Luxury in a Rustic Paradise: Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto
When El Gringo visited Loreto on the coast of the Sea of Cortez in Baja California Sur in 2006, I was told by old Baja hands that the fishing village was “…like Los Cabos 20 years ago”, unspoiled by large-scale development and happily lacking in flashy U.S. brands, stores, fast food chains and anything involving Sammy Hagar. In short, a place where one could still experience “Old Mexico” in a natural, rustic and beautiful setting. Although Loreto was slated for development by FONATUR (Mexico’s tourism development agency) along with Los Cabos, Cancun, Ixtapa and Huatulco in the 1980s, a number of issues (including sustainability in an arid desert environment) kept Loreto – a small, historically-significant town of 15,000 – lagging.
Loreto’s History, Natural Beauty and Development
Loreto was founded by Jesuit missionaries as the first Spanish settlement in Baja California, serving as its capital from 1697 to 1777. One of the first of the Las Californias missions, the Mision Nuestra Señora de Loreto is still used for church services and visitation. The mission’s cloister houses a museum with exhibits demonstrating Loreto’s rich Spanish and pre-Hispanic history.
When the capital moved to Monterey in 1777, Loreto settled into quiet complacency as a small fishing village and hasn’t changed much since. In the 1960s, American and Canadian fisherman began to come south on underdeveloped roadways to experience the bounty the Sea of Cortez had to offer. The town developed a few modest hotels and restaurants to cater to these rugged adventurers, some of which still remain and serve the same market today.
The beautiful and vast Loreto Bay National Marine Park off Loreto’s coast has been granted national protection and UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The town itself has received the status of Pueblo Magico for it’s authenticity and place in Baja history (one of three government-designated towns in Baja, including Tecate and Todos Santos).
In the mid-2000s, Loreto began to build upon its promise of a resort-based destination when a Canadian firm began developing Loreto Bay in Nopolo, just south of town. With the recession and Mexican tourism decline later in the decade, the project stalled and was taken over by the Mexican government. Carlos Slim has since taken over ownership, and his involvement in this and other developments in Baja is auspicious to investors and Baja enthusiasts alike.
The Villa del Palmar at The Islands of Loreto: An Eco-Friendly Resort
In 2011, the 181 room Villa del Palmar at The Islands of Loreto opened just south of Loreto Bay. Operated by The Villa Group, the resort is nestled in the foothills of the majestic Sierra Giganta range to the west, with Danzante Bay and it’s clear view of the islands to the east. Although the master plan is set upon 4,447 acres, the resort is adamant in keeping much of the property open so as not to disturb the bay, surrounding landscape and various species of animals that live on or near the property. The open space and views give an overall impression of rustic luxury within a majestic, natural setting.
Additionally, The Villa Group implemented a variety of “green” systems to keep the area pristine and the resort sustainable. This includes a saltwater desalination plant, a grey water recycling program, use of solar energy to harness the region’s annual 300 days of sunshine, recycling and the use of their own chiles, produce and herbs from the chef’s onsite garden.
El Gringo rolled into the Villa del Palmar at The Islands of Loreto earlier this month as part of a press tour to help bring exposure to the resort and Loreto as a destination. After a quick, direct flight from Los Angeles on Alaska Airlines, we were greeted by friendly staff and whisked from the airport to the resort in a comfy shuttle bus. As part of the plan to grow Loreto’s tourism, the government is diligently at work expanding the two lane Carretera Transpeninsular south of town into a four lane expressway to make access to the resort (and presumably future resorts) easy, quick and smooth.
Dining at the Villa del Palmar at The Islands of Loreto
The night of our arrival, we were treated to a six course tasting menu at Danzante Restaurant, the resort’s fine dining option. The resort offers two other restaurants; The Market Restaurant, an open-air space right on the bay, and Casa Mia, which features delicious pizzas made in their display wood-fired oven.
We were introduced to Venetian-born Executive Chef Roberto Cardazzo, who was overseeing our feast. When the first course of a chocolate clam shooter, sea bass pate and pulpo tartare arrived, El Gringo knew he was in for a treat. Each of our consecutive courses were equally fresh and amazing. Unlike a couple of other all-inclusive resorts I’ve visited (which served…GAH…frozen food for the masses), The Villa del Palmar at The Islands of Loreto sources its seafood from local fishermen.
So Much To Do. So Little To Do
The great thing about both Loreto and the Villa del Palmar at The Islands of Loreto is that the emphasis is both on activities, or the option to do nothing at all. At the resort, you can choose to hike a moderate trail, ending in an amazing view of Islas Danzante and Carmen as well as smaller “islotes” (small islands) across the bay. Or you can use one of their stand up paddle boards or glass-bottom kayaks to explore the clear waters from the resort’s beach. Or, you can do nothing at all and just lounge around one of five pools enjoying a fruity drink. Or take an afternoon nap on one of the hammocks lining the edge of the property by the bay.
El Gringo and his fellow journalistas were treated to a 3 hour tour of the bay on one of the resort’s two brand new Apex boats. This trip is available to all guests of the resort, and I highly recommend it. We launched on Isla Carmen for lunch, enjoying a snorkel and swim in the impossibly turquoise waters around the island. On our way back, we encountered a playful pod of dolphins, spotted a blue whale spouting, and caught a glimpse of a humpback whale (who eluded our attempts to get a closer vantage point).
The Sabila Spa at the Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto offers a variety of treatments…more than I’ve seen on any spa menu in the past. El Gringo received a nice relaxing massage, then spent time in the hydrotherapy room taking a steam and dips in several pools and tubs. I was diligently but not overbearingly tended to by the spa staff, who brought water and clean towels at just the right time.
As far as nightlife at the resort, there’s a small family-friendly disco on the edge of the property, as well as theme nights at the resort such as the “Mexican Party”. El Gringo was expecting the typical “Taco Bell” style buffet and show (as one of the staff and I joked), but was pleasantly surprised to find a variety of Mexican cuisine and entertainment on-hand. A team of talented performers demonstrated folkloric dances from Michoacan, Sonora, Veracruz and other regions of Mexico in authentic costumes. The tequila was flowing, the entertainment was top notch and the buffet was muy delicioso!
Trips to Town, Tours and Special Requests
The resort also has a free shuttle service to town so that guests can explore historic Loreto. They can also assist in arranging tours and fishing trips, and are eager to help grant special requests. As testament, at the first night’s dinner, I commented to one of the Executive Staff that the local chocolate clams were a favorite delicacy of El Gringo’s. Two days later, the resort had arranged for three of us to go digging for these tasty bivalves with Rolfe, one of the resort staff.
We snorkeled out into Danzante Bay where Rolfe gave us a quick lesson in clam digging. Look for two holes about an inch apart from each other in the sand under the clear water. Then dive down and shovel with your hands like a madman until you strike clam. Using this technique, El Gringo snagged five of the tasty critters. We added these to the 30 or so Rolfe had found and we swam back to the beach where he shucked the clams and we devoured them with lime and salsa. A crowd of resort guests gathered and partook of our catch as well, happily slurping clams and sipping Pacificos on a perfect, sunny 80 degree day. This was the BEST lunch El Gringo has ever had, and a great way to end our visit to the resort.
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