LA MISION, Baja California — Sitting in the seaside restaurant at the La Fonda Hotel, surrounded by the sounds of Spanish, guitar music and heavy surf, my old friend Joni Stauffer and I talked about the magic.
Just a few hours after leaving home we were in a foreign land. No airport hassles, no cramped airplane seats--we simply threw my two schipperkes, Minke and Buster, and some clothes into the back seat of my old van and we were off.
The drive from Santa Barbara had been easy. We'd left at 8 a.m., got through L.A. with '60s oldies blaring from the car stereo, stopped for gas and a snack in San Diego, and stopped again just before the U.S./Mexico border to get Mexican auto insurance and a wad of pesos.
We had coasted along the divided highway next to the border fence and by 3 p.m.--after a quick detour to the Playas de Tijuana area--Joni and I were romping with Minke and Buster on the beach in front of the hotel.
Located 37 miles south of the border, La Fonda is just the kind of hotel I love: rustic rooms overlooking the Pacific, accessible only by steep, narrow stairs. The hotel was to be our home base for an exploration of Baja's "Gold Coast," the 70-mile stretch of resorts between Tijuana and Ensenada along Mexico Highway 1. I wanted to check out the wild white Morocco-style buildings, the pink castles, the modern high-rises, the jumbles of rooms set into steep sea cliffs.
Highway 1 is a wide-open, well-paved toll (cuota) road. It generally skirts the coast, with all the restaurants, hotels and spectacular views on the ocean side. Though we exited the highway to non-toll (libre) roads to visit some Gold Coast resorts, we kept returning to Highway 1 as we headed south.
Highway 1 is dotted with kilometer markers so drivers know where they are between towns. These markers even function as addresses in some hotel brochures. The stretch between Tijuana and Ensenada runs from K0 to K112--about 70 miles. After Ensenada the numbers start all over again (K0 to K126 to San Quintin, for example). It was easy navigating the Gold Coast, we just kept our eyes on the Ks.
K29--Most fun-seekers looking for a Mexico quickie, head for Rosarito Beach, about 18 miles south of the border, to take advantage of weekend deals offered by the numerous Americanized hotels, shops, discos and restaurants lining Boulevard Benito Juarez.
(North of Rosarito, in the Playas de Tijuana area, the hotels are less modern, more local in appeal. Pollution problems continue to plague Tijuana beaches; anyone interested in swimming or surfing may be best advised to head south.)
Joni and I drove past places like the Dragon Del Mar Restaurant and the Salty Dog Disco before we reached the Rosarito Beach Hotel, an imposing resort that is a legend unto itself. It was once a gambling casino frequented by 1920s Hollywood stars who came here to vacation, throw dice or be married.
"This looks like Party Central," Joni said as we stepped into the hotel's cavernous lobby. A long line of norteamericanos were checking in at the front desk, eager to start their weekends. Although it was cloudy the afternoon we were there, the beach concessions were primed for the crowd--jewelry and souvenir vendors, horse and dune buggy renters.
My idea of a beach vacation involves swimming in a scenic, uncrowded ocean, or at least going for quiet walks. Neither the beach by the Rosarito Beach Hotel, nor the hotel itself inspired this or any other such felicity. The quieter, more natural scenes in Baja are to be found farther south.
K35.5--About three miles south of Rosarito Beach, on the libre road that parallels the highway for the next 20 miles, is one of the happier resorts in Baja: the Hotel Calafia, a sprawling, Disneylandish place with zillions of little balconies, porches, terraces, tables, nooks and crannies set into a rocky sea cliff. I was intrigued by Calafia when I first saw it years ago--with its huge old Spanish galleon, the Corona Aurea, sitting high and dry on a lower terrace just above the beach.
The surf was enormous the morning Joni and I stepped into the Calafia's restaurant, so we took a window seat, ordered breakfast and watched the ocean roar by. Joni had delicious huevos rancheros for $3.50, I had machaca con huevos (shredded beef and eggs) for $4.50. The service was excellent and the dining room atmosphere casually elegant. Other diners sat outside on the whale-watching terraces. Amid piped-in mariachi music, waiters ran around preparing patio tables for the upcoming lunch crowd. I have always considered the Calafia a must-stop for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and still do. The hotel rooms, however, are small, dark and uninviting.