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The Best of Baja

WHALE-WATCHING From January to March, thousands of gray whales migrate from the Bering Sea to protected lagoons along the Pacific Coast. The best place for close encounters of the Moby kind is Bahía Magdalena. Aéreo Calafia (Plazas Las Glorias hotel, Cabo San Lucas; 52-624/143-4302; day trips from $381 per person) provides certified guides, boats, lunch, and round-trip flights. A naturalist for Tofino Expeditions (800/677-0877; www.tofino.com; from $1,050 per person, including all meals) leads weeklong sea kayaking trips to observe grays and birdlife in Mag Bay. Sleep in safari tents pitched on fawn-colored dunes, paddle calm bayside waters, and watch white ibis scour the mangroves.

BEACHING IT Powerful riptides and brisk Pacific waters prohibit swimming on many of Los Cabos' 20 beaches, but the sunbathing makes up for it. Here, the best strands:

Playa Palmilla, San José Sheltered by a cove, this mile-long beach has calm waters for swimming.

Playa Costa Azul, near San José Huge surf kicks up here in winter. A favorite for board-riders.

Santa María, the Corridor Horseshoe bay with pink sand. Great snorkeling before 11 a.m. (when noisy catamarans of snorkelers arrive).

Playa Las Viudas, the Corridor Also known as Twin Dolphin Beach. Perfect for picnicking and prowling tidal pools. Wear rubber surf mocs.

El Médano, Cabo San Lucas Fronted by barefoot bars and restaurants, this two-mile beach is water sports central: Jet Ski rentals, parasailing.

Playa del Amor, Cabo San Lucas A smooth stretch of sand close to Land's End. Reachable from the marina by water taxi.

Playa San Pedro (Las Palmas), Todos Santos Shallow water protected by promontories. Look for a sandy road next to a palm grove at Km 57 off Highway 19.

Where to Stay

Before the Transpeninsular Highway was completed in 1973, Los Cabos remained the backwater that Steinbeck encountered. It wasn't until the mid-1990's that the Mexican government began developing the region for tourism. Since then, resort hotels, golf courses, and condo complexes have quickly brought the 21st century to La Frontera. Sadly, some of the new architecture along the shoreline is less than considered. However, a few havens of style have kept the neighborhood from going to the coyotes.

TOP RESORTS Esperanza The Technicolor sunsets look digitally enhanced at this lavish 56-room resort on Punta Ballena, or Whale Point, which lives up to its name when the humpbacks arrive for the winter season. What Esperanza lacks in shoreline—it has two tiny coves—the resort compensates for with rare tequila tastings, Baja lime-scented bath products, and a spa where garden paths are illuminated by candles after dusk. Esperanza's huge, airy rooms blend folksy (woven Guadalajara carpets, paintings by emerging Mexican artists) and modern necessities (wide-screen TV's). Ask for a top-floor room: the private terraces have infinity-edge hot tubs and unobstructed views of Land's End. Km 3.5 Carretera Transpeninsular; 52-624/145-6400 or 866/311-2226; www.esperanzaresort.com; doubles from $550.

Hotel Twin Dolphin Even after 26 years, this white-on-white retreat remains the most unpretentious in Cabo San Lucas. Isolated on 135 acres of the Sonoran Desert, the hotel has an angular Frank Lloyd Wright starkness to its open-air lobby, lounge, and 50 one-story casitas. Despite some cracked walkways and tattered slipcovers—the hotel will soon be undergoing a renovation—such icons of cool as Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and designer Kate Spade are regulars. Km 12 Carretera Transpeninsular; 800/421-8925 or 52-624/145-8191; www.twindolphin.com; doubles from $250.

Las Ventanas al Paraíso The 61-suite "window to paradise" has a muted Mex-Med vibe. A Zen-inspired raked-sand entrance opens to beach views from the restaurant, private rooftop patios, and infinity-edge pools, where butlers clean SPF smudges off your Silhouettes. Suites have pebble-inlaid headboards, hand-carved cedar doors, wood-burning fireplaces, and telescopes for stargazing. At night, waiters set up tables in the alfresco restaurant with embroidered Otomí cloths from Guadalajara. (Order pastry chef Steven Lindsay's silky Baja lime pie—it's worth every calorie.) Km 19.5 Carretera Transpeninsular; 52-624/144-0300 or 888/525-0483; www.lasventanas.com; doubles from $575.

NATIVE CHARMER Casa Natalia Nathalie and Loïc Tenoux have fashioned a contemporary enclave facing a quiet square in historic San José that's for people who don't require ocean views or 24-hour butler service. What you get instead is a courtyard shaded by palms, with cascading waterfalls and terraces swathed in bougainvillea. The 16 rooms have regional flair, with embroidered pillows, Talavera pottery, and hand-hewn beams. 4 Blvd. Mijares, San José; 888/277-3814; www.casanatalia.com; doubles from $240.

THE NEW PLAYER One & Only Palmilla Things will change radically when the Palmilla reopens this coming February as the 172-room One & Only Palmilla. So what does an $80 million makeover from legendary hotelier Sol Kerzner get you?Adam Tihany designing a sea-foam fantasy for Charlie Trotter's C Restaurant, which will have an ambitious Caribbean-Mexican fusion menu. Kerzner has also tempted away Edward Steiner, the managing director who helped put Las Ventanas on every Hollywood Palm Pilot. Expect greatness. Km 7.5 Carretera Transpeninsular, San José; 52-624/146-7000 or 800/637-2226; www.oneandonlypalmilla.com; doubles from $425.

Where to Eat

The only Spanish word you need to learn to dine well in Baja is mariscos (seafood). With fish straight from the bountiful Gorda Banks, most Los Cabos restaurants resist Food Network flourishes: tortillas are hot off the griddle, the mole is ground by hand, and the salsa contains locally grown chiles. Look for outstanding chiles rellenos at trailer-park palapas (thatched-roof huts); snack on fried pork rinds from a street cart in San José; or sip cold coconut milk at a roadside Cocos Fríos truck. Of course, if your napkins have to be Frette rather than paper, Los Cabos has a parallel culinary universe, in which a coterie of New Mex chefs are already sharpening their knives for the day Charlie Trotter comes to town.

TACO BELLES Taquería Rossy The chairs are plastic; so are the blue-and-white-checked tablecloths. Both locals and snowbirds perch here for succulent, lightly battered shrimp and scallops folded inside handmade flour or corn tortillas. The salad bar is loaded with a multitude of salsas, roasted chiles, lime wedges, and other fixin's, but all you really need is a bottle of hot sauce and a Corona. Manuel Doblado and Hwy. 1, San José; 52-624/142-6755; lunch for two $10.

Carnitas El Michoacáno Around the corner from Rossy's, this humble taquería specializes in juicy pork tacos. Atkins dieters ask for puro carne; others go whole hog with gorgeously greasy costillas (ribs). Calle Pescador y Panga, San José; 52-624/146-9848; lunch for two $12.

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