The water lay before me, a gradation of colour from sandy yellow to the palest of seafoam green to a blue that reminded me that navy doesn’t have to be dark, but simply deep. I proffered a toe, and the surf came up to greet me, lapping at my heels – cheeky then when it continued its surge forward, until it had tickled my calves, leaving them covered in a gentle spray. I laughed out loud, not caring in that moment if anyone had seen my flirtation with the sea.
In the afternoon, it grew into a dalliance, while I was sailing over its surface past Lovers beach, where my master, the Sea of Cortez, met the Pacific. I realized then that it was an affair that had started 10 years ago, a sojourn to a strip of Mexico I had yet to experience. It was south of the border, the Baja Peninsula, below California. From the air, it looked an arid, cactus-dotted landscape, like a wizened branch of a tree reaching downward, pointing with a craggy length to the sea, split from its mother trunk, mainland Mexico to the east. It was time to reignite the spark.
It’s got the weather of Arizona – but with an ocean, and a better exchange rate
Separated from Mexico by the Gulf of California, it has taken its own shape. Mountainous, desert-like, emulating the just-north-of-the-border California, New Mexico and Arizona states in much of its makeup, and its climate – making it an ideal winter vacationing and snowbirding spot – rather than the more tropical and sometimes cloyingly humid leanings of the country of which it is part.
At its fingertip, is Los Cabos, an area that is home to the cities of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. Yes, that Cabo San Lucas, the Ibiza of Mexico, the “Cabo Wabo” that rocker Sammy Hagar sings of, the long-time party playground of Californians looking for a weekend getaway.
Rents for furnished accommodation can run from $400 to $1,000 depending on size and area. At press time, a Canadian dollar gets about 14 or 15 pesos. In Los Cabos, a dozen eggs might run you about 30 pesos.
It’s a safe place
But this part of the country has broken from the typical Mexico mold. According to the Los Cabos Tourism Board, the crime rates have dropped significantly in the last year, as much as 90 per cent. That’s a good thing, as tourism has doubled in the area, outpacing mainland Mexico. The region has added more than 200 police to its force, and it is also set to become home to the country’s Marines, who took over the policing of the area in 2017. But their presence is subtle, with many of the high-end private businesses, resort and hotels investing in an infrastructure where security and hospitality go hand in hand, without being in your face. And when the likes of Ritz Carlton chooses the spot for its Reserve collection and Four Seasons plans on opening a third location, Los Cabos is looking worthy of investment. But yet, with all this in the offing, the place still feels just a little unspoiled, not the cheek by jowl resorts of all-inclusive Mexico.
You can golf for less, 10 months of the year
Just enough may also be another way to describe the subtleties of how nature and manmade meet here. Modern highways allow for speedy travel between San Jose and Cabo, nearly two dozen golf courses and world-class deep-sea fishing keep the active set happy, hotels and resorts that are some of the best in the four- and five-star world, without overpowering the landscape or the culture and locals who have a friendly sophistication that comes with knowing they live in a very unique place.
The diving is among the best in the world
The Sea of Cortez has been dubbed the “aquarium of the world,” by the sea explorer Jacques Cousteau. The label stuck. Yet, don’t be misled. This is not a place for fly and flop, or for casual swimming, unless you’re on Santa Maria beach near San Jose del Cabo – but sailing and surfing and snorkelling and diving, with sea lions and whale sharks and definitely not for the faint of heart. An adventurous spirit and a strong swim stroke come with this territory.
Find an Oasis by the Sea
Santa Maria beach is a rare blue flag swimmable spot on a horseshoe-shaped cove, just off the Sea of Cortez. Hugging the cove is also the brand new Montage, a resort whose architecture is so seamless, it’s of the desert, not interrupting the desert. It’s the key to a sense of harmony with land and sea that vibrates and one that I sense almost immediately. Sandstone paths and minimalist succulent desert gardens, green lawns and rooms that all face the bay and blue infinity pools overlooking the lively beach – a beach that’s also a local spot for families taking the waters. One afternoon, what looked like a flock of birds started skimming and jumping at the water’s surface, about 30 metres off shore. But it wasn’t birds. It was a group of smallish manta rays, leaping out of the sea and into the air as if trying to capture the sunshine with their fins. The rays reflected the sun, bouncing and sparkling just above the surf. Everyone on the beach was mesmerized.
The Montage spa features its own full-sized, salt-water pool, but the leaping is kept at a minimum. This, for the tranquility seeker in me, is a luxury in itself – away from the energetic sounds of the beach and most of the guests, yet the body still benefits from the restorative ocean breeze and the low-impact exercise of swimming, while the mind has only its thoughts and the desert ambience as its soundtrack. One could stay here all day. And, coming soon, for as long as one might want. I learn, residences for long stay guests that will also have the option to go into the hotel rental pool when they’re vacant are in the works; the buildings are already up, it’s just the details left to go. www.montagehotels.com/loscabos/
There’s an authenticity, without the cookie cutter or prefab feels
San Jose, on the other hand, is a community of artists, boutique hotels and a culinary hub, a town of colourful local architecture, navigable streets and a bright main square and gathering place over which the Catholic Mission San Jose del Cabo Añuití presides. The mission, built in the 1700s, is dedicated to St. Joseph, but a nod to the Pericúes, the indigenous culture of the region, inspired its naming, Añuití, as the spot on which the church is built, was so called. Missionaries decided to stay and set up shop; they were key players in this part of the world, their influence stretching all the way up the California coastline.
And stay, you should, as well. At least until Friday morning, because, on the last Thursday of every month, from October to June, San Jose del Cabo features an Art Walk, where the doors of the gallery district are flung open from 5:00pm to 9:00pm – along with handicraft and jewellery shops and restaurants. Ex-pat residents, snowbirds, local families and tourists drink in the artisan and folk culture, as well as the culinary offerings of this region. Fifteen galleries and six eateries populate the route, mapped out by Art Cabo (artcabo.com). It’s perhaps a kinder, gentler, safer Mexico than you might consider; a festival and an experiential way to mix and mingle with authenticity, flavour and thought-provoking art.
Two piqued my interest. First, at Patricia Mendoza Contemporary Art, I met her daughter, an interior and industrial designer by trade, who was working with her mother to make the gallery a destination. Infuse it with design, not just art; local cuisine, not just a glass of wine while meandering through the gallery’s rooms. This multi-generational attitude is taking the space, which also features sculpture and ceramics, to the next level. A place to linger – and to learn more about art.
At Enrique Bascón, the artist was in residence. His work has a somewhat Banksy quality to it with a much heavier political-statement hand. He clearly is not a fan of Mr. Trump; but his political-cartoon-meets-multi-media style is fantastic and spans modern history, not just current affairs. Not so much in your face as subtle, the iconic Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, transformed by a red peace sign in place of the stars and stripes; Trump surfing, but on the edge of knife with the words “wall addict” inscribed on it, tearing his way through rather than riding the wave; massive oil on wood triptychs that portray General Francisco Villa, aka Pancho Villa, the revolutionary leader in full regalia, but with the eerie spectre of death hovering nearby.
Be in the Moment
But today, the only thing before me is whether I first stroll the beach or walk the gardens. I’m soaking up my day’s worth of vitamin D at One&Only Palmilla, where I’m gladly being lead up the garden path, cutting a swath through some of the most beautiful and thoughtful flora I’ve ever seen. It’s a path that, in the ’50s, when it was a 15-room property only accessible by boat or plane, the likes of John Wayne, Bing Crosby and Lucille Ball walked; latter-day celebs such as Jennifer Aniston and John Travolta have been known to celebrate milestones, come for the spa and yoga, and book the villas facing the sea. But I digress. The gardens are my focus. Colourful birds of paradise sidle up to needle-laced cactus, palm trees of all shapes and heights sway over spiky blue agave with leaves as long as my arm.
Because Tequila is Having its own Moment
Blue agave is also known as the tequila plant, and tequila tasting is a special event at the resort. As if the front row view of Pelican Beach and the sea beyond from my bar-side perch at One&Only Palmilla isn’t a trippy lesson in taking a deep breath and living in the moment enough, I’m taken on a journey of blanco (white, freshly distilled without aging), reposado (aged two months to one year), añejo (aged one to three years) and extra añejo (aged longer than three years), to get a true sense of this made-in-Mexico spirit. No shooters, salt or limes here. It’s all about the sip. Turns out I’m an añejo fan, the golden liquid suits my palette; experienced, aged not too much, but just enough. www.oneandonlyresorts.com/one-and-only-palmilla-los-cabos
Go off the Beaten Path
Artists of a different kind, in the hospitality arena, are also at work here. In town, try La Lupita Taco & Mezcal, or take a road trip. At dusk, I’m suddenly driven off road, along a dusty path, wondering where in the world I am. My driver looks back and smiles. “I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry, the road does lead to somewhere.” That somewhere is Acre, a farm-to-table hotspot on a desert farm that’s also now a boutique hotel. One of the partners is from Vancouver. He was a finance guy until he hit his 50s. Now, he’s a reinvented locavore hotelier who has also involved his family in the building of the Acre brand. The shop feature lotions and potions mixed from the farm’s herb, fruit and vegetable garden, those small batch amenities that you might find at the latest hip resort or hotel. http://acrebaja.com/
Yes, go ahead and do the Cabo Wabo
But even a tranquility seeker might want to let her hair down. Cabo San Lucas does have its charms. A well-developed sailing marina and bar and dining scene has also made it a good place to find long-term accommodations, a night out – and the opportunity to try authentic Baja California cuisine. At Edith’s restaurant, the colourful and intricate Mexican décor is only matched by the varied menu. Fish and seafood play a starring role, mixed with traditional herbs and spices and local ingredients. Sweet and savoury moles and classic homemade tortillas – both corn and flour – mingle with prickly pear and jicama. The server brings the cuts of fish and beef to the table on a tray and describes each one, then takes our order. At the next table, flames leap from a chafing dish, the chef cooking up a flambé. In a moment, we get our own bit of theatre, a classic made tableside. We’ve ordered a Caesar salad. What? You might ask? In Mexico? Well, it happens that this culinary favourite the world over was invented right here in the Baja. North of here, in a little town you may have heard of, Tijuana, Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant, began the art of the salad, tableside. Cardini, a restaurateur who had been based in San Diego, came to Mexico during the time of the prohibition to escape the restrictive policies on drink in the United States. In the process, he created a legend. One, I’m happy to report, is alive and well in Los Cabos. http://edithscabo.com/