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Baja California Sur: Vacationing With the Saints

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LOS CABOS, Mexico - Not too long ago - up to the 1970s - this 30-mile stretch of beaches, coves and lagoons at the tip of western Mexico's Baja Peninsula was the remote hideaway of corporate moguls, oil barons, movie stars and people who rated bows or curtsies back in Europe..

The area was especially popular with Hollywood glitterati of the likes of John Wayne, bad boy Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Lana Turner, crooner Bing Crosby and their pals. Some sailed down on their yachts to dangle hooks into waters teeming with marlin, sailfish, dorado and yellowfin tuna. Others showed up to cut quiet deals with the studio brass. Still others came here for star-class shenanigans.

Bay of Cabo San Lucas seen from the Sunset da Mona Lisa Restaurant. Photo by Bob Schulman.

Those who flew down on private planes stayed in secluded posadas, each with its own dirt runway. Landing instructions were sometimes given by a bartender doubling as an air traffic controller on a two-way radio stashed between tequila bottles.

In the old days, a rutted, 20-mile dirt road linked the area's two main villages: Cabo San Lucas (Cape of St. Luke) at the southern end of the strip and San Jose del Cabo (Cape of St. Joseph) anchoring the upper end.

Fast-forward to today, and the region is one of Mexico's most popular resort areas. Called Los Cabos (the capes), or Cabo for short, it consists of the two cities (no longer villages) and - replacing the old road between them and what had been miles of wide open spaces - a modern, four-lane highway flanked by hillside condos and some of Cabo's swankiest hotel-resorts.

Secrets Puerto Los Cabos is among 58 hotel-resorts in the area. Photo courtesy of Secrets.

Collectively, the properties dotting the highway corridor along with others in and around the two cities -- 58 hotels all told (with six more in the works) -- offer a whopping 14,000 rooms to Cabo's 2 million annual visitors.

Update on hurricane damage: At most places around Los Cabos and up the coasts, you'd never know the area was clobbered by Hurricane Odile a few months ago. It's not quite business as usual - some of the most heavily damaged hotels still haven't reopened - but it's pretty close to it.

Elsewhere in the area the old dirt airstrips have been replaced by a 10,000-foot concrete runway and multi-gate terminals at Los Cabos International Airport. It's located 10 miles inland from San Jose del Cabo (hence the airport's code, SJD).

Some visitors drive down to Cabo on a 1,000-mile transpeninsular highway starting just south of San Diego. Others pack the area's marinas with their own or chartered boats, and still others drop in for day visits from cruise ships, some carrying as many as 3,000 passengers.

World-class fishing is still a huge draw at Cabo, but rods and reels now share the stage with mashies and putters. Developers have so far opened 11 golf courses around the area - typically rolling greens surrounded by deserts, spiky Joshua trees and breathtaking views of the Sea of Cortes - and three more are set to debut by year-end. Credits for the courses read like a who's who of championship designers including Jack Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jones Jr., Greg Norman, Tom Fazio, Pete Dye and Tiger Woods.

About the Towns

Looking out at a mile-long bay, Cabo San Lucas (population: about 80,000, seemingly outnumbered by tourists at times) is where the action is. The town's bustling streets are packed with wall-to-wall shops, American fast-food franchises, traditional Mexican eateries and fine gourmet restaurants. Liberally sprinkled around the city are dozens of cantinas and ear-splitting discos - spots with names like Cabo Wabo, the Giggling Marlin, the Hard Rock Cafe and El Squid Roe.

Picture-postcard arch at Land's End, Cabo San Lucas. Photo by Bob Schulman.

Mexico's Baja Peninsula ends a half-mile or so from the city at the iconic El Arco, a huge arch sculpted by the pounding waters of the Pacific on one side and the Sea of Cortes on the other. At night, party boats bobbing around the arch are jammed with revelers downing pitchers of beer and tequila while rock tunes blast out of the boats' oversize speakers.

In contrast to upbeat Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo at the other end of the corridor is a laid back, pleasant city of meandering streets and lush palm groves. San Jose, as it's known, made the maps in 1730 when the Jesuits built a mission here; later on, the padres were replaced by pirates waiting to pounce on Spanish galleons sailing by to cross the Sea of Cortes. Despite its golf course and dozens of ritzy hotels and condo towers, San Jose still retains the charm of its colonial heritage. Two of its old-world land landmarks are the Municipal Palace (the mayor's offices) and the twin-steepled church of Parroquia de San Jose.

Church steeples tower over the town of San Jose. Photo by Bob Schulman.

The Triangle of the Saints

Vacationers who can tear themselves away from fishing, golf, scuba diving, wind surfing, kayaking, ATV riding, whale watching and serious "liming" (the art of doing absolutely nothing) around Cabo's pools and beaches can hop into tour vans for adventures just up the coast from the two sainted cities. On the Pacific side, for example, an hour's drive takes you to the village of Todos Santos (All Saints).

Visitors soon find this is much more than a sleepy little farming town. First, rubbing elbows with the 7,000 or so local folks are a couple of thousand expats, mostly Americans and Canadians, who've settled here to paint, make jewelry, spin pottery wheels and otherwise create gorgeous objects d'art. Second, the town's cobbled lanes are dotted with modest (but not inexpensive) galleries selling all this.

Bring your alibis to the Hotel California. Photo by Bob Schulman.

Also unlike most run-of-the-mill villages, Todos Santos has some 18 boutique inns and hotels. One, the Hotel California, bills its accommodations as "11 sumptuously appointed, wildly imaginable rooms and suites." Possibly the hotel in the Eagles' 1976 hit song, "Hotel California" (hotel exec Adolio Blanco says, "We don't promote (the hotel) that way, but it certainly could be it."), the property is close to the town's main shopping area and to what passes for its nightlife. Another nearby hotel is the 14-room Guaycura, named for the Indians who once called these parts home.

On the northern side of Cabo a trip from San Jose up the coast along the Sea of Cortes first takes you to the new luxury resorts at nearby Puerto Los Cabos, and then an hour or so further past scattered developments to a national park and diving mecca at Cabo Pulmo. Keep going, and a few hours later you'll be soaking up the colonial ambiance of the state capital at La Paz. Among its big draws is the third saintly area of the triangle, the 20-mile-long offshore island of Espiritu Santo.

Pericu Indians once paddled here in canoes (before they were killed off by smallpox, syphilis and other diseases passed to them by Spanish invaders) to harvest the abundant pearl beds around the island. The pearls are long gone, but the island is still rimmed by boats from the mainland. Only now they're full of tourists who've come to swim with sea lions and cavort with whales and other sea life in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sea lions sun themselves on rocks of Espiritu Santo. Photo by Bob Schulman.

Back in La Paz, you'll find cafes, shops, lanes and all kinds of other spots named after American Pulitzer-prize winning author John Steinbeck. Why Steinbeck? Because he put La Paz on the map in his best-selling 1947 novel, The Pearl, which took place here.

Visitors who opt to stay over for a day or two will find some 10 tourist-class hotels around town. At one, the 115-room CostaBaja Resort and Spa, you can have dinner in the property's top-rated restaurant, named - you guessed it - Steinbeck's.