On a recent visit, a Times photographer and I checked out hotels and restaurants in Los Cabos. We chose a variety of luxury hotels to look at, from boutique to old standby to brand new. In San José del Cabo we stayed at the 16-room Casa Natalia, and in Cabo San Lucas we tried the Pueblo Bonito Sunset Beach, which opened in 2002, and Twin Dolphin, an old standby. We also peeked at the top-ticket hotels on the corridor, the 4-year-old Esperanza and the 5-year-old Las Ventanas al Paraíso. Below is a roundup of what we found:
From LAX, Alaska, Mexicana and Aero California offer nonstop service and America West and Mexicana offer connecting service (change of plane) to San José del Cabo International Airport, about 26 miles northeast of Cabo San Lucas. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $188.
To call or fax the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 52 (country code for Mexico), 624 (local code) and the local number.
Casa Natalia, 4 Blvd. Mijares, San José del Cabo; (888) 277-3814, fax 142-5110, www.casanatalia.com. In-season rates: rooms $240; suites with private Jacuzzis $375.
I left part of my heart in San José del Cabo, where proprietors Nathalie and Loic Tenoux (he's French, she's from Luxembourg) welcome guests to their luxury boutique hotel, Casa Natalia, an oasis behind massive wooden doors in a walled, palm-shaded courtyard near the town square.
No sooner had we checked in than someone brought complimentary chips, salsa, guacamole and cold beer to our private bougainvillea-covered terraces overlooking the half-moon-shaped swimming pool and splashing fountains. Flaming braziers add drama for dinner under the stars, prepared by chef Loic. Rooms, which are named rather than numbered, are accented with colorful Mexican arts and crafts. Complimentary continental breakfast is set outside the door on a little tray table with a bright cloth.
The Tenouxes opened Casa Natalia in the fall of 1999 as an intimate alternative to the mega-room resort hotels.
Pueblo Bonito, Sunset Beach, Cabo San Lucas; (800) 990-8250, fax (619) 267-6698, www.pueblobonito.com. In-season rates: $250-$1,600 (for penthouse suite for eight).
Pueblo Bonito -- up a long, long drive at Sunset Beach, about 10 minutes west of Cabo -- is a work in progress, with heavy machinery scooping away. Phase one has 118 suites; 500 more are planned.
The 50-acre site on the Pacific has lush landscaping, flamingos, parrots and fountains, and it slopes down to a quiet beach (where there are no vendors). Friendly, chatty drivers in red golf carts ferry guests up and down the narrow paths from lobby to oceanfront pool. There's a shuttle to the two other Pueblo Bonito hotels in Cabo but not to the town center; the last shuttle returns at 10:30 p.m.
All suites have kitchenettes and coffeemakers, though there's a charge for that little coffee packet. My junior suite ($250 published rate) was entered through the kitchenette and was spacious, with a balcony, partial ocean view and direct view of the hotel owner's mansion under construction on the beach. The bath was small, shower only.
Somehow the complex doesn't beckon to me. Perhaps, to be fair, it's because it is unfinished. Or maybe it was all the emphasis on time shares.
Esperanza, Carretera Transpeninsular, Km. 7, Cabo San Lucas; (310) 453-6212 or (866) 311-2226, fax (310) 453-4845, www.esperanzaresort.com. In-season rates $550 to $5,000 for a three-bedroom ocean-view luxury suite with private pool.
Auberge's luxurious 56-unit Esperanza, with its palapa-topped casitas and Mexican accents, is on the corridor between Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo. We were shown Casa Jazmin ($825), with its view of El Arco, balcony with cushioned banquette and Jacuzzi that guests can access directly from their stone and marble bath. Wood-framed sliding doors opened one wall to ocean breezes.
Stone steps over a lotus pond lead to the hotel's new spa, where private treatment sanctuaries with their own little gardens and pools open off a tranquil patio. Among options: seaweed baths, Corona beer face-lifts and couples' clay bakes. This is definitely high-end.
Before introducing ourselves, we lunched under a big palapa at Esperanza's seaside Signature Restaurant, where we were warmly welcomed by staff, who repeatedly thanked us for coming. The day was uncharacteristically cool and cloudy, and someone promptly appeared with two wool ponchos.
Twin Dolphin, Highway 1, Km. 12, Cabo San Lucas; (213) 386-3940 or (800) 421-8925, fax (213) 380-1302, www.twindolphin.com. In-season rates: $350-$545.
Twin Dolphin has its devotees, who tend to regard glitziness as a bit déclassé. Rooms and suites have no TVs or telephones, and the furnishings are '70s originals. With prices starting at $350, some might find the rooms a bit too basic, but David Halliburton Jr., whose father founded the hotel, says it is "for those who don't need a fax in the bathroom and a Frida Kahlo print on the wall."
All rooms have ocean views; the balconies of oceanfront units sit almost in the sea. My balcony at sunrise was a magical place, with waves splashing on the rocks below. I also liked the fact that the open-air design embraces the desert landscape rather than gobbling it up.
One of the best snorkeling beaches, Playa Santa María, is five minutes down a dirt path. Early one morning I was the only person there, save for a man repairing his skiff.
Las Ventanas al Paraí;so, Carretera Transpeninsular, Km. 19.5, San José del Cabo; (888) 525-0483, fax (800) 705-9212, www.rosewoodhotels.com. In-season rates: $575-$3,800 (for a three-bedroom suite).
Approaching the discreetly sign-free gate at Las Ventanas, we were told it was "impossible" for nonguests to enter. But on identifying ourselves, we were taken on a tour by assistant manager Florent Gateau, who explained that people paying Las Ventanas' rates "expect privacy."
This Rosewood hotel is exclusive with a capital E. Guests send in their profiles so dietary preferences will be accommodated and minibars appropriately stocked. Four pools are four different temperatures, and guests are pampered by a pool butler proffering CD players, books, cold towels and spritzers.
The décor is Baja Mediterranean, with a pleasing low-key pueblo feel, and suites have fireplaces, large balconies with private whirlpools and comfy wraparound banquettes. For a romantic dinner or a massage under the stars, some have rooftop decks.
WHERE TO EAT:
Las Gardenias, at Gómez Farias and Camino al Hotel Hacienda in central Cabo (no telephone). Inexpensive "joint" favored by locals and knowledgeable visitors. Limited menu includes fish, shrimp or barbecued beef, pork or chicken tacos for about $1.50. Complete lunches $6. Beer and soft drinks. Breakfast, lunch only. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Mi Casa, Avenida San Lucas, 143-1933. Pretty Mexican patio restaurant on the plaza in Cabo. Original murals, festively painted tables and chairs. Shrimp broiled with tequila, ceviche, marlin tostadas. Excellent tortilla soup (about $4). Most meat entrees less than $10 at lunch. Lunch noon to 4 p.m. daily except Sunday, dinner 5 to 10 p.m. daily.
Mi Cocina, 142-5100. In Casa Natalia. Superb cuisine in a beautiful courtyard setting. Chef-owner Loic Tenoux prepares international dishes, some with "a touch of Mexican" -- but no French-Mexican or other unlikely fusions. Entrees -- fresh fish, grilled rosemary chicken, baby rack of lamb -- $18-$28. Open daily for dinner.
Pitahayas, Sheraton Hacienda del Mar, Corredor Turístico, Km. 10, 145-8010, reservations suggested. Pacific Rim cuisine in a romantic setting beneath an oceanfront palapa. Candlelight, palms wrapped in twinkling lights, live music and stylish presentation. Appetizers seemed better than dinner entrees, which are mostly in the $20-$30 range. Dinner only.
Twin Dolphin (see above), 145-8191. Fine cuisine in handsome room opening to pool area. New Zealand lamb, Iowa beef, fresh seafood prepared by French chef. Salads of organic greens grown on-site, served with chèvre from hotel's mini-herd of goats. Dinner entrees $16.50-$43. Breakfast, lunch, dinner.
TO LEARN MORE:
Los Cabos Tourism Board/Hotel Assn., (866) LOS CABOS (567-2226), www.visitloscabos.org.
Mexican Government Tourism Office, Mexican Consulate, 2401 W. 6th St., 5th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90057; (800) 44-MEXICO (446-3942) for brochures or (213) 351-2069, fax (213) 351-2074, www.visitmexico.com.