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PLEASURES OF THE ROAD : BYWAY BAEDEKER

<i> Morris is a Los Angeles auto writer. </i>

We’ve mapped the route for a weekend excursion to Baja California, with overnight stops and places to eat and some points of interest along the way.

Baja California is 1,000 miles of contrast. Vivid contrast. At its north are teeming cities that border the United States. At its southern tip are luxury resorts and world-class sport fishing. Its western shore is lapped by the waves of the Pacific Ocean. To the east, the Gulf of California separates it from mainland Mexico.

In between are miles of landscape that can quickly turn from flower-filled desert to snow-capped mountain. All is bound together by Baja’s common commodity: tranquility.

Come with us as we take you on an easy weekend Mexican adventure that reflects both the raw beauty of the Baja desert and the bountiful opportunities for relaxation and sightseeing that are a must for any visitor.

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If you’re traveling on a holiday weekend, be prepared for a wait at the border. Perhaps a long wait. Time to check the requisite paper work: U.S. passport and--a must--car insurance that is valid in Mexico.

From the border at Tijuana, take Route 1--the Old Road, not the Toll Road--and head south. You’ll pass through the outskirts of Tijuana and begin a lazy drive along the coast, the roadside dotted with merchants offering souvenirs.

Passing through Rosarito (where, once, the Aga Khan and Rita Hayworth dallied) and such smaller towns as Popotla, Las Gaviotas and Cantamar, you’ll be flanked by a landscape of high, rough-hewn cliffs tumbling down to the ocean, faintly resembling that of Big Sur.

At La Mission-Alisitos (a Toll Road exit) you’ll reach La Fonda Hotel, a recommended overnight stop with clean, homey rooms, plus a tropical patio-restaurant draped in banana trees and overlooking the ocean.

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La Fonda’s restaurant is a popular place to dine--so much so that many Southern Californians make the 37-mile drive from San Diego for dinner only--and because no one is in a hurry, latecomers may find themselves facing a wait. No matter: There are strolling musicians to entertain you.

After dinner, you can relax in the bar under wrought-iron chandeliers, or sit by the fireplace and listen to the music. Or, a short hike down a cliff will take you to a beach bathed in moonlight--and starlight.

In the morning, it’s onto the Toll Road to Ensenada, a 15- to 20-minute drive. (You can use U.S. or peso coins. The toll rates change, but are minimal: from Tijuana to Ensenada, for example, it will cost you a little more than $2.)

Ensenada has a reputation as a shopper’s haven, and deservedly so. Although Ensenada is a thriving seaport and it and its environs are home to more than 400,000 people, it’s still possible to unearth bargains . . . and enjoy haggling over prices. However, since it’s a popular stop for cruise lines, you may find yourself wrestling for a serape with a dowager from Glendale.

For lunch, try El Rey Sol, smack in the middle of the shopping district, featuring good French and Mexican food and one of the best wine lists in Baja.

And, of course, there’s Hussong’s Cantina, a legend for almost a century. Today, it’s mostly a hangout for the younger set and has a “touristy” reputation, but the regulars still repair to Hussong’s for one of its famous margaritas.

Departing Ensenada, turn onto Highway 3 and head northeast until, at Real de Castillo, the road sways to the southeast and a full panorama of desert-ringed-with-mountains comes into view.

This Ensenada-San Felipe leg runs longer than 150 miles, so it’s wise to have a full gas tank and bottled water. On the way, as you enjoy the desert flowers and cactus, you’ll begin to notice an occasional green pickup truck.

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These trucks, operated by the Mexican government, can make your Baja excursion a bit more comfortable. Specially equipped, these Angeles Verdes (Green Angels) have a crew of two--one of whom can speak English--who will assist motorists in trouble at no cost, except for charges for parts.

If you’re game for a little side trip, start watching the road signs once you’re past Valle de Trinidad (once known as Lazaro Cardenas). Around the 7-mile mark, you’ll see signs for Mike’s Sky Rancho, a wonderful aerie that, from Highway 3, is a 26-mile jaunt over a road that has recently been graded for motor homes.

Owner Mike Leon will make you welcome, and you’ll meet Ramon, reputed to be the best bartender in the Baja. Leon will set out a hearty luncheon which, along with Ramon’s margaritas and the marvelous scenery, might make you want to stay longer.

Take time for a quarter-mile hike to the private waterfall on the ranch. Enjoy watching trout in the many ponds on the property.

Then it’s on to San Felipe.

Back down the road from Mike’s, turn right again, heading east on Highway 3. At El Chinero, turn south on Highway 5 and drive on to San Felipe, 35 miles away.

The arches at the edge of this city of 12,000 usher you into a sleepy community where you can go windsurfing, watch the shrimp boats (October through March), fish for bass, shop for more bargains or--perhaps best of all--simply relax on San Felipe’s miles of excellent beaches.

The Castel San Felipe offers excellent rooms, two swim-up bars and good food. Other good restaurants are El Nido (superb scampi, excellent service) and, if you’re a shrimp lover, Rubens.

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It’s difficult not to unwind in San Felipe--and then prepare for the next day’s homeward leg.

North on Highway 5 out of San Felipe the coastline gradually gives way to classic desert landscape. It’s about 120 miles from San Felipe to the border town of Mexicali, and en route you will pass through such villages as El Faro and La Puerta.

Mexicali is a fairly typical border town, with one exception: It has a sizeable Asian population, and if you’re tiring of Mexican food, good Oriental cuisine abounds.

Capital of the state of Baja California, Mexicali once was the hiding place for a variety of outlaws from both sides of the border. It is another excellent place for souvenir hunting, and a pleasant enough place in which to make a decision: Cross the border here or in Tijuana?

Crossing at Mexicali takes you into the town of Calexico, from where a short drive will hook you up with Highway 8 heading west to San Diego. If you’d prefer Tijuana--and more souvenir hunting--take Highway 2 west for 120 miles, traveling through Canada Seca and Tecate to Tijuana.

Again, if it’s a holiday weekend, expect a very long wait at the border.

The best time of the year to visit Baja California? Consensus is late April or early May--around desert flower time--or October/November, after the summer heat has dissipated.


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