Baja's New Superstar: Esperanza

Michael Walker reports from Cabo

There are places—Hemingway's Key West, St. Barts in the '70s—where myth and pop culture loom so large that one is almost disappointed to arrive and not find Jimmy Buffett barside composing Cheeseburger in Paradise. Such is the burden of Los Cabos, whose legend hovers like the heat over Mexico's desolate Baja Peninsula.

A two-hour flight from Los Angeles, Los Cabos includes the wildly differing towns of Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo. Collectively—and colloquially—the entire area is known simply as Cabo.

In the '50s, Cabo really "arrived on the scene." That's when American sportsmen began flying in and hauling in 1,000-pound black, blue, and striped marlin and the first (albeit primitive) resorts, complete with dirt landing strips, were built along Baja's southernmost shore. In the '70s, Cabo had its fling with rock stars at a time when rock stars could anoint places like Mustique and Montserrat as the next great paradise on earth. It's still, for example, taken as gospel—despite his denials—that the Eagles' Don Henley wrote Hotel California about a place in the nearby artists' colony of Todos Santos. Unfortunately, that sort of easy-listening romanticism helped hasten Cabo San Lucas' descent into a hellish spring-break Station of the Cross overrun with joints like the Coyote Ugly Bar (and farmacias selling Viagra and Prozac over the counter, no questions asked).

Despite all that, there is still much left of the old Cabo-Baja spirit that makes this truly like no other place in the world—the miles and miles of wild, empty beaches, the still-plentiful marlin and mahimahi. And in the middle of it all are some of the most dramatic outposts of creature comfort anywhere. The latest of these is Eperanza, which opened this past February with 50 suites and six villas done up in Mexican high style, a French chef in residence, and a commitment to balancing the exacting demands of front-cabin travelers with the friendly renegade spirit of the real Cabo.

Esperanza is the first foreign property opened by Auberge Resorts, whose holdings include the San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito (storied honeymoon hotel of JFK and Jackie) and its Napa Valley namesake. When Auberge du Soleil opened in 1981 it introduced a chic, laid-back, California style that pampered in a modern way, providing high-end luxury without guilt. It was ideal for Baby Boomers conflicted about how to indulge their craving for the good life. It was new money versus old, Mondavi Cabernet versus Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and it was a raging success. Esperanza's mix of superluxe appointments, open-collar informality, and cuisine that emphasizes fresh, regional ingredients can trace its DNA directly to Auberge.

Capitalizing on that esprit de Cabo, Esperanza is making a run at the tastemakers of Hollywood—who heretofore have signed their loyalties in blood to Los Ventanas, just down Highway 1—with some shrewd marketing moves. In March, for example, it gave free weekends to the presenters at the Academy Awards. (Esperanza's management instinctively grasped that the quickest way to the movie industry's heart was through its goodie bag.)

What Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon, as well as the rest of us, would find upon arrival is a well-groomed operation that strikes a balance between opulence and the sort of casual that starts at $550 per night in high season and runs to $5,000 for a spectacular three-bedroom luxury villa equipped with full kitchen, private swimming pool, outdoor whirlpool, anamorphically correct wide-screen television, and butler.

There really is something restorative about Cabo—maybe it's the juxtaposition of the lifeless terrain with the beauty and bounty of so much proverbial deep-blue sea. Practically every square foot of Esperanza is built to take advantage of its stunning setting on the bluffs of Punta Ballena (Whale Point), which includes a sidelong perspective on the famous natural arch at Land's End and, January through April, views of the gray whales that have migrated from Alaska to calve in these waters. To complement the forbidding topography, Esperanza's 17-acre site is landscaped with cactus, bougainvillea, agave, and stone paths winding between the open-air bar, restaurant, and terra-cotta-colored casitas. Nevertheless, it's sometimes disconcerting to find a thatched-roof casita towering three stories above this otherwise au naturel mise en scène.

Each suite is outfitted with a generous private balcony and doors that open fully to let in sea breezes. Rooms are tricked out with wondrously soft king beds, stereos, DVD and CD players, and stone-clad baths with casement windows, as well as original canvases, pottery, and handwoven rugs commissioned from Mexican artists. Service is rendered by a friendly bilingual staff whose easygoing nature is infectious.

One of the draws of Cabo is the abundance of fresh seafood, and executive chef Jacques Chrétien makes good use of it in a menu that acknowledges indigenous Baja cuisine and his French training. At Esperanza's restaurant, with tables on multiple terraces spilling down to the surf, you dine on yellowtail carpaccio with avocado, sautéed scallops with Mexican rice, and poached Pacific sea bass with lime couscous. The bar menu at the two swimming pools runs to regionally savvy fare such as an oak-smoked marlin sandwich on chapata and seafood tacos with sweet, fresh red snapper.

Esperanza is so new that the bougainvillea has barely begun to grow. And the teething process produced some discomfort: Our steam shower didn't work, and no one was able to bring the temperature in our private pool below that of bathwater. However, calls to the concierge had repairmen to the door in under five minutes.

In the doldrums following 9/11 and Hurricane Juliette (which struck Cabo three weeks later and caused $500,000 damage at Esperanza alone), the resort's management tried to convince themselves that Californians would actually drive here via the hair-raising Transpeninsula Highway. Forget it. "It took me two days to drive from Tijuana," a piano player at the bar confided one night, suggesting that the idea was about as attractive to high-rolling Angelenos as crossing Afghanistan by skateboard.

Esperanza is a retreat of high-style indolence—no golf course, no "activities director." There is a small fitness center, and an elaborate spa is scheduled to open late this summer. It will offer soaks, peels, massages, and purification rituals perfected at Auberge du Soleil. Spa visitors will pass through a series of open-air showers and soaking tubs before reaching a grotto with "steam cave" and waterfalls, there to relax before being led to a treatment room for a Grated Coconut & Lime Body Exfoliation. For Cabo's next generation, Hotel California seems—finally—a very long way away.

Esperanza Basics

BEST TIME TO GO Late autumn through late spring. Summer is desperately hot—daytime highs above 100 degrees are common—and increasingly muggy approaching the hurricane season in August and September. Wintertime highs are in the low 70s; spring, the mid-80s.

GETTING THERE Esperanza is four miles outside Cabo San Lucas. The Los Cabos airport, 30 minutes away, is served by American, Alaska, America West, Continental, Delta, Aero Mexico, and Mexicana. Direct flights are available from Atlanta, Newark, Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Seattle. If you plan to explore the countryside, you'll need a car. All major rental-car companies are represented at the airport.

ROOMS TO ASK FOR All have private patios or terraces and ocean views. The best views are from the Palapa Level suites. The two- and three-bedroom luxury villas are closest to the ocean and have the most privacy. Ask for Villa 71, the top-floor two-bedroom villa with thatched roof, private outdoor swimming pool, spa, and three expansive patios. Oceanfront Casitas: $550-$825. Beachfront Casitas: $650-$925. Luxury Villas: two-bedroom, $3,500; three-bedroom, $5,000. Reservations: 866-311-2226;

BEACHING IT Los Cabos' beaches are world-renowned for their isolation and beauty, but some are challenging to get to, most famously Playa del Amor, which is accessible only by water taxi. Playa Santa Maria, just five minutes from Esperanza, is a small, perfect crescent with excellent snorkeling.

Michael Walker wrote about Jackson Hole in the January/February issue.