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Trip of the Week

Rosarito: Baja Boom

August 21, 1988|MICHELE GRIMM and TOM GRIMM | The Grimms are free-lance writers/photographers living in Laguna Beach.

ROSARITO, Mexico — Just 18 miles from the U.S. border, this Baja seaside community is booming as a destination for Southland beachgoers.

Longtime attractions include the dozens of saddle horses that can be hired for a ride along the ocean's edge. The bargain rate for an hour's jaunt on the beach is $5 U.S., including a young vaquero who makes sure the horses go and stop when you wish.

Another favorite pastime is shopping at the stalls and curio stores lining the wide and dusty highway, Mexico 1, that also is Rosarito's main street. Big sellers are baskets and pottery made by local families. The town boasts some quality Mexican arts and crafts stores as well.

There's even a new shopping complex, Quinta Plaza, that surprises visitors with a New York-style deli and an off-track betting center. Satellite TV brings live coverage of races at Tijuana and major U.S. tracks to the Caliente Race Book, which also has a bar and grill.

Rosarito Beach Hotel

Rosarito has built new lodgings and plans to double its number of hotel rooms to 1,400. A forerunner in the planned expansion is the landmark Rosarito Beach Hotel, which opened its doors in 1926 with a dozen guest rooms. There are 155 rooms, bungalows and suites, and this year work begins on a 150-room addition.

At the north end of town is Rosarito's other major resort, Quinta del Mar, where a hotel, condo, townhouses and homes offer 200 rooms to vacationers. An upcoming expansion project will at least double that capacity.

Before too much changes in Rosarito, survey the scene for yourself by heading south to the border from Los Angeles on Interstate 5. Follow the Rosarito/Ensenada Toll Road signs to bypass downtown Tijuana and join the four-lane toll road, Mexico 1D.

Pay the 65-cent fee at the first toll station, and take the first Rosarito exit to join the old Mexico 1 highway that leads to the north end of town. In Rosarito, the main street is officially Boulevard Benito Juarez, but everyone just calls it the free ( libre ) road.

First you'll spot fruit and food stands lining the highway, along with horses for rent. Also at the roadside are men weaving bamboo into laundry baskets, baby bassinets and other items. Two renovated restaurants are Ortega's Cafe and Ortega's Place, both featuring seafood, especially local lobster.

Look right for the domed entrance to Quinta del Mar, where lodgings begin at $34 double for a hotel room and go up to $140 for a three-bedroom house. Reservations: (706) 612-1300. You can drive into the Quinta del Mar compound to have a drink or a meal at its Beachcomber bar or La Masia restaurant.

Folk art and colonial furniture is sold at Interiors de Mexico in the hotel's shopping arcade that fronts the highway. Drop in La Casa Arte y La Madera (House of Gifts and Decor) for handicrafts from all over Mexico. Another store advertises everything from baby clothes to surf wax.

Just down the street you'll find matzo ball soup and chopped liver at the Deli, which also bills itself as home of the lobster sandwich. It's one of several restaurants in the Quinta Plaza shopping center.

Restaurants, shops and other businesses stretch for three miles along the highway. An old favorite for food and drink is El Nido Steak House, where filet mignon and other meats are cooked over a mesquite fire. The menu also has specialties such as quail, squid and frog legs. Hours are 8 a.m. to midnight.

You can't miss the arched entrance to the Rosarito Beach Hotel near the southern end of town. The 62-year-old retreat was recently remodeled, but its well-known wall murals and other original artwork haven't changed. Look up at the hand-painted ceiling beams, and go into the dining room to see wool and beeswax images of six Aztec gods.

Dance to Live Bands

Don't miss the ocean view from the Beachcomber Bar, a rendezvous for Rosarito visitors since 1940. Saturday nights at 10, disco dancing to live bands in the Salon Mexicano gives way to costumed dancers and musicians who present a lively folkloric show. It's free to hotel guests and all ladies.

A $6.35 brunch with Mexican and American dishes fills the hotel's dining room Sundays from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Rooms at the Rosarito Beach Hotel begin at $45 double, with bungalows and junior suites from $68 and Pacific-view suites from $85 (both categories for up to six persons). Add to that the town's 6% room tax.

From Sept. 11 through March 9, a special double rate will be $36 per night, $60 in a deluxe suite, Sunday through Thursday, except certain holidays. Phone in the daytime for reservations, (706) 612-1106 or 612-1126.

A center of activity at the Rosarito Beach Hotel is its Olympic-size swimming pool; signs warn guests not to swim in the ocean because of a dangerous undertow. The town's wide beach is public and frequently filled with sunbathers, as well as horses taking tourists for a ride along the sandy shore.

Open Since 1924

Beyond the hotel is a popular watering hole and dining and dancing spot, Rene's, which opened in 1924. Sunday brunch costs $5. You can rejoin the toll road at the southern end of Rosarito for the trip back home, but most visitors continue south on the old (free) highway to explore more of Baja's scenic coast.

Turn in at Calafia for food or drink at its spectacular cliff-side restaurant and bar, where there's outdoor music and dancing overlooking the ocean on weekends.

Beyond is Puerto Nuevo (New Port), a fishing village that's filled with lobster restaurants. Other well-known stops for food and Pacific panoramas are Half-Way House and La Fonda.

Near La Fonda is an entrance to the toll road for the 40-mile drive back to the border and Interstate 5.

Round trip from Los Angeles to relax awhile at Rosarito is 314 miles.

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