VACATION MECCA | A view of the iconic (and since closed) Desert Inn.
THE LILY PAD-SHAPE steps bridged a waterfall and led our group to the front gate, where a fluorescent-muumuu-clad Priscilla Presley impersonator named Darlene Perez—aka Darling Presley—was waiting for us.
"Elvis recognized Graceland in these walls," she said, batting her false eyelashes and stroking the peanut-brittle masonry in the entryway. "The minute he stepped into the backyard, he looked around and realized he wanted to get married here."
Palm Springs may not be the first, or even the third, place that comes to mind when pondering Elvis Presley. But in 1967, he and Priscilla honeymooned in the midcentury modern Honeymoon Hideaway (1350 Ladera Circle, elvishoneymoon.com ), and he spent much of his final decade in the city, leaving a mark that remains to this day.
I wouldn't describe myself as an Elvis fanatic, but I've always admired his originality and boldness. (He was wearing eye makeup and crazy one-piece ensembles well before David Bowie made them chic.) So when my husband and two of his cousins—a music-industry executive and a fashion entrepreneur—and I found ourselves headed to a family reunion in La Quinta, Calif., earlier this year, we decided it was worth a detour to follow in the footsteps of Elvis, visiting the places where he lived and loved, and eating like the King.
Located in the Coachella Valley, about a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs emerged in the 1920s as a retreat for Hollywood stars who were lured by its sunny weather and privacy. By the 1960s, it was a playground for the famous: Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor were all frequent visitors. These days, Palm Springs is making a comeback among celebrities and vacationers who enjoy the midcentury architecture, the Coachella music festival and the retro vibe.
Our first stop was Sherman's Deli and Bakery (401 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way,shermansdeli.com ), a kosher-style deli founded in 1953 and a Palm Springs institution. "Elvis used to come in and sit in front of that painting," said Joe Hanna, an 85-year-old manager, pointing out a Paul Blaine Henrie depiction of Elvis on the back wall. Mr. Hanna said that the singer used to show up with an eight-person entourage and order his favorite: a hot pastrami sandwich. Though a publicist for the Presley Estate said that she has "never heard of him liking pastrami," we preferred to take Mr. Hanna's word for it.
Our sandwiches arrived piping hot and overflowing with salty meat. To top off the meal, we devoured a fluffy coconut cake, one of the 23 old-school dessert options on the menu. We were off to a promising start.
Across the street was the Spa Hotel—now the Spa Resort Casino(100 N. Indian Dr., sparesortcasino.com )—where Elvis's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, is said to have taken mineral baths. While guests can still soak in pools filled with spring water that the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians claimed had natural healing powers, the recently renovated hotel was not particularly evocative of the King, so we moved on.
We wound up a few blocks away at Route 66 West (465 N. Palm Canyon Dr., route66west.com ), a boutique that sells designer vintage costume jewelry and "opulent vintage plastics," like an emerald-hued Bakelite cutlery set from the 1930s ($995) and a 1970s violet acrylic necklace by designer Judith Hendler (also $995). Priscilla would have approved. Down the street were a couple of vintage furniture shops, including Trend House (675 N. Palm Canyon Dr.), which specializes in a mix of midcentury modern (a Corbusier-style chaise was $2,100) and newer pieces, like a '60s-inspired dining room set with zebra-upholstered chairs designed by store owner Joel R. Wolfgang ($5,200). The metal light fixtures ($1,125) would have fit perfectly in Honeymoon Hideaway, which a 1962 issue of Look magazine dubbed the "House of Tomorrow."
Next, we drove by the only property besides Graceland that Elvis owned when he died. In 1970, he bought the Spanish colonial-style house at 845 West Chino Canyon Rd., for $105,000 from Elton F. McDonald, part of the fast-food-chain family.
I'd spoken by telephone to Reno Fontana, a real-estate investor and sportswriter who in 1998 ran for the congressional seat formerly held by Sonny Bono. Mr. Fontana and his wife paid $1.25 million for the house in 2003. Over the phone, we had made elaborate plans for a picnic by the pool facing the valley below.
Designed by Albert Frey, the "desert modernist" best known for the historic Tramway Gas Station (now the Palm Springs Visitor Center), the stucco home became Elvis's bachelor pad after Priscilla left him in 1973. He added a basketball hoop to the end of the driveway and extended the roof over the Jacuzzi, which comfortably fit members of the Memphis Mafia—the friends and hangers-on who surrounded him—to protect himself from the increasingly intrusive paparazzi.
Our Graceland West garden party was not to be. We would not marvel at (or mock) the likeness of the King sculpted in steel on the house's chimney, Mr. Fontana's addition. A few days before the arranged date, he emailed to say that he had been kicked out of the house pending a court date with his lender. When we arrived, the gate was padlocked and odds and ends—rugs, a vacuum cleaner, clothing—were strewed across the driveway. A tour van packed with Elvis enthusiasts pulled up to gawk.
Mr. Fontana said he expects to emerge from the lawsuit victorious and he's hoping to open the house to tourists again in November. Michael P. Rubin, the attorney for Financial Bonanza LLC, Mr. Fontana's lender, called the evicted owner "a con man and a flake." (By the end of March, Mr. Fontana's cellphone had been disconnected, and he didn't respond to .) emails
Gazing at the vacant home, my companions and I thought of the song "Spanish Eyes," which Elvis recorded there, with the lyrics, "Soon I'll return, bringing you all the love your heart can hold."
We headed to dinner at Las Casuelas, the first Mexican restaurant in town. Elvis reportedly loved Mexican food, and sang a Spanish song called "Guadalajara" in the 1963 film "Fun in Acapulco." He starred as a former trapeze artist who becomes a hotel lifeguard and finds himself trapped between two muchachas bonitas.
We had made a reservation at the Las Casuelas Viejas (368 N. Palm Canyon Dr., lascasuelasquinta.com )—there are now several Casuelas in the area—requesting the "Elvis booth," next to the kitchen. The restaurant was an inexpensive, authentic place where a TV played telenovelas nonstop. But there was no trace of the rock 'n' roll legend. In the corner, an ideal spot for some kind of Elvis figure, there was a ceramic cat.
"We are…not a 'Hard Rock Hotel' type of place," said Alana Coffin, granddaughter of founders Florencio and Maria Delgado. "The stories can be heard firsthand rather than by reading an article on the wall."
We ordered the Combo Plate #1—shredded beef tacos, beans, chile relleno—because Ms. Coffin said that's what Elvis used to eat. (He substituted refried beans with Memphis-style beans, she said.) We washed it down with micheladas (beer with lime juice and some spice) and iced tea, which the King used to drink with his Mexican food. "Oh yeah, he preferred pills to booze," said Andrew, the music-industry executive, when the waitress advised him to order the iced tea.
In search of a more upbeat retro feel, we headed down the block to Workshop Kitchen + Bar (800 N. Palm Canyon Dr., Suite G, workshoppalmsprings.com ), an industrial-chic restaurant with high ceilings and concrete booths, a seasonal menu and excellent classic cocktails, in a building formerly occupied by a 1950s movie theater. We ordered five "Palm Springers"—cocktails described as "similar to the kiss of an ex-lover…only without the early morning awkwardness and wayward feelings." Now it seemed as though we were channeling the 1969 Elvis hit, "Suspicious Minds."
The next day, our final stop—and the pièce de résistance of our weekend—was the Honeymoon Hideaway.
In 1966, Elvis Presley leased the five-bedroom home at the urging of the notoriously controlling Colonel Parker, who lived around the block. The Hideway was built in 1960 by Robert Alexander, part of a father-son development company responsible for more than 2,000 houses in Palm Springs. Mr. Alexander had created the home for himself and his wife, Helene, a well-regarded hostess who rubbed elbows with Barbara Sinatra and Dinah Shore; Elvis rented the home for $21,000 a year (a copy of the lease hangs on the wall) after the Alexanders died in a plane crash.
Then 31, Presley was struggling to mount a musical comeback amid the twin threats of the British Invasion and the rise of hippie counterculture. He had made a series of films that were mostly profitable—and critically despised. Overweight and sporting a wig-like hairstyle, he turned to the desert to seek inspiration.
The 5,500-square-foot home has curved walls in every room and was renovated in the 1990s to restore it to its 1960s glamour. Now it's a museum stocked with Elvis memorabilia. In the Hideaway you can sit on the marital bed, complete with pink comforter, and stroll through the kitchen, with its state-of-the art pop-up cake mixer built into the countertop. (Tours cost $30-35 per person and can be booked online.)
In the leopard-print "Jungle Room," located in the back of the house, overlooking the pool, visitors can check out a recreation of the black leather ensemble Elvis wore for his 1968 NBC "Comeback Special." We set foot in the bedroom where Lisa-Marie Presley was possibly conceived and saw the indoor grill where Elvis would cook steaks in the summer.
According to Hideaway lore, Elvis and his then-fiancée, Priscilla, planned to wed at the home, but changed plans after realizing that their next-door neighbor, Hollywood gossip columnist Rona Barrett, was hot for the story. By the time the paparazzi pulled up to the house on the morning of their wedding day, May 1, 1967, the couple had made their way out the back door into Frank Sinatra's limo. Mr. Sinatra flew Elvis and Priscilla to Las Vegas in his Learjet and chartered a plane for everybody else. (The Elvis estate spokeswoman says that the escape to Vegas was the plan all along.)
After touring the house, we followed the path out through the backyard, creeping toward Rose Avenue, as we imagined the wedding party had, while the faint strains of "It's Now or Never" wafted from a strategically placed CD player. When the couple returned from Las Vegas, Elvis sang "Hawaiian Wedding Song" while carrying his new bride over the threshold and up the stairs. Lisa-Marie was born nine months later.
Over martinis at a bar that evening, we engaged in a lively debate about what, exactly, went wrong toward the end of Elvis's career. Would he still be alive if his music had remained relevant? Did his manager trigger his undoing by pushing him toward Hollywood? What was with the white embroidered jumpsuits? We may never know.
Then we heard it: the King's low, rumbling voice singing the 1969 hit, "In the Ghetto," over the sound system.
When it was released, the song was Elvis's first top-10 hit in the U.S. in four years. Listening to it, we forgot about all about the city's golf courses and tennis courts. We had fallen completely under Elvis's spell. We stopped talking and sang along.