Everything I thought I knew about Cabo San Lucas I learned in March 1993, when a group of boisterous young men who lived in my dorm returned from a 10-day spring break trip there, claiming to have seen paradise. Describing a nonstop routine of poolside dance parties and tequila shots, they said the daily wet T-shirt contests and nightly “booze cruises” were unlike anything they had ever experienced.
Great fun for college frat boys, to be sure, but probably not the dreamiest of destinations for anyone over age 30.
Fast forward about two decades, and I’m standing in Los Cabos International Airport, comfortable with the concept that a lot can change in 20 years and it might be time to review the information in hand and gather a few new facts.
I’ll spend four days here, long enough for a welcome respite from DFW’s unusually chilly winter and a chance to see my longstanding judgments about Cabo confirmed.
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The beach-vacation hot spot is located at the tip of the Baja California peninsula (which divides the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California), so expecting an instant rush of natural beauty doesn’t seem much of a stretch. But the Transpeninsular Highway that connects the towns of San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas is an ugly bit of road dotted with American chain stores and fast-food joints.
The center of Cabo San Lucas, meanwhile, is a prototypical overdeveloped resort town, with sunburned tourists shuffling between taco joints, T-shirt shops and tequila bars.
All of which has me second-guessing my reasons for giving this a shot. Shortly, however, my ride from the airport takes a turn off the highway, climbs a small hill and stops at the gated entrance of a 24-acre, mountainside, oceanfront complex.
I’m greeted by a security guard who is all business as he asks me if I would like a margarita, then whispers my request — salt, on the rocks — into a walkie-talkie.
The gates open and the car makes its way through a tunnel created by dynamiting through Mount Pedregal, and in short order, I encounter the spectacular reveal: the open-air lobby of Capella Pedregal and its breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean. As I exit the car, a bellman stands ready with my ice-cold margarita balanced elegantly on a tray.
No frat boys or wet T-shirt contests here. Welcome to spring break for grown ups.
As part of the expanding Capella chain — created by former Ritz-Carlton president Horst Schulze — Capella Pedregal opened in 2009 and has quickly established itself as one of the most exclusive destination resorts in the world. Among the bold-faced names who have stayed here in recent years are actors Will Smith and Reese Witherspoon, rap star 50 Cent, and mogul Bill Gates.
The resort also has strong ties to the North Texas culinary community, with an annual four-day Food & Wine Festival in which chefs such as Dallas’ Dean Fearing of Fearing’s and Kent Rathbun of Abacus make the magic happen. (Rathbun is confirmed again for this year’s festival, July 9-12.)
Such luxury doesn’t come cheap: Rooms at Capella Pedregal — all offering ocean views and large terraces with private plunge pools — start at $600 per night. A three-bedroom beachfront suite is as much as $6,000 per night. (Five-day, four-night festival packages, available for just 120 guests, start at $4,620 for two.)
If you’re willing to splurge, Capella Pedregal offers generous culinary treats and surrender-all-your-worries spa treatments in a setting so majestic and serene that you’ll think you’ve stepped into a Hollywood fantasy, and it is available any time of year.
On our plates
“Would you prefer that I just put together a tasting menu for the table?” asks Yvan Mucharraz, the executive chef who oversees Capella Pedregal’s four on-site restaurants.
It’s our first night at the resort, and our group of six is seated at one of the outdoor tables at Don Manuel’s, Capella Pedregal’s “signature” restaurant. Until this moment, there had been a palpable anxiety in the air: How were we supposed to choose just one appetizer and one entree from a menu of delicacies such as poblano chile risotto, seared sea bass with corn-vanilla pudding and “popcorn powder,” and crispy suckling pig with peanut mazipan?
It takes only one meal here to recognize that, unlike other Mexican and Caribbean resorts and their gussied-up, overpriced versions of American food like tacos and hamburgers, Capella Pedregal takes food very seriously.
Mucharraz, 31, spent 18 months working at Thomas Keller’s famed French Laundry in California, and an additional four months working at legendary French chef Joel Robuchon’s L’Atelier in Paris. The influence of both of those chefs — and their exacting attention to locally sourced ingredients — is strong on menus throughout the resort.
So, yes, if you absolutely must, you can order enchiladas and huevos rancheros and other assorted Mexican staples here. (Like most resorts, Capella Pedregal aims to please every member of your party, even the less-daring eaters.)
But you’d do much better ordering Mucharraz’s complex and subtly adventurous Mexican and Latin American-influenced dishes, such as the red snapper “paella style” — a crispy fillet of snapper, served on a bed of saffron rice, accompanied by scallops, clams and Anaheim peppers — or a silky butternut squash soup, which is given an extraordinary punch of flavor courtesy of ancho chile, ginger, crushed hazelnuts and panela cheese.
And as if inventive, expertly prepared food weren’t enough, look up from your plate and consider the view. On our second night, we dined at El Farallón, also located on the property, with its tables abutting the mountainside of Mount Pedregal. (Ordering at El Farallón involves walking up to a display case that features the day’s fresh-caught fish, likely to range from parrotfish or tuna to amberjack and sea bass.)
We shared steamed lobster, listened to the sound of waves crashing against the rocks below and gazed at the stars twinkling against the blue-black sky for an effect more accurately described as a complete out-of-body experience rather than fine dining.
The detox regimen
The only real drawback to starting each evening with a mango margarita or strawberry mojito, followed by a five-course meal with wine pairings? Well, you’re prone to feel a little bleary in the morning.
Fortunately, that’s where Capella Pedregal’s Auriga Spa comes to the rescue. Each morning during my three-day visit, I tried a different treatment, completing my tox-and-detox regimen.
Inside a lovely blue-and-white-domed building in the center of the property, Auriga is one of those whispery spas where your pulse drops the instant you step inside. Each treatment begins with a five-minute foot massage, where fresh herbs and a scrubbing with a sugar solution promises the release of toxins from the soles of your feet.
From there, you’re led to one of the treatment rooms, each of which opens out onto the spa’s saltwater plunge pool and the Pacific Ocean, beyond. You can leave the curtain and door open during your treatment (don’t worry, no one can see in) and listen to relaxing sounds of real waves.
Beyond the algae mask and back massage of the “stress relief” package or the pleasurable acupressure, the spa offers treatments related to the phases of the moon, which are designed “to reflect the varying energies of the lunar cycle.”
I tried the three-hour Full Moon treatment, complete with a body exfoliation with crushed rose petals and a facial using something called rose crystals, which felt great even if it didn’t leave me any more capable of living “my life to the fullest potential,” as the brochure promised.
Auriga’s spa menu has something for everyone, including my personal favorite: the Magic Stones. It was like a traditional hot-stone massage, with warm stones used to work out the assorted kinks in your muscles. But in this treatment, the hot stones were followed with ice-cold ones for a sensory rush that proved both relaxing and completely invigorating.
About that beach
No paradise is truly perfect, so those considering a trip to Capella Pedregal should keep a few things in mind. For one, the currents of the Pacific in this corner of Mexico make ocean swimming too dangerous — if you venture into the ocean much deeper than your ankles, a resort security guard will urge you to return to shore.
So while you can lounge on chairs on the beach and have your drinks delivered there, the water itself remains frustratingly off-limits. (There are only a couple of resorts in the Cabo region that allow swimming, so this is hardly an issue endemic to Capella Pedregal.)
Meanwhile, the resort has four infinity-edge pools on its grounds, since poolside lounging is a central activity, but the lounge chairs tend to fill up fast — especially by the adults-only pool with its popular swim-up bar. The scene feels a little more crowded than you might expect at a luxury resort, but these are easily forgiven quibbles considering the uniformly faultless service.
Each room is assigned its own personal assistant, who contacts you before your arrival and will arrange anything from a fishing expedition departing from the Cabo San Lucas port to a round of golf at the Cabo Real Golf Club.
One night when I mentioned to our assistant that I might be interested in taking a tennis lesson the next morning, she was immediately on her cellphone, and within minutes had scheduled a morning appointment for me with the resort’s tennis pro.
And then there were once-in-a-lifetime types of experiences. On our third night at the resort, we had a special twilight dinner on the beach. A gentle breeze lifted from the ocean as the sky darkened above us, and dish after dish seemed to appear out of thin air. The third course, a grilled mahi-mahi served with beets, cucumber slaw and green mole sauce, is one I’ll be talking about for years.
Afterward, we lingered by a bonfire, talking and toasting our own s’mores.
Like all proper spring-breakers, I had some groggy mornings — perhaps those after-dinner rounds of tequila weren’t the wisest idea. But I’ve never felt more removed from my own vastly thriftier college spring breaks or, for that matter, more gloriously unplugged from my real life in the United States.