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WEEKEND ESCAPE

Seeking peace and plenty to do in Baja

Terrific dining and abundant shopping await, but take your time. At La Fonda, it's all about relaxation.

January 12, 2003|Madeline King Porter | Special to The Times

La Mision, Mexico — "You're going to love this," my friend Joy called out. After we had checked into the hotel, she'd gone ahead to look at our room. Well, not so much the room as what lay beyond its sliding glass door: a private deck with an ocean view and a large patio below, where a path led to the beach.

It was the perfect spot for the two Rs so crucial to many a vacation: reading and relaxing.

You can do that at home, you say? Ah yes, but then you would miss La Fonda.

At the cliff-hanging hotel and restaurant 37 miles south of the U.S. border, the day starts with banana pancakes and ends with a dinner so delightful that even the black bean soup nearly astonishes. With shopping 20 minutes north in Rosarito and 40 minutes south in Ensenada and little in between but peace and quiet, La Fonda is a favorite with Baja regulars.

The landmark dates to the early 1950s and retains some old hacienda ambience, though in a funky sort of way. A bit worn around the edges, its 26 rooms are scattered across a cliff in half a dozen clusters connected by pink, yellow and blue banisters. Some have fireplaces and kitchens, and all have private decks or patios.

Guest rooms are rustic in style, if "style" is the word, and amenities are few. There are no phones. We were told with a shrug, "Some TVs work." (We didn't bother with ours.)

Ask for extra towels, bring your own washcloth and, if you're looking for luxury, try elsewhere. But if you want a laid-back, no-frills weekend and don't mind paying cash (no credit cards or checks accepted), this is the place. At $75 per night, at least the pocketbook will hardly know the difference.

Joy and I arrived one Friday in November, dropped off our bags and continued on to Ensenada for some shopping. The fishing port is also a busy cruise terminal and party town. Along Avenida Lopez Mateos, shops offer traditional Mexican art and high-end clothes and jewelry. Parking is a game of chance, but we got lucky and found a spot steps from the marina.

No matter the time of year, I always do a little Christmas shopping in Mexico, not to mention picking up a few things for myself, such as the leather sandals I found on a busy side street. Huaraches priced at $15 were offered for $12 before I even had a chance to demur.

Most pieces of Mexican folk art are churned out by the hundreds, but it's possible to discover an unusual carving or interesting papier-mache mask among the battalions of brightly painted animal figures that line store shelves. My quest, a hand-painted Christmas decoration called arbol de la vida (tree of life), was in vain. But we ferreted out a few stocking stuffers and -- I can't explain why, in a town with good dining -- made the mistake of dropping into chairs at the first restaurant beyond our hunger pangs. The service lived up to the restaurant's name at La Tortuga (the turtle). The combination dinners -- taco, chile relleno, enchilada -- were filling and inexpensive but far from exceptional.

A day's lazy progress

The next day more than made up for it. La Fonda is anchored on the north by a restaurant so popular that cars pack the lot and line the road. We wanted to make reservations but were told that dinner seating was first come, first served. We decided to eat very early -- or very late, depending on how the day progressed.

And it progressed lazily, beginning with a stroll on the beach, which is at the bottom of a deceptively steep stone pathway covered with a canopy of vines. Doglegs improve traction and handrails offer support, but if you're not in shape, watch out: Leg muscles will rebel.

Midmorning we left for Rosarito's environs, stopping first at the nameless arcade across the parking lot from the Rosarito Beach Hotel. Our buys: 16-ounce bottles of pure vanilla for $7 and, for $78, bottles of Joy perfume that sell for nearly twice as much in department stores.

Next we followed the line of shoppers, as determined as an army of ants, four blocks north to a hugely popular outdoor bazaar. A word to the wise: When you find something you like, buy it. The bazaar is such a jumble of shops that you might not find the same booth again.

On the outskirts of town at Alex Curios, home of my favorite handicrafts, I pounced on the last arbol de la vida in the shop. According to the owner, they were made by older artisans who had no one to carry on their craft. Even as I cherished my purchase, I was saddened by the decline of a wonderful folk art.

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