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Seeking peace and plenty to do in Baja

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"You're going to love this," my friend Joy called out. After we had checked into the hotel, she'd gone ahead to look at our room. Well, not so much the room as what lay beyond its sliding glass door: a private deck with an ocean view and a large patio below, where a path led to the beach.

It was the perfect spot for the two Rs so crucial to many a vacation: reading and relaxing.

You can do that at home, you say? Ah yes, but then you would miss La Fonda.

At the cliff-hanging hotel and restaurant 37 miles south of the U.S. border, the day starts with banana pancakes and ends with a dinner so delightful that even the black bean soup nearly astonishes. With shopping 20 minutes north in Rosarito and 40 minutes south in Ensenada and little in between but peace and quiet, La Fonda is a favorite with Baja regulars.

The landmark dates to the early 1950s and retains some old hacienda ambience, though in a funky sort of way. A bit worn around the edges, its 26 rooms are scattered across a cliff in half a dozen clusters connected by pink, yellow and blue banisters. Some have fireplaces and kitchens, and all have private decks or patios.

Guest rooms are rustic in style, if "style" is the word, and amenities are few. There are no phones. We were told with a shrug, "Some TVs work." (We didn't bother with ours.)

Ask for extra towels, bring your own washcloth and, if you're looking for luxury, try elsewhere. But if you want a laid-back, no-frills weekend and don't mind paying cash (no credit cards or checks accepted), this is the place. At $75 per night, at least the pocketbook will hardly know the difference.

Joy and I arrived one Friday in November, dropped off our bags and continued on to Ensenada for some shopping. The fishing port is also a busy cruise terminal and party town. Along Avenida López Mateos, shops offer traditional Mexican art and high-end clothes and jewelry. Parking is a game of chance, but we got lucky and found a spot steps from the marina.

No matter the time of year, I always do a little Christmas shopping in Mexico, not to mention picking up a few things for myself, such as the leather sandals I found on a busy side street. Huaraches priced at $15 were offered for $12 before I even had a chance to demur.

Most pieces of Mexican folk art are churned out by the hundreds, but it's possible to discover an unusual carving or interesting papier-mâché mask among the battalions of brightly painted animal figures that line store shelves. My quest, a hand-painted Christmas decoration called árbol de la vida (tree of life), was in vain. But we ferreted out a few stocking stuffers and -- I can't explain why, in a town with good dining -- made the mistake of dropping into chairs at the first restaurant beyond our hunger pangs. The service lived up to the restaurant's name at La Tortuga (the turtle). The combination dinners -- taco, chile relleno, enchilada -- were filling and inexpensive but far from exceptional.

A day's lazy progress

The next day more than made up for it. La Fonda is anchored on the north by a restaurant so popular that cars pack the lot and line the road. We wanted to make reservations but were told that dinner seating was first come, first served. We decided to eat very early -- or very late, depending on how the day progressed.

And it progressed lazily, beginning with a stroll on the beach, which is at the bottom of a deceptively steep stone pathway covered with a canopy of vines. Doglegs improve traction and handrails offer support, but if you're not in shape, watch out: Leg muscles will rebel.

Midmorning we left for Rosarito's environs, stopping first at the nameless arcade across the parking lot from the Rosarito Beach Hotel. Our buys: 16-ounce bottles of pure vanilla for $7 and, for $78, bottles of Joy perfume that sell for nearly twice as much in department stores.

Next we followed the line of shoppers, as determined as an army of ants, four blocks north to a hugely popular outdoor bazaar. A word to the wise: When you find something you like, buy it. The bazaar is such a jumble of shops that you might not find the same booth again.

On the outskirts of town at Alex Curios, home of my favorite handicrafts, I pounced on the last árbol de la vida in the shop. According to the owner, they were made by older artisans who had no one to carry on their craft. Even as I cherished my purchase, I was saddened by the decline of a wonderful folk art.

By noon we were back at La Fonda. The cozy half-mile cove below the hotel is bordered by rocks that can be negotiated at low tide. (But hurry back. The climb is dangerous, if not impossible, when the tide is high.) I found a comfortable spot on the rocks and settled down with my book, looking up now and then as a school of porpoises entertained with high jumps and an occasional hang glider zipped by. Midafternoon, an adventurous pilot landed his ultralight on the beach not far from a few lazy sunbathers. Throughout the day, the only decisions I faced were whether to read on the deck, the patio or the beach, and whether to eat early or late.

We had been among the first at breakfast, served outside overlooking the sea. I had a vague memory of enjoying chorizo and eggs under a thatched umbrella while a pair of roosters pecked at the patio for crumbs. But that had been hours ago, and we purposefully hadn't indulged in the banana pancakes with coconut syrup because we knew dinner would be a feast.

And so it was. La Fonda's owners, Sara and Orest Dmytriw, closed the original restaurant and reopened last year in what had been the front patio of their home.

The new place is spacious and warm, thanks to glowing candles and adobe fire pits, and the food is as good as ever. Meals include soup, salad and a choice of a dozen or more steaks, chops and seafoods prepared with skill and imagination.

The black bean soup was flavorful and, to use a word not usually associated with it, delicate. We were ecstatic over our entrees: calamari stuffed with crab for me, sea bass on a bed of fresh spinach for Joy. Frankly, I would make the drive just for the light-as-a-cloud flour tortilla chips and tangy salsa.

Conversation bounces from table to table. Mariachis play pleasant, unobtrusive music for dancing or just hanging out. On weekends guests can choose between two talented guitarists, one at the hotel and the other at La Palapa, a club nearby. I missed both, instead falling asleep to the wonderfully monotonous music of the tide.

Sunday morning dawned clear and bright. Before heading home, we made a quick stop at a gordita stand I came across years ago in Rosarito. It's a block south of the Rosarito Beach Hotel, on a dirt street that parallels Boulevard Juárez.

The stand is a nameless operation set up at a stove behind the owner's house. There she prepares the usual street fare every Saturday and Sunday starting at 9 a.m. Go for the gorditas -- balls of dough fried golden brown, sliced and filled with meat and sauce. If you don't speak Spanish, there's usually someone around to translate. But I'll give you the magic words: dos carnitas gorditas rancheras. (You'll thank me later.)

We had left the hotel well before checkout time to beat the rush to the border, missing the famous La Fonda Sunday brunch, a feast that can take hours. Our plan to get ahead of the traffic didn't work. But I never really mind the wait at the border because it gives me a chance to stop one of the kids moving from car to car selling churros, always my last sweet taste of Mexico.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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