Fishing The Baja: Booyah!

fishing-the-bajaTwenty years ago, Baja California, the 800-mile strip of land that extends down Mexico’s northwest coast like a pinkie finger, was not much more than barren desert wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortes. Today Los Cabos, at its southern end, has been transformed into a resort area that may draw more private planes on winter weekends than even Palm Beach–and the parade on the tarmac will most certainly be more entertaining, as Los Cabos’s regulars include Bill Gates, Cindy Crawford and Barbra Streisand.

Los Cabos (“the capes”) refers to a twenty-mile stretch extending south from San Jose del Cabo, a historic Spanish colonial town, to Cabo San Lucas, the fishing village-turned-vacation capital (complete with a Hard Rock Cafe) at Baja’s tip. The area has always had a glorious climate (with an average temperature of 75 degrees and 350 days of sunshine a year) and a ruggedly beautiful landscape of mountains, desert and beach. In the 1950s, movie stars such as Bing Crosby and John Wayne flew down from L.A. for some of the world’s best marlin fishing. The first luxury hotel, Palmilla, opened with its own airstrip to cater to them and their friends in 1956, and in the 1970s, Hotel Twin Dolphin lured Sophia Loren, Carlo Ponti and Mick Jagger for visits. The first seeds of major growth were sown in 1984, when the Mexican government invested in an airport large enough to handle jets. But it wasn’t until 1993, when ownership rules for foreigners were eased, that real-estate developers recognized Los Cabos’s potential as a Florida of the Pacific for weekending West Coasters and Texans.

To lure sophisticated vacationers south, seven eighteen-hole golf courses have opened in the past decade, including ones designed by Jack Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jones, Jr., Tom Weiskopf, Tom Fazio and Pete Dye. (Querencia, by Fazio, is reportedly the best, with an initiation fee of $110,000 to join its club.) These courses, which make the most of the desert and the sea, have made Los Cabos the number-one golf destination in Latin America. But even dedicated golfers usually swap a club for a rod at least once during a visit. The big-game fishing remains phenomenal, with more striped marlin caught within twenty miles of Cabo San Lucas than from any other place in the world. The water in the Sea of Cortes stays so warm that it’s possible to catch tuna, wahoo, dorado and sailfish within a mile or two of shore.

While the fishing hasn’t changed since the ’50s, the accommodations have. In recent years, more than 3,000 private homes and forty hotels have sprung up along the coast of the Sea of Cortes. There are $7 million villas that grande dames from Jupiter to Manalapan would covet, as well as lots of charmless condos that look like beachside bunkers. Not wanting to miss out on the next great place, every hotel company in the world seems to have staked a claim here, from Inter-Continental to Sheraton to Westin. The ones worth visiting, however, are the luxury resorts. In fact, Las Ventanas al Paraiso, built in 1997, is ranked among the best resorts in the world by many travel experts. Its name means “windows to paradise,” and while its rooms and service may be the best in this particular paradise, many of the area hotels have access to the beaches, golf courses and fishing that make Los Cabos a perfect place for a weekend that mixes sporting with pampering. (Note: Because of treacherous currents, most beaches are rarely safe for swimming.) Following is a guide to where to stay and why.

THE BEST: Las Ventanas. Madonna and Kevin Costner usually leave resort hotels to the hoi polloi and rent private islands or houses, but Las Ventanas’s reputation as the world’s sexiest hotel has prompted both of them to check in here. Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, the Texas hotel company started by Caroline Hunt, opened Las Ventanas in 1997. Since then, it has had an almost uninterrupted 90 percent occupancy rate in high season, which is why the only–though frequently heard–complaint about the hotel is how hard it is to get into.

A Las Ventanas driver greets guests at the airport in an air-conditioned Suburban that is equipped with chilled hand towels, Evian water, soft music and welcome letters confirming any advance spa, fishing or golf appointments. After a twenty-minute drive, guests arrive at Las Ventanas, which from the highway merely looks like another complex of buildings in an unattractive row of condominiums and hotels by the beach; but as soon as they enter its whitewashed walls, Baja’s bustle disappears. A soaring thatched-roofed pavilion frames a view of the sea and a scattering of stark, squarish houses that seem to meld the adobe shapes of New Mexico with the pure, starched white of Santorini. The paths and stairways linking the sixty-one guest rooms to the two restaurants, the spa and the three pools are beautifully inlaid with thousands of smooth pebbles in a rustic mosaic. Cacti and patches of sand keep the desert ever present.

Even when the resort is full, the atmosphere feels remarkably hushed and isolated. This is probably because the rooms are so lovely that most people don’t like to leave them. Enormous, hand-carved cedar doors from Guadalajara usher guests into palatial suites with wood-burning fireplaces, limestone floors set with pebble borders, and sliding-glass doors. When opened, they reveal a sea-view patio set up like an outdoor living room with wicker chairs, a tile-topped coffee table and a hot tub. The best suites are the seafront ones with a stairway leading up to a sundeck with chaises.

But as heavenly and well stocked as the rooms are–TVs, DVD players, mammoth bathrooms and minibars custom-filled with your favorite drinks–there are good reasons to leave them. The spa, created like a little village of solaria, pools and treatment rooms, is one of them. The three infinity pools, where attendants come around offering Evian spray bottles, personal CD players, trays of magazines and books and sorbet in chocolate cups, are another. The grill and the main restaurant, where you can dine on great Baja-Mediterranean cuisine while enjoying views of the sea and stars, can’t be missed. Golfers certainly can’t pass up the privilege of playing Querencia, which grants access only to its members and guests of Las Ventanas. But the hammocks strung under thatched cabanas on the white-sand beach may be the best reason to venture out of your room: they have flags with roman numerals that you can raise to signal to the “pool butlers” the time at which you wish to be awakened; they will then do so by ringing wind chimes. Not surprisingly, the hammocks also come with ropes rigged so that you can rock yourself to sleep.

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