Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Airport
When my friend Peter suggested happy hour at the Palm Springs airport, I had questions. Why, on the one hand, since we had no intention of entering or leaving, followed closely by the question of How? ‘Or’ What.
It was the first day of our road trip in the Southwest and by nightfall we would be wild camping outside of Joshua Tree National Park in California. Peter’s colleague asked if we planned to stop in nearby Palm Springs. We didn’t, but he enthusiastically endorsed the city’s airport, apparently a must-see destination in and of itself. So we made one.
Like most airports, the good things at PSP are on the other side of security. Undeterred and a little drunk from the long drive, Peter and I booked the cheapest same-day tickets we could find: an American Airlines flight to Phoenix for $ 123 which we hadn’t intended. to take.
While I wouldn’t call this the most unusual pit stop I’ve made on a road trip, it could be the most expensive. (Our campsite that night would be free, we thought.) But after decades of sprinting through stuffy airports whose only redeeming quality is the destination on the other side, discovering one that was really fun before take off was priceless.
We arrived on PSP around 5pm. The sun was still high above the San Jacinto Mountains, whose steep ridges give mid-century modern lines a futuristic feel. These same mountains protect the airport from desert winds, which is important – most PSPs are completely outdoors.
You could call it an “open-air harbor”. Passing through security in a windy square dotted with palm trees, I half-expected to see a welcoming committee handing out fruity cocktails and necklaces. Instead of looking bored or anxious, passengers picnicked on the lawns and wandered around the mini lagoon.
The open layout is enough for passengers to audibly “wow” when they leave the jet bridge, says Daniel Meier, deputy director of aviation, marketing and air services. He heard this several times via the echo which reverberates until baggage claim.
Rain? That’s not much of a problem, considering that annual rainfall in Palm Springs averages just five inches. When it rains, airport staff are ready with umbrellas and mats to prevent passengers from slipping on exposed aisles. Extreme heat is more common in the desert, although there is an answer to that too: sheltered doors, shaded areas, foggers, and climate control.
The PSP debuted in 1939 as Army Air Corps landing field, and there is still a vintage aircraft on site. A short drive from the terminal, travelers can see hangars filled with war leaflets at the Palm Springs Air Museum. Tours are often led by veterans, and there’s nothing quite like watching old-school planes with someone flying them to make you enjoy an upcoming flight.
Today’s PSP is like a miniature Palm Springs. Donald Wexler, the architect responsible for the city’s modern desert aesthetic, drew up plans for PSP in the early 1960s. The terminal’s 30-foot windows took its steel and glass aesthetic to new heights . The design was inspired by the Jet Age, Meier tells me, noting the terminal’s aerodynamic overhang. But after various expansions and renovations, aerial shots of the airport in a disc-shaped tent scream a desert UFO over 737.
Outside the terminal, departing passengers can recognize what Meier calls “art benches”. The contrasting-colored benches were painted by local artists as part of a Palm Springs Public Arts Commission beautification project, matching dozens of others dotted around downtown. The art inside the airport also reflects what you’ll find at Palm Springs Art Museum, including the Dale Chihuly glassware on display in both.
The places to shop, eat and drink inside the PSP enhance its microcosmic effect. Golfers can stock up on souvenir polo shirts at the award-winning PGA Tour Shop after flexing their putters on the city’s more than 100 courses. Weekend lovers may prefer a nightcap of local chardonnay from the California Vintages Wine Bar. Next door at the PSP Coffee House, travelers can sip lattes under photos of the Rat Pack, which Frank Sinatra claimed in Palm Springs as a Hollywood haven during his heyday.
Arriving passengers may be less inclined to hang out – they have canyons to hike, celebrity tours to do, and pool parties, even in January. Some can continue to Joshua Tree or nearby Anza-Borrego State Park. This airport is literally a gateway to some of Southern California’s most iconic landscapes.
Peter and I rushed to Santa Rosa Kitchen and Spirits in the Sonny Bono Concourse, which is both a tribute to the singer-turned-mayor and a contender for the biggest pageant name in airport history. We sat almost close enough to the runway to feel the draft of the inbound and outbound engines sweeping through the dry desert air. I ordered a margarita. He had a beer. We sipped our drinks under the slowly darkening sky, far from the fluorescent lights of the other airport bars. I was just wondering when I would have the pleasure of coming back, maybe even for an actual flight.
Alex Bresler is a Thrillist contributor.