Critics' Corner: In Search of the Perfect Palm Springs Pool
With more than 50,000 pools in Palm Springs, how do we find the very best?
After almost three decades in the northeast, I embarked on a mission to escape winter forever. I write this sitting on my patio, with an ambient temperature of 112 degrees (about 45 celsius), so I think I made it. In the past several months scouring the desert for potential Plum homes, I think about what a day in the shoes (or more likely sandals) of our guests would look like. Could they realistically and enjoyably spend the whole 12 hours outside? For a house to pass this test in Palm Springs, a couple lounge chairs and a pool simply don’t cut it. Fortunately many architects, landscapers, and designers have risen to the challenge and delivered some exceptional spaces that make us never want to go inside.
One of my favorite questions in the home test asks about a place outside to enjoy breakfast, so why not start our day poolside? A first-thing-in-the-morning plunge wakes you right up, perfect in the refreshing salt-water pool of The Pillars’ oasis. I imagine floating in the water, surveying the different seating arrangements to decide just where I would take my first meal of the day. For a full breakfast I could dine at the table, shaded by a palm-thatched lanai. For a mimosa and some fruit I might choose the lounge area poolside. Or I could sip a cup of coffee with the crossword in one of the loungers while watching the sun rays creep up the mountains. I love options. The different vignettes of this home each take advantage of a unique aspect of the outdoor space while keeping the pool as the centerpiece.
Not all pools are created equal. Some pools feel like the local YMCA with a cheap plaster floor. Your skin will burn to a crisp while underwater in a pool without any shade. In my favorite pools, salt, instead of chlorine, keeps the water crystal clear. This eliminates the chemicals that leave you smelling of bleach, dry out your skin, sting your eyes, or might (gasp) even turn your hair green. If our guests are planning on spending hours submerged in the cool waters of the pool, it better have a salt system.
Many homes have excellent shade structures to protect their occupants while outside, but the best use plants. A pool under direct sunlight in the summer all day will easily heat to temperatures in the 90s. While this may sound lovely, trust me when I say that you do not want a hot pool in the summertime. Always On My Mind, built by the eponymous famed Broadway composer during the golden age of Palm Springs construction, understands shade. Everything about the house screams mid-century-- pool included. While the classic bean-shape shows up in swimming pools across the world, it debuted in the holiday homes of the rich and famous of the 1950s. Over the past half-century the landscapers have painstakingly woven the branches of a rubber tree into a lattice that hangs over this particular pool. Sure green walls crop up everywhere, but a green ceiling? This perfectly level roof of foliage covers more than half of the pool, providing a cool oasis as you sip a Tom Collins poolside looking out over the valley.
After a morning of lounging, some members of your vacation party may start to get hungry. Barbecuing over a metal pit of hot coals in triple-digit heat might not suit everyone, but the fully equipped outdoor kitchen at The Voyager gives the chef plenty of shade. The al-fresco dining area boasts a hand-carved table for up to ten guests overlooking the pool. Any meal not enjoyed in this dining “room” would just feel like a disappointment. After lunch and maybe one too many glasses of rosé, I could imagine taking a nap on the sunbathing bed (yes bed), just make sure you put the umbrella up lest you burn.
While on the subject of napping, the Palm Springs climate lends itself perfectly to the siesta lifestyle. The temperature peaks at around two in the afternoon, after the sun has had several hours to heat everything up. Personally, I prefer to snooze in a hammock, the breeze swaying me two and fro in the shade of a couple fan palms. With no shortage of well-designed hammock spots, Desert Sun takes it to another level. One can lounge in what the host lovingly refers to as the “napping teepee.” This ingenious piece of furniture suspended from a giant tripod features a circular bed laden with plush pillows. Gauzy linen curtains keep the sun's rays at bay, but I would pull them back to enjoy the only completely unobstructed view of the mountains before nodding off for some afternoon shuteye.
As the sun starts to set behind the mountains, the temperature begins to fall. In summer, I enjoy the warm and balmy evenings, while in the wintertime fire pits and hot tubs stave off the slight chill. One home in particular not only boasts all of the above, but has a unique feature taking advantage of a truly unique aspect of the desert at night. No moisture in the air means little light pollution, and on nights with a dark moon, the stars take over. Fire and Ice makes the most of the cosmic view with a king-sized stargazing bed. Special touches such as this highlighting the natural beauty of the desert separate Plum homes from the rest.
Sadly, not all properties have these distinguishing outdoor features. Sometimes I walk through an otherwise beautiful home and step out into a back garden to a view of power lines, air conditioning units, and satellite dishes. Some small yards can only accommodate a swimming pool, with no room for plants, shade, or seating. The whole point of renting a home in Palm Springs is to enjoy the outside, so homes with an incomplete or lacking garden do not pass my test. In a nutshell, if I believe that our guests will find the outdoor area disappointing, I fail the home.
I have just seen too many spectacular gardens in homes that fully embrace the outdoors to allow our guests to suffer mediocrity. These hosts see a swimming pool, a hammock, or a grill as more than just tick boxes on a list of amenities. They understand that we want to be outside as much as possible, and they have taken every step to design a space for us to splash around in the sun for hours on end. In Palm Springs, enjoying the sun with your friends and family is what it’s all about.