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Palm Desert: California's capital of cool

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  • Palm Desert is a pedestrian- and biker-friendly town
  • The Living Desert museum holds a collection of California landscape paintings
  • Pacifica Seafood Restaurant is known for its fresh fish and its vodka bar
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By David Lansing
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(Sunset) -- The first thing Laura Slipak says when I drag my stressed self into the chill lobby of the Mod Resort, her Austin Powers-chic hotel in Palm Desert: "Oh, dear."

The mood is mod and the art is amazing. And you don't even need a car to enjoy it.

The mood is mod and the art is amazing. And you don't even need a car to enjoy it.

The second thing she says: "I think someone needs a Mod-tini."

Yeah, baby.

I've just suffered through two-plus hours of Inland Empire gridlock so that I can unwind in the desert, and I plan to ditch my car for the weekend (if not, alas, forever).

Which is why I've come to Palm Desert. Not only does it do the whole midcentury modern thing perfectly, but of all California's desert resorts, it's also probably the most pedestrian- and bike-friendly. Top 10 dream towns

The Mod is just a three-minute walk to the glittery shopping and dining street El Paseo, and a short bike ride away from everything else I'm interested in checking out this weekend.

That includes galleries, a recently unveiled collection of California landscape paintings at the Living Desert museum, and the new Eric Johnson Memorial Gardens (named after the "desert landscape guru of the Coachella Valley," who was also a former garden editor for Sunset).

Then again, if Laura offers me one more of her mood-altering apple martinis, I might just park myself beside the salt-water pool and spend the rest of the afternoon meditating on the cerulean water.

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Sculptures, cycles and cactus

Not to worry. After a mind-clearing dip in the pool, it's a sunset walk to downtown Palm Desert to scope out the town's public art, beginning with freshly installed sculptures rising out of the El Paseo median against a backdrop of rust-colored mountains. The air is as dry as chalk, the fading desert light gallery-perfect for pondering a 25-foot-long piece pairing an iridescent hummingbird with a damselfly.

In the morning, it's a five-minute stroll to Funseekers to rent a bike. Okay, it would have taken five minutes if I hadn't diverted up the block to take a look at the black-and-white midcentury modern house of William Boyd (better known as Hopalong Cassidy) and then dropped in at the Desert Art Collection & Sculpture Garden, a very cool gallery with a large courtyard set with sculptures amid palm trees, cactus and bougainvillea.

At Funseekers, I'm feeling conflicted. Not only does it have all sorts of bikes to rent, but it also offers Segways and mopeds. Still, I've pledged to be fume-free this weekend, so I opt for a hybrid bicycle and power a mile and a half up a bike lane along Portola Avenue to the Living Desert, where I'm just in time for the docent-led tour of paintings of woodlands, seascapes and deserts. My favorite: Granville Redmond's "Cloudy Day at Monterey," from the early 1900s.

Later, I ride the length of El Paseo to the Eric Johnson Memorial Gardens, an oasis of curving paths that take you past gurgling waterfalls, cactus-covered sand dunes and a shaded rock-wall canyon. If I could somehow get Laura to deliver one of her Mod-tinis here, I could just chill out all afternoon.

No matter. After dropping my bike off, I hoof it to Pacifica Seafood Restaurant, known for its fresh fish and its vodka bar -- 130 kinds from 19 countries -- where vodka martinis are $6 all night long. Perfect. Even better, it's a short walk back to the resort.

48 hours in Palm Desert

Friday: Check into the Mod Resort (from $169), owned by a fashion designer from Malibu. Enjoy a killer margarita on the patio at Armando's Dakota Bar & Grill (average entrées $13-$20; 73-260 El Paseo; 760/346-0744).

Saturday: Check out the Desert Art Collection & Sculpture Garden (free; 45350 San Luis Rey Ave.). Then rent a bike (from $25 per day) or a moped (from $62 per day) at Funseekers (73-865 State 111; 760/340-3861) and ride down El Paseo, making a stop at Imago Galleries (45-450 State 74; 760/776-9890), which, with its blue-chip artists, is practically the MOMA of the desert.

The nearby Palm Desert Visitor Center (72-567 State 111; 760/568-1441) is a good place to pick up bike-trail maps and explore the surrounding Eric Johnson Memorial Gardens (free), a multisensory setting of desert plantings.

The Gardens on El Paseo (73-545 El Paseo), an open-air shopping plaza, has a number of excellent dining spots, including Sullivan's Steakhouse (average entrées over $31; 760/341-3560), for steaks and jazz, and Pacifica Seafood Restaurant (average entrées $21-$30; 760/674-8666), for oysters on the half-shell and cheap martinis.

Sunday: At the Living Desert ($13; 47900 Portola Ave.; 760/346-5694), mornings are a good time to catch the young animals -- like Maliki, a giraffe calf born in May -- at their most active. But first check for the next docent-led tour (11--3; no set times) of 50 California landscape paintings.

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