This year, we’ve continued our practice of using Palm Springs as a convenient getaway during our standard winter vacation in LA. Despite Palm Springs being a small town (population 43,000), we’re still finding new places to visit.
The highlight of the trip was our visit to the Palm Springs Air Museum. For an aviation and history buff like me, it was a great way to spend the day. While this museum is small in comparison to, say, the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, its tight focus on American military aircraft from WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War allows it to cover its chosen topics in much greater depth than I’ve ever seen elsewhere.
Throughout the museum, I learned things that I never knew before. As an example, despite having read seemingly endless books on military aviation in my childhood, today was the first time that I learned why the Dauntless dive bomber went by the designation “SBD” (the program that developed the plane called for a Scout/Bomber, and since the plane was produced by Douglas Aircraft, a final “D” was added).
The museum also benefits from its laser focus on the actual airplanes. I’ve never seen so many historic airplanes in one place, including almost every major American warplane from WWII. It even features lesser-known planes like the PBY Catalina. The only planes missing were the B-24 and B-29 bombers (the B-24 is very rare, with just 7 remaining examples in the US; the B-29 was probably too massive to fit into the museum).
While the entire day was awesome, two highlights stand out. First, the museum has dedicated one of its hangers to its B-17 Flying Fortress, one of just 10 flight-capable B-17s left in the world. Not only was it amazing to see a piece of history in person, we were even able to climb into the plane and crawl from the cockpit, through the bomb bay, all the way to the tail of the plane. It was difficult for me to clamber through the fuselage while it was standing still in a well-lit hanger; I can only imagine the challenge of doing so while the bomber was flying at 35,000 feet, engines droning at deafening levels, wearing an oxygen mask, machine guns blazing while Luftwaffe fighters attacked!
Second, the museum is well-staffed with volunteer docents, most of whom are veterans of the US military. One of the docents, Jim (USN, retired) spent about 45 minutes with us, answering questions and telling stories. Essentially, we got a private tour! Another docent coached me through a takeoff (successful) and landing (almost successful) on the F-22 flight simulator. If you visit the museum, definitely take advantage of the knowledge of the docents!
The museum is busy building its newest hanger, which will house its Korea- and Vietnam-era jets (which include an F-4, F-100, F-102, F-104, F-105, F-14, F-16, and F-18). I’m looking forward to returning to see the new hanger and exhibits when they’re ready.
Of course, no vacation would be complete without eating. We had two enjoyable, new dining experiences this time. For lunch, we visited the El Paseo Grill in Palm Desert. It’s not fancy (though it does have a lot of cool art on the walls), but it is quite tasty. I had a spicy chicken sandwich with Jamaican jerk sauce. The chicken was perfectly cooked, the sauce was spicy but not too spicy, and the bun (I indulge in carbs when I’m on vacation) had a satisfying surface crunch, but was soft and chewy on the inside.
We also had an early dinner at TRIO Restaurant. TRIO offers a great deal–the three-course prix fixe meal, which is available from 11 AM to 6 PM every day, is just $19.95. We had their fried calamari, roasted beet salad, steak frites, and steak salad, with bread pudding and brownie for dessert. The food and service were excellent, which helps explain why the restaurant was busy, even at 5:30 PM on a Wednesday. It’s a very canny business model; the prix fixe deal helps maintain high utilization at off-peak times. Meanwhile, when we left the restaurant at around 6:15, it was approaching capacity as the less price-sensitive crowd streamed in. They even offer a separate happy hour menu, which we will have to sample another time.
The only disappointment was that rain started pouring down shortly after dinner, which caused us to cancel our trip to the WildLights festival at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. As much as I hate to let our tickets go unused, getting drenched is not my idea of a fun vacation. Hopefully we get a chance to go next year!