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Baja California



Baja California

“No offence, but I’d rather be in Mexico!” These aren’t words I utter often, but I uttered them to the American Airlines agent when I found myself grounded overnight in Dallas/ Fort Worth on a too-tight transfer to Baja California, Mexico’s most westerly region. Thanks to the faintly ridiculous ritual of having to pass through Immigration and Baggage Claim, then recheck-in bags and pass through Immigration again on transit via the US, we’d – just – missed our flight to San Jose, Los Cabos at the southernmost tip of Baja. And the American Airlines agent was suggesting we spend the evening getting to know Dallas instead. No offence – I hear the Texan city has become rather gay-friendly of late – but I’d still rather be in Mexico.

I was on my way to stay at Las Ventanas al Paraíso, which translates literally as “the windows to paradise”. Paradise is a word that gets used far too often in the tourist industry, but on this occasion, according to everyone I asked, it seemed to have some credence. If only it weren’t so damn hard to get to.
I’d been anticipating an evening sipping margharitas, lolling by an infinity pool, overlooking the Sea of Cortez, while being gently teased by the breeze wafting off the Pacific Ocean. Instead, what I got was a first-class view of the intricate network of freeways that approach Dallas airport and a chatty barman at the Embassy Suites airport hotel who wanted to know all about Croatia.

Still, they say that travel’s an adventure and the next morning, back on the plane, I bagged a seat by the window to watch the arid prairies of the Edwards Plateau giving way, first to the lush vegetation of northern Mexico, then the rolling peaks of the Sierra Madre, and finally across the shimmering Gulf of California and on into Baja Sur.

A stalagtite of rugged terrain that hangs below San Diego, Baja used to be known as the Forgotten Land. Attempts by the crusading Spanish to invade it in the 1500s proved futile. Their first mission disappeared without trace; the second led to mutiny. This mythical paradise, falsely believed to be an island, proved much harder to conquer than southern and central Mexico, but the crusaders pressed on, believing it to be rich in gold and pearls and watched over by legendary tribes of Amazon warrior women. The warrior women proved false; the pearls were real (although the industry was wiped out in the 1930s by an unknown disease). Even today it’s served by just one major road, the Transpeninsula Highway 1, which traverses down the spine of Baja from reckless Tijuana for approximately 1000 miles. Travel north from the US/Mexico border, and you can pretty much divert to wherever you like; travel due south and you can only hit Los Cabos.
The highway opened in 1973 and if you were to drive down it in a Combi (the favourite mode of transport for hippies, the new breed of crusaders seduced this time by the surf, and a land that had long languished away from the gaze of property developers) you could stop off en route at a mere handful of inhabited destinations; Ensenada, home to 90% of Mexico’s wine-making vineyards; the former capital of the Californias, Loreto, where the Jesuits finally established a foothold in 1697 and “not even the sun is in a hurry”; and Guerrero Negro, which boasts some of the largest salt-flats in the world (they cover an area roughly the size of Tokyo).

But for much of the 1000-plus miles Baja is pretty much abandoned to long stretches of arid desert and fields of Yucca. Temperatures inland can reach 120°F in the summer, which makes it hotter than the Sahara in a heatwave and gives a clue as to why it proved so hard to populate, except by hardy pirates. And while I’m delving into The Guinness Book of Records, let me also state it’s the longest peninsula in the world, has some of the greatest biodiversity and, thanks to the geologic rift that virtually ripped it away from mainland Mexico 5.5 million years ago, some of the deepest ocean where dive-bombing manta rays, hammerhead and whale sharks and shoals of tuna fish reported to be up to 100 miles wide are joined by rare porpoise and migrating grey whales.

It’s upon this world that the Las Ventanas al Paraíso sets its gaze. But turn the other way, and the view is hardly less impressive. The somewhat pampered child of multi-millionaire entrepreneur Ty Warner, it comprises 71 whitewashed adobe suites, dripping with bougainvillea and snaked around a secluded cove on the Sea of Cortez. You access it via a private drive off the Tourist Corridor that links Los Cabos to the more authentically Mexican (and certainly much prettier) San Jose del Cabo, a drive flanked by Aloe Vera plants and inset bonfires. It needs no signposting; if your driver doesn’t know Las Ventanas, he doesn’t know Baja Sur. But the lack of signposting also indicates a certain exclusivity, a fact underscored by its popularity with Hollywood’s A to B list. Staff at the resort are discreet with precise details (privacy is a valued commodity for all guests) but sightings and personal testimonials are frequent.

Brad Pitt was a pool regular at the swim-up bar while filming Troy nearby; Jennifer Aniston is a favourite guest (she speaks Spanish, apparently); Kate Beckinsale spent her honeymoon here; and both Martha Stewart and Simon Cowell have been spotted, although it was Simon, not Martha, who raved about the personalised sewing kits. My visit coincided with the departure of Harrison Ford and the arrival of Michelle Pfeiffer, and I think I saw Matthew McConaughey in the bar, but can’t be sure. I’ve always maintained I wouldn’t even recognise Madonna if she started reading the Zohar at the top of Nelson’s Column, and I’m arrogant enough to think that mine (or, for that matter, anyone else’s) opinion counts as much as Jessica Simpson’s – but, for the record, the infinity pool at Las Ventanas is her “favourite in the world”.

In my opinion, infinity pools are the single greatest invention known to mankind since the wheel, and the one at Las Ventanas is probably the greatest of them all. It comes complete with butlers, preloaded iPods and LocationFree TVs, plus the chance to read preview copies of forthcoming bestellers in an exclusive deal the resort has done with some of America’s biggest publishing houses. There are Lemongrass Popsicles on tap, and if you’re really looking hot-under-the-collar someone will happily come along and spritz you with an Evian mist. Paradise, you see, is for the terminally lazy, lorded over by the somewhat less fortunate.

Under less certain hands this amount of attention could feel a little overbearing to one suffering from White Man’s Guilt – and even Paris Hilton must be capable of turning the pages of her own book – but the staff are remarkable in their ability to make you feel they’re also having the time of their lives. And with offices like this, who can blame them?

Each suite is decorated with massive hand-carved cedar doors and bedsteads made from inlaid-pebble work. Oversized terracotta vases (the kind you could hide in) are dotted about, and a balcony Jacuzzi proved to be the most refreshing way to start the day. Spa suites come with their own spa treatment room, steam and raindrop shower and a machine that massages your feet with a fierce squeeze and rub motion. On the second day I even discovered a sauna tucked off the en-suite bathroom! These spa suites are the latest development in the resort’s ever-changing evolution, and affluent guests looking for restoration as much as relaxation can book in for the Total Spa Lifestyle programme where a dedicated Spa Butler attends to your every need including nutritional advice, fitness sessions and a package of remedial spa treatments.

Ever since it opened in 1997 Las Ventanas has been garnering accolades and awards, including Condé Nast’s Best Latin America Resort (four times) and GQ Spain’s Best Resort in the World. Among the amenities that make it stand out on the Tourist Corridor are in-room state-of-the-art telescopes for constellation gazing, aromatherapy turndowns and a fleet of Mini Cooper convertibles for day hire in which you can explore the Cabo landscape.

But if that sounds too exerting, they have a 57ft yacht, the Paradisus, which takes you out to Los Arcos and the iconic arches of Land’s End. This is where the Pacific Ocean joins up with the Gulf of California and I saw an early migrating grey whale languidly splashing within a whisker of Lovers’ Beach, a stretch of sand so-named for its remarkably romantic setting. Walk ten metres across the sand and you’ll arrive on the Pacific Coast where the winds are more turbulent and the beach is renamed Divorce – even Paradise has its bust-ups apparently.

Tourist boats spy on the rowdy, rolling sea lions that slip about on craggy ledges, barking out their fierce greetings, while local fishing vessels speed by with a trophy catch of marlin.

It was probably the marlin that brought Los Cabos to the attention of the world, and secured its economic future, when old Hollywood discovered the sport of marlin fishing shortly after WWII. Back then, the coast was all but deserted; today, crouching on the clifftops are a string of millionaire houses (Madonna, Sylvester Stallone – the list goes on) and on the beachfront, a batch of upscale resorts (including one for swingers and a newly-opened – straight – nudist colony).

However, none has ever managed to reach the dizzy heights achieved by Las Ventanas, now watched over by its enigmatic Chilean MD, Andres Araya. He has even more elaborate plans for its future, including a fleet of Porsches for hire and an oceanfront private heliport. Which should at least make Paradise easier to access.


Essentials:

Getting There:
American Airlines flies to San Jose from Gatwick via Dallas/ Fort Worth once daily. Return options are also available via Chicago to London Heathrow. Return fares start from £557.10, inc tax and surcharges (subject to availability and conditions). For bookings and flight info call 08457 789 789 or log onto www.americanairlines.co.uk

Accommodation:
Daily room rates at Las Ventanas al Paraíso, a Rosewood Resort, start from US$500 for a Garden View Suite during low season (May 28th-Oct 17th) rising to US$700 in high season. For reservations from the UK, contact 020 7745 7205. For more information on Rosewood Hotels and Resorts log onto www.rosewoodhotels.com

Amenities at Las Ventanas al Paraíso include pet cabanas, crystal tone meditation and off-road Hummer excursions along the fossil-lined Canyon de la Zorra. Tequilla lessons in the cerviche bar include tastings of some of Mexico’s finest tequillas, while private dining can be catered for in the well-stocked wine cellar. For the ultimate in romance, contact the hotel’s Department of Romance, which can organising same-sex blessings (though it should be noted these are not legally binding) and anniversaries with almost any request.

Further Information:
For further information on Mexico and Baja Sur contact the Mexican Tourist Board or log onto www.visitmexico.com

Andrew Copestake

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