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The Best of Baja

GRANDE CUISINE The Restaurant at Esperanza Carved into bluffs above the surf line, the hotel's terraced outdoor restaurant provides a scene-stealing backdrop for chef Flynt Payne's subtle citrus-marinated parrot fish. A vegetarian from North Carolina, he still scores with grilled tenderloin of beef with papaya-mint salsa. 52-624/145-6400; dinner for two $100.

Mi Cocina Chef Loïc Tenouxopened his first Mexican restaurant in Provence. That went over like a lead brioche. But at his restaurant at Casa Natalia, the brilliant chef has won an appreciative audience for his charred poblanos with crispy lamb and tequila-cured salmon. The courtyard lit by torches gets extra points, too, for its romantic ambience. 4 Blvd. Mijares, San José; 52-624/142-5100; dinner for two $100.

El Canto del Mar Another Frenchman, Thierry Dufour, brings Michelin star-worthy flair to the 25-seat El Canto del Mar at Marquis Los Cabos, the newest hotel on the Corridor. Don't miss his smoked duck tartare with truffles or the carrot-and-saffron pie with chocolate sauce. Km 21.5 Carretera Transpeninsular; 52-624/144-2000; dinner for two $120.

Nick-San Sushi in Baja?With all the fish leaping off the Gorda Banks, it's a no-brainer. Insiders know to order the Indonesian-inspired lobster soup. Blvd. Marina, Plaza de la Danza, Cabo San Lucas; 52-624/143-4484; dinner for two $80.

Nightlife

After dark, Cabo goes loco. Marina Boulevard is lined with harmlessly rowdy joints. At El Squid Roe (Blvd. Lázaro Cárdenas at Zaragoza; 52-624/143-0655), the beer is cold, the music deafening, and the bar stages mock bullfights. Try Nowhere Bar (52-624/143-4493) and Margarita Villa (52-624/143-1740). Or be the only norteño waltzing to banda at El Parthenon (4.5 Km Carretera Transpeninsular; 52-624/144-4475), a dance club resembling the original in Greece, Doric columns and all. Friday-night concerts by unplugged-guitar groups in San José's town square are a mellow alternative.

Side Trips

EAST CAPE When cruise ships swarm Cabo, it's time to hit the dirt road. Rent a soft-top Jeep for a day to explore the East Cape.

Just north of San José, Highway 1 rises in altitude as it enters the Sierra de Laguna foothills. Off the peninsula tip, the Sonoran Desert gets serious—you're leaving irrigated golf course greens behind for sandy arroyos and fragrant sagebrush. Caracara hawks circle stands of ocotillo and mesquite. Buzzards colonize giant cardon cacti. Water seeps down from the mountains through San Jorge Canyon, surfacing at streams and waterfalls outside the ranching town of Santiago. Desert guide Marco Hernández of Nómadas de Baja (52-624/146-9612; www.nomadasdebaja.com) has access to the private Santa Rita cattle ranch's hot sulfur springs, which cascade into pools around smooth granite boulders.

Stop at Palomar Restaurant (Misioneros de 1930; no phone; lunch for two $20) for specialties like garlicky octopus and chicken tostadas. On Saturdays, detour through the flyspeck village of Caduaño to see if there's an impromptu horse race on the main drag. When you turn east toward La Ribera and Punta Colorado, the terrain suddenly becomes elemental: blue water, sandy scrub. A herd of cattle blocking the road is a major event. Beyond lie the fishing villages of Buena Vista and Los Barriles, as well as Cabo Pulmo and Los Frailes, remote bays on the Sea of Cortés where BajaWild (52-624/142-5300; www.bajawild.com; from $95 for a daylong trip) conducts guided kayaking trips.

The place to stay is Rancho Leonero (Buena Vista; 800/646-2252; www.rancholeonero.com; doubles from $115, including all meals). Think macho at John and Jennifer Ireland's 350-acre ranch. This low-key hideout once attracted the likes of Errol Flynn and Bing Crosby, who landed on the private airstrip ready to fish, drink, and dabble in R&R not endorsed by Hollywood's then prudish production code. World-class fishing in the Sea of Cortés remains the focus here, although downing tequila shots in the bar runs a close second. The 18 thatched-roof bungalows are boot-camp basic—fans, stall showers, zero-thread-count sheets. There are also 16 simple guest rooms. What else?A wide-open sea out front and ceviche at dinner that was swimming in it just hours ago.

TODOS SANTOS Here's proof that time warps do exist. Straddling the Tropic of Cancer, this colonial-era burg remains blissfully free of franchises—a wide spot in the road where the siesta is still taken seriously. Todos Santos's unpaved streets are lined with 19th-century brick-and-adobe haciendas, some adapted as galleries by Anglo artists who gravitated here for the tropical climate and low rent. The plaza is anchored by the humble Misión del Pilar church and Teatro Marqués de León, a movie hall straight out of Cinema Paradiso. Share carne asada and papas rellenas with the surf crowd at Tacos Chilako's, a six-stool stand at the corner of Calle Benito Juárez and Calle Hidalgo.

Todos Santos has thriving design and food scenes. Angelina Cimono sells her stylish raku-fired clay sculptures at Galería de Todos Santos (Corner of Calles Topete and Legaspi; 52-612/145-0500). Barbara Fleming has amassed an extensive collection of hand-embroidered Guatemalan and Mexican textiles and antiques at her boutique, Mangos (Calle Centenario; no phone).

Chiles get top billing at the restaurant Los Adobes de Todos Santos (Calle Hidalgo; 52-612/145-0203; dinner for two $50). Oaxacan specialties—like mole poblano chicken—are served on a rustic garden terrace. For a refried-bean hiatus, locals flock to Café Santa-Fe (4 Calle Centenario; 52-612/145-0340; dinner for two $50), Ezio and Paula Colombo's candlelit, whitewashed dining room in a historic adobe. The restaurant's northern Italian cooking (fresh shrimp-and-octopus frito mixto with arugula and lime) adapts nicely to the tropical setting.

At the playful 11-room Hotel California (Calle Benito Juárez; 52-612/145-0525; hotelcaliforniareservations@hotmail.com; doubles from $125) the décor crosses gypsy caravan style with desert "sheik." At the hotel's La Coronela Restaurante, the chef may be Belgian but the margaritas are pure Baja. The Todos Santos Inn (33 Calle Legaspi; 52-612/145-0040; www.todossantosinn.com; doubles from $95), in a converted sugar baron's hacienda, evokes the era of señoritas in lace mantillas—and gun-toting banditos. (Check out the bullet holes in the lobby's faded frescoes.) Six rooms have a spartan aesthetic: thick plaster walls, net-draped four-posters, whirling fans, a cool courtyard garden of hibiscus and bubbling fountains. Ask for an air-conditioned garden suite near the new pool. An artsy crowd gathers in La Copa Wine Bar.

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