Cabo San Lucas has changed since 1940, when John Steinbeck, wearied from writing "The Grapes of Wrath, joined his friend Doc Ricketts on a scientific expedition to the Sea of Cortez. Six decades ago, Cabo was little more than a few fishing shacks and, when their boat arrived, the local officials were able to find their uniforms only because another boat had arrived a few weeks before.
Today, Cabo San Lucas is a south-of-the-border Las Vegas, with neon lights, tequila joints that party into the wee hours, and streets lined with shops selling trinkets to the cruise ship tourists that surge ashore by the thousands.
But there is another side to Cabo San Lucas, one that draws yachtsmen and anglers from around the world. Cabo is one of a handful of sportfishing hotspots. Sport-fishing enthusiasts have caught more striped marlin here than anywhere else in the world. The entire Sea of Cortez, which starts nearby at the jagged rocks called The Friars at the tip of Baja California, is a huge aquarium that supports an amazing variety of sea life. In these waters, where the warm sea meets the deep ocean currents, sportfishermen reel in the huge game fish that come to feed on the next step down in the food chain and, for hundreds of miles north, life abounds throughout this fertile sea. Tuna, dorado, wahoo and sailfish are caught within a mile or two of shore.
It can be amusing to have your picture taken at The Giggling Marlin, as you hang upside down like a trophy catch. Although the drinks at Margaritaville are cold and salty, Cabo San Lucas remains an arid wasteland in one way: it has no five-star hotels. To be sure, dozens of hotels overlook streets filled with sawn-off Volkswagens called Baja Bugs, but they are, ahem, not what you'd find in St. Barts or St. Tropez. The good news is that there are two superb world-class hotels within a short cab ride of the Cabo San Lucas marina, although, if you stay at one, you're more likely to be delivered back and forth in a cushy sport utility.
The 20-mile stretch north from Cabo San Lucas to the historic Spanish Colonial town of San Jose del Cabo has been nicknamed Los Cabos, and it has a jet set past. In the 1950s, when Cabo was accessible only by boat or private plane, movie stars such as John Wayne and Bing Crosby would fly down from Hollywood for the marlin fishing. In the 1970s, Cabo was attracting Sophia Loren and Mick Jagger (separately, of course), but the turning point was the middle 1980s, when the Mexican government built an airport capable of handling jets. This airport, in the Los Cabos corridor, encouraged hoteliers to invest.
Las Ventanas al Paraiso
The first of the new resorts is Las Ventanas al Paraiso (Windows to Paradise), which was built in 1997 by Rosewood Hotels, the luxury hotelier started by Texan Caroline Hunt, which also counts Little Dix Bay in the Virgin Islands among its properties.
Your stay at Las Ventanas starts when a driver meets your jet, private or commercial, at the airport with chilled hand towels, cool Evian water, and a welcome letter from the manager confirming your spa, fishing and golf appointments.
Whisked to the property, you'll be unimpressed from the highway but, once inside, you enter a serene compound with thatched-roof pavilions, villas scattered around infinity pools, and a pair of superlative restaurants, all linked by paths inlaid with thousands of smooth pebbles in intricate mosaics.
Sixty-one guest rooms look out on the Sea of Cortez, and each is palatial in size, has wood-burning fireplaces, outdoor living rooms, spas on each terrace, and mammoth bathrooms. Your choice is between a lower suite, where you can walk straight to the pool, or an upper suite, which has a stairway to a rooftop sundeck with private chaises and a telescope for stargazing. Guests also enjoy personalized butler service from a staff trained by the ex-head butler at The Lanesborough in London.
If you choose to sprawl by the pool, attendants provide Evian spritzers to cool you, personal CD players, trays of magazines, and sorbet in chocolate cups.
Hammocks under thatched palapas on the beach are enticing, but don't miss out on the incredible spa facility for 25 varieties of massage, aromatherapy, facials, detox wraps and more: the spa catalog runs 10 pages of pure hedonism.
Guests at Las Ventanas have privileges at the members-only Tom Fazio-designed Querencia golf course, or they can tackle six other championship courses by Jack Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jones and Pete Dye. There are championship tennis courts and, if you happened to forget your yacht, Las Ventanas has a 55-foot Sunseeker Camargue available for your pleasure.
When it comes to dining, you'll choose between the seaside grill, an open-air patio, or air-conditioned salon, plus a tequila-and-ceviche bar. Inside tip? Don't miss the grilled blue fin tuna with ratatouille and tapenade, the Neiman Ranch rack of pork, or the grilled Baja lobster in Huitlacoche butter. For dessert, I devoured the key lime pie with tequila caramel.
The newcomer on the Los Cabos corridor is Esperanza, which opened early in 2002 with 50 casita suites and six luxury suites overlooking the Sea of Cortez. The resort earned immediate attention after it awarded a stay to all the prize-givers at the Academy Awards. A sister property to the famed Auberge du Soleil in Napa, California, Esperanza greets you at the airport with an air-conditioned Suburban, sweeps you through the reception breezeway, and tucks you into your oversize room.
The upper rooms have towering thatched ceilings (our No. 30 was superb) and infinity spas on the deck, while lower rooms have hammocks instead. Sliding doors open fully to the balcony and its bench seating for alfresco meals. The sound of breaking waves washes through the rooms. The bathroom, which overlooks the spa outside, has a jacuzzi tub that provides the bather with an unmatched view of the sea. Atop the bed is a duvet so light it seems to float, and you sink into the silky depths of Frette sheets.
Dining is very much a part of the Esperanza experience, with three beautiful settings, including a terrace built on a rocky promontory that seems surrounded by surf. Be sure to reserve the outermost table for a magical sunset meal.
It's hard to pick from chef Flynt Payne's signature entrees, but the grilled lobster tail and pistachio lasagna is a no-brainer. We savored the tortilla-crusted seared ahi tuna with Guajillo garlic glaze and, for dessert, picked our calorie overload from the tray of tiny chocolate temptations.
Luckily, Esperanza has a world-class spa as well, which can make you feel good about yourself even if you eat too much. There is a full service fitness center (does looking in count toward a workout?), but the real pleasures were spa treatments, such as massages in private garden courtyards, clay bakes, steam caves, soaking tubs, and revitalizing treatments. I couldn't resist the Corona beer facelift if only for conversational value, but it left me with a healthy glow (on the outside only).
There is one more property that must be mentioned, and that is the tiny boutique Casa Natalia in San Jose del Cabo, a pleasantly quaint colonial town with shaded streets lined by stylish boutiques and restaurants. Founded by Nathalie and Loic Tenoux, it is a quiet oasis courtyard dotted with palms and bougainvillea. Pools along one colorful wall are fed by burbling waterfalls, and you experience a sense of serenity the moment you enter the property.
Casa Natalia has 16 rooms, including two rooftop spa suites, and each is furnished in regional Mexican motifs with California-king beds, European bed linens, travertine bathrooms and private terraces with hammocks. Time slows down at Casa Natalia, where guests divide their time among sun, shops and hammocks.
A member of Small Luxury Hotels, Casa Natalia is colorfully finished in vivid blues, yellows and terracotta, with open-flame braziers reflecting in the pools at night. When it comes to dining, the full-service restaurant, Mi Cocina, is under the direction of Loic and offers a nouvelle Mexican-European cuisine that playfully mixes fresh seafood, pasta, and grilled meats, all washed down from the extensive wine list.
One of the pleasures of Casa Natalia is that guests quickly become friends of Nathalie and Loic, as well as of the staff, which numbers two per room. Everything you might want from a larger resort, from golf to snorkeling to day trips, is easily arranged along with in-room spa services. Casa Natalia is farther away from the marina in Cabo San Lucas (20 miles) but on the other hand, San Jose del Cabo has an aura born of its tiny bandstand, the old church and the silversmiths with beautiful jewelry.
So, while Cabo San Lucas may have all the charm of a college Easter weekend, that doesn't mean you have to rough it when you want to enjoy serious sportfishing. John Steinbeck would have loved these three properties.