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Los Cabos: Out to be the ritziest destination in North America

  

By Maribeth Mellin

LOS CABOS, Mexico - The sun took its last bow beyond the rock arch at the tip of Baja California as a waiter appeared with the French Riviera's menu. Hours passed as I dined on lobster with truffle vinaigrette, sea bass poached in black olive oil, tangy sorbet, crunchy rolls, and fine French wine.

Near midnight, back at my hotel, women in strappy dresses wafted toward the lights pulsing beneath the lobby stairs down to Passion, the hottest club in Los Cabos. Retreating far from the DJ's bandstand to my chic suite with its MP3 dock, plasma TV and espresso machine, I opened glass doors to the music of waves slapping on sand and slept the sleep of the righteously pampered.

The tab for that one self-indulgent meal and night's lodging (for one person) was $500 - far more than my husband and I used to spend for entire Los Cabos vacations.

When we first started traveling to Cabo in the early 1980s, luxury meant a mattress with box springs rather than a concrete slab, an air-conditioner (usually rattling in the window), and a TV with a couple of English-language channels. Most nights we'd camp in a trailer park beside dusty RVs. Special occasions merited a splurge at the Hotel Solmar, where I doubt we spent more than $70 a night.

Now, just up the beach from our old digs at the Solmar, workers are building the 66-suite Capella Resort and Spa. When it's completed in the fall, guests will pay $1,000 or more a night at what developer Juan Diaz Rivera calls "the finest hotel in North America."

Over the last 20 years, Los Cabos has evolved into the priciest vacation destination in Mexico, with a half-dozen hotels that regularly appear on international best lists. Several championship-level golf courses, fabulous spas, and gourmet restaurants amuse Cabo's dedicated celebrity following.

Beds are dressed in Egyptian and Italian linens, and the televisions are larger than the old-time scratchy bath towels used to be. Private plunge pools, whirlpool bathtubs, rain showers, and exclusive toiletries are already passé, and visionaries are constantly racing to create the next over-the-top resort with amenities most of us haven't imagined.

The Mexican government began developing the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula in 1974, combining the towns of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas and the 18-mile-long stretch of barren land between the two (the Corridor) into a resort called Los Cabos (often shortened to Cabo).

Golf courses started appearing along the Corridor in the 1990s, covering rocky canyons and mesas with velvety fairways. As I toured one of the first courses a decade ago, the developer told me, "We're aiming to be the Hawaii of the '50s, not the Cancun of the '80s."

Maui was often mentioned as the ideal beach resort for an upscale clientele, and tourism officials insisted Los Cabos would become the ritziest vacation destination in North America.

The Corridor was divided into mega resorts - Cabo Real, Cabo del Sol, Palmilla - with multiple golf courses, hotels and private villas facing fairways and man-made beaches. Venerable lodges with landing strips for private planes were transformed into elegant hideaways. Jets began arriving daily at Los Cabos International Airport, depositing passengers at buildings just a step above huts.

I came to comprehend Cabo's transformation in 1997, when my husband and I drove Baja's 1,000-mile Transpeninsular Highway from San Diego to Los Cabos in our '84 Chevy Impala. By the time we arrived at Cabo's brand-new Las Ventanas al Paraiso Resort, the car was covered in sandy grit, and the trunk looked like a water-sports shop run amok.

A uniformed porter graciously loaded our fins, wet suits, fishing rods and duffel bags on a cart, and a valet stashed the car out of sight. A concierge led us to a suite that still stands out as one of the finest I've ever experienced. Every inch of the place was handcrafted, from the inlaid stone floors to the hand-carved trunk at the foot of a regal bed.

A telescope pointed toward the Sea of Cortez, and there was a terrace as big as our living room back home. I thought about stashing our gear in the immense bathtub, then noted jars filled with skin-soothing potions. I plunged in sans mask and fins and luxuriated in bubbles, while sampling the smooth tequila and spicy almonds presented as an in-suite amenity. Funny how the high life grows on you so quickly.

The upscale boom continued. Las Ventanas upped the ante and established an oft-emulated, minimalist desert architecture and design.

The serene Palmilla, built in 1956 and buried in an oasis of palms, underwent a makeover in 2003 and 2004, reopening as the One&Only Palmilla. Private butlers catered to guests staying in over-the-top suites, and famed chef Charlie Trotter took over the gourmet restaurant. John Travolta celebrated his 50th birthday there with a few dozen friends shortly after it reopened.

Around the same time, Mexican architect Jacobo Micha created the stunning Marquis Los Cabos with soaring archways and niches for the owner's impressive sculpture collection. More recently, designer Dodd Mitchell brought a high-energy Los Angeles style to the new all-suites Cabo Azul Resort & Spa.

Meliá hotels slipped a bit of Madrid into Cabo San Lucas with the opening of the sexy ME hotel and fiery Passion nightclub.

I recently spent a week in Los Cabos, changing hotels nightly and trying to catch up with progress. Certain developments left me longing for the good old days - I'll never get used to seeing the new Costco in the Corridor or the Commercial Mexicana supermarket blocking the sea view at San Jose del Cabo's hotel zone.

The nightlife scene is as hot and happening as ever, and is still centered on the Cabo Wabo and Squid Roe clubs in Cabo San Lucas. Some nights it seems as if every college student in Southern California has decided that spring break takes place year-round down here.

There is a classier side to this town, though. A certain hip vibe attracts foodies to Nick-San's peerless sushi bar and jazz lovers to Sancho Panza Wine Bistro. And the marina is packed with handsome yachts, with annual fishing tournaments offering million-dollar jackpots.

The trendsetting ME Cabo and the new Casa Dorado resort next door overlook Playa el Médano, the area's best beach for partying, sunbathing, and zipping around on WaveRunners. The two hotels have improved the San Lucas lodging scene considerably, especially for travelers seeking abundant dining and nightlife options within walking distance.

At the once-peaceful Hotel Solmar, construction is under way on 600 guest rooms and 100 residences. The Villa Group, with three beach hotels catering to families and upscale couples, recently opened its Desert Spa, the largest in the area at an amazing 31,000 square feet. Like every part of Los Cabos, San Lucas is booming.

The Corridor is still the ritziest part of Los Cabos, with million-dollar villas and exclusive hotels overlooking the Sea of Cortez. Restaurants such as the sublime French Riviera cater to homeowners and guests willing to spend $100 and up for a gourmet meal. Should your budget allow such splurges, the Corridor has just about anything you might want. I spent a few nights bouncing from hotel to hotel, experiencing extraordinary beds, baths and butlers on hand to iron my dinner clothes or deliver movies and music for in-suite entertainment centers.

I ended my trip, as I often do, at Casa Natalia in San Jose del Cabo. This peaceful boutique inn by the town's main plaza is a comfortable retreat within steps of the vibrant arts scene. San Jose recently underwent a major revitalization effort around Plaza Mijares and looks better than ever. Boutique hotels, gourmet restaurants, and classy art galleries line the jacaranda-shaded streets around the plaza. The town has the feel of mainland Mexico, with families gathered around the church and plaza on weekend evenings.

Just north of town, construction continues at Puerto Los Cabos, an ambitious 2,000-acre development with a marina and an 18-hole golf course - nine holes designed by Jack Nicklaus and nine by Greg Norman.

Beachfront lots are selling for $5 million and more. It seems there's no end to the high life in Los Cabos.

Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2008 4:01 PM by Nick Fong

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