Best of Baja
Posted Tuesday, October 11, 2011, 12:34AM
As the desert heat subsides and the gray whales start their journey south to mate, the winter months are prime season to visit Baja California. From the urban dining scene generating international buzz in Tijuana to the new luxury resorts on the coasts of Loreto Bay and La Paz, we uncover 9 places to explore on the peninsula.
Get Away Part of the allure of Baja is finding the unexpected down an unassuming dirt road. For discerning travelers who want to be in the know, the spot everyone is talking about is Rancho Pescadero, located an hour north of Cabo on the Pacific. This intimate resort (27 rooms) is a study in good taste and unpretentious luxury with an affordable price tag. And you can’t beat the setting: adobe-style casitas nestled in natural sand dunes and a grove of palm trees, outdoor siesta beds on palm-frond-covered patios, and billowing colorful sheer drapery. Ocean views allow front row whale-watching, while oversized Oaxocan pottery and hand woven rugs by local artisans add south-of-the-border charm.
Eat The new chef, Rodrigo Bueno, hails from Market (the swanky Jean-Georges restaurant at nearby One & Only Palmilla) and brings a new meaning to the concept of “boat-to-throat,” as the Pescadero village is also a fishing cooperative—a fresh catch comes in daily by 2:30 p.m. for that evening’s specials. All other ingredients are sourced from within a 20-mile radius. Think fresh ceviche, pozole verde, or roasted poblano peppers followed by the daily catch in a tamarind-coconut broth. Couples can dine privately on the beach with their own personal bonfire.
Play Surfers can take a five-minute walk to the barrels at San Pedrito’s break or a short drive to Cerritos Beach for more forgiving waves for newbies. Horse-lovers can gallop along the deserted shores in front of the resort. When spa-ing, be sure to try the traditional Mayan sauna (a temazcal) infused with eucalyptus and steam for a mind-body cleanse. Mountain view rooms start at $185; suites at $235. ranchopescadero.com
Named one of the safest cities in Mexico by its recently formed tourism board, La Paz is bursting with new resorts and restaurants. And yet, the UNESCO-protected Espiritu Santo island just off the coast remains rustic and peacefully undeveloped, and the town’s main drag still maintains a subdued, peaceful bustle of fisherman, locals, and tourists. Considering there are direct flights from San Diego and Tijuana on Volaris airline, the time is right for a trip to La Paz.
Stay Costa Baja is the last resort at the end of the peninsula at the Bay of La Paz, giving it a truly private feeling, despite the vastness of the property, which includes a luxury hotel, two condominium developments and golf course, a marina, and private beach club. A multimillion-dollar renovation of the hotel was completed earlier this year, but The Beach Club’s private cabaῆas, infinity pool, and palapa bar and restaurant are where you’ll spend most of your time.
Stay Longer Like the lifestyle? One phase of the two- and three-bedroom condos are for sale, as well as all of the luxury condo units, which have their own pool, fitness center, golf club, and other amenities. Rates start at $209 per night.
Getting there Flights from LAX, San Diego, or Tijuana start around $200, direct into La Paz airport, which is just a short taxi or coach ride to the coastal resorts.
In Town Take a tour or hire a guide from the hotel. While the main drag along the water has been beautifully constructed as a wide promenade lined with safe, predictable bars, margarita drinkers, and palapas; the town square, cathedral, and shopping areas are tougher to figure out. A courtyard restaurant called Corazones stands out among local eateries. The history museum offers a pleasantly brisk tour (you’re in and out in less than an hour) through the region’s history and anthropology. Golf Costa Baja’s Gary Player-designed course is pristine. With ocean views from 14 of the 18 holes, plus an award-winning restaurant and clubhouse with amenities galore, plenty of golfers make the trek up from Cabo to play the course. Across the bay, Paraiso del Mar also offers world class golf with an Arthur Hills-designed 18-hole course, roughly a 10-minute water taxi ride across the bay from La Paz or a 30-minute drive out onto the resort’s isolated peninsula.
Out of Town A boat excursion out to Espiritu Santo is a must. The island is completely undeveloped (strikingly coppery against the turquoise blue water) and protected by a UNESCO act. Watch for huge pods of dolphins and mating gray whales. Costa Baja will arrange private or small-group tours on either sailing yachts or larger motor vessels with showers, snorkeling gear, and deck-top bars. The famous “sea lion island” is home to dozens of sea lions that have become tolerant to up-close snorkelers, but it’s the myriad private inlets and secret bays (local guides each have their favorites) that offer the true experience. Drop anchor, swim to shore, fire up the grill, and squeeze a lime in your Tecate.
Rancho La Puerta
Fresh off their prestigious designation as the World’s Best Destination Spa in 2011 (voted in an international poll by Travel + Leisure readers), Deborah Szekely’s wellness retreat has more to offer health-and-fitness-focused travelers than ever. The one-week programs are the most popular way to experience the resort. They include serious fitness routines, pilates, meditation, tennis clinics, cleansing walks, and hikes, and artsy stuff, too, like movie nights, dance classes, and piano recitals. Rates start at $2,835 per week, including all meals and fitness classes.
What’s New The Bar Method fitness trend has made it to the ranch this year, personal fitness concierges are also now available, as well as a new four-hand massage, where two masseuses work you over at once.
Cook The ranch includes a six acre farm, where guest chefs from around the world source ingredients for unique menus
and cooking classes. The resort compiles many of the best recipes into
cookbooks, the latest edition
Celebrate the Seasons at Rancho
La Puerta was nominated for a James Beard award.
Feel Good Along with providing world-class wellness experiences, Szekely’s team is a integral part of the Tecate community, employing hundreds of locals and donating to local charities that help foster youth education.
Fly out of TJ
Surfers and savvy travelers have been doing it for years. Now it’s time for the rest of us to get on board a flight out of TJ. Here are five things you should know:
Try it. Fly Volaris if you’re going to Baja. Consider it the Southwest Airlines of Mexico. Affordable, efficient, clean, and with several direct nonstops to smaller Baja towns including La Paz and Loreto.The planes are new and the Coronas and lime-flavored tortilla chips are free.
Don’t drive to the airport. Either hire a private car to take you to the terminal (which is just a 300 yards from the border) or, go Greyhound. Yep, we said it. For $15 per person, a luxury coach takes you from the bus station downtown (the bus is clean with TVs and A/C; the bus station is still pretty grimy, so don’t arrive at an hour early) across the border and right to the curb of the Volaris terminal. On the way back, find the lounge for coach passengers at the airport and wait for the next one heading for the border (usually every 30 minutes). A special bus lane makes for no waiting at the border, and the coach drops you off back downtown. About a 20-minute trip, one-way, with very little fuss.
Bring pesos, and pre-print your boarding pass. Pre-printing your boarding pass will get you through the first few hoops at security easily. Then there is the “special tourist card” (not a formal visa) that everyone with a foreign passport is required to purchase at the airport. The government station only accepts pesos. No dollars, no plastic. ATMs dispense pesos in the outer-most layer of the terminal, so be sure to get at least 300 pesos per person before you get in the security line. Just follow the surfers.
Be patient. The Tijuana airport handles 360 flights per day. It’s crowded with international jet-setters. It’s also clean, with gift shops and cafes, has gleaming marble floors, modern restrooms, and friendly security and airline staff that are helpful with directions and hand motions, so you don’t get in the wrong line.
Bring reading material. There are very few English-language reading materials available at the airport (and none on the planes). Spanish versions of Martha Stewart are readily available, but even finding a gringo-friendly USA Today can be difficult. Tablet readers beware: Wi-Fi is free but spotty.
Founded by Jesuit missionaries in the late 1600s, it’s one of Baja’s oldest villages. Despite a beautiful collection of original mission structures, the town is all about tourism these days, with new developments, resorts, condos, and restaurants creating a new culture of expats, divers, fishermen, and other heat-seeking travelers.
Stay Several resorts are differentiating themselves from the “spring break” side of Cabo. The excellent Inn at Loreto Bay is one of them. Another is La Mision, which has undergone an $11 million renovation; the hacienda-style retreat boasts panoramic views and incorporates historic structures and mature gardens for an authentic, Old World feel. The brand new, multimillion dollar Villa del Palmar (same hotel group as the famous resorts in Cabo and elsewhere) opened this year in Loreto, as well. Turtle-shaped pools, private firepits on the beach, fine dining restaurants, and personal chef service for VIP suite guests take the sleepy fishing town to a whole new level.
Eat & Drink Adventurous foodies should hire one of the many boat charters for a day of fishing for mahi-mahi in the Sea of Cortez, as many local restaurants in the village will cook up your fresh catch if you bring it in on ice. For a more sophisticated meal, try Baja Peninsula at La Mision for a classic Baja-Med menu (local fish and produce fused with Mediterranean flavors and preparations). La Picazon is a bit of a drive out of town, but offers a classic Baja seafood menu, friendly family-run service and a patio dotted with pretty palapas for shade and ambience. Just opened this summer, Danzante resort at the Villa del Palmar will please carnivores looking for a good steak and an extensive wine list.
Play The Sea of Cortez is the main attraction. While kayaking, snorkeling, and whale watching are a good way to dip your toes in the water, sport fishing and sailing are the best way to experience the old-time soul of this fishing village. The Baja Big Fish Company publishes The Fish Report online with the best local updates on conditions, charters, and other local fishing news and tips. Ask the concierge for a charter company with local guides and fishermen.
Less than two hours from San Diego, the Guadalupe Valley is the heart of Baja’s wine country. No longer a hidden gem—after local buzz from San Diego and Los Angeles foodies over the past decade, The New York Times and Food & Wine travel writers have made visits—the region just northeast of Ensenada still struggles for a cohesive tourism message. It’s the perfect time for San Diegans to sip and sample wine, olive oil, and cuisine from a still-emerging gastro-destination in our own backyard.
Stay Adobe Guadalupe is a bed-and-breakfast-style lodge with just six guest rooms, a rustic, communal kitchen, native gardens, and a vineyard that produces 5,000 cases per year.
Eat & Drink Chefs on-site cook up a four-course meal nightly, using local produce and whatever meat has been imported that day. Nearby restaurant Laja is also worth trying for a sample of local flavors. Wine pairings are all local as well. Also worth a try are the tasting rooms at L.A. Cetto (look for their wines popping up at regionally-focused restaurants in San Diego) and Dona Lupe, a small winery with a store filled with local olive oils, cheeses, and other goods.
Play Take a horseback ride through Adobe Guadalupe’s vineyards, ask the innkeepers to set up a tour of local museums and art galleries, or catch a ride down to Ensenada for a cold beer and taco on the beach.
Las Animas Wilderness Lodge
Looking for the wilder side of Baja? Scoff at the idea of 600-thread count sheets and all-inclusive resort chains with margarita slushy machines? Then look into the primitive, protected islands in Baja’s Sea of Cortez.
Book a Yurt La Animas Wilderness Lodge is a perfect blend of rustic and comfort for outdoorsy travelers and families. Reserve one of their eight yurts (think luxury teepee on the beach), which come with solar showers, comfy beds, private cooks, and a welcome mat of soft white sand beach right outside the door. No phones or television, but themain lodge offers an ocean view deck, kitchen, communal game room, and strategically hung hammocks.
Go Off the Grid Tell the local experts at Las Animas what you like, and let them lead you to the best in water adventures out on the islands. Surfing lessons, sailing, kayaking, swimming with dolphins and whale sharks, or just sitting on the beach and grilling the day’s fresh catch could all be part of the agenda. Rates start at $2,000 per week, including a private flight from San Diego and all meals. bajaairventures.com
This dusty little haven is vibrant with art and culture. Just 90 minutes north of Cabo exists an oasis—a charming coastal town and perfect antidote to the mega resorts and thumping party scene on Squid Row. Todos Santos (meaning “all saints”) represents a taste of authentic Baja with its colony of artists and iconic 18th-century Mission and historic architecture. Hidden behind the brick walls of the former sugar baron estates, the allure lies in its famous surf breaks, quiet beaches, yoga retreats, and an annual film festival that draws artsy-types from Los Angeles. In this merry artistic hub, expats, casual travelers, and surfers intermingle with local farmers, residents, and rancheros, all enamored with the magic and mood of this pueblo.
SLEEP Hotelito is a groovy four-cottage boutique hotel in a rainbow of colors that takes Mexican-contemporary and modern architecture and infuses it with European style like fine English linens, stamped mirrors, and canopy-draped beds. Owner Jenny Armit’s affable personality and coterie of friendly dogs, horses, and baby goats casts a spell over the bougainvillea-laced property. It feels like you are staying with old friends. Best deal in town, starting at $90. thehotelito.com
EAT & DRINK La Casita Tapas & Wine Bar is helmed by the talented Sergio Rivera. Enjoy seared ahi with papaya-ginger black bean sauce or go “freestyle” and let the chef make magic with his freshly caught fish and organic produce, custom designed for you. Michael’s at the Gallery has, arguably, the best ambience in town, with a cool international crowd, candle-lit garden patio, fine wines, and gourmet Asian-fusion cuisine—all the makings for a memorable meal.
PLAY Cerritos Beach Club is a gigantic aquatic playground for surf and stand-up lessons, kayaking, fishing, horseback riding, and spa treatments. A music-filled seaside restaurant and bar make it one big beach party. Explore the hidden gems of this area with Todos Santos Eco Adventure via their hikes through cactus sanctuaries, beach horseback riding, cultural tours, cooking classes, multi-day surfaris, whale-watching excursions, fishing trips, and jungle adventures.
READ The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck (1941) or Almost an Island: Travels in Baja California by Bruce Berger (1988)
Cabo San Lucas
Eat San Francisco star chef Gary Danko chose Villa Esperanza for his exclusive culinary escape this fall, acting as guest chef of the El Restaurante restaurant for a long weekend. The Relais & Château resort’s regular executive chef Gonzolo Cerdo also introduced new food-forward programs this year, including authentic Argentinian BBQ set up on a private beach for small groups and a trip to the local fish market so seriously “slow” foodies can hand pick the freshest catch of the day. And then there’s always drinking your dinner by the famous infinity pool …
Play Boat charters are a dime a dozen in Cabo. Two to try this year are Love Boat Cruises—a 72-foot yacht run by the owners of the popular bar by the same name in town takes you out for sunset cruises, fishing, small private parties, or even weddings—and Blue Ocean Sailing, great for anyone looking for a real sailing experience. The boat’s not too big, so you can really work the lines or the steering if you want, but a full crew is on hand to do the heavy lifting, cooking, and serving.
A culinary trip to TJ? Plan one. It’s time. San Diegans longing for recognition of the “local” food scene need to start embracing Tijuana as part of the community. It’s a veritable hot plate in the international culinary scene. Everyone, from reknowned chef Rick Bayless (who filmed an entire series on Baja’s culinary rise for PBS this fall) to The New York Times, is raving about the latest crop of new restaurants to open just across the border, and the newest chefs finding their groove with inventive menus. Taller oozes cool in a warehouse space with a rustic, industrial, metal-meets-reclaimed wood vibe and a fresh, locally sourced Mediterranean-influenced menu from buzzed-about chef Miguel Angel Guerrero. Javier Plascencia’s Mision 19, touted as one of the best restaurants in Mexico right now (not just Tijuana), received ample love from The New York Times earlier this year for a cutting edge selection of molecular gastronomy tricks combined with simple, local, Mexican flavors and ingredients. It’s a spot to “go out” and mingle with the region’s elite, but then don’t miss his other, more casual seafood spot, Erizo, for new and different preparations of the local catch. Meet hipsters sipping craft beers at La Chupiteria and find the best of the region’s local bounty, from cheese to wine to seafood and produce at the famous Mercado Hidalgo, comparable to any of the big outdoor markets in Europe. For hungry travelers, Tijuana is it.