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Weekend Escape: San Felipe : Margaritaville Deluxe : A casual--make that funky--Baja fishing village lures a visitor to its new resort, and hooks him

November 13, 1994|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Katz is the Times' Houston bureau chief. and

SAN FELIPE, Baja California — Funky is not a word that translates well into Spanish, but that has never stopped this tiny Sea of Cortez fishing village from being the quintessence of good Mexican funk: a steamy, remote, no-frills playground that lures its visitors with bathtub-warm water and cheap seafood tacos.

It's been my personal Margaritaville since the mid-1980s, when I started making the 350-mile drive from Los Angeles, usually at the height of summer, when the insane heat of Baja's interior coast has an almost transcendental effect--sort of like Death Valley-by-the-Sea.

As a rule, these have been low-budget affairs, the single largest expense--apart from our bar tab--being a $25 motel room split two or three ways. Once, on a July 4 weekend, we joined hundreds of other revelers camping out right on the beach, where the fusillade of firecrackers and bottle rockets didn't subside until dawn.

Having savored this town on the down and dirty, I was skeptical when I learned that San Felipe was trying to refashion itself into a more upscale tourist destination. A new luxury resort with triple-digit prices opened last year to great fanfare and, in conjunction, the first international flights began arriving at San Felipe's dinky air strip.

But I was also intrigued by the prospect: Could this sweltering seaside community draw enough free-spending visitors to sustain such a venture, or had some developer overestimated San Felipe's allure? More importantly, would it be worth dropping big bucks for my wife and I to fly to a deluxe suite for the weekend, or would we be happier wallowing in funkiness for a fraction of the cost?

These were tough questions, but Raynelda and I decided we were up to the task. Welcome Tours, one of many travel agencies specializing in Baja vacations, provided us with a $690 package that included round-trip air fare on Air L.A., two nights at the San Felipe Marina Resort & Spa, a taxi between the hotel and airport, free breakfast and a welcome cocktail.

Although the actual flying time from LAX to San Felipe is less than 1 1/2 hours--a vast improvement over the grueling 6 1/2-hour desert drive--we soon discovered that arriving by plane was anything but a breeze.

As someone who can be mildly claustrophobic and a bit nervous about flying, I regretted not being heavily medicated before stepping onto our twin-prop, 19-seater, which was so cramped that we had to crouch, almost doubled-over, to get down the aisle. Without the benefit of bathrooms, refreshments or flight attendants, we felt more like thrill-seekers than vacationers on our way to a resort.

The convenience of our flight was also dampened by a change of planes at the Tijuana airport, where we were forced to pass through customs and immigration, even though cars headed to Mexico are waved across the border with hardly a glance. Before re-boarding for a turbulent, seat-gripping flight to San Felipe, we had spent nearly an hour in airport limbo--a sensation with which we unfortunately would become even better-acquainted on the trip home.

My anxiety did not begin to melt until our plane landed at 2 p.m. Friday in the hot wind of San Felipe. This is extraordinarily beautiful terrain, a melding of arid desert harshness, the starkness of the towering San Pedro Martir mountains and the tropical flavor of a palapa-dotted coastline.

Our taxi, which was briefly delayed by a herd of cattle meandering across the highway, took only a few minutes to arrive at the rust-colored Marina Resort, an angular, bunker-like development that is an odd combination of hotel, condo and time-share rental. Our beachfront room, a $143-a-night suite, was surprisingly stylish, decorated with fragile ceramic folk art, woven Indian rugs on white tile floors and a well-appointed kitchenette, including microwave and blender. (Prices, for two adults, range from a $100 basic room to a $165 junior suite. For six to eight people, master suites are available for $275.)

We wasted little time ordering that welcome cocktail, which we downed in the hotel's fabulous blue-tiled horizon pool, where the water drips over a jutting edge that seems to disappear into the shimmering Sea of Cortez. We were still so wound up from our journey, though, that a quiet afternoon of poolside relaxation was totally out of the question.

Hopping a taxi for the three-mile trip into town, we eagerly embraced the San Felipe we knew best. We drank beer and cooled off over a few games of pool at the great old Club Bar Miramar. Out on the oceanside boardwalk, which is lined with a fantastic array of fresh seafood vendors, we feasted on fried-shrimp tacos--sharing seven of them, plus two icy Tecates, for just $11.

Before the night was over, we had hit several more tequila joints, made plans to go fishing with a couple of seedy characters and danced to gangsta rap at Rockodile, a disco featuring a sand-filled volleyball court that overflows with Americans and rich Mexicali teen-agers on most Saturdays.

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