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Driving: Baja Behind the Wheel

At this point it's 5 p.m. and we're starving. We head to Café Sante Fe, the Spago of Todos Santos, which has a beautiful garden of hibiscus, bougainvillea, and papaya trees. I'm a little disappointed to learn that the menu is Italian instead of Mexican, but the pasta is delicious, the bread is fresh, and I'm in love with the portraits of Frida Kahlo that the owner has commissioned from local artists. An hour later we set out to tour the town's galleries, of which there are many, including the renowned Galería Todos Santos and Galería Santa Fe. But as we stroll down the cobblestoned streets, my urge to shop begins to battle with my need for speed. How badly do I want a gilded Virgin of Guadalupe or a Frida-portrait mirror?"What do you want to do?" I ask Jen. She gives a sheepish grin. "I really just want to get back to the car." Minutes later, we've got the top down and Madonna pumping. We sing "Ray of Light" all the way out of Todos Santos.

An hour or so later, in the middle of nowhere, we spy a girl who seems about 13 years old standing by the roadside. She's holding a baby and looks helpless. We drive past her, but then Jen and I fall silent. I know Jen is thinking about her baby back home. I wonder if the girl has been abandoned by a husband or boyfriend. Neither of us has ever picked up a hitchhiker, but we agree we've got to offer her a lift. The cynical New Yorker in me wonders if she might be a decoy. What if there are bandits behind those cacti?Less worried about my life than the value of the Spyder, I flip a U-turn. "Are you okay?" I ask the girl in Spanish. "Do you need a ride?" Now she's the one who looks suspicious. "No, thank you," she says. "I'm waiting for the bus." We leave reluctantly, but hopeful that she'll make it safely to her destination.

In La Paz, we pull into the Posada Santa Fe, a bed-and-breakfast on the waterfront. Southern Baja, from Las Ventanas's high-end corredor to the party-hearty flavor of Cabo San Lucas, is unmistakably touristy; La Paz feels more like a real Mexican city. In fact, you can pass hours without seeing a gringo–to my mind, a good thing. We have a lovely dinner at El Zarape, which specializes in seafood, and then go for a walk along the waterfront. Everywhere we turn there are children, families, and couples. Unlike in downtown Cabo San Lucas, where you can't walk two blocks without someone handing you a flier for a restaurant or hotel or disco, no one in La Paz tries to sell us anything. We stare out at the ocean, eating ice cream cones bought from a local vendor.

New York feels a million miles away.

The next day, the drive back to Los Cabos is just as thrilling. We sing along to Mary J. Blige and Aretha Franklin, eat shrimp tacos until we're about to bust. I drive Jen to the airport, where she goes over her life plan for me and reassures me that children and wedded bliss are in my future. In the meantime, she says, I must do my best to seduce one of the guys we met at Las Ventanas. "Do it for me," she says, mischievously. "I'm married. I can't."

Before heading back to the hotel, I take the Spyder out for one more spin. Finally, I give in to my impulse to race the sporty model. The car surges to 80 mph with no hesitation. I inch up to 89, with the full view of the ocean to my left and the desert to my right. In less than a day, I'll be home and back at work. But for the next few hours, the Spyder is mine. Like someone sitting through a favorite movie twice, I'm tempted to gun it up to La Paz one more time. Anything to keep on driving.

THE FACTS
Las Ventanas al Paraíso Km 19.5, Hwy. 1, San José del Cabo; 888/525-0483 or 52-114/40300, fax 52-114/40301; doubles from $325. The area's most exclusive resort.

Posada Santa Fe 440 Paseo Alvaro Obregòn, La Paz; phone and fax 52-112/55871; rooms from $85. Simple rooms on the waterfront of La Paz.

Café Santa Fe 4 Calle Centenario, Todos Santos; 52-114/50340; dinner for two $33. Italian dishes at the most popular restaurant in Todos Santos.

El Zarape 3450 Avda. México, La Paz; 52-112/22520; dinner for two $17. Central and southern Mexican fare.

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