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WEEKEND ESCAPE : A Quick Getaway on the Outskirts of Ensenada : Hotel by coastal highway beguiles guests with sun deck and food. Bugs prove a mite of a problem.

March 07, 1993|LAURA A. GALLOWAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ENSENADA, Mexico — I had ventured to Ensenada before on day trips, enjoying the shopping, food and change of scenery that the Baja Peninsula affords. As I prepared to visit again, this time for a weekend trip, I asked some of my well-traveled friends for suggestions. All were eager to tell me about their favorite old cantinas or the great eateries to visit in this famous beach town. But they seemed at a loss when recommending a place to stay.

After several calls to hotels and conversations with clerks, after which I still hadn't made up my mind, I resorted to the final option. Moving my finger across the guidebook page, with eyes closed, I stopped at . . . "Las Rosas Hotel and Spa," made a reservation and prayed. Little did I know then that true luxury awaited at the end of a two-hour drive down Baja's coast highway.

My friends and I--three women in our 20s and 30s--had been looking for a weekend vacation that wouldn't mean too much traveling (we had only the weekend before our summer vacations were over) or expense, yet leave us with the feeling that we had really "gone" somewhere to recharge.

On the Friday last August that we departed, Los Angeles was in the midst of a sweltering heat wave. But as soon as we began the coastal part of our journey, the moisture-filled ocean breezes brought a refreshing change in the temperature.

We took Interstate 5 south to San Diego. Before crossing, we stopped for a cup of coffee in San Ysidro and found a place to buy Mexican car insurance for a reasonable price, $9 a day. We had decided to take Highway 1-D, the toll road that hugs the coastline, instead of Highway 1, better known as the Baja Highway, which lies further inland. Although we had to pay tolls of 2.30 at each of three toll booths before Ensenada, we decided it was a small price for the ocean view.

A few miles south of the third booth, we arrived at the hotel. You can't miss it: a looming pink stucco structure on the western side of the highway, with only a brick wall separating it from the coast road. The building was well kept, its formal landscape filled with exotic flowers and palm trees.

Inside the 31-room Las Rosas, we felt as if we were in a stylish Cote d'Azur resort. The cathedral ceilings created a feeling of airiness, and the spectacular waterfall in the lobby looked inviting. A giant glass window on the lobby's ocean side provides spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, and at night, this and other windows are lit with blue floodlights.

The hotel opened in 1987 and, from what we could tell, caters to a predominantly American clientele. Owner Marco A. Novelo later confirmed that 95% of visitors to Las Rosas are from the States. Novelo explained that he has a particular guest in mind: "I don't focus on the Easter break college students who want to come down and get drunk," he says. "I focus on family people, people who want quality."

Waiters came through the lobby with complimentary champagne as we checked in, the front desk clerk handed us the room key and we headed to the third floor. We had decided to share a room to cut costs, a plan that worked out nicely because the rooms are spacious. Ours was light and bright with wall tapestries, bleached wicker furniture and a color TV.

Each one seemed to feature French doors that opened into individual balconies, all of which overlooked the ocean and the not-so-distant Todos Santos Bay. Price differences showed up in bathrooms. Standard rooms had showers only; the penthouses and honeymoon suites had large tile bathrooms with hair dryers and bathtubs.

A wet bar was stocked with a variety of beverages and snack foods. It was easy to run up a substantial bill. We learned this the hard way when we removed a tiny bottle of Kahlua and were charged $5 at checkout time.

After admiring the view of the ocean from our room, I put on my swimsuit, grabbed a book and headed out for some sun.

Las Rosas is not the sort of place where you can expect to lay out on miles of fine, sandy beaches. As far we could see, the coastline was composed of jagged rocks that have been worn down over time by the tide. Not even a strip of rocky sand existed for an ocean-side walk. But the hotel had two large swimming pools (one just for wading) that were so close to the ocean that they gave the appearance of actually being a part of the great expanse, so-called horizon pools. And the multitude of deck chairs made up for the lack of beach.

A large ocean-side patio surrounding the pools featured an outdoor spa, also directly on the water. I developed a routine for utilizing my surroundings: After a swim in the cool water of the pool, I'd grab my book and sit in the spa while sipping a fruit drink.

Although at times--especially during the late afternoon and early morning--the sea breeze got nippy, there was an indoor sauna and, across from the sauna, a workout gym complete with rowing machines, stationary bicycles and weight equipment.

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