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In Baja, lazing away by San Quintin Bay

About 200 miles south of Tijuana lies a low-key, low-cost fishing village perfect for siestas by the sand.

June 01, 2003|Laura Randall | Special to The Times

San Quintin, Mexico — The burnt-orange remnants of daylight brushed across the darkening sky as we unloaded our bags at the Old Mill Hotel and tried to recover from a teeth-rattling three-mile drive off Baja's trans- peninsular highway.

Before we had finished unpacking, the hotel's white-bearded proprietor, Jim Harer, shouted across the courtyard.

"Stop by for a beer whenever you feel like it," he said. "It's free."

The offer was an appropriate kickoff to our long weekend in the Baja fishing village of San Quintin: friendly, laid-back and easy on the wallet.

Our destination, about 200 miles south of Tijuana, seemed a little far for a weekend getaway, but my husband, John, and I were curious about life beyond chaotic Ensenada. So one Friday last month, we counted the winding drive down the coast and through inland valleys as part of the itinerary.

With the mandatory Mexican car insurance already purchased from an auto-club office near home, we zipped south from L.A., through San Diego and into Mexico for a leisurely lunch of fish tacos and black bean soup at La Fonda hotel's El Royal Restaurant near Puerto Nuevo. An hour later in Santo Tomas, we stopped for fuel and lingered in the quirky souvenir shop of El Palomar, a restaurant, motel and RV park.

By the time we pulled into San Quintin (pronounced kin-TEEN) at dusk, we were ready for that beer.

The town, home to 25,000, sits in the middle of a fertile farm region and near a harbor that is a popular base for sportfishing and kayaking. U.S. and British investors tried to develop a wheat farming and flour processing industry here in the late 1800s, but drought drove them away. Mexican farmers had better luck in the 20th century, as evidenced today by the fields of tomatoes, strawberries and olive trees lining two-lane Highway 1 as it approaches town.

On our way to the easy-to-miss turnoff for the Old Mill Hotel, we also passed rows of edible cactus, painted shacks selling cocteles de mariscos (seafood cocktail) and wagons brimming with mangoes, watermelons and oranges selling for a fraction of their price back home.

The Old Mill was worth the dusty drive. Most of the 34 rooms ring a courtyard overlooking the inner leg of U-shaped San Quintin Bay. The place was full of nice touches that we didn't expect with our $40-a-night rate. Lounge chairs, grills and original gristmill machinery are scattered around the property, and brick fireplaces and tile floors lend a homey feel to many of the rooms, mismatched decor notwithstanding. (Suites as well as dorm-style rooms sleeping up to six people are available for $54 to $90 a night.) Our favorite discovery was a 10-gallon water cooler in our bathroom, although it later proved more necessity than luxury.

Beautiful surf, light lunch

Saturday morning we woke late and wandered next door to the Cannery, a sardine packing plant that has been transformed into a full-service restaurant, bar and dance hall. After a filling but unremarkable breakfast of huevos rancheros and hash browns, we pointed the car toward mountainous peaks framing the spit of land across the inner bay.

The drive led past dormant volcanoes and small quarries to a hilltop view of the deserted shore. Happy we had four-wheel drive and a detailed map (available at the tourist information office in town), John bounced the car down another rocky path to the beach at La Chorera. It was too cold to hang out, but the sight of long, unbroken lines of surf was breathtaking.

Back in San Quintin, an outdoor market offered mangoes, avocados and a bunch of petite bananas. Our total: $1.25. We had withdrawn pesos from an ATM in Ensenada but found that most places accepted U.S. currency too.

Ready for a light lunch, we drove south on Highway 1 about five miles to Cielito Lindo, another restaurant-motel-RV park, this one near the water. Six dollars bought a plate of tacos, burritos and tostadas for two. The salsa was robust and spicy, the chips fresh from the fryer and the corn tortillas as light as air.

A typewritten sign tacked onto the restaurant's purple wall chronicled its origins. It said Mark Armistead, a Hollywood producer, had built the complex in the early 1960s, fashioning it after a popular, since-closed Costa Mesa watering hole, El Pescador. John Wayne, Ward Bond and Henry Fonda spent lazy days at Cielito Lindo, according to the writing on the wall. Armistead sold the place in the 1970s after the highway to Cabo San Lucas opened, making the San Quintin area "too accessible."

The rest of Saturday afternoon was consumed with the weekend's marquee activity: doing nothing. John napped in the room while I took Harer up on his earlier beer offer. He told me he and his wife, Nancy, retired to San Quintin from Seattle nine years ago and have been running the Old Mill ever since.

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