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Rosarito on the Rebound

Rosarito on the rebound

Good times overcome bad news for a lover of Baja California.

The Orange County Register

So imagine an Italian Archie Bunker bellowing, "You're goin' WHERE?!?!"

My aging dad – and many of my much younger friends – couldn't quite fathom why my husband and I were heading to Rosarito Beach for a long weekend with our 5-year-old daughter in August. Swine flu! Shootouts! Drug wars! Kidnappings! Carjackings! All this, and worse, had become synonymous in their minds with the Mexican border area around Tijuana.

I confess to having an overly emotional attachment to Rosarito. It was more than 20 years ago that I made my first foray into Baja after moving to California, and it was a revelation – there was a foreign country with a different language … right down the block! I dragged friends there for firsthand lessons on border issues, I bought handmade furniture from artisans there, I got married there nine years ago, and my husband and I vowed to return every year to celebrate our anniversary.

Whoops. Our last foray to Baja was in 2005. Before our daughter. Before cartel kingpin Javier Arellano Felix was nabbed and a savage war of succession erupted around Tijuana among the druglord wanna-be's eager to replace him.

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But as Tijuana's underbelly was exposed, Rosarito tried to separate itself from the mayhem. Over the past two years, the city has replaced much of its (notoriously corrupt) police force, created a new tourist police detail, added a tourist assistance bureau and employed a 24-hour-a-day ombudsman to handle complaints. This month, Rosarito Beach will debut a "mediation center," so English-speakers can air complaints in their own language and settle disputes quickly.

Violence, the city fathers say, is a far more common occurrence in Los Angeles than it is down there. And who thinks twice about going to Los Angeles? Add to this the lure of oceanfront rooms that go, midweek, for as low as $19.25 a night (to mark the Rosarito Beach Hotel's 1925 opening), and many resorts' offers of free shuttles from San Ysidro/Chula Vista (on our side of the fence), and it's a lure this lapsed Baja lover simply could not resist.

A DIFFERENT BAJA NORTE

We passed up the free-shuttle offer; Talavera flower pots beckoned, and we planned to cart as many home from Rosarito's stalls as our 12-year-old RAV4 could carry.

We've never had to wait in a line to get into Mexico before last month. It was only 10 minutes or so until the little traffic light gave us the green PASE, but nonetheless we were waved over for further inspection by Mexican agents with machine guns. They scoured our passports (don't forget these), matching pictures to faces, and then meticulously matched the VIN number on my car's dashboard to the VIN number on the Mexican auto insurance policy we had bought just minutes earlier (don't forget that, either). But we were waved on with a smile, and proceeded straight down the toll road to Rosarito, skirting Tijuana.

In 2000, our wedding was at a funky little backwater just south of the city. Calafia – set breathtakingly on a bluff perched over the sapphire Pacific – was a bit Mission San Juan Capistrano meets Aging Trailer Park. An outdoor restaurant tumbled down the bluffs into a pirate ship/dance floor, a rambling collection of double-wides was dressed up as hotel rooms, and everything was stitched together by brilliant clouds of pink and purple bougainvillea and rough-hewn grottoes beneath heavy-limbed trees. Half of the plastic chairs arranged on the lawn for our wedding guests said TECATE in red letters. A dirt bluff stacked with random junk was next door.

There was no true "luxury" there just a few years ago. So imagine our utter, unadulterated shock as we approached the Calafia turnoff and found A MASSIVE 22-STORY LUXURY TOWER where our sweet little wedding site used to be.

Shrieking and moaning, we proceeded, slack-jawed, down the turnoff, gawking at the colossal Las Olas Grand. Las Vegas big with two infinity pools, private beach, state-of-the-art glass-walled fitness center jutting into the ocean and uber-luxury accommodations (travertine floors, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances). What on earth had happened in our absence?! It wasn't until we had rolled past Las Olas that we realized our funky little Calafia was still there, just hidden behind this tourista Gigantor.

Luxury condo-hotel towers have sprouted shockingly amid Baja's modest Mexican funk, as if the universe opened up a crack and chunks of Miami Beach came shooting up through the Baja bluffs. They have names like La Elegancia, Club Marena, Calafia Resort, Las Palmas, La Jolla Real … as if some developer just woke up and said, "Mi dios! The coast is lovely here, and it's only 20 miles from San Diego!" The place is not quite transformed, but the startling juxtaposition of old and new made it feel odd for us.

FACE-LIFT FOR

THE AGING STARLET

The main game along this stretch of coast has long been the storied Rosarito Beach Hotel, even as Hollywood sheen gave way to spring-break careen. We last stayed here in 2000 while scoping out where to park our wedding guests. The bed was hard, the poolside music was blaring, the funky smell was unidentifiable. We realized we had grown a bit old for the scene, fleeing farther south to the likes of Las Rocas and Las Rosas resorts. But here we were, eager to check out the Rosarito Beach Hotel's own Gigantor, the new, 18-story Pacifico Tower. Built last year to cater to the sort of traveler who would be aghast at a stray rodent in the room or an invasive swarm of ants – things that were par for the course at some funkier Baja digs.

We had no reservations. It was the weekend of the first Rosarito Beach Pro-Am surf contest, complete with $10,000 in prizes. We grabbed a one-bedroom condo on the Pacifico's 15th floor for $149 a night for three nights. We had to wear yellow wrist bracelets (faintly reminiscent of spring break) so security would know we belonged; but the room came with two free margaritas each day and hotel restaurant coupons that could cut dinner bills nearly in half.

As we walked from the old hotel to the new tower, Pacifico seemed to have that old Rosarito thing going: Where there were supposed to be giant glass doors opening into the lobby, no glass had been installed yet. No matter. Once into the lobby, it felt bizarrely like the five-star Kahala resort in Hawaii where I had stayed a few years back: high-ceilinged, exclusive, uber-chic. Off the lobby was a nicely equipped fitness room and a hipster bar with neon and pool tables called "The Joint." Outside was a gorgeous, sapphire-colored heated swimming pool, flanked by two sapphire hot tubs and an outdoor bar. None of that spring-break red vinyl patio furniture here, but handsome blond faux-wicker.

Goodness. The Rosarito Beach Hotel was all grown up.

The elevator whisked us to the 15th floor and – ears popping – we stepped out. Through the hallway windows we saw, for the first time, how far back into the hills Rosarito rambles, and what a big town it really is.

Then to our "suite." The first thing that struck us was the stunning ocean view from such a dizzying height; then we absorbed how utterly hip, stylish, minimalist the place was. Floors are Mexican stonework; bed, a heavenly, low-slung platform; sofa, modern leather. On the living room wall hung one highly stylized painting of a flamenco dancer; beside it, a heavy, wooden-framed, floor-to-ceiling mirror. There was one flat-screen TV in the living area, and another in the bedroom; the bedroom's sliding doors could be opened to make the spaces flow into one another, or closed to make a separate room. Our extra-large, glass-enclosed balcony offered expansive views of sand and ocean (and the more traditional Baja architecture that rambled down the coast); it felt giddy to be dangling so high above the beach.

CHANGE OF ATMOSPHERE

When my friend, colleague and avowed Baja-lover Marla Jo Fisher was here last year, she found Rosarito to be deserted and faintly depressing. It didn't feel that way at all anymore. True, the town wasn't crawling with drunken American college students, but that's a good thing. Rosarito was being enjoyed by her own people – Mexican families staying at the Pacifico Tower, eating in the restaurants, playing on the beach. There were a good number of Americans, but we had that feeling of being much deeper into Mexico – where, you know, there are mostly Mexicans. We loved it.

We didn't take any special precautions, except to avoid driving at night. We strolled the main drag, visited the Fox movie studio, bargained in the bazaar. We ate fish tacos at the corner taco stand (where gringos still drink beer with breakfast), gave the mariachis a few bucks to sing "Guadalajara" at El Nido. A highlight was Saturday night, when a stage rose beside the Pacifico Tower's lovely pool; bistro tables with crisp white tablecloths were set up at its edge; and a poolside flamenco show, by candlelight, began. The couple at the table behind us were nose-to-nose in ecstasy the entire time.

This month, the hotel is hosting Havana nights and tango nights. There's baby-sitting available for just $25 for four hours, and a kids club to help keep children occupied during the day if Mom and Dad have other plans.

We didn't want to leave. We soaked up the view (and the chocolate fondue) at Calafia, and stocked up on as many gorgeous, hand-painted Talavera pots as our RAV4 could hold (13, it turns out, for $400). Our ride back to El Norte was uneventful, and it took only about an hour (and one bag of too-greasy churros) to slip back across the border.

We were commiserating with folks at Calafia about that monstrosity that sprouted next door like Jack's beanstalk. But here's my secret confession: I'm dying to stay at Las Olas Grand for New Year's. Feliz Nuevo Ano! It is divine to be back under Baja's eclectic spell.


Published Monday, September 21, 2009 4:34 PM by Zinnia Q.

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