What are people doing today and tomorrow at the Villa del Palmar, the mystery resort you’ve never heard of, south of Loreto, on Mexico’s Gulf of California? For some, the answer is simply “nothing.”
When I asked the man digging clams on the beach what was up, he answered, “Not much. Just relaxing, looking at the scenery.” I asked the woman perched on the pool deck near me and she said the same thing. “Oh, nothing, really. I’m just enjoying the solitude.” Splashing in the bay, I exchanged smiles with a snorkeler who popped up nearby and all I got were bubbles and a faraway look, as if words were superfluous.
Some say it’s the rugged Sierra de la Giganta mountains that make the magic, rising behind the resort to leave guests gasping for adjectives. Others say it’s the divine Mexican cuisine, the best they’ve ever tasted. Or maybe the area’s sports and recreation options do the trick: kayaking and paddleboarding, deluxe spa treatments, tennis, and sunrise hikes.
But a recent investigation — conducted in situ by yours truly — found the answer.
The enchantment here is the 4,447-acre site on an alluring blue bay framed by red-rock cliffs — offering access to five offshore islets within the Loreto Bay National Marine Park and touting additional protection as a World Heritage site. Colorful, dramatic and secluded, it compels just-arrived guests to stand speechless and gape. Even when most of 181 multibedroom units are occupied — as happens on holidays — the place remains gloriously subdued.
Our neighbor Elaine, taking up residence in the adjacent one-bedroom unit, provided the proof. “Oh, no, we’re not newcomers to Mexico,” she said. “We’ve been coming down to Cabo San Lucas forever. But we transferred our timeshare over to this property this year because Cabo is so crowded it doesn’t feel like Cabo used to. Traffic, nightclubs, fast-food joints — it’s a mess. We had to pay more to make the exchange, but this feels like Mexico did 20 years ago.”
Strolling down to the beach after breakfast, I found others who shared the view. Jim and his brother-in-law Ron (not his real name), standing knee-deep in the water, were gazing at Danzante Island, low on the horizon and the very image of a sleeping dragon.
“They say that whales often swim by,” I said, hoping to start a conversation. “Six or seven different species, they say. See anything today?”
“Not really,” said Jim. “We’re just looking. I’m used to wide-open spaces and forests, without a lot of people. I like it empty.”
“It’s a big change from Cabo,” added Ron. “We had a timeshare in a condo over there, but Cabo attracts so many tourists now that we turned in our membership and moved it over to this side of Baja. The beach here is practically empty and you can get an umbrella when you want one. No beach vendors, either. The resort has exclusive use of all of it. … Loreto? It’s a nice village, not very big but interesting for a day out. You should see the museum and the church, which dates from the 1750s.”
Eventually it was obvious why the resort felt empty during the day. People were busy, walking on the trail above the coast; sport fishing for dorado, yellowfin tuna and sailfish; kayaking around the bay; paddleboarding from the beach; or shopping in Loreto.
Excursions head for the Marine Park almost daily, taking snorkelers and scuba divers into the heart of the “world’s aquarium,” as marine conservationist and diver Jacques Cousteau tagged it. The first to explore this undersea world, Cousteau became the catalyst behind the campaign to preserve what he called the “North American Galapagos.”
Most outings cruise around one or two of the five nearest islands — Coronado, Del Carmen, Danzante, Monserrat and Santa Catalina, each known for rocky coves, powdery white sand and emerald water. I joined the Isla Coronado adventure and was rewarded with a couple of hours of snorkeling in sunlit, glass-clear water, where our guide, Manual, estimated the visibility at 25 to 50 feet.
The fish were abundant and easy to see, and our group spotted seals and dolphins before heading to a white-sand beach for a picnic.
Life returns at mealtime
Each evening, as people slowly gathered for dinner — the adults wandering through the gardens to watch the last light fade behind the mountains, while kids chased each other across the plaza — I realized that the resort was actually quite full.
Prompted by waiters taking bar orders and by the tantalizing smells of warm tortillas, roast vegetables and grilled meats drifting from the kitchen, people headed in to eat, some choosing the more casual Market cafe or Danzante, the resort’s upscale restaurant.
Later, candlelight, guitar music and the spirit of fiesta would take hold, amplified by laughing and talking and plates of food delivered from the kitchen. Then, a folk-dance group filed out onto an impromptu stage to perform regional dances and slapstick comedy.
Like all resorts in their first year or two — Villa del Palmar opened in spring 2011 — the vacation destination suffers occasional complaints of problems like misplaced reservations, errors in bar charges and computer glitches that result in lost room requests and timeshare reservations.
I found the shuttle service between the airport in Loreto and the resort slower than expected, as well as less frequent. The daily shopping shuttles to Loreto were also off schedule. Continuing roadwork on the adjacent highway — in progress at the time — created irregular closures that stopped traffic. Meanwhile, construction on the Rees Jones golf course has dragged on, with the completion pushed into 2015.
In the overall scheme of things, these pinpricks didn’t seem to hurt. The guests I talked to were happy, delighted with the lodging and thrilled with the friendly staff — often citing their favorite waiter, bartender, guide or housekeeper as the reason they’d had such a good time.
I concluded that “nothing,” the answer I’d heard so often, was entirely reasonable. As with a teenager who answers “nothing,” when his parents ask him where he went or what he did, it seemed to mean, “Do I really have to say, when I’m happy just being here?”
If you go
The 181 units of the Villa del Palmar property, available as hotel rooms or for sale as timeshares, include air-conditioned, furnished studios or one-, two- and three-bedroom villas and suites, all with fully equipped kitchens. Some have balconies.
The resort has three restaurants, five swimming pools, a deluxe spa, a workout room, water sports equipment, tennis courts, a Kids Club, a small market, beach chairs and umbrellas.
Weather-wise, the Loreto area is never cold. Summer days can be excessively hot, but typical winter days are warm with cool nights, and variable water temperatures — partly dependent on Sea of Cortez currents.
Room rates in a double start at $288 per night. All-inclusive rates include meals and most bar and pool drinks. The closest other restaurants and shopping are in the historic town of Loreto, about 30 minutes away by bus or taxi.