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Going High-Class in CABO

In Baja's once funky fishing resort, a new wave of tony hotels now lures the big spenders.


SAN JOSE DEL CABO, Mexico — It is pleasant, no question, to wake in a hotel room here and find yourself sprawled amid 960 square feet of high-ceilinged, sandy-hued opulence. There's the fireplace, inset stones in the floor, sophisticated artworks, a telescope aimed skyward (one in every room), a bathtub with water jets and a private patio where room service will shortly deliver your breakfast.

But if you're a repeat visitor to this area, all these accouterments raise a question: This is Cabo?

This is the same Cabo where surfers sleep on the beach, expats dwell cheaply in trailer parks and fishermen wrestle with 500-pound billfish? This is the home of watering holes called Squid Roe, the Giggling Marlin and Cabo Wabo, where Thanksgivings past have been celebrated with bikini contests? This is the peninsula whose government still hasn't gotten around to paving busy streets one block off the highway?

Short answer: Yup.

Longer answer: My lavish hotel suite is Room 401 in the year-old Las Ventanas al Paraiso, which means "windows to paradise" and which promises the greatest luxuries and charges the highest rates ever asked by a hotel on the Baja peninsula. The property, whose standard weekend rates begin at $475 per night, stands along the highway near San Jose del Cabo, amid an artfully arranged desertscape. It's managed by Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, which also runs the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, often rated among favorite hotels of affluent U.S. travelers. And it is a sign of things to come.

Cabo got its start as a tourist spot after World War II when American marlin fishermen and celebrities such as Desi Arnaz, John Wayne and Bing Crosby came here. They came for the enormous and plentiful fish, but also for the starkness of the desert and the remote towns on the wave-lashed shoreline. In 1973, the Mexican government opened an airport to international flights, and by 1996 the number of tourists to Cabo had passed 500,000 per year.

Though downtown Cabo San Lucas still panders to those who chase marlin and party hardy, more businesses are aiming way upscale. Las Ventanas is the most extravagant, but new and improved hotels and restaurants are opening and reopening all along the 18-mile coastal corridor that connects the towns of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, a resort area that is now sometimes referred to as Los Cabos. The developers of Los Cabos, having built a waterfront desert into a boom zone with 4,500 rooms--and an average hotel rate of $120 per night--are far from finished. "We want to be the most expensive and the most exclusive [resort destination] in Mexico," says Sean Emmerton, managing director of the new Los Cabos tourism board.

Hard-drinking fishermen and new $400 hotel rooms. This sounded like a strange stew, so as the hotels tidied up for the fall surge of tourism, I headed south.

The clues about Baja's wave of big spenders weren't long in coming. On my Alaska Airlines flight from LAX to the Los Cabos airport, actor Michael Richards quietly ducked into a first-class seat, stowing his bulky garment bag in the compartment above with far less collateral damage than "Seinfeld's" Kramer could ever have managed. Richards and I didn't compare hotel notes, but consider this: As part of its opening promotion, Las Ventanas gave 100 vouchers for a free two-night stay to the presenters at last year's Academy Awards. Recent guests have included Raquel Welch, Cindy Crawford, Clint Black, Paula Abdul, Sammy Hagar and members of the rock group U2.

Then there were the Texas accents, which I heard at Las Ventanas and at my next stop, the Palmilla Hotel down the road. "The oil business," said one of the Palmilla's servers.

Once the visitors land, taxis, rental cars and hotel shuttles carry them along the great hotel corridor of Los Cabos, 18 miles of coastal highway that has become a drier, hillier, less concentrated version of Cancun's enormously profitable hotel row. Cabo San Lucas lies at one end, San Jose del Cabo at the other.

San Jose del Cabo remains much less raucous than Cabo San Lucas and more inclined to restaurants and boutiques. Colorful Huichol Indian artworks made of yarn, beeswax and wood are especially popular.

On the main drag in Cabo San Lucas, vendors sell crude T-shirts that say "One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor" and "If you don't want to party, don't [obscenity] come." The Hard Rock Cafe arrived in 1995, Planet Hollywood a year later. In the last three years, at least three topless bars (Bolero, Mermaids and 20/20) have also flung open their doors. On Medano Beach, the souvenir vendors are so numerous and persistent that I had to say "No, gracias" 14 times in a hundred-yard stroll.

Ah, but if you're a guest at Las Ventanas, the outside world is held at bay. A well-drilled staff circulates, seeing to the whims of guests in 61 suites, which are seldom empty. Weekends were booked solid through December, so to get in I settled for a midweek stay in September.

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