Return to Palmilla

Latin America's top-rated resort recaptures that old Mexican magic.

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My short happy life peaked at the age of 12 at a place called Palmilla on the tip of Baja California. A week earlier my entire family, 17 strong, had packed into a DC-3 and flown 1,100 miles south from Long Beach, Calif. As my father explained in undertones of awe, we were headed for a near-mythical resort where sportsmen and Hollywood stars pursued big-game fishing. (Added my mother, darkly: "And each other.") To me, a junior member of a family in search of its own mythology, this sounded just right: After all, weren't we adventurers and fishermen and horsemen? Didn't we own a Wheeler sportfish cruiser, the same as Ernest Hemingway? Palmilla was going to be our crowning glory: going mano-a-mano with big billfish and ourselves.

The amazing thing is, for me it all came true. The runt of the male litter, I won a family croquet tournament, and then caught the only billfish of the trip-although I had to practically wrestle the rod out of my older brother's and father's hands, shouting, "It's mine! Mine!"

So I love Palmilla. I loved going back 20 years later, in 1985, and seeing it doing well. Yet to go back again 20 years on, after a $100 million renovation transformed it into a Mexican Xanadu, almost seemed like pushing my luck.

But it's hard to stay away from Cabo, which, long before this era of paved airstrips and mass tourism, earned the kind of cachet in the West that only Yosemite and the Grand Canyon can rival. First known to pearl divers and Spanish conquistadors and English privateers in search of Manila galleons, the area was invaded by President Bush's great-great-great-uncle, the mercenary adventurer William Walker, in 1853, then became a literary touchstone for Nordoff and Hall (authors of The Mutiny on the Bounty) and John Steinbeck (who cruised and wrote about the Sea of Cortez, and set The Pearl in Lower Baja).

And Palmilla was the crowning touch: When the hotel opened in 1956, it became a haunt of President Eisenhower and Hollywood couples: John Wayne and his beloved Peruvian third wife, Pilar; Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti; Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Now known as One&Only Palmilla, it belongs to the very exclusive Kerzner International group of resorts, and has just been voted the best in Latin America by CondÈ Nast Traveler.

My first memory of Palmilla is of staggering in from a dirt landing strip to find myself in a classic Mexican courtyard with a beautiful tiled fountain, two long wings of arched whitewashed adobe, and a central tower and dining room-all mounted on a pink granite promontory against which broke sparkling blue Pacific waves. It was magic.

That magic is still there, and so are the classic core elements, though they have been renovated and expanded to true magnificence. Instead of buzzing burros on our approach, we stepped off a direct-from-Newark jet into a One&Only Palmilla caravan of khaki-colored Hummers equipped with spa bars offering liquid oxygen sprays and champagne. ("This is what it was like when you were 12?" asked my wife.)

Yes, Cabo and Palmilla have changed. In the last 10 years, the population of the area has grown from 30,000 to 160,000. A friendly and proud local population enjoys an atmosphere that is part Santa FÈ, part NorteÒo, part Malibu-a mix of "touch of gray" surfers and golfers, cowboy-booted vaqueros, gold-blinged sports fishermen and New Age yoga devotees.

Ten miles from Cabo, Palmilla keeps this vivid, teeming and at times raucous scene at bay, and then some, carving out its own private universe on its pink granite point: 172 rooms/suites, hundreds of shade palms and flowering bougainvillea, 9 burbling fountains, 3 swimming pools, 3 world-class restaurants, a hill of 8 private hammock stations under swaying palms, a hidden vale of 13 spa villas, a white-washed chapel and Old World church, a 27-hole Golf Magazine Top 100 golf course, and not least, a flowing series of oceanfront walks and overlooks and secret coves that allow guests to lose themselves within 60 seconds of the waiter handing them their Charlie Trotter trademark "C" tequila-and-cilantro cocktail.

The highlight of our stay was our couples massage in our own spa villa, but at Palmilla the good vibrations are like a spa for the soul-whether from the surprise of a flower petal painting created on your bedspread at turndown, the elegant tastes of Mexico at the Agua restaurant (where the "four flan" dessert sampler left us in dulce de leche heaven), or the hand-over-heart salute staff members give you day and night. The vision of vice president Edward Steiner puts the famous "imagineers" of Walt Disney World to shame. He has tapped into the many micro-cultures of Mexico to create a vibrant, secluded mini-Mexico.

It's the kind of place, in other words, a couple like Leonardo DiCaprio and Gisele Bündchen might never leave, bicycling around on the resort's oversize tricycles; the kind of place which your wife might rent out for your birthday party, a surprise John Travolta recently enjoyed. We were tempted to never leave ourselves, lodged as we were in one of the hotel's 1,400-square-foot beachfront suites. Ours had curved ceilings, dyed and colored fabrics, a glorious carved wooden headboard for the grandest bed I've ever seen, handsome wooden furniture, hand-painted tile inlays, and a grotto of a bathroom with more tile, an island tub and a lovely wrought-iron rain shower.

But once our smiling butler had settled us in, handed us our robes and pointed out the decanter of 12-year-old house tequila reposado and fresh-toasted almonds, my wife Mindy and I skipped down palm-lined stairs to the beach, to find an open-air king-size bed suspended by ropes from a tree-trunk frame, just above the high tide line. "Later," Mindy decided.

Later does not mean maÒana in Los Cabos, which is very much a now place. We ended up filling our days with surfing and snorkeling with own Baja Wild guides (sadly foregoing the Hummer-and-hike through the backcountry to a waterfall); an evening cruise on Palmilla's own Sea Ray 52; and, for me alone, a foray for black marlin on a nimble Cabo 35. This time, despite the best efforts of my Picante! Yacht Charter captain and mate, I was skunked-though we did draw down on two marlin, flipping fresh mackerel in front of their disinterested noses. The trip back afforded me insight into how my father felt, 40 years ago; and I came away admiring the man who, even though he was paying the bills, could surrender the rod to his berserk pre-teenager and give him the best day of his young life.

That magic is what Palmilla puts within the grasp of all who visit. As my wife said as we pulled away: "I know we'll be back."

One&Only Palmilla's rates run from $325 to $1,600 a night; (800) 637-2226; www.oneandonlypalmilla.com.