Whale a of a Time
Dos Mares. Two Seas. The southern tip of Baja California, Mexico. Marlin fishing capital of the world, golf mecca, sea kayaking paradise and winter home of blue whales, humpbacks and grays. It’s a wild and sensuous land, this place where the brown, arid Sonoran Desert creeps to the edge of the turquoise seas. Here, pure blue agave tequila flows down the throat like molten lava, opening the senses for luscious five-star international cuisine as well as authentic Mexican dishes prepared in centuries-old tradition.
Let the college kids and party animals converge on touristy Cabo San Lucas. Instead, meander a few miles north along the rugged coastline, past pristine beaches and hillsides dotted with the shadowy figures of cardón, the world’s largest cactus.
I’m not claiming to have discovered Los Cabos (The Capes). A handful of upscale hoteliers did that a decade ago. But aside from a certain class of savvy travelers, golfers, superstars and royalty, it’s still Mexico’s best-kept secret.
6:30 a.m. A soft breeze is blowing off the Sea of Cortez, across my balcony and into my beachfront casita. Not my upper balcony, atop the bougainvillea-draped stone staircase—where yesterday I lunched on lobster beside my private rooftop pool—but my bedroom-level balcony, where a disappearing window wall affords 180-degree views of golden sands and wooden fishing boats.
I’m still half-dozing and half-listening for that subtle little click-and-slide that means my pastries have arrived. I rush to the alcove in the marble hall. Behind the tiny gate rests a basket piled high with oven-warm breads and muffins, a pot of coffee and a platter of fresh melons and berries. Bread is something I can usually pass up, but not these dense—but not too sweet—cakes and cloudlike confections dusted with powdered sugar. Ignoring the healthy fruits, I consume them all.
I’m posing as a typical $1,000-a- night guest at Marquis Los Cabos, a posh Spanish-style resort drenched in palm trees and grand-scale Jorge Marin bronze sculptures. My casita is appointed in Frette linens, original paintings and the aforementioned rooftop pool.
Besides my pastries—an unexpected delight—I’ve booked myself the signature Quetzalcoatl Oxygenating Experience at Spa Marquis, good for at least two hours of decadence.
Tonight, there will be a glam five-star feast by Michelin Chef Thierry Dufour. Afterward, astronomers will be waiting on the beach with their powerful telescopes to show me the rings of Saturn.
When only the extraordinary will do, Marquis los Cabos suggests its Billionaire’s Getaway: Private jet transport from anywhere in the continental U.S., a round of golf with Jack Nicklaus or Robert Trent Jones II and use of a Jaguar, Rolls Royce or Bentley.
No, of course that’s not all. You’ll also enjoy a private concert by legendary guitarist Carlos Santana and a fully crewed luxury yacht. Your sumptuous 2,600-square-foot Presidential Suite comes with personal butler, maids and chef, and towels, robes, slippers and sandals with your monogram. And more: a private whale-watching helicopter … escorted village tours … gowns on loan by Chanel, Dior and others. The package, which includes excellent tequila, liquors and cigars, starts at $8.4 million (taxes included) for four days and three nights.
Above all, i’ve come for the whales … to see the stunning rippled black-and-white tail of the humpback slapping the water as she introduces her newborn baby to the warm waters of their winter home. Though blue whales are the world’s largest (visualize, if you can, a three-ton tongue) and grays the most predominant, their tail flukes are not particularly impressive. So I have my heart set on humpbacks. Though it’s still March, it seems the whales packed their bags early this year and have begun the 5,000-mile return to the Bering Sea.
So, fueled by pastry-induced adrenaline, I’m headed instead for an outback excursion into the Sonoran Desert. I’m slightly disappointed that the other tourists on the Mercedes Benz 4x4 vehicle are, well, tourists. Chicas, our Cabos Adventures guide, has clearly been to Charming Guide School, his repertoire laced with interesting cultural, historic and environmental tidbits.
We bounce through ravines and trek up hillsides of the arid Matancitas region, avoiding random goats and cows, eyeing the vultures circling overhead. At mid-day, we arrive at the small ranch of Doña Ramona and Don Chicho, who are preparing a native feast. But first, there’s the mezcal, derived from the fruit of the blue agave plant and, depending on the number of distillations, is eventually refined into tequila. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, as the tiny earthen cup on the ribbon around my neck flows endlessly with the fermented nectar.
Chicas passes salt and lime to temper the lava flow down the throat, along with a platter of baked crickets (crunchy like potato chips). I decline the crickets, but when he calls for a volunteer to hold the rattlesnake, I hold out my arms like a new mother to her babe. As she slithers around my neck, our big round eyes meet—her lidless ones and my dilated ones. We bond.
While we’re having a tortilla-making lesson, Ramona, Chicho and family are setting out our picnic lunch: mole (chicken with chocolate sauce), machaca (shredded beef), homemade tortillas, rice and beans, salsas and guacamole, and baked prickly pear cactus. Everyone goes back for seconds.
The return trip somehow seems much less bumpy.
Back at Marquis, I barely have time to rinse off the desert dust before my spa date for the signature Quetzalcoatl Oxygenating Experience, infused with products of desert and sea. More agave and sea salt seem downright superfluous after my real-life “oxygenating” experience. I happily doze through the decadent eucalyptus-scented foot ritual and cactus-oil body scrub, and sleepwalk into a warm herbal bath. Perhaps it also is laced with mezcal.
I’m dreaming of a pretty white rabbit holding a basket of sugar-dusted pastries and whispering my name. This turns out to be my white-uniformed therapist, offering a cup of cool water. Bath time is over, and the massage table awaits.
“You’ve been holding your stress in your shoulders,” she comments.
“No,” I say dreamily, “that was a three-foot rattlesnake.”
If I had read up on my snakes before the adventure, I’d have known that the venomous desert rattlesnake is almost indistinguishable from the harmless gopher snake: When disturbed, both flatten their heads into triangular shapes, hiss and shake their tails. The big difference: The rattlesnake has an elliptical-shaped cat-eye, and the gopher snake has no rattles.
It’s my last day in Baja, and I can’t get whales off my mind. One was spotted near the hotel. That’s enough for me. I’ll take my chances. The concierge books me on a 15-passenger Ocean Riders zodiac and arranges a shuttle to the Cabo San Lucas marina.
Our motorized, inflatable boat putters slowly around Land’s End, literally the end of the earth, where the picturesque El Arco rock marks the convergence of the Pacific Ocean with the Sea of Cortez. We glide past secluded Playa del Amor and a colony of sea lions dozing in the afternoon sun. I’m enchanted, but my mind is on whales.
“Just one, please, just one,” I whisper to the whale gods. Past the no-wake zone now, we’re flying out to sea, seeking the telltale spout that presages a breach.
“Don’t be disappointed if we don’t spot any today,” says our guide. “It’s the end of the migration season.”
“Just show me one humpback fluke,” I repeat my silent mantra with the anticipation of a five-year-old before her birthday party. When I spot the flume in the distance, no words come. But the driver, seeing it too, accelerates at racing speed toward the spot. My camera is ready.
We know it’s coming. Still, there’s a communal intake of breath when two dorsal fins glide by (on my side of the raft!); one large, one small. The waters part and five feet of sleek tail loops on the surface. Nobody exhales as a beautiful black-and-white fluke rises, barely 20 feet away from us, in a silvery halo of sea spray. We’re close enough to see the barnacles on her skin. Then it slips back into the water and all is still.
It happened so fast I can’t remember pressing the shutter. There’s no time to check, because another spout has been sighted. Once again, we’re skimming the water at 50 miles per hour. Yes! Another humpback struts her stuff. Then another. Energy in the boat is at a fever pitch. But the sun is setting, and it’s time to go.
I’m still breathing silent thanks to the whale gods, when they seem to say, “But wait—just watch this!” One last humpback slaps the water with a flourish—the perfect send-off as she heads out to sea and we return to the cliffs of Los Cabos.
Visit the galleries and 18th century Jesuit mission church in the village of San Jose del Cabo. Some compare it to the charming resort town of San Miguel de Allende before it was “discovered” by tourism.
Dine by candlelight at Mi Cocina, the exquisite restaurant of the Casa Natalia boutique hotel.
Golf on the breathtaking Jack Nicklaus-designed Cabo del Sol Ocean Course overlooking the Sea of Cortez.
Marquis los Cabos: www.marquisloscabos.com
Whale Watching: www.oceanriders.com.mx
Desert Adventure: www.cabo-adventures.com Mi Cocina Restaurant: www.casanataliacom