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From Canberra to Coachella: A user’s guide

Emma Macdonald

If you pray at the altar of modern music, Coachella is your Lourdes or Mecca.

Coachella. The geologists know it as the name of a pretty desert valley in California, but for the rest of us it is home to one of the world’s greatest festivals – a three-day musical and cultural orgy held twice each April.

If you pray at the altar of modern music, this is your Lourdes or Mecca, or modern-day equivalent of Woodstock.  Every fan, no matter what your melodic persuasion, should try to visit at least once. It truly is the ultimate music culture experience.

We don’t know yet who is playing in 2017, although the interweb is alive with rumours including Beyonce, Radiohead and Metallica. Last year’s line-up should give you an idea of the stunning breadth and range of performers (among them a few Aussies like Courtney Barnett, Flume and Sia).

And since it began in 1999, Coachella has featured someone for everyone – from Madonna to Leonard Cohen, Coldplay to Daft Punk.


Those Coachella sunsets are quite something

Now, you might think I’m painting myself as some sort of Coachella expert. I’m not. But I believe seeing live music is one of life’s greatest natural highs and I am prepared to travel for it.

We were lucky enough to get tickets (along with 80,000 others) to the inaugural Desert Trip last month. It’s held at the Coachella venue, Indio’s Empire Polo Club, just south of Palm Springs. Over three days, we saw six classic rock superstars –  Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, The Who and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters.

As you might imagine given that line-up and the festival’s nickname of “Oldchella”, the audience was a little more creaky of limb than the usual Coachella crowd. In fact, of the musical headliners, the youngest was that whippersnapper Ronnie Wood of the Stones who turns 70 next year while Nobel laureate Dylan is 75.


Paul McCartney joined onstage by Neil Young

In deference, there were a lot more seated areas, and a raft of celebrity chefs to provide sustenance to the cashed-up baby boomer/Gen X crowd.

But all in all, the experience is much the same, according to many of the music devotees we passed the time with who have visited both. So, here are my tips for Canberrans wishing to travel 12,500 kilometres to see some of the world’s finest bands next April.


Before buying your ticket, try to lock in accommodation first. Like, now. We made the near mistake of doing the opposite, and the best we could find at first was a Palm Springs Days Inn priced at $550 a night. If you have ever stayed at a Days Inn, then you know it would take a very special one to be worth that kind of money.

Luckily, we found a beautiful B&B at nearby La Quinta with an iconic rock pool rimmed by palm trees out the back – a perfect place to recover on the three days after the three nights before.


The pool and the puppy of Bella Cristia


Like all Californians, you’ll need a car to get around. But if you can, don’t drive to Coachella itself – see if you can use a shuttle bus arrangement from a hotel or get someone to drop you off.  We walked back to our B&B after the show each night, a lovely five-kilometre stroll through the desert under a spectacular canopy of stars. Meanwhile, many thousands of other concertgoers thought it would it would be hip to wait for an Uber. And wait they did, up to 90 minutes after the end of the show and pay they did – a 5km journey cost them $US80 one night.

It was lovely to see the huge number of people who jumped on a bike to cycle the flat roads to the concert and like everything at Coachella, there was perfectly organised, safe and orderly places to deposit and collect your bikes once the music was done.

Food and drink

Even if you aren’t fed by a celebrity chef, the food is pretty good for a music festival. We didn’t see a single dagwood dog all weekend. It was just so Californian to munch through a vegan organic kale pizza lovingly woodfired between sets. There is a nice choice of beverages too – wines, cocktails, beers, etc and it seems you can bring in your own as long as you don’t try to take in any glass bottles. This seems to be more of a guideline than a rule, so don’t blame me if your cask wine or plastic hipflask is confiscated.


An organic vegan wood-fired flatbread pop-up


Palm Springs is hot in April. Really hot, sometimes up to mid-40s during the day. And then it plummets at night, being a desert and all. Drink lots and lots of water, and wear SPF50 religiously. Hats are de rigueur.


Now to the most important matter of all – fashion. Coachella has inspired its own sub-genre of clothing and concert aesthetic, which is why when we think of Coachella, we think suede ankle boots, cut-off denim shorts and some lacy little overshirts shadowed by a large floppy felt hat. Because of the heat and the fact you are actually in the desert, you should at least consider being a little practical. No matter how much you love those high strappy sandals, you are going to want to burn them by the time you traipse through the polo fields, wander another few hundred metres every time you want a drink or to visit the amenities, and then wander home. Plus they will only get covered in dust.

No matter how much you love those high strappy sandals, you are going to want to burn them by the time you traipse through the polo fields, wander another few hundred metres every time you want a drink or to visit the amenities, and then wander home. Plus they will only get covered in dust. Because, desert.

Layers in light fabrics are good, and we saw many a bikini top emerge once the searing sun went down behind the row of palm trees before being covered up again when the temperature dipped after 9pm. Most important is a hat, and the whole scarf/bandana craze is also a dust-related fashion decision that will pay off.



So apparently I was hanging out with a raft of Hollywood A-grade stars including Stella McCartney (who went to see her dad – cute!) Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kate Hudson and her mum Goldie Hawn, Rob Lowe and Cindy Crawford, Alessandra Ambrosio and Natalie Imbruglia among others.

But I didn’t glimpse a solitary star apart from the ones on stage. Happily, they were enough for me. In the end, the vast majority of people attending are there for the music, and the organisers make it as easy as they can for everyone to enjoy themselves while making a tidy profit at the same time.

In and around Coachella Valley

If you drive from LA (about two hours) save some time for some heavy-duty discount shopping at the Desert Hills Premium Outlet Centre (Seminole Drive, Cabazon). It has most of the top designers at a generous discount – I went a little crazy in Coach, Kate Spade and 7 for All Mankind…

Palm Springs is about 30 minutes’ drive and is where most people will hang out before and after the concerts – assuming they can access transport. The Ace Hotel Palm Springs is usually packed during concert season so if you want to hang with the cool kids, book early. It runs shuttles to and from Coachella.


Picture courtesy

La Quinta is closer and offers a range of shopping and eating experiences. We stayed at the Bella Cristia Bed and Breakfast and walked home from the venue each night. We also had the option to borrow bikes. Only two double rooms are available and again, it tends to book out fast when the music hits town.


Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

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