Baja Steps Up

Baja Steps Up

A graceful new resort takes Mexico's seaside mecca to the next level in luxury

LAS VENTANAS AL PARAÍSO, WINDOWS TO PARADISE. Ah, it had sounded so promising. But here I stood, wishing for any view at all. The rain was pelting the patio with such force that the drops were spitting upward. I doubted this fountain was one of the water effects planned by the architects and landscape designers of this luxurious new resort at the tip of Baja California.

The trio of hotel representatives who met me and a couple from L.A. at the airport last fall had, in an effort to save us from the maelstrom, nearly backed the hotel van into the arrivals hall. From there the Chevy Suburban surfed through the streets and scaled medians to skirt landslides and VW Beetles turned to water bugs. What should have been a 20-minute trip turned into an hour-long adventure. Somewhere out there was a desert.

The naughty little one, El Niño, was kicking up trouble again, inciting tantrums on the part of sea and sky. From my room (one of 61 suites), I couldn't so much see the waves as hear them, gnashing away at the seawall after they devoured the beach. At regular intervals,

porters showed up at my door, drenched but sunny in their yellow slickers. Even when I stepped back and waved them in, they politely inquired, "May I enter?" Then, as each revealed the gift he bore-- rubrum lilies, a note from the general manager, champagne "for the newlyweds" (well, I had barely emerged from my room since check-in)-- each consoled me with, "You know, Cabo has three hundred and fifty days of sunshine a year." Their condolences were painfully sincere, but it was no use. My bathing suit was the only dry thing in the room. I bailed, bringing the guest tally down to five. No wonder the gifts had been as steady as the rain.

Yet I remained hopeful. My stay had been akin to sealing the deal on a house in the dead of winter, then feeling vindicated come spring. Even under the worst conditions, Las Ventanas was a find. Back at home I willed the latest hurricane to make a U-turn. The resort's stuccoed buildings surely could take the pressure but the thatched palapas on the beach and the cedar latillas were too vulnerable. Desperate as I was for sunshine my next trip, I couldn't do without shade either.

One month later my plane was descending, smoothly now, over gradations of blue edged in froth. The Sea of Cortés had calmed to its usual rumble. At arrival my khaki-clad driver, practically a pal from our shared weathering of the storm, greeted me even more warmly than before. Out we headed to the Suburban, left unattended in the parking lot but with the engine running and the air-conditioning on because, oh glory, the sun was beaming.This time, at least, I knew how to book my flight. Los Cabos encompasses the towns of Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo and the 20-mile stretch of increasingly less-than-lonely landscape between them. San José is where the planes touch down. Your luggage will, too, so long as you remember to specify San José, Mexico. (Otherwise, it may ride out your vacation on a Bay Area carousel.)

In minutes we were passing through an opening in the broad wall that marks the entrance to Las Ventanas. Though the desert was unusually green from all the rain, the landscape at the resort was still bare. A variety of desert plants formed a sparse ground cover. Lining the drive were palm trees that had not yet relaxed their fronds, resembling nothing so much as a parade of dried-out watercolor brushes. Up we pulled to the open-air, thatched-roof lobby and the anticipated welcoming committee. (Even with my scant Spanish, I had been able to eavesdrop on Robert as he called in our ETA to the manager over a mobile phone-- "ten minutes," "three minutes," "one"-- a routine repeated for every guest picked up at the airport.)

So this was Las Ventanas. Finally, I could take in the sweep of the resort, a village of stacked, flat-roofed boxes linked by stairways, bridges, and curving paths. The off-white stucco of the clusters (four suites up, four suites down) intensified the effects of the sun, not that I minded. Between the buildings I spied a pool-- one of three-- and the sea. To the left was a juice bar shaded by a palapa; an even larger cone of thatch, similar to the one crowning the lobby, sheltered a lounge next to the restaurant. In the month I'd been gone, the resort had slipped into something comfortable-- gentle breezes, bright rays, and cool shadows. Now it was my turn.

In my room, I pushed the tall glass doors all the way back and invited the air in to stay. My suite this time was even more spacious than the last (averaging 960 square feet, Las Ventanas' guest rooms are the largest of any resort in Mexico) and, being on one end of the two-story structure, sunnier. Narrow windows of opalescent square panes flanked a stone vanity and a colorful lithograph hanging over the tub. Another small window in the shower promised a rare amenity: shampooing with a view.


In other ways, this room was akin to my first-- tall, broad, and handsome, and an impressive sampler of Mexican craft. Smooth pebbles formed an arabesque motif on the headboard, and suggested carpet borders in the floor of conchuela (a limestone formed from compressed shells). Cedar doors carved in a basket-weave pattern hid the mini-bar, television, and VCR opposite the bed. Behind a set of oak doors were waffle-weave robes, a safe, beach towels, and muslin laundry bags. I played with the lights-- all, thoughtfully, on dimmers or three-way switches-- then took the telescope and the "welcome amenity," a very smooth bottle of tequila accompanied by a few small limes, up the stairs to my private roof terrace.

From what I could see, Las Ventanas was one big tree full of love nests. Rooftop latillas branched out over mattresses elevated on platforms and covered in canvas the shade of the sea. Barring the bugs, you could comfortably sleep under the stars. Every surface was touched by hands, making the architecture softer, more sensuous, human. It obviously inspired the couple across the way. Behind cushions they had piled up on the end of their mattress, I caught a glimpse of frolicking tan lines. Suites on either end may be more spacious, but they aren't quite as private as those in between. A big canvas curtain would romantically fill the bill.

Below, by the pool, a pair of sun and body worshipers adjusted their teeny bikinis to ensure no tan lines at all. Pelicans were shopping for dinner in the Sea of Cortés, rich with 800 species of fish. A man emerged from his room, binoculars in hand. Was he perhaps tracing the birds maintaining an impossibly straight line just above the water? No, his attention was focused on a closer target-- a topless bather halfway down the beach.

OFFICIALLY, SPORTS AT LAS VENTANAS are golf on the 18-hole Robert Trent Jones II course, cruises on its two motor yachts, and workouts (redundant, given the number of stairs) in its gym. Unofficially, guests seemed to be majoring in lolling, with a minor in trolling. At least in the light of day.

As in most tropical places, energy picked up after sundown. In spite of an overcast sky, the atmosphere was festive. It looked as if the stars had tumbled from above and scattered into a million sparks, gathered in pierced-tin lanterns, sconces, and a dramatic wrought-iron chandelier suspended over the lounge. Couples warmed up to an accomplished pianist-flutist duo leaving their hearts in San Francisco. I might have preferred a guitarist strumming Mexican tunes, but happily substituted a perfect margarita for a taste of the traditional.

The menu was anything but. At the top it announced, "The cuisine style reflects a contemporary Mexican-Mediterranean Concept." Hmm. Well, the decorating style was a meeting of two kinds: cloths, hand-embroidered in Guadalajara with fanciful flora and fauna, dressed tables set before a wall mural that was a sunny-day version of van Gogh's Starry Night. And guests were cross-cultural. Southerners (Houston?Atlanta?) refuted the humidity of their origins in pressed linen and perfect coifs; a table of French people argued about what to drink with dinner, then, that decided, argued about Mitterand.

So why not a bridge concept for the food?Randall Warder, fresh from Dallas's Mansion on Turtle Creek and Washington's Red Sage restaurant before that, was the man at the flame. I plunged in with a grilled tamale of cabrito (kid) with chayote salad and a plum balsamic sauce-- a starter masquerading as an entrée-- and carried on with tuna mignon in a habanero-Merlot glaze accompanied by pinto beans. The clutter of words was a harmony of flavors. Portion (too big), not taste (just right), eventually forced my fork to rest. So often disappointed by the food at tropical resorts, I was satisfied and amazed.

That night I went to bed with only the sheer curtains pulled, the doors open wide to savor the rhythm of surf through the night, and at dawn, an impossibly pink light. Out on the beach, the only footprints joining mine were those of gulls and pelicans poking their beaks into porcupine-fish carcasses and evanescent holes in the sand. The waves had quieted to a rare, mercury finish. All was calm but not so bright once I crossed the invisible property line of Las Ventanas. Its architects had been more clever than I realized, training views on the sea rather than on the neighboring resorts-- one a tall condominium, the other a broad hotel fronted by a colossal retaining wall. In awkward massing and inappropriate colors, they seemed typical of recent and explosive development (from 22 hotels in 1990 to 37 in 1997) along the Los Cabos corridor. They made me grateful to be staying at an exception.

I circled back, swinging by the restaurant to see who was up for huevos rancheros or griddled shrimp hash. Not a soul. Beaded necklaces, the Las Ventanas version of Do Not Disturb, had yet to be reeled in by somnolent guests. Who could blame them?They were caught in the grip of pillow paralysis, budging from king-size beds only to sink back down onto the terraces' ample banquettes. Even the tequila was reposado, sentenced to an enviable term of 60 days' rest.

I went with the slo-mo flow, falling into a pattern of grazing horizontally on a room-service breakfast and adjusting my cushions to keep the sun off my face and on my book. Never a napper, I discovered the deliciousness of intermittent dozing, even early in the day. From the Jacuzzi on my terrace, which provided a gentler, bubblier ride than the surf 30 yards distant, I watched parasailers drifting down to the water, almost touching before being pulled up short by a lead speedboat.

Lunch at the informal Sea Grill-- cabrilla (sea bass) seviche and orange chayote salad one day, dorado (dolphin) with mango and basil the next-- drew me from my room, as did the spa, run by Angel Stewart, formerly of the Golden Door. Whether or not the rejuvenating facial neutralized free radicals as promised, it tempered tiny muscle tension instantly with warm rosemary- and eucalyptus-infused towels. Javier, my masseur, applied a different technique, attacking the knots in my shoulders with a drill-like knuckle while inquiring ever so sweetly, "It is okay for you, miss?"

Nothing managed to lure me from the property itself. San José, with its small church and placita, sounded appealing; Cabo San Lucas, a.k.a. Cabo San Loco, with its Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Café, did not. I slipped into the rimless pool below my room and cruised like a crocodile, eyes at water level. Pool dissolved into sea fading into sky. A sprinkle of rain flecked the surface with ringlets. What, me worry?Cabo has 350 days of sunshine a year.

LAS VENTANAS AL PARAÍSO, Carretera Transpeninsular, km 19.5, Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur; 888/525-0483 or 52-114/40300; suites from $475, not including spa services.

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