Sometimes it seems as if vacations have fallen out of fashion. There is educational travel to broaden the mind, adventure travel to challenge the body, philanthropic travel to benefit humanity and any number of other commendable excuses to get out of the office and onto an airplane. But sometimes the body, mind and spirit simply need to relax for a spell. And if it’s amid scenery of great beauty, with easy access to superb food and drink, so much the better.
One of the best (and most expensive) places in North America to have a proper vacation is along the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Because it functions as an island well-removed from “the mainland,” as locals call the rest of Mexico, this rugged stretch of coastal desert has remained relatively immune to the drug violence that consumes some other regions of the country. Supplies come mostly through the port of La Paz, rather than from Tijuana, which is some 20 hours northwest of the tourist center, Cabo San Lucas.
Paradoxically, a natural disaster is largely responsible for the present high quality of the resorts in the region. Hurricane Odile smashed into southern Baja in 2014, inflicting particularly heavy damage on waterfront hotels. Some properties, quite understandably, reopened as quickly as they could. But many others, including all the resorts I currently recommend, elected to remain closed long enough to complete a thorough renovation. As a result, even the classic luxury resorts feel quite fresh.
The best properties are not in Cabo San Lucas, a tacky and congested city with little to recommend it, or even in quieter San José del Cabo, a historic town of colorful colonial-style buildings occupied by art galleries and restaurants, but along the strip in between. Alas, few patches of undeveloped coastline remain, the rugged shore having long since been tamed with condominium developments, golf courses and hotels.
One of the larger stretches of untouched coastal land abuts the new Chileno Bay Resort. This 60-room, 32-villa Auberge property also fronts one of the few swimmable beaches in Los Cabos. We took advantage of this privileged location almost immediately. Once past the somewhat rocky entry into the water, we had a fine time snorkeling in the protected bay, spotting angelfish, parrotfish, sergeant majors and Moorish idols, among others. Back on land, I followed a hiking trail up the hill just west of the resort, which wove around a narrow, rocky plateau between cliffs and the ocean. In short order, I was completely removed from civilization, surveying postcard-perfect views of weathered granite crags jutting into lapis seas.
The resort itself, while not perfect, comes close enough for me to recommend it highly. Its heart is a set of three long infinity pools that cascade into one another, each flanked by dozens of cushioned loungers and numerous cabanas. The top pool, near the impressively equipped fitness center and kids’ club, is for children; the middle is for families; and the bottom pool, near the beach and TnT bar and restaurant, is reserved for adults. Service at the latter was quick and attentive. As soon as we chose our loungers, a waiter brought a little cooler filled with ice and bottled water. My refreshing cocktail of Prosecco with fresh strawberries, lime and ginger came shortly thereafter.
On either side of the pools stand the accommodations, housed in several white two-story buildings divided by sidewalks and immaculately maintained desert gardens. Guest rooms all feel like junior suites and come with furnished terraces. The most important differences among them, unless you’re reserving a villa, are the view and the level of privacy. Our room on the second floor felt very private, but certain Garden View and Pool View rooms were completely unshielded, pressed against the path leading from the pool to reception.
We had an Ocean View Room, and while we could indeed see the ocean from the sofa and two wood-framed cushioned armchairs on our terrace, the panorama was partially obstructed by a villa. Even so, I couldn’t muster too much disappointment as we sat on the deliciously breezy terrace with our welcome Chilenito cocktails of mezcal, poblano liqueur and pineapple, freshly shaken by the cheerful man who showed us to our room.
Inside, the airy design was extremely attractive, with a palette of cream, beige and turquoise. On the cool limestone floor, atop a soft wool rug mottled in blue and white, were two comfy armchairs upholstered in striped linen and a cylindrical wood coffee table. Behind them stood a soft king bed with a tan leather headboard, flanked by panels of whitewashed cactus wood and blue sconces of enameled tin. A walk-in closet afforded plenty of storage, and beyond it, the large bath comprised a lengthy white trough sink, indoor and outdoor showers, and a freestanding tub accented by a sweep of blue-and-white tiles running along the floor and up the wall.
Aside from the beautifully appointed spa — it wouldn’t be an Auberge property without a sybaritic spa — Chileno Bay’s other main amenities are its restaurants, both of which presented delicious cuisine and uneven service. At TnT, a lunch-only venue between the pool and beach, my fresh sea bass tacos were superb, but I overheard a patron behind me complain that her salad lacked the chicken that should have topped it.
The open-air space for breakfast and dinner, COMAL, has a chic design, centerpieced by a tree festooned with basketlike lanterns. The views of the Sea of Cortez were mesmerizing, and the food — octopus ceviche with avocado and crunchy chicharrones, and totoaba (a local halibutlike fish) with sunchoke purée and roasted cauliflower — was unfussy but thoughtfully composed. At our first dinner, I ordered a red wine to pair with a duck appetizer, but our energetic waiter insisted I try the signature cocktail as well, on the house. He brought the drink over, and not long after, some ceviche mistakenly appeared. I sent it back, and then the sommelier arrived, though we had already ordered our wine. Our waiter soon resurfaced with the white wine I intended to drink with our main courses of fish. He promised to return with the red, but meanwhile, another server arrived with some complimentary mezcal. We had been presented with no fewer than three beverages at this point, but the wine I actually wanted still had yet to appear. Our second dinner at COMAL lacked the free drinks, but the service went far more smoothly.
Service everywhere at Chileno Bay, including at the sometimes disorganized restaurant, never failed to be anything less than helpful and genuinely warm. We could never walk very far before someone greeted us and asked if we required anything. I felt disappointed when it came time to check out, a feeling mitigated only by the fact that we were headed to one of my longtime Los Cabos favorites, Esperanza.
The swimmable beach; the enthusiastic staff; the stylish interior design; the fine restaurant; the scenic hiking trail; the enticing breakfast buffet.
Our partially interrupted sea view; the occasionally clumsy service; the limited dining options.
At present, only villas have unobstructed ocean views.
About 15 minutes farther along the coast toward Cabo San Lucas, Esperanza is Auberge’s other property in the region, and a comparison of the two proved instructive. Although it has fewer rooms, with only 57 accommodations, Esperanza feels larger than Chileno Bay because of its popular residence club and villas. Guests of the resort can take advantage of all of the complex’s facilities, spread along a beach-lined granite bluff.
Like Chileno Bay, Esperanza has three swimming pools, including a spectacular double-decker infinity pool in the resort section overlooking the sea. I preferred it to the rather forgotten pool by the villas and to the busy pool adjacent to La Palapa restaurant, with its swim-up bar. It wouldn’t be difficult to spend an entire day lounging at the resort pool, perhaps in one of its cabanas (reservation required), watching the surf. However, it might also be tempting to descend to the golden-sand beaches. One has unshaded loungers for sunbathing, and another has a row of canopied daybeds available to anyone who claims them. The rocky coast has dramatic beauty, but swimming in the sea is unsafe. For those particularly keen on snorkeling, kayaking or paddleboarding, Chileno Bay is a better choice.
Esperanza’s rooms have a leg up in terms of views, however. From our third-floor Oceanview Terrace Spa Casita, we had a fine outlook over a wide lawn surrounded by mature palms sloping down toward the sea. The brown palapa-topped condo-like buildings around the lawn lack architectural distinction, but the rooms inside are plush and filled with light. Textured tile floors looked like whitewashed wood, and the curved corners of the bright-white walls made the room appear as if it were made from adobe. A sublimely comfortable king-size bed with a decorative mosquito-net canopy faced two chairs upholstered in fine gray linen, each with a convenient side table that could be moved for room service dining. Beyond sliding glass doors, the terrace came with a small infinity hot tub and a built-in banquette decorated with colorful pillows. Unfortunately, the banquette was placed in such a way that it was difficult to sit comfortably and see the water at the same time. I had no quibbles about the extravagant bath, however, which came with dual vanities with limestone counters, a double shower and a soaking tub.
Lovely though Esperanza’s pools, accommodations and spa may be, the crowning glory of the resort is its main restaurant, Cocina del Mar. Its setting is magnificent: On two fingers of rock extending into the sea, well-spaced candlelit tables are interspersed with flickering torches. The combination of surf, rock and fire felt at once primal and luxurious. We dined on flawless scallops in a salsa of pumpkin seeds and güero chiles, moist totoaba baked in a thick salt crust, and a banana soufflé with caramel-cardamom ice cream. A trio played in the nearby bar, where we enjoyed a digestif by the fire pit before returning to our casita for the night. We opened the door to find our terrace aglow with candles.
I departed the resorts of Los Cabos with real regret, but I was determined to see if I could find recommendable properties elsewhere in southern Baja, away from the peninsula’s touristy tip. A driver took us up to La Paz, our jumping-off point for excursions to Isla Espíritu Santo, a large and beautiful volcanic island protected as a national park.
The dramatic and glamorous setting; the picturesque swimming pools; the plush and airy accommodations; the attentive service; the multiple restaurants.
The inconvenient design of the banquette on our terrace.
The Garden, Garden Spa, Terrace Spa and Palapa Spa casitas with ocean views are stacked one on top of another, with similar layouts. The first lacks a terrace hot tub, and the last has a vaulted palapa ceiling.
Unfortunately, the top property in La Paz does not meet my standards. The 115-room CostaBaja Resort & Spa stands at the center of an incomplete development about 20 minutes north of downtown. A beach club, golf course and a yacht-filled marina flanked by a few shops and restaurants have been built, but most of the numerous houses in the plan await construction. The resort itself — a simple white box with rows of inset balconies along both façades — rises above several villas along a sweep of sandy beach.
“Three is the start of when you may be able to check in.” That’s a new one.
Our suite wasn’t ready when we arrived at about 2 p.m., and I used the time before we checked in to inspect the property. I found inexpensive-looking loungers surrounding the main free-form swimming pool, which lacked sea views as well as some of its tiles. The smaller lap pool on the roof, thoughtfully shaded by a canopy of reeds, was more appealing, though the nearby fitness center was minuscule. When we returned to the front desk a little after 3, our suite was still not ready. When I pointed out that it was after check-in time, the clerk responded, “Three is the start of when you may be able to check in.” That’s a new one. Mrs. Harper and I settled into the lobby-lounge with our books and waited.
When we finally did get to our Super Suite half an hour later, it reeked of cheap air freshener. Little about the suite was super, aside from the views from its spacious terrace and separate balcony (both furnished) and its ample size. The bland contemporary décor did not quicken the pulse. Both the living room, with two sofas and a large wet bar, and the bedroom, with a writing desk and closet, were cast in a boring beige and brown, aside from the black slate-tile floor and an occasional accent piece in blue. A wide frosted-glass window illuminated the shower and freestanding tub, in a separate slate-tile room. The grout around the two vanities was sloppy, but more distressing were the water glasses near the sinks, one of which had clearly been used to store a previous guest’s toothbrush.
Nor did CostaBaja’s restaurants impress. We had dinner at Steinbeck’s, which inexcusably offered no Mexican white wines by the glass. The swordfish in passion fruit sauce tasted fine, but my fishy scallop appetizer was barely edible. And at breakfast at Mosaic, the sterile décor and unappetizing condiments (Log Cabin syrup, anyone?) were what you might find in any anonymous suburban hotel.
The memorable sea view from our large furnished terrace; the large size of our suite.
The tardy check-in; the unbearable air-freshener scent in our room; the housekeeping oversights; the forgettable breakfast buffet; the mediocre restaurant.
The infinity pool at the beach club, a short walk from the hotel, is far more inviting than the main hotel pool.
We checked out with relief and drove to Todos Santos, a small historic town on the western side of the peninsula. One of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos, Todos Santos has an artsy reputation and lately has drawn travelers seeking to escape the crowds of Los Cabos. The newest addition to the area is Hotel San Cristóbal, a 32-room, design-focused resort under the same ownership as Austin’s idiosyncratic Hotel Saint Cecilia (which I recommend). Unfortunately, it had not yet opened at the time of our visit, and we stayed instead at Rancho Pescadero, about 15 minutes south of town.
Accessed via a bumpy, bougainvillea-lined dirt road about 10 minutes from the main highway, this low-rise, 28-room resort occupies a stretch of wide, unspoiled beach fringed by fragrant desert scrub. In a central building is the small reception area, an indoor-outdoor restaurant for breakfasts and lunches, and a lounge. Downstairs is the main indoor-outdoor bar, facing a swimming pool surrounded by umbrella-shaded daybeds, some of which occupy platforms designed to appear as if they’re floating along the edge of the pool. The cocktails we had here — including a pineapple-cilantro margarita and an “herb tonic” made with a veritable farm’s worth of fennel fronds, basil, mint, cilantro and chervil — tasted wonderfully refreshing.
After a delicious light lunch of yellowtail tacos accompanied by glasses of lively Casa Madero Cabernet Sauvignon rosé, we relaxed for a spell in our second-floor Milagro Suite. But only if one includes the outdoor space could this accommodation be considered a suite. The minute bedroom had just a king-size bed with a canopy of orange mosquito netting, a desk with a woven-cane chair and a matching bench at the bed’s foot. Sliding glass doors opened to a palapa-roofed terrace with two cushioned loungers, a dinette and a daybed. A spiral staircase led to a rooftop deck, with a mosquito netting-enclosed daybed and two leather bar-height chairs along the wall. Both outdoor spaces afforded sweeping views of the beach and sea. The bath was too dark for my taste, but it had plenty of space, with a wide trough sink, closets, a dressing table and a capacious tiled walk-in shower, but no tub.
Early each morning, a basket arrived outside our door with coffee, “pastries” (cookies) and fruit, which we set up on the terrace. From there we could observe the desert waking up. Quails darted in and out of the brush, and an occasional jackrabbit, with charmingly oversize ears, would cautiously nibble at tufts of grass. For more-substantial fare, we headed to the restaurant near reception, which offered a full breakfast menu.
One of our days at Rancho Pescadero proved lazier than I expected. Our cooking class with the chef was canceled at the last minute, and the yoga class promised on the website also did not materialize. The general manager apologized profusely, but I can’t deny that I was secretly pleased to have no other options than beachcombing and relaxing by the pool with my novel. Mrs. Harper headed straight to the two-room spa house by the beach, where she booked a sugar scrub. It was, in fact, a salt scrub, but the treatment proved enjoyable nevertheless, incorporating a dry brush, warm towels and hot stones, in addition to the scrub.
Each evening, we dined in the Garden Restaurant, abutting a pretty field of herbs, flowers and vegetables. Chef César Pita recently took the helm, and some of the dishes on the menu — such as a spicy yellowtail aguachile with cucumber, watermelon, passion fruit and nasturtium leaves, or jumbo shrimp with zucchini, eggplant and tomato from the garden — were delicious holdovers from the previous executive chef. Pita plans on retooling the menu to include more-modern Mexican dishes, which he is currently trying out as daily specials. I loved his deceptively simple cotijo-stuffed tamal in a sauce of hoja santa (an anise-flavored herb), and a complex crispy-breaded güero chile relleno filled with shrimp and topped with lemon sauce and a garden tomato-jalapeño salsa.
Rancho Pescadero has great potential, but the devil is always in the details. Some maintenance issues require attention, such as a handful of missing tiles from our suite’s shower, damaged plaster nearby and worn caning in our desk chair. In the yoga room, an uneven wood floor punctuated by a few metal bolts rising above it looked dangerous for bare feet, and along the ceiling, wires dangled where sconces should have been. Cookies do not qualify as breakfast pastries. And, of course, there were the cancellations of our cooking and yoga classes. Most irritating was the billing system. I never saw a single bill at the bar or restaurant, and while it was nice to not have to sign a check, it was difficult to determine whether the final account was correct. In fact, it wasn’t — we had been charged for both our complimentary welcome cocktails as well as the drinks the manager brought us to apologize for our canceled cooking class. The charge for our last dinner looked too large as well, but I tired of quibbling and just paid the thing. It’s a very convenient setup for the property’s bottom line, I’m sure.
With the world-class resorts of Los Cabos just an hour or so away, I rather regretted spending time in Todos Santos. It was quieter and had a wider beach, but in all other respects it felt second-best. The new Hotel San Cristóbal may prove to be an exception, but for the moment, I see no reason to stay somewhere in Baja other than Esperanza, Chileno Bay Resort, One&Only Palmilla or Las Ventanas al Paraíso.
The isolated seaside setting; the wide and empty beach; the fine restaurant; the friendly staff; the creative cocktails; the daily coffee on our seaview terrace.
The sometimes disorganized service; the billing system; the occasional maintenance issues; the small size of our bedroom.
Cool winds off the Pacific can make mornings and evenings positively chilly; be sure to bring a sweater and/or jacket. There is a second, usually deserted swimming pool on the far side of the bar.