“Why go there? You’ll find no one but drug lords and other bad guys.” This is so yesterday! The Tijuana of today is a center for gourmet dining, luxurious hotels, world-class artists and musicians, award-winning wines, excellent medical services, centers for scientific research, creative and value–priced home-furnishings (i.e., wrought iron, wood works, glass, pottery, marble, and tiles) plus rugged mountains for climbing and fabulous water for kayaking and surfing.
Getting and Going
Fly into the San Diego, CA, airport on Jet Blue, and Tijuana is an easy drive across the border. International visitors need a passport to purchase a visa (US$20 – cash) and bags may be searched. Depending on the time of the day and day of the week, there may be a long wait to cross from one country to the other; however, this is but a small inconvenience for getting to see the 2010 version of Tijuana.
Colorful History: Early 20th Century
Because of its close proximity to the USA, Hollywood starlets and gangsters regularly traipsed across the border to Tijuana for the chance to win big prize money at the first professional race track. In the 1920s, when Americans were not permitted to drink on their own turf (thanks to Prohibition), they drove across the border to Mexico for legalized drinking and more gambling. In mid-century (1928) the Agua Caliente Touristic Complex opened and with a hotel, spa, dog track, private airport, golf course, and casino – attracting the very rich, infamous, and wannabes. The property operated successfully for eight years until – sadly – it was closed (1935) by then President Lazaro Cardenas in an effort to erase these dens of hedonism and lawlessness.
Today: Maquiladoras and Country Clubs
Tijuana is the 6th largest city in Mexico and with a population of over 1.5 million, it is one of the fastest-growing cities in Mexico. Over 300,000 people (daily) cross the border between the USA and Mexico. The economy has been enhanced by maquiladoras (factories started by international businesses thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement/NAFTA), and it is the prevalence of international manufacturing means that has sparked the development of attractive branded hotels (Camino Real and Marriott), as well as a country club with a golf course (Tijuana Country Club and Baja Golf Course), and gourmet dining opportunities for foodies.
The Alta cocina (haute cuisine) Baja Mediterranean movement started at La Querencia in Tijuana. This cuisine is beyond gourmet and chef, jet-setter, hunter, and all-around charmer – Miguel Angel Guerrero Yagues owns and operates a restaurant that can only be appreciated by a food connoisseur.
Don’t look for room ambiance (except for heads of dead animals that are considered by hunters to be “trophies”) – the focus of this spot is on the mouth, eyes, and tummies of the diners (many are major league power brokers). Yagues treats palates as blank canvases to be seduced, mixing and mingling flavors and colors that can be surprising, delicate, over-whelming, and always inspired. Chef Miguel is so unpretentious that he delights in sitting with new diners, as well as old friends, who instantly become one of his groupies. If anyone needs a reason to spend a few days in Tijuana – La Querencia goes to the top of the list. (Heads up ladies, Yagues is married!)
Entijuanarte09. Frointera Creativa
In-between lunch and dinner with Miguel – there is ample time to visit the world-class artists and musicians that are part of the Tijuana underground. At this time you will not find an “artist colony” or even an artistic neighborhood. Sadly, neither the government nor the private sectors recognize the importance of the artists and musicians in the region’s economic renaissance. However, savvy visitors can contact Ceclia Ochoo Vazquez and Jeanette Sanchez (Entijuanarte09) to arrange private meetings with the artists and acquire a few world-class paintings, sculptures, and photographs from Julio Rodriguez Ramos. Ramos documents Mexico’s geography, cities, and social and cultural heritage, and founded Entijuanarte, the most important arts festival in this northwest region of Mexico.
The Tijuana Cultural Center – CECUT (Zona Rio district) is referred at La Bola (the Ball) because of its unique architectural design and requires a brief visit. Unfortunately, this interesting space is underutilized; however, visitors can stroll through the history of northern Baja, as well as view works from contemporary artists. Do note that the descriptive information is in Spanish, so arrange to have a docent lead the way if you are not bilingual.
Next Stop: Rosarito
Twenty miles from Tijuana (and 45 minutes from San Diego) is the beach community of Rosarito that is known for its marble, wrought iron, furniture, and glass designers. Do not look for the glitz and glamour of a Caribbean island or the allure of Puerto Vallarta; Rosarito is understated and still reflects its farming/hunting community heritage.
Although it remains a hidden gem to east coast travelers, Californians rush to Rosarito for its beaches, dining opportunities, night life, and its newest trendy hotel – the 17-story Pacifico Tower (part of the Rosarito Beach Hotel). Started in 1925 as a hunting lodge, over the years, bed-warmers have included Mexican presidents, as well as Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, Gregory Peck, and Marilyn Monroe.
The “Honey Do list” must include dining at the Puerto Nuevo lobster village where fresh lobster is deep fried in butter and served with Mexican rice and beans along with flour tortillas. This meal cries out for Margaritas, carafes of excellent Mexican wines, or a Tecate Mexican beer.
Rosarito’s artists and artisans are talented and eager to please, so shopping takes on a new meaning. Forget the sleekness of shopping malls and the over-the-top pricing in tourist resorts; this artful community is still about creativity, value, and turning the client’s dream into a reality. My favorite stop is Marmol Natural where the marble selection is almost endless. Whether designing a glass waterfall for the hallway (Jorge Luna), or a new wrought-iron door for the summer house, this is a pleasant no–hassle, old-world artistic community. Nothing is mass produced and to even think “department store” may be considered sinful (and definitely rude).
Ninety minutes from San Diego the “Cinderella of the Pacific” attracts visitors to fish, water, jet skiing, golf and tennis resorts, sailing, and horseback riding. Visitors dine like gourmets (or gourmands) and plan visits to nearby wine estates.
There are many options for accommodations, but a personal recommendation is the Hotel Coral and Marina. Luxurious and modern, the suites overlook the pools (indoor and outdoor), the sea, and the dock where large, expensive yachts bob up and down in the gentle surf. For dining, there is no need to venture beyond the hotel elevator, as Antare’s chef (Mexican and American selections ) personally defines guests’ wishes and offers selections that meet (and exceed) the most demanding palates. Make sure to pack your Ralph Laurens and AX apparel (the guests are very Euro trashy and look fabulous).
Ensenada’s reputation as a haven for foodies is well-preserved at El Rey Sol, which was been family-owned and operated since 1947. Following on the heels of his mother, Virginia Geoffrey, Jean-Loup Bitterlin maintains the family tradition. Known as Mexico’s oldest French dining spot, the restaurant has won many awards, but the proof is on the palate, and celebrities noted for heading here include John Wayne, Anthony Quinn, and many Presidents of Mexico.
Ensenada has become a center for medical tourism and – as luck would have it – I took this opportunity to actually visit a local physician, have tests analyzed at the laboratory, and get a prescription filled at the pharmacies. If one can pick a place to get sick, Ensenada has to be at the top of the list. Within minutes of a telephone call from the Hotel Coral, I had an appointment with Dr. Armondo Lievana Durazo at his nearby office. Not only is Dr. Armondo an excellent physician, he is drop–dead gorgeous and a prime candidate for CBS’ “The Doctors.”
Al Capone in Mexico?
Before leaving Ensenada, it is an absolute necessity to stop and visit the Social, Civic and Cultural Center that occupies the space once used as a casino and hotel. Some sources believe that the Riviera del Pacifico was built with Al Capone’s money; what is certain is that it was a Mecca for Hollywood celebrities and other wealthy Americans, plus infamous Mexicans during the US Prohibition era. Listen carefully and you can hear the songs of Bing Crosby, inhale the perfume of Rita Hayworth, and spy on the carousing of the notorious Ali Kahn. It is not hard to imagine the extravagant life-style that took place under its Moorish–style roof and the erotic dalliances that occurred in the gardens.
History suggests that the Margarita was introduced at the Pacifico by Danny Herrera its noted bartender who was in love with Marjorie King, an American actress who hated her Tequila straight-up. Strangely, Tequila was the only thing she was able to drink. With the thought of seducing Ms. King, Herrera brought together all the flavors favored by the actress and named the drink in her honor. Other stories suggest that the drink originated in Tijuana as homage to Rita Hayworth whose real name was Margarita Cansino.
The Mexican Wine Trail
While there may be a wish to never leave Ensenada, the wine trail beckons, and the opportunity to savor fine Mexican wines is very seductive, so let us move along to meet a group of dynamic, creative, and dedicated wine makers who have moved to Mexico from London, LA, Brazil, and other international locales to place their passion into the Mexican soil and produce world-class wines. Although wines from Mexico have been available for centuries, in the 1990s, they became competitive in the world-market.
The Valle de Guadalupe is a center for 20 wineries. Do not look for well-paved roads and lots of signs directing visitors to the glories of the region. Wine lovers discover the wineries on a “need to know” basis – permitting visitors to enjoy a very special joy of discovery – and finding – the “WOW.” The most direct 70-mile route, (2-hour drive) from the US border is via paved Highway 1. The Wine Route (Ruta del vino) is also known as Tecate Highway 3. The landscape is primarily scrub brush and boulders surrounded by mountains – interesting but not the reason for the trek – we are here for the wines!
Of Special Interest
• Bodegas de San Rafael
The first wine maker in Ojos Negros; there was little faith that the product would be anything different or unique. Known as the first Mexican winery to join the Meritage Association in US, here is a serious commitment to follow the quality and excellence required to produce a world-competitive wine. Gourmet cuisine combined with award-winning wines brings this stop from enjoyable to memorable.
• L.A. Cetto
Internationally noted and the oldest wineries in the region, it was started in 1930 by Angelo Cetto. This blended Italian and Mexican family produces more than half of the country’s wine. L.A. Cetto has received over 132 international prizes in France, Italy, Spain, England, Canada, and the US.
• La Casa de Dona Lupe
Owned and operated by Dona Lupe, this winery is a must stop for the organic wines, as well as the excellent al fresco dining (ask for the organic pizza and lasagna). In addition, Dona Lupe, a former nurse, can advise on the use of the herbal medicines offered in her small shop. (On a personal note – I arrived with a medical problem that stumped the doctors; fortunately Dona Lupe got me up and running – even before I left her table).
• La Villa del Valle
Owned and operated by Phil and Eileen Gregory who gave up a jet-set life in LA and London to open a Tuscan-style B&B, they have created a charming retreat that features local art for wine lovers and other romantics seeking an intimate spot that offers gourmet cuisine, fine wines, a yoga studio, and swimming pool, plus the opportunity to get up close and personal with the grapes, the wine master, and experience the uniqueness of owning a vineyard – without the stress.
Tecate: Rancho La Puerta
Now that the rich cuisine and wines of the region have been savored, it is time to head to Rancho La Puerta located in Tecate (known primarily for its beer). While the Ranch is decades old and noted for attracting exercise addicts with a penchant for pesticide-free cuisine, spa services, and lots of fresh mountain air, the glory days of the Ranch have passed into the history books. The exercise equipment is old, there is no indoor pool (and the weather does get cold and wet), exercise instructors run the gamut from poor to terrible (and rude), work-out venues are poorly ventilated and dirty, and accommodations (though lovely) can be miles from activity areas and the dining room (plan on three meals). The signage (directing guests to dining rooms, lecture halls, exercise classes, and administration) is either poorly placed or inaccurate (making it a challenge to find your way around the very large property at dusk and night-time). Dining times are rigidly adhered to, so a decision to sleep late means that breakfast is not available (and there are no snack outlets).
Reason Number 1: Dr. Jane Katz
Reasons for visiting the Ranch still exist, and I offer three. At the very top of my (very short) list is Dr. Jane Katz, a professor with John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and a world-renowned aquatic and wellness consultant. Dr. Katz has the distinction of being the swim instructor for many police departments, as well as state and federal agencies. If you want to swim like a Navy Seal, you must find your way into a class run by Dr. Katz. A few times a year, the Ranch brings Katz to work with guests. Be mindful of the time of the year you select, as winter months can be very cold and wet.
Reason Number 2: Excellent Kitchen
The chefs do a remarkable job in presenting three healthy meals a day that can be tailored to meet individual dietary restrictions (i.e., gluten or sodium free). I requested an oil-free diet – and for most meals my request was honored.
Reason Number 3: Socializing
The Ranch attracts many women who are traveling solo, and the open-seating arrangements make it easy to meet and chat with new folks at every meal. There were a few single men during my visit, a few men with girlfriends, and even a few men with their wives. For people reluctant to travel alone, the Ranch is a terrific destination.
Back to San Diego
The Ranch provides a bus shuttle service to the San Diego airport. The land-travel time is approximately 2 hours. If your flight does not depart at a time that coincides with the shuttle, there are two choices – hire a private car service or hang out at the airport.
Jet Blue to New York
I was happy to be leaving the Ranch, and although I had a few hours to wait at the airport, it did not seem to be a terrible waste. The San Diego Airport is new, modern, and clean with lots of snack shops. After a week without a potato chip or a Diet Coke, I felt I had been sprung from jail, and I headed directly to a fast-food restaurant, almost drowning in calories, carbs, sugar, and salt.
Feeling close to normal, I patiently sat and waited for my Jet Blue flight. The good news is that Flying Jet Blue is about the best any passenger can do if the budget does not permit business class. The seats are leather and comfortable, the staff is very pleasant, and the chocolate chip cookies are good (and if you ask politely, an extra cookie or two can be negotiated).
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Tijuana, Rosarito, Ensenada, and the Baja California Wine Country are wonderful and should not be missed. This is an area of the planet that does not disappoint – even the most critical of travelers will be happy campers. You, too, can be part of the new Tijuana and enjoy its beauty, simplicity, and tienen un tiempo maravilloso.
Afamaro A.C. Furniture and Accessories Manufacturers Assn. of Rosarito: www.afamaro.com
Casa La Carreta – Mexican and Contemporary Furniture: www.casaneri.com
CECUT- Tijuana Cultural Center: http://www.cecut.gob.mx/
Dr. Armando Lievana Durazo: [ایمیل محافظت شده]
El Rey Sol Restaurant:
Entijuanarte 09: [ایمیل محافظت شده]; 664 674 6957; [ایمیل محافظت شده]; 664 621 1493; www.entijuanarte.org
Hotel Coral & Marina: www.hotelcoral.com
L. A. Cetto Valle de Guadalupe: www.cettowine.com
La Querencia: Baja Med Cocina: www.laquerenciatj.com; 664 972 9935 x 40
La Villa del Valle: www.lavilladelvalle.com
Le Cava de Marcelo, Cava de Quesos:
Marmol Natural: www.marmolnatural.info
Puerto Nuevo II Restaurant: [ایمیل محافظت شده]
Julio Rodgriguez Ramos: www.bajaphotoart.com
Rosarito Beach CVB: www.rosarito.org
Rosarito Beach Hotel: www.rosaritobeachhotel.com