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.
Skip the Playground, Do the Museum The best part of the Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert is the fifty-plus hands-on exhibits. The stringless harp helps kids explore the various pitches of sound. The Archaeological Dig lets them strap on goggles and gloves as they hunt for hidden artifacts. And a real-life VW Bug is an ever-changing canvas, allowing kids (and their parents) to tie on a smock, grab a brush and paint to their heart's content. There's also a Braille and wheelchair section that gives children a glimpse into life with physical challenges. Admission to this unique Rancho Mirage museum is $8.
Skip the Gym, Visit Lululemon Lululemon Athletica makes waves for its chic yoga attire (and headlines for what some claim are too-sheer pants). But their location in Palm Desert offers fitness classes – yoga and Pilates – throughout the week, and they're free! All skill levels are welcome (and you can wear any pants you want). Check out their Facebook page for up-to-date schedules.
See the Windmills, Visit the Windmills As you near Palm Springs, you'll drive past hundreds of wind turbine generators spinning in unison. Few people realize, though, that you can visit these alternative sources of energy up close. The Palm Springs Windmill Tour is offered seven days a week year-round; it's a 90-minute wind farm excursion that gets you face to face with those the giant blades. But impressive visuals aside, what'll stay with you is the crash course on wind energy and the modern-day perks that come from harnessing the impressive power of the winds that constantly blow through this desert. Pricing depends on the number of people in your party -- $49 to $79 per person – and includes pickup/drop-off at your resort and gourmet snacks.
Skip the Mall, Stroll El Paseo Destination shopping malls abound in Greater Palm Springs; I love The River in Rancho Mirage for the cascading waterfalls, live entertainment and plentiful dining options. But any visitor owes themselves a leisurely stroll down El Paseo in Palm Desert. This beautifully manicured shopping district stretches just a mile but features some 300 shops, including clothing stores, art galleries, jewelry boutiques and restaurants. You'll recognize a lot of the brand names here, like Louis Vuitton and Baccarat. But it's also a wonderful place to stumble upon one-of-a-kind stores. You'll run into El Paseo right off Highway 111.
Skip the Megaplex, Screen the Palme d'Or Corinne Dodge, an L.A. transplant to Rancho Mirage, likes to forgo the many multi-screen theaters for foreign, experimental and artsy film screenings at the classy Palme d'Or. "It's our only theater that plays indies and edgy movies," she says. "This is fun!" The move lineup on a recent weekday afternoon included a screening of Puccini's Tosca recorded at London's Royal Opera House, an encore 3.5-hour showing of Shakespeare's Hamlet from the UK's National Theater and the new controversial doc Escape from Tomorrow. There are daily 21-and-over screenings. And snack options range from fancy popcorn with real butter and gourmet sandwiches to espresso drinks and wines by the glass.
Skip Fleming's, Savor LG's Well-known steakhouses abound here, but we love LG's Prime Steakhouse for the fact it's locally owned. Founded in 1991, it features two desert locations – Palms Springs and La Quinta – and its nine popular USDA prime steaks include a 24- and 30-ounce Porterhouse. Order one of the 100-plus Napa Valley cabernets off the wine list along with the tableside Caesars Salad.
Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features hotel, spa and local deals throughout Palm Springs and deals to all five 2014 WOW Deal Destinations here: http://www.travelzoo.com/destinations/wow2014/?tz_cs=HPV1.