Coachella – Field of Glamorous Dreams

A pasty Scot heads for the glamour-packed fields of Indio, California, for a Coachella festival that smells of roses, not piss...

Feature by Kate Pasola | 29 May 2012

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (Coachella, hereonin) enjoys an almost mythical reputation as the world’s most glamorous music festival. Since its inception in 1999, the three day event in the Californian desert has become synonymous with sun, celebrity and style. Every April photos of beautiful people enjoying cocktails in the Indio sun filter their way back to the UK, perhaps to remind us that we are a pasty nation of pie lovers destined to enjoy our native festivals in a soggy field that smells of piss.

Enjoying as exclusive a reputation as it does, the idea of three Edinburgh ladies heading to said fashion parade seemed like a drunken pipe dream.  But as it turned out, and despite selling out in record time, getting tickets somehow seemed easy, or fortuitous, but it happened. And so it came to be that we found ourselves planning a ten day road trip from San Francisco down Route 101, before heading inland for Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley.

With no set itinerary we took to the freeway in our hired convertible Mustang (what else, when on an American roadtrip?) and headed south. Santa Cruz was the first place we rolled into. The boardwalk, immortalised in 80s vampire classic The Lost Boys, held little appeal in the pouring rain, so after a night in a less than salubrious motel we cut our losses and once more hit the road, albeit with the roof still up. Any fantasies we’d had about cruising down the rugged coast around Big Sur and its deserted beaches were dashed by the weather. Fog and torrential rain made for a dramatic backdrop, but significantly lessened the appeal of dipping our toes in the Pacific. Travelling thousands of miles to endure the same sort of weather as back home may sound disheartening, but that’s because in Scotland you don’t have the option of retreating to the Madonna Inn.

For the uninitiated, the Madonna Inn is quite probably the tackiest, weirdest and most fabulous motel in all the world. If Barbara Cartland and Walt Disney were to produce a bastard love child, the ensuing pink, glittery and downright creepy result would probably live in the Madonna Inn. There are few adjectives that can do this place justice – it really does have to be seen to be believed.  The accommodation consists of themed bedrooms that range from the absurd – red leather walls in the aptly named Tack Room, to the bizarre – like the caveman suite featuring a waterfall, bedrock walls and leopard print furnishings. 

We opted for the Old Mill – which the hotel describes as ‘an ideal family room right out of a storybook. A thatched roof and stone façade replicate a quaint mill with creek and water wheel. The water wheel dances in merriment propelling animated figurines in and out of the mill structure.’ What it fails to mention are the lime green lamé walls, equally sparkly ceiling and Wendy house shaped wardrobe. The figures dancing in merriment actually just noisily rotate around a fixed track, and the water wheel soaks the surrounding area, including your pillows. Whatever, this is still the best hotel room I have stayed in. Ever!

But the fun doesn’t stop there. In-house dining comes courtesy of The Gold Rush Steak House. This 500 seat restaurant is amazing and terrifying in equal measure. The massive space is perpetually pink, aside from gilt cherubs brandishing light bulbs and a two-storey gold tree that dominates the centre of the room. We began to wonder if we’d fallen down the rabbit hole, a theory helped along by the menacing six foot Easter bunny decoration that had inexplicably been placed next to an unseasonal Santa Claus. Despite the website promising live music, the place was deserted, allowing us to run amok amongst the cherubs, taking inappropriate photos and drinking copious amounts of Madonna-branded Cava as we went.

Leaving the madness behind we were once more heading south, skipping through Santa Barbara, Beverly Hills and Indio on the way. We said goodbye to our Mustang in Palm Springs, and now had Coachella firmly in our sights. The tone of things to come was revealed in our taxi ride – our cab driver asked if we like to party, turned up the radio and encouraged us to dance on the back seat. It was more innocent than it sounds – he just wanted us to enjoy ourselves. It was a theme that prevailed over the next three days.

Ever been high fived by a security guard on the way into a festival? Me neither, but as we headed through the first of many, many security checks to enter the fabled Empire Polo Fields, they just kept coming. Along with compliments on our outfits, smiles and repeated instructions to make sure we had "The best time ever." And once inside, it was the same story. Everyone at Coachella is nice. Really, really nice. From the people selling you pizza slices and frozen lemonade to the overworked bar staff to fellow festival goers, everyone is just so friendly. Despite our initial cynicism, it was actually refreshing to hang out at a festival without witnessing a single fight and only the minimum of vomit.

In fact, the only dissent we witnessed was on Friday, when the Californian crowd got a little upset by the weather. Girls incapable of looking out of the window before choosing their outfit scuttled about in bikinis looking miserable, and most of the talk in the bar focused on the lack of sun. To clarify, the day that some dubbed ‘Coldchella’ was actually about 15 degrees, with a bit of wind and approximately half an hour of drizzle. It really wasn’t that bad. Although at this point I should confess that in the spirit of Coachella, we opted to stay in a luxury four star hotel nearby rather than slumming it in a tent. Perhaps we’d have cared more if we were some of the people whose only shelter for the weekend had been blown down, rather than taking a luxury coach back to our king sized beds and choice of seven swimming pools. The rest of the weekend was blazing sunshine and soaring heat, so said pools were cherished.

Musically, the 2012 line-up was the strongest for a while. Snoop, Dre, Tupac (more on him later), Florence and the Machine, Justice, The Black Keys, Radiohead etc, etc. But here’s the thing about Coachella (and hipsters look away now) the music is almost incidental. Before we left I had drawn up lists of who I wanted to see with military precision – and was lucky to see half.  And it really didn’t matter, because the whole experience is far more than the sum of its parts. From the snow capped mountains on the horizon to the miles of palm trees that line the site to the installation art dotted around the grounds, everything about the Coachella experience is really quite magical.

Things happen at Coachella that just don’t happen at other festivals. Never did I think I would pass up the opportunity to see Mazzy Star because I was enjoying being squished and sweated on dancing to the EC Twins (remember them Edinburgh?) in a swarming crowd of house fans. Or that Florence and the Machine would blow the Black Keys out of the water performance wise. And I especially didn’t expect to witness the greatest comeback since Jesus Christ in the form of hologram Tupac Shakur™. The reception they got during their hour long set was the most enthusiastic I’ve ever seen.

It’s hard to convey what makes Coachella so special, but it really is. Yes, there are miles of tanned and lithe limbs on display, and yes you might find yourself sitting next to supermodels in the bar ['swrong with that? - Travel Ed.], but somehow it still doesn’t feel as pretentious and try-hard as other less glamorous UK festivals. Maybe it’s the sunshine, maybe it’s the palm tress or the abundance of shooting stars in the desert sky each night, but there is definitely something extraordinary about Coachella. It’s difficult to explain but definitely worth exploring for yourself – we’ve already pre-registered for 2013. Quite simply, after Coachella, no other festival will do.