Inside Coachella: America's A-list answer to Glastonbury
Beauty salons, VIP parties, yoga… There’s plenty going on at Coachella festival in Palm Springs, California, but there’s one crucial thing missing
In a land already well known for its super-sized portions, the cocktail being shaken and stirred before me brought new meaning to the phrase: ‘make mine a large’. It was certainly a first for me. I’d never seen someone filling an inflatable paddling pool with margarita before.
Welcome to Coachella, the legendary American music festival that takes place in a sun-baked polo estate just outside Palm Springs every April. It attracts some of the biggest names in music (Lady Gaga and Radiohead are headlining this year), with identical line-ups spread across two consecutive weekends and is, in many ways, America’s answer to Glastonbury. Minus the mud. For here, in this part of sunny southern California, there’s not a wellie or poncho to be seen.
So instead of being damp and dirty, Coachella is hot and hedonistic, slick and shiny, glamorous and glossy, and arguably much more well-known for its fashion than it is for its music.
Walking between the stages and giant art installations, it felt as though almost every feather-clad reveller had just stepped out of a beauty salon. And as it turned out, some actually had.
Tucked away deep within Coachella’s most exclusive enclave – the VIP Safari campsite – was the Beauty Bus, where a team of professional hairstylists and make-up artists were poised to transform the select few. Think glitter, braids, feathers and sparkles. And that’s just the boys.
The Beauty Bus is but one of the perks afforded to those who splash out to do Coachella in serious style. Life within the confines of the private Safari enclosure is not your average festival experience.
Several dozen spacious Shakir-style tents sat sprinkled in neat rows across a lush lawn, well away from the hoi polloi and the rest of the festival’s on-site camping areas. Ushered into my tent, located just a short walk away from the private toilets and plush showers, I ventured through the flappy canvas entrance and into an air-conditioned and fully furnished haven with two double beds, a fridge and a snazzy zebra-print rug. Glamping certainly doesn’t get much glammer than this.
Elsewhere, there are daily yoga sessions, holistic massages and games on the lawn. But such luxury doesn’t come cheap. The cost for a Safari tent and all its bells and whistles? That’s $7,500 (£6,035).
Arguably its most attractive quality (beyond the beds and air-conditioning) is the exclusive backstage access that Safari guests are also afforded. A convoy of golf buggies shuttles you between the five stages via the dressing rooms.
And you never know who you might bump into given that Coachella is very much A-list territory. The Australian girl staying in the tent next to mine spied Taylor Swift on a passing buggy.
My own personal celeb spot was rather less exciting: the sight of rocker (and Pamela Anderson’s ex) Tommy Lee emerging from the tent opposite, yawning in the sunlight before, presumably, heading straight over to the margarita-filled paddling pool for a spot of breakfast.
Despite the fanfare, the glamour, the fashion, the sunshine, the acclaim, the A-listers… Coachella has its flaws.
Where to explore in Palm Springs
The retro city of Palm Springs is the gateway to Coachella and well worth at least a day or two of exploration. Tour boulevards lined with striking mid-century architecture and head straight to the House of Tomorrow, the innovative 1957 estate where Elvis once honeymooned.
There’s also the Palm Springs Architecture and Design Centre, where you can learn more about the area’s buildings. Even more tempting is Joshua Tree National Park, a slice of protected wilderness roughly the size of Rhode Island that encompasses two desert ecosystems. The star of the show is, of course, the spiky-leafed Joshua tree. “It was thought that they were named after Joshua from the Bible,” explained local guide George. Explore Black Rock Canyon and wander among the emblematic Joshua trees that together form a formidable forest.
From there, gain some elevation and take in the panoramas from Key Views, which overlooks the Coachella Valley and the peaks of San Gorgonio and San Jacinto. On a clear day it’s possible to see all the way to Mexico, which is only 90 miles away.
Deep within the VIP bar – another perk of camping in Safari – I made the most of the short queues, feasting on a Japanese-inspired hot dog (a ‘sumo dog’, if you please, laden with nose-tingling wasabi relish) beside a member of One Direction (Louis, I was reliably informed).
The foam on my beer had barely stirred when it was time to head to the main stage to go and watch Sia. But there were to be no ‘cheap thrills’ for me. Upon leaving I was stopped by a surly steward and informed alcohol was not permitted outside the bar areas. Fancy a pint while raving to your favourite DJ? Not at Coachella, I’m afraid.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Coachella’s beginnings were humble and free-spirited. It was founded by music promoter Paul Tollett in 1999 as an alternative to other similar events that imposed high booking fees onto tickets. In its first few years, before attention skyrocketed, festivalgoers would book into local hotels until camping was eventually introduced to meet demand.
These days, camping comes in all shapes and sizes. Back within the five-star confines of Safari the following day, most had gathered inside the communal living tent, adorned with palm trees basked in midnight blue lights. They nursed hangovers and busied themselves with food, more drinks, games and, later, live DJ sets.
I, however, headed back to the main festival site, just a few minutes away. Waiting for my golf buggy pick-up, I browsed the telling treats placed strategically at the concierge desk, everything from mints and energy bars to condoms and Alka Seltzer.
I spent the day riding the giant Ferris wheel and taking stock of the larger-than-life installations scattered around the site. My personal favourite, by artist Robert Base, was a chain link of yellow balloons each with smiley faces that swayed high in the breeze. But mostly I spent the day rotating between the half dozen stages, dancing to electro DJs and raving to rock, and all under a flawless Californian sky. If only I could’ve had a beer…
Virgin Holidays offers seven nights in Palm Springs from £886 per person. Price includes return flights from London Heathrow to Los Angeles, car hire and accommodation in Palm Springs. virginholidays.com Safari tents at Coachella cost £6,305 for two. The price includes tickets to the festival. For more information, see valleymusictravel.com. For more on what to see and do in California, go to: visitcalifornia.com