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Going High-Class in CABO

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

It is pleasant, no question, to wake in a hotel room here and find yourself sprawled amid 960 square feet of high-ceilinged, sandy-hued opulence. There’s the fireplace, inset stones in the floor, sophisticated artworks, a telescope aimed skyward (one in every room), a bathtub with water jets and a private patio where room service will shortly deliver your breakfast.

But if you’re a repeat visitor to this area, all these accouterments raise a question: This is Cabo?

This is the same Cabo where surfers sleep on the beach, expats dwell cheaply in trailer parks and fishermen wrestle with 500-pound billfish? This is the home of watering holes called Squid Roe, the Giggling Marlin and Cabo Wabo, where Thanksgivings past have been celebrated with bikini contests? This is the peninsula whose government still hasn’t gotten around to paving busy streets one block off the highway?

Short answer: Yup.

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Longer answer: My lavish hotel suite is Room 401 in the year-old Las Ventanas al Paraiso, which means “windows to paradise” and which promises the greatest luxuries and charges the highest rates ever asked by a hotel on the Baja peninsula. The property, whose standard weekend rates begin at $475 per night, stands along the highway near San Jose del Cabo, amid an artfully arranged desertscape. It’s managed by Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, which also runs the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, often rated among favorite hotels of affluent U.S. travelers. And it is a sign of things to come.

Cabo got its start as a tourist spot after World War II when American marlin fishermen and celebrities such as Desi Arnaz, John Wayne and Bing Crosby came here. They came for the enormous and plentiful fish, but also for the starkness of the desert and the remote towns on the wave-lashed shoreline. In 1973, the Mexican government opened an airport to international flights, and by 1996 the number of tourists to Cabo had passed 500,000 per year.

Though downtown Cabo San Lucas still panders to those who chase marlin and party hardy, more businesses are aiming way upscale. Las Ventanas is the most extravagant, but new and improved hotels and restaurants are opening and reopening all along the 18-mile coastal corridor that connects the towns of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, a resort area that is now sometimes referred to as Los Cabos. The developers of Los Cabos, having built a waterfront desert into a boom zone with 4,500 rooms--and an average hotel rate of $120 per night--are far from finished. “We want to be the most expensive and the most exclusive [resort destination] in Mexico,” says Sean Emmerton, managing director of the new Los Cabos tourism board.

Hard-drinking fishermen and new $400 hotel rooms. This sounded like a strange stew, so as the hotels tidied up for the fall surge of tourism, I headed south.

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The clues about Baja’s wave of big spenders weren’t long in coming. On my Alaska Airlines flight from LAX to the Los Cabos airport, actor Michael Richards quietly ducked into a first-class seat, stowing his bulky garment bag in the compartment above with far less collateral damage than “Seinfeld’s” Kramer could ever have managed. Richards and I didn’t compare hotel notes, but consider this: As part of its opening promotion, Las Ventanas gave 100 vouchers for a free two-night stay to the presenters at last year’s Academy Awards. Recent guests have included Raquel Welch, Cindy Crawford, Clint Black, Paula Abdul, Sammy Hagar and members of the rock group U2.

Then there were the Texas accents, which I heard at Las Ventanas and at my next stop, the Palmilla Hotel down the road. “The oil business,” said one of the Palmilla’s servers.

Once the visitors land, taxis, rental cars and hotel shuttles carry them along the great hotel corridor of Los Cabos, 18 miles of coastal highway that has become a drier, hillier, less concentrated version of Cancun’s enormously profitable hotel row. Cabo San Lucas lies at one end, San Jose del Cabo at the other.

San Jose del Cabo remains much less raucous than Cabo San Lucas and more inclined to restaurants and boutiques. Colorful Huichol Indian artworks made of yarn, beeswax and wood are especially popular.

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On the main drag in Cabo San Lucas, vendors sell crude T-shirts that say “One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor” and “If you don’t want to party, don’t [obscenity] come.” The Hard Rock Cafe arrived in 1995, Planet Hollywood a year later. In the last three years, at least three topless bars (Bolero, Mermaids and 20/20) have also flung open their doors. On Medano Beach, the souvenir vendors are so numerous and persistent that I had to say “No, gracias” 14 times in a hundred-yard stroll.

Ah, but if you’re a guest at Las Ventanas, the outside world is held at bay. A well-drilled staff circulates, seeing to the whims of guests in 61 suites, which are seldom empty. Weekends were booked solid through December, so to get in I settled for a midweek stay in September.

One month before my arrival, I’d received a “guest profile” form, seeking my mini-bar liquor preferences and any special dietary requirements, wondering if I preferred hypoallergenic pillows. “No tomatoes at any time, in any form,” I wrote. Hey, they asked.

I’d forgotten all about that when I sat down to dinner at The Restaurant, Las Ventanas’ fine dining venue, on my first night. But shortly after I’d dispatched a tasty quesadilla with squash blossoms, a waiter arrived bearing my seafood entree and this whispered reassurance:

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“Your marlin piccata, sir. The red is not tomatoes. It’s peppers.”

The three horizon swimming pools were nice, as was the tiny bottle of El Conquistador tequila (with lime and salt) that waited for me at the entrance to my room. So was the bathroom, so big that it was six paces from one sink to the other. And so was the fancy shampoo, which came in a corked glass carafe too large to steal. But at bottom, I think it’s gestures like that waiter’s that make many wealthy travelers willing to spring for places like this.

The next night, which followed an excellent Swedish massage ($70) and a day of service workers greeting me by name, brought another taste of exemplary service. I went to dinner at Pitihayas, a wonderful Pacific Rim restaurant 10 miles down on the corridor toward Cabo San Lucas (“Que tal de los potstickers?” my waiter asked me in one splendidly multicultural moment), and accidentally left my credit card there when paying. Fortunately, I’d mentioned to the waiter where I was staying. By the time I’d returned to my room, realized my mistake and called the Las Ventanas concierge (expecting to have to drive back over there), the concierge had just taken a call from Pitihayas and dispatched a driver to pick up the card.

It arrived at my door, discreetly enveloped, about 90 minutes later, just as the concierge had promised it would. I did volunteer a $5 gratuity to the concierge later for her efforts, but really, feats like these are built into the automatic service charge at Las Ventanas and Palmilla, which add 15% to your room rate while most other high-end hotels add 10%.

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Given all the rough-edged tumult of Cabo San Lucas, opening such an over-the-top luxury lodging here may seem about as prudent as inaugurating a chamber music festival in Daytona Beach during spring break. But the promoters of Las Ventanas and the other new Los Cabos lodgings seem to have this game figured out. In many ways, golf is the key.

Since 1992, Los Cabos has added four championship golf courses, designed by such names as Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones Jr. By early 1999, another 18-hole course is scheduled to open in the Cabo Real resort area, and by late 1999 yet another is due to debut in the Cabo del Sol resort. By many assessments, Los Cabos is now the golf capital of Mexico, and the greens fees here frequently top $150 for 18 holes. Furthermore, Los Cabos tourism veterans say, even those golfers and other upscale visitors who spurn the city lights for most of their visits usually spend at least one night sampling the craziness of Cabo San Lucas.

After two days at Las Ventanas, I headed on to the Palmilla, one of the well-heeled granddaddies of Los Cabos lodgings. A collection of whitewashed, tile-roofed buildings set above a rocky point and long beaches, the Palmilla opened in 1956. But it has not stood still. The hotel’s golf course, opened in the early 1990s, and it helped reposition Los Cabos because it was the area’s first high quality golf layout. And in 1996 and 1997, with Las Ventanas rising to reach out and grab for its most prized customers, the Palmilla spent $13 million to expand and renovate, growing from 52 rooms to 114. The new rooms, most on the beach or in commanding positions in a three-story building atop a bluff, are now the hotel’s costliest.

Even in summer discount season, rates for them begin at $300. The junior suite I peeked at featured a couch, chair, a couple of ceiling fans, two sinks and a two-person shower, complete with two nozzles. And those new units fill up fast. Unable to get into one of them on six weeks’ notice, I landed in one of the Palmilla’s old “hacienda” rooms.

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For $200 a night, it was a plain room (especially the small and tubless bathroom), although the balcony did offer a pleasant view of the pool, palm trees and sea beyond. I was also a little surprised to see the sign in the bathroom warning that tap water was not potable and requesting guests to “please help us conserve water.” (I’m in favor of water conservation, but hadn’t expected counseling on the subject from a resort that’s spent much of the last decade carpeting the desert with golf courses.)

The rocks and beach neighboring the hotel make a spectacular spot for dawn and dusk strolling. The hotel restaurant, La Paloma, served me a good crab cake with Oriental slaw and red pepper, following an excellent grilled sea bass in garlic and lime juice. (The hotel is renowned for its fleet of fishing boats.) Below the restaurant balcony, the swim-up bar, with its bright mosaic tiles, sparkles pleasantly.

But the Palmilla’s staff didn’t seem as well drilled as the Las Ventanas crew. And despite doubling its guest capacity, the management stuck with a single swimming pool (and no spa), which was heavily trafficked during the day.

In the old days, my mission to check out new ritzy hotels and ambitious restaurants might have filled a day or two. This time, four days wasn’t quite enough.

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Along the corridor, just about every major hotel is neighbored by an affiliated vacation-home development, some time share arrangements, some not. But most upscale developers now are wise enough not to annoy well-paying guests by coercing them into tours.

* At the Westin Regina, a 295-room, nine-story, seven-pool wonder of outsized geometry and blaring colors that opened in 1994, brochure rates now begin at $260 per night in high season (Oct. 1 to Dec. 20 and Jan. 4 to May 26).

* At the Hacienda del Mar, a combination hotel-time share complex that opened in September 1996 in the Cabo del Sol resort area along the corridor, 11 earth-hued buildings congregate in lush foliage. Its 124 time share rooms are due to be joined in December by 180 hotel rooms, rates beginning at $180 nightly (Dec. 10 to 19).

* In Cabo San Lucas, the 260-room Pueblo Bonito Rose hotel opened in October 1997 near Playa el Medano in Cabo San Lucas, a fantasyland of parading swans and cranes, caged songbirds and neo-Roman statuary, all enclosed by a six-story whitewashed, quasi-Moorish horseshoe of a building. A 16th century Flemish tapestry hangs in the lobby near some Italian woodcarvings. Rates for a mini-suite with kitchen in high season (Oct. 16 to Dec. 23) begin at $205 nightly, and a spa is due to be completed in December.

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* Meanwhile, the Spanish-owned Melia hotel group has opened its third big property on the corridor (the 150-suite Melia Los Cabos, opened in April, winter rates starting at $280). The luxury chain Ritz-Carlton plans to open a 350-room hotel in the corridor’s Cabo del Sol resort complex in December 1999; and Hilton tentatively plans a 275-room hotel on the corridor.

Through all this, old-timer lodgings like the Twin Dolphin Hotel and Hotel Cabo San Lucas, both former contenders for the title of top hotel at land’s end, are still serving longtime customers, sporting low-rise, lived-in looks and clinging to traditions from simpler times.

At the cactus-studded Twin Dolphin, where the dining room menu is evolving, I had a terrific lunch of corn bread and goat cheese quesadilla with huitlacoche (a savory black corn fungus), with a poached pear for dessert. But the Twin Dolphin lobby still features inviting round rocks where anyone else would place sofas, and the 50 rooms, at $275 or more nightly from November through May (even higher during holiday periods), are still spartan and free of TVs and telephones.

At the Hotel Cabo San Lucas, with 62 rooms, seven villas and an inviting stretch of beach on palm-studded, quasi-Hawaiian landscaping, the furnishings look unchanged since the 1970s. The Hotel Cabo San Lucas’s rates from Nov. 1 to Dec. 19 run $100 for a bare-bones standard room, $255 for a deluxe suite.

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I ate one excellent meal in San Jose del Cabo’s Tequila, where you first walk through a bar and cigar room done up in chic lighting and desert landscape paintings, then continue with a romantic courtyard dining area with candlelighted tables under a canopy of trees and open sky. Very good tequila shrimp, and wonderful warm, soft bread.

Another good meal came at Sancho Panza, a wine bar next to the marina in Cabo San Lucas. The casual restaurant, which opened in January 1997, specializes in Nuevo Latino cuisine: crab ravioli (which I liked a lot), curried shrimp and ahi tuna with mango salsa, plus a mixed salad whose greens were cultivated in the fields just an hour’s drive north.

Before I could explore all of Los Cabos’ possibilities it was time to go, and I was hopping into my rental car to head out of the Palmilla parking lot. Then came a small demonstration of what’s being gained and lost in the transformation to the ritzy new Cabo.

One of the Palmilla’s white-suited valet parking guys needed to greet a new batch of guests at the airport, and there wasn’t a company car handy. Would I mind, he asked, giving him a ride to the airport?

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So I gave him a ride. He was good company, and his willingness to ask for a ride stands as an example of the informality that, along with the marlin, made a lot of people fall in love with Baja in the first place. But would such a thing ever happen at Las Ventanas al Paraiso? Will it happen at the new Ritz-Carlton? I’m guessing not.

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GUIDEBOOK

Upscale Cabo

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Getting there: Nonstop flights from LAX to Cabo San Lucas on Alaska, Mexicana and Aero California airlines start at $173 round trip.

Where to stay: Las Ventanas al Paraiso, KM 19.5 Carretera Transpeninsular, Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo, Baja California Sur 23400 Mexico; telephone (888) 525-0483 or (310) 824-7781 or 011-52-114-40-300; fax 011-52-114-40-301; Internet https://www.rosewood-hotels.com. Until May 31, rates run $475 per night in most rooms, with a three-night minimum stay most weekends, a seven-night minimum in February. (Five larger suites cost up to $3,000 nightly.)

Palmilla, KM 7.5 Carretera Transpeninsular, San Jose del Cabo, Baja California Sur 23400 Mexico; tel. (800) 637-2226 or 011-52-114-45-000, fax 011-52-114-45-100, Internet https://www.palmillaresort.com. Till Dec. 17, rates for most rooms begin at $295 (suites range from $390 to $2,000). Bottom rates jump to $425 from Dec. 18-Jan. 3.

Most Los Cabos hotels exclude 12% tax and 10% service charge from the rates quoted. The two hotels above levy a 15% service fee.

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Where to eat: Pitihayas, near KM 10 on the Cabo corridor, next to the Hacienda del Mar hotel, tel. 011-52-114-58-010. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner courses $13-$25.

Tequila Restaurante in San Jose del Cabo on Calle Doblado just west of Boulevard Mijares, tel. 011-52-114-21-155. Open for dinner, entrees $8-$17.

For more information: Los Cabos Tourism Board, tel. (888) 828-4448 or (949) 586-2840.

Cabo Beach Hotels

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1. Pueblo Bonito Rose

2. Hacienda del Mar

3. Twin Dolphin Hotel

4. Hotel Cabo San Lucas

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5. Melia Los Cabos

6. Las Ventanas al Paraiso

7. Westin Regina

8. Palmilla Hotel

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