Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Defining luxury in new look Los Cabos

To understand how much Los Cabos has changed, one must first understand its past. The name Los Cabos, for example, didn’t even exist before 1981, when a new municipality was carved out for Baja California Sur and dubbed according to the common appellation shared by its two most notable communities: Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo. Cabo means “the cape” in Spanish, so the two fast-growing tourist destinations became “Los Cabos.” 

Fast-growing, though, isn’t a strong enough word. Not only has there been massive growth in the local population in recent years – the population of Cabo San Lucas nearly tripled between 2010 and 2020, and is ten times more than in 1990 – but luxury hotel brands seemingly can’t build new resorts here fast enough. Four Seasons has built two new resorts here since 2019 and in the interim new properties have been opened for big-name hospitality brands like Ritz-Carlton, Waldorf Astoria, and Nobu. Soho House, St. Regis, Park Hyatt, and Aman are expected to open properties here within the next year.

Casa Fisher, the Carmen Fisher-owned guesthouse that was the first lodging in Los Cabos, circa 1957. (Howard E. Gulick, from the Baja California Collection of the University of California San Diego)

The average hotel room rate has risen to over $500 per night and guests at most hotels and resorts are treated to a level of indulgence far beyond what was typical in the smaller, less polished Los Cabos of 30 years ago. Hard as it may be to believe for first-time visitors, who take the chic accommodations and abundant amenities for granted, it wasn’t always like this. The unique brand of Los Cabos luxury that has now proven so attractive is the result of nearly 70 years of growth and evolution. 

Hotel Palmilla and the birth of Los Cabos hospitality

One&Only Palmilla, the modern incarnation of Los Cabos’ most historic and influential resort. (One&Only Palmilla)

Before Abelardo “Rod” Rodríguez Jr. opened Hotel Palmilla (originally Las Cruces Palmilla and now One&Only Palmilla) in 1957, the only other lodging in the area was the small Casa Fisher guesthouse in central San José del Cabo. Rodríguez, the son of a former Mexican President, had something more ambitious in mind. His marriage to Hollywood actress Lucille Bremer had helped draw a celebrity clientele to their Rancho Las Cruces resort when it opened near La Paz in 1948. The formula worked for them at Palmilla, too. Soon after its opening, high-profile guests like Ernest Hemingway, Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower were among those inhabiting Palmilla’s 15 rooms across 400 sprawling acres. This was the birth of Los Cabos’ reputation as an A-list getaway destination – even though tourism was still in its infancy. The transpeninsular highway wasn’t completed until 1973, and the Los Cabos International Airport didn’t open until 1977. 

The Hotel Palmilla (whatever name it has been known by) has been the region’s benchmark property and a trendsetter throughout its history. The succeeding owner Don Koll convinced Jack Nicklaus to come to Los Cabos to build the area’s first world-class golf at Palmilla in the 1990s. This set the template that continues in Los Cabos to this day. Not only must the best resorts offer access to a golf course from a renowned designer to their guests, but golf courses have also become the centerpiece of every major residential real estate development in the area.

The man who defined luxury hospitality in Los Cabos

Los Cabos’ high-end resorts offer unique experiences, like Las Ventanas al Paraiso’s floating breakfasts. (Las Ventanas al Paraiso, A Rosewood Resort.)

One&Only Palmilla would also change the quality of cuisine in Los Cabos during the management heyday of the legendary managing hotel director Edward Steiner. Steiner was the first to elevate a Los Cabos resort to world-class status. However, that originally happened at Las Ventanas al Paraiso, which he oversaw beginning with its opening in 1997. A Los Angeles Times writer visiting the property a year later wondered, “This is Cabo?” The $475 per night price tag and the resort’s amazing service and amenities – validated by a AAA Five Diamond status – marked a sea change in the existing fishing-friendly, “party hearty” hospitality model. 

Outshone for the first time in its history, the newly rebranded One&Only Palmilla hired away Steiner in 2003 and he remained with the resort until 2012. The expansion of rooms (to 174) took place on his watch, as did the unveiling of a 25,000-square-foot luxury spa to compete with the holistic spa at Las Ventanas al Paraiso, the first of its kind in the area. Spas, naturally, soon became a specialty at every Los Cabos luxury lodging, with an “arms race” to see who could build the biggest, and provide the most pampering treatments. Montage now holds the record for the former, with a 40,000-square-foot wellness center. 

One&Only Palmila likewise upgraded its dining options, bringing in celebrated imported chefs like Charlie Trotter and Larbi Dahrouch; an example since followed, and responsible for the Michelin-star quality chefs now notable in present-day Los Cabos – from Martín Berasategui and Enrique Olvera to Sidney Schutte and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Steiner passed away in 2013, but his unique conception of luxury hospitality remains the standard by which all other regional hoteliers are judged. More importantly, by proving that Los Cabos could support a discerning luxury clientele, he laid the foundation for all the high-end hotel brands that would follow. 

Barefoot luxury and the value of location and one-of-a-kind experiences

Resort dining at El Farallon, encompassing the modern ethos of beachfront locations and world class eating, that has helped propel Los Cabos to among the world’s most luxurious destinations. (Waldorf Astoria Los Cabos Pedregal)

Ocean views, beachfront access, pampering spas, swimming pools, and exceptional cuisine became the formula for all new hotels and resorts in Los Cabos – with world-class golf access also a must. However, the “only in Cabo” style barefoot luxury pioneered at Las Ventanas al Paraiso and One&only Palmilla wasn’t just about beautiful beaches and pampering service. It was also about special experiences. As Rodrigo Esponda, Managing Director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board, has noted of how the conception of luxury has evolved locally: “Luxury is to wake up and see a whale jumping out from the ocean right in front of you, or sleeping under a sky full of stars with shapes and lights you have never seen before, or savoring a dish of freshly caught fish, offered in the most kind, unique type of hospitality you’ve ever enjoyed before.

Leveraging Los Cabos’ spectacular blend of mountain, desert, and ocean scenery, and its location-specific charms – including marlin fishing, off-road explorations, and bucket list activities like whale watching – has, over time, been integrated into a type of resort experience that is necessarily different than that offered at any other destination. Las Ventanas al Paraiso, not surprisingly, is still a leader in this area, with curated experiences focused on romance and gastronomy. But it has plenty of competition. Waldorf Astoria Los Cabos Pedregal in Cabo San Lucas has curated experiences, as do One&Only Palmilla, Esperanza, and every other upscale property worth its salt-rimmed, pool butler-delivered margaritas. 

In 2024, it’s no longer a question of whether guests prefer vacation pampering or an unforgettable adventure. They can have both, from spas as decadent as those enjoyed by Roman emperors to curated desert helicopter expeditions and private yacht excursions. Los Cabos’ best resorts have mastered an elevated approach to personalized and location-specific luxury that legendary figures like Rodriguez, Bremer, Koll, and Steiner would undoubtedly have approved. They helped to create the blueprint, after all.

Chris Sands is the Cabo San Lucas local expert for the USA Today travel website 10 Best, writer of Fodor’s Los Cabos travel guidebook, and a contributor to numerous websites and publications, including Tasting Table, Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, Forbes Travel Guide, Porthole Cruise, Cabo Living and Mexico News Daily. His specialty is travel-related content and lifestyle features focused on food, wine and golf.

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