See This, Skip That: Palm Springs

PHOTO: The hotels in Desert Hot Springs are "funky, basic and boutique places built in the 1960s" and surrounded by mineral-rich hot spring waters.

Travelzoo's list of the Wow Deal Destinations for 2014 is out, and Palm Springs – the desert jewel of southern California – is on it for good reason. With more airlines flying here, airfare bargains are bound to follow; 10 airlines now serve the town's easy-to-access regional airport and Virgin America is set to launch nonstop service here from New York City. And the hotel scene is sizzling, with an array of properties – like the Hard Rock Palm Springs and the Hilton Palm Springs Resort – opening their doors either for the first time or after major renovations. A veritable renaissance is underway in Palm Springs and its quaint neighbor towns. Old meets young. Classy meets sexy. And the discerning traveler with value on the mind stands to win big. Here are some of our favorite unique things to do the next time these desert sands beckon.

Skip the Sand, Ascend "The Aerial Tramway, while sounding cliché, is a super cool thing to do," says my colleague Gregg Gant, who lived in Palm Springs for a year. "I love the elevation, hiking, views and temperature up there." It's amazing what a 10-minute ride on this rotating tramcar – the world's largest – gets you. You climb 6000 feet along the cliffs of Chino Canyon, drop about 30 degrees at the top and gain sweeping views of the Coachella Valley below. Take a guided nature walk or go camping in summer; rent snowshoes or cross-country skis in winter. And enjoy dinner with a view at Peaks Restaurant. From here, you can also access the Long Valley of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. Tickets -- $24 for adults, $17 for kids – can be bought online and rides take place every half hour.

Skip the Pool, Visit the Zoo Need something to keep the kids intrigued? The Living Desert is the only animal sanctuary in Palm Desert, but it's no ordinary zoo. This natural haven is a genuine, open-air snapshot of the animals and plants that thrive in the desert environments of North America and Africa. You can see animals up close – from mammals like camels and zebras to reptiles like pythons and tortoises. There are aviaries and natural gardens, too, and special programs and exhibits are rotated frequently. Experience "Park After Dark" on Friday nights during winter for a special peek at what the wild's like when the sun goes down, and check out the Living Desert web site for a $3 coupon off admission.

Skip Soak City, Do Splashtopia Knott's Soak City is an all-day water adventure; the Tidal Wave Tower features two high-speed 7-story slides. But guests at the Omni Rancho Las Palmas get their very own two-acre water park. Splashtopia features two 100-foot water slides, a 400-foot lazy river and a sandy beach, and the epicenter play zone appeals to all ages. For a more intimate water experience, check in to the deluxe La Quinta Resort and Club; this former hideaway for Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and Bette Davis boasts no less than 41 pools and 53 hot tubs.

Skip the Steam Room, Dip in Hot Springs When I asked my colleague Matt Creech, a regular Palm Springs vacationer, for a unique spa recommendation, he retorted, "The entire city of Desert Hot Springs." This area is graced with just a few square miles where pure mineral water bubbles to the surface. "The hotels here are funky, basic and boutique places built in the 1960s to leverage the mineral-rich hot spring waters unique to the area," he told me. Get here by driving 20 minutes north of downtown Palm Springs.

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