn in the elegant Las Palmas neighborhood. The desert city's appeal can be summed up in three words, she says.
"Sun. No bugs."
Add retro architecture, miles of hiking trails, hot-springs resorts and vintage shopping and it's easy to see why a new group of 20- and 30-somethings, young families and gay couples have adopted Palm Springs as their getaway too.
Enter a sagging economy, and what was once viewed as a destination for the rich and famous has become a budget-friendly getaway for the rest of us.
The best deals surface in summer, when temperatures reach into the 100s compared with 70s-80s in winter. But things are different this year.
Empty store fronts along the main drag, Palm Canyon Drive, are one clue that everyone's scrambling for business even as the peak winter season approaches.
Plenty of small motels such as Montana's cupcake-pink Coral Sands, built in 1952 as a retreat for the Los Angeles Rams, offer rooms for under $150 a night.
There's even a Motel 6, but chances for a star sighting are greater next door at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, the hip-hotel-of the-moment, where a friend of mine recently checked in behind Drew Barrymore.
The minimalist decor at the Ace — vintage furniture and walls covered in bleached canvas for a "bohemian, camping feel" — disguises what was a 1965 Westward Ho cinderblock motel. Next door is a former Denny's restaurant, now the King's Highway, serving French press coffee and couscous salads in booths recovered in saddle leather.
"If the production crew from the movie "Easy Rider" came to Palm Springs and took over this hotel, this is what they would do," says Alex Calderwood who helped start the Ace chain in Seattle in 1999. Communal patios with fireplaces, a dog park, two pools open until 3 a.m. and a snow-cone bar were added for guests whom Calderwood describes as "settling down, but still kind of in tune with what inspired them in their 20s."
My second-floor double was comfortable and appointed with a cowhide rug and denim headboard, but a $20-per-night resort fee tacked onto the $99 price made it feel like less of a value than I first thought.
Given the Ace's location two miles from the center of downtown, I was happy to find a bus stop across the street and the hotel's supply of free vintage-style bikes, which I used to get around everywhere without a car.
For the hip, young and budget-minded, happy hour is the new early-bird special.
Hungry after a late-afternoon flight, I pedaled downtown along Palm Canyon Drive, riding over bronze stars on the sidewalk engraved with the names of celebrities.
Friends met me at Matchbox Vintage Pizza Bistro (www.matchboxpalmsprings.com) on Mercado Plaza, where seats on a breezy second-floor balcony overlook a bronze statue of singer and former Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono. A marimba band was setting up as we shared $6 dollar pizzas and salads and $2 draft beers.
More elegant was the 6-7:30 p.m. cocktail hour at Copley's Blue Bar & Lounge in the former Cary Grant estate (www.copleyspalmsprings.com) a few blocks north in what the locals call uptown.
"Love the buzz," said Montana, who visits regularly for the $5 Bombay martinis and $15 Kobe burger blue plate specials.
I loved her dessert tip: a free orange buttercream at See's Candy.
Swing an extra vacation day and arrive on a Thursday for some of Palm Spring's best budget finds.
Admission to the Palm Springs Art Museum (www.psmuseum.org) is free from 4-8 p.m. Check out the towering Chihuly and smaller works by Seattle glass artists Ginny Ruffner and Joey Kirkpatrick and Flora Mace.
Thursday night is also Villagefest (www.palmspringsvillagefest.com), a California version of an Asian night market. Several blocks along Palm Canyon Drive close to traffic starting at 7 p.m. Make dinner a $7 gyro and stroll among the vendors hawking green-apple shave ice, henna tattoos and silver toe rings.
Best spot for a late-night snack: The Amigo Room bar at the Ace. Thursdays are Taco & Tequila Night. Tacos are $1.50-$2.50 and margaritas are $5 until 11 p.m.
At 487 feet above sea level, Palm Springs is surrounded by mountains and high desert. Joshua Tree National Park is a popular day trip, but those without the time or a car will find plenty of the outdoors at their doorstep.
Three dollars buys access to the Moorten Botanical Gardens on the estate of Patricia and Chester Moorten, landscape designers for Frank Sinatra. Visitors can spend a quiet hour wandering through an outdoor museum of more than 3,000 types of desert cactus and plants.
Palm Springs' first residents were the ancestors of today's Agua Caliente tribe of Cahuilla Indians. Ranger-led tours are free at Tahquitz Canyon (www.tahquitzcanyon.com) on the tribal reservation a mile south of downtown.
Given the heat and my own bias for forest paths over rocky canyons, I preferred the trails in Mount San Jacinto State Park wilderness area above the visitors center.
A 12-minute ride via aerial tramway (www.pstramway.com) takes passengers on a scenic ride from the desert to an alpine forest where it's 40 degrees cooler than it is in town. Join a free ranger walk or rent cross-country skis in winter. Ticket prices ($22.95 for adults, $15.95 for children) drop by $3 after 3 p.m.
Discounts on Gucci and Prada await at the Desert Hills Premium Outlets 20 miles west of town, but the best buys are in Palm Springs' thrift and consignment stores. Many are stocked with treasures cast away by wealthy second and third homeowners.
Montana spent years gathering up vintage salt and pepper shakers, lunchboxes and cowhand collectibles for her Belltown store. What wasn't sold when she closed ended up at the Coral Sands.
Among her favorite stores is Revivals (www.desertaidsproject.org), with two shops in a strip mall at 611 South Palm Canyon Dr. Proceeds go to the Desert AIDS Project.
Too bad my baby-blue Electra Cruiser bike didn't have a basket. Otherwise I would be mixing drinks in a vintage glass martini set I spotted in a shoebox for $8.
IF YOU GO
WHERE: Palm Springs is 110 miles southeast of Los Angeles in Southern California's Coachella Valley.
LODGING: For discounted hotel rates, see www.palmsprings.com and the "hot deals" page at www.palm-springs.org, the tourism bureau's Web site. Three suggestions:
—The Ace Hotel & Swim Club, 701 E. Palm Canyon Dr., 180 rooms. October-December rates for simple doubles start at $99 weekdays, $149 weekends, plus a $20-per-night resort fee. January-March rates start at $150 weekdays, $199 weekends. Call 760-325-9900 or see www.acehotel.com/palmsprings.
—The Coral Sands Inn, 210 West Stevens. Seven themed rooms (think Roy Rogers and Liberace), some with kitchens. Kidney-shaped pool. Winter rates: $139-$175. Call 866-820-8302 or see www.coralsandspalmsprings.com.
—Palm Springs Travel Lodge, 333 E. Palm Canyon Dr., 160 rooms. A few blocks from the Ace, this is a great value, especially for families. Newly renovated rooms. Two pools. Breakfast included. Rates vary according to the date, but a search on the Web site showed rooms available for as low as $48 November midweek and $75-$90 for December and January dates. Call 760-327-1211 or see www.palmcanyonhotel.com.
GETTING AROUND: Much of what there is to see and do in Palm Springs and the surrounding desert cities can be covered on foot, by bike or bus. Bus info at SunLine Transit, 760-343-3451, or www.sunline.org. Big Wheel Tours rents bikes starting at $30 per day. Call 760-802-2236 or see www.bwbtours.com.
MORE INFORMATION: See www.palm-springs.org or call the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism at 800-927-7256. Suggestions for viewing architecture, day trips, dining etc. at www.bestofps.com.