Why the Baja California Peninsula is World-Class in More Ways than You Think
The old Baja of dirt roads, ranches and rustic resorts still exists, but in recent decades the region has increasingly marketed itself to travelers as a more sophisticated vacation destination, touting not only sportfishing, stunning natural settings and a sunny year-round climate but luxurious modern conveniences and brand-name accommodations.
Nowadays, the peninsula offers a multitude of world-class pleasures, from fine food and elegant wines to chic boutique hotels showcasing upscale amenities like expansive spas and championship-level golf courses.
This evolution–most noticeable in larger areas like Tijuana, Ensenada, La Paz and Los Cabos–has resulted in an ever-expanding collection of accolades and encomiums from major media sources.
Baja’s booming dining scene–buoyed by international acclaim for its Baja Med and Pan-Pacific fusion cuisines–hit a new high in May, when The Daily Meal released its annual list of the best restaurants in Mexico. Mexico City traditionally dominates such rankings, and did so again in 2016, accounting for 10 of the top 25 eateries. But the Baja California peninsula provided its strongest competition to date, placing eight entrants, seven of which are located in the state of Baja California: Mision 19 and La Querencia in Tijuana; Laja and Manzanilla in Ensenada; and Corazon de Tierra, Deckman’s en El Mogor, Finca Altozano and Silvestre in the Valle de Guadalupe. Not mentioned by The Daily Meal, but honored elsewhere was Valle de Guadalupe’s La Cocina de Doña Esthela, which was given the “Best Breakfast in the World” award by culinary website FoodieHub in 2015.
Farm-to-table standout Flora’s Field Kitchen was the only Baja Sur based restaurant to crack The Daily Meal rankings, although that may change in coming years thanks to a host of up-and-coming young chefs, and the presence of celebrated restaurateur Enrique Olvera. Chef Olvera, whose Mexico City based Pujol is rated as the best in the country and one of the top 20 in the world, opened his first restaurant in Los Cabos, Manta at The Cape: A Thompson Hotel, in June 2015.
The breathtaking beauty of Baja’s sandy shorelines has been confirmed–as if such a thing were necessary–by a recent USA Today reader’s poll of the best beaches in Mexico. Stand down, Cancun. Not only did La Paz’s Playa Balandra win by a wide margin, but a whopping six of the top 10 vote getters were located in Baja California Sur: including Balandra neighbor El Tecolote; Lover’s and Medano Beaches in Cabo San Lucas; Honeymoon Cove on Isla Danzante (one of the Islands of Loreto); and Cabo Pulmo, jewel of the state’s gorgeous East Cape.
The supremacy of Baja Sur can’t be considered much of an upset, given that it possesses more coastline than any other Mexican state. What is genuinely interesting, however, even to long-time visitors is the sheer majesty of its littoral treasures, which range from 30-million-year-old granite rocks at Land’s End to colorful fingers of living coral reef off the coast of Cabo Pulmo. The latter, by the way, lies within a protected underwater sanctuary that is home to the highest concentration of marine life in the Sea of Cortez.
For those interested in safety, services and sustainability, there are now four beaches on the peninsula qualified to fly the Foundation for Environmental Education’s prestigious Blue Flag: El Coromuel in La Paz; and Chileno, Palmilla and Santa Maria in Los Cabos.
Los Cabos has long led the way in the peninsula’s high-end hospitality ventures. No surprise, then, that on Travel + Leisure’s current list of the 15 best hotels in Mexico, three are found near the southernmost tip of the peninsula: One&Only Palmilla, Esperanza and Grand Solmar.
A fourth, Las Ventanas al Paraiso, could have been added (and has been previously). It was there that the late, great hospitality pioneer Edward Steiner helped transform the Capes Region from a laid-back fishing mecca into one of the world’s premier destinations for tropical sophistication and barefoot luxury. Steiner moved on to Palmilla in 2004, when the 1950s era property (built by Rancho Las Cruces and Hotel Hacienda developer Rod Rodriguez) was reimagined under the One&Only imprimatur. It has been a grand dame resort ever since, appearing on Travel + Leisure’s list every year for the past decade.
These days, the local luxury formula is codified: take a scenically situated coastal property and pair it with world-class amenities like private butlers, soothing spas, championship level golf courses, and gourmet restaurants helmed by superstar chefs. This regionally refined recipe has been so effective, in fact, that the Five Star Alliance now recognizes over 20 five-star hotels in Los Cabos. Variations on the formula even exist at many lesser area accommodations, although the spa services tend to be a little less pampering, the wining and dining bundled into affordable all-inclusive plans.
Grand Solmar is the only repeater on Travel + Leisure’s ranking of the top 15 Mexican hotels, and Trip Advisor’s recent posting of the country’s 25 highest guest-rated properties. The Resort at Pedregal also gets some much deserved love on the Trip Advisor list. The ultra-luxe Pacific coast hideaway has been the best lodging in Cabo San Lucas proper since it opened as Capella Pedregal in 2009 (under the stewardship of Peter Bowling, now the general manager at One&Only Palmilla). Medano Beach based resorts Villa la Estancia and Villa del Arco are also included on Trip Advisor’s latest roll of honor.
Los Cabos is also unquestionably one of the world’s most spectacular golfing regions, with three of its 14 active courses currently ranked among the 100 best on the globe by Golf Digest: Jack Nicklaus’ Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol, Davis Love III’s Dunes Course at Diamante, and Tom Fazio’s Querencia. Why is the area so special? There are only a handful of places on earth that can boast this many world-class courses, and the others have well over a century of history and tradition (several centuries, in the case of Scotland). All of the great seaside courses of Los Cabos, by comparison, have been built during the past 25 years.
18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus put the region on the map in the early 1990s, combining desert and mountain terrains with superb ocean views at Cabo del Sol, El Dorado and Palmilla. The Golden Bear has returned three times since to add to his incredible portfolio, most recently with Quivira, rated as GOLF Magazine’s best new international course in 2015. And other notable players and designers have followed in his cleated footsteps, from Greg Norman (who shares a composite design with Nicklaus on Puerto Los Cabos, and is crafting the highly anticipated new loop at Rancho San Lucas) to Tiger Woods, Tom Weiskopf and Fred Couples (visionary behind the soon-to-be-open Twin Dolphin course).
Although mainland Mexico is home to the oldest winery in North America, over 90 percent of the country’s table wine is produced in Baja California’s wine country, which consists of Valle de Guadalupe, as well as neighboring valleys like Santo Tomas, San Vicente and San Antonio de las Minas. Valle de Guadalupe has exploded in popularity in recent years, as its wines have been lauded around the globe, and some of the brightest stars in the media firmament have proclaimed it one of the world’s hottest new wine travel destinations. Wine Enthusiast declared Valle de Guadalupe one of the 10 best wine travel destinations for 2014. “Just a two-hour drive south of San Diego across the Mexican border lies a peaceful Baja California valley brimming with ripened grapes,” stated a recent profile in Forbes. Wall Street Journal called the region “rustic but stylish,” and referred to its wines as “attractive and well-balanced.” A Vogue writer enthused “Compared to Napa and Sonoma, Valle offers a more low-key, less commercial, highly authentic experience. It’s the kind of place where you can watch a Michelin-starred chef grill grass-fed meat a few feet from your table or chat with winemakers during a tasting. But Valle isn’t short on style either.”
As with luxury hotels and seaside golf links, Los Cabos is Baja’s nonpareil destination for soothing beachfront massages and signature therapies. Not only does the municipality reign supreme regionally, cape cities Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo and their connecting tourist corridor are home to a shockingly high percentage of the best spas in Latin America as a whole (a Spanish speaking conglomeration that, in addition to Mexico, makes up most of Central and South America). Forty percent, to be exact, according to Travel + Leisure’s latest spa rankings. Esperanza tops the list, as per usual. The award-winning Spa at Esperanza features an expansive facility, with dedicated wellness spaces that run the gamut from candlelit private treatment rooms to hot and cold plunge pools, steam caves and relaxing waterfalls, as well as a full range of gym and fitness areas. Romantic couple’s treatments are also a specialty at Esperanza, as they are at One&Only Spa at One&Only Palmilla, The Spa at Las Ventanas al Paraiso, and the Armonia Spa at Pueblo Bonito Pacifica Holistic Retreat & Spa.
Much of Baja’s tourist industry was built on big-game sportfishing, and fishing tournaments remain a consistently popular draw around the peninsula, from Pesca La Baja, the World Series of Baja California fishing, to Bisbee’s annual trio of tournaments in Baja California Sur. Of these, Bisbee’s Black & Blue is undoubtedly the most famous. Billed as “the World’s Richest Fishing Tournament”–the 2006 payout of $4.165 million dollars remains the highest in sportfishing history–the Black and Blue has been a Cabo San Lucas tradition since 1981, with visiting anglers battling for the biggest blue, black and striped marlin, as well as sailfish, spearfish, tuna and dorado.
Although fishing remains king, Baja California as a whole offers world-class conditions for a host of water sports. Each Winter, for example, powerful El Norte winds blow down the Sea of Cortez, turning small East Cape communities like Los Barriles into windsports meccas. Last year, the Los Barriles based kiteboarding competition, Lord of the Wind Showdown, was officially named as the IKA North American Kitefoil Championship. The aspiring Lords and Ladies gather each January, grabbing big air in 15 to 30 mph winds, while also enjoying reggae on the beach, tamales cook-offs, and other affiliated fiestas.
Surfing may be the only sport capable of challenging fishing’s primacy. SoCal boarders have been heading south of the border for decades to enjoy world-class breaks at dozens of sites around the peninsula; two of the most famous now host WSL (World Surf League) events.
The Los Cabos Open is held each June at the famed Zippers break off Playa Costa Azul in San Jose del Cabo. The LCO started as a 6-star men’s event in 2013, but over the last three years has evolved into a QS6000 series event for women and junior men and women. Bronte Macaulay outlasted Dominic Barona in a thrilling battle this year, as Australian women continue to dominate in Los Cabos.
The Big Wave Tour’s Todos Santos Challenge, meanwhile, is one of the most intense surf competitions on the planet. Killers, the break off Todos Santos Island–approximately 12 miles from Ensenada–serves up massive waves: sometimes in excess of 50 feet. Australian Josh Kerr took top honors in January 2016, earning nearly $19,000 of the $75,000 purse in challenging circumstances. The next event will take place between October 2016 and February 2017, depending upon peak wave conditions.
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