SAN JOSE DEL CABO, Mexico — Bone weary after a day of long flights and airport layovers, I arrived at my destination to be met by a white-clad gentleman who, after executing a gracious bow, placed one hand over his heart and with the other handed me a frothy margarita.
I had the momentary feeling I'd landed on Fantasy Island (if you weren't watching TV in the early 1980s, Google it). The failure of Mr. Rourke and Tattoo to materialize, however, convinced me that I was indeed at the One & Only Palmilla Resort, an elegant enclave at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, and a fantasy in its own right.
First, there's the setting, which couldn't be more fantastical. Tall palms tower over velvety emerald lawns that stretch to the beach and the Sea of Cortez. Winding pathways (lit by candles at night) lead guests from the main buildings to their secluded villas. Colorful hibiscus and bird-of-paradise let you know that you are in the tropics, but the decorated tiles lining tinkling fountains and the tiny chapel situated atop a hill remind you that you are in Mexico.
Naturally, such a glamorous property deserves a glamorous history. The main part of the hotel started out as a 15-room hacienda built in the 1950s by Don Abelardo Rodriguez, son of the then Mexican president, as a place to entertain his famous friends.
At that time, accessible only by private plane or boat, Palmilla ensured the privacy of guests such as President Dwight Eisenhower and film legend John Wayne, who were lured by Cabo's reputation as a deep-sea fishing mecca.
Today, even though roads lead right up to the resort's gates and the 15 rooms have become 172 (scattered across the property), the One & Only Palmilla still attracts rich and famous privacy seekers (during my stay, a current Hollywood "it" couple and an NBA star wandered the grounds in relative obscurity).
The One & Only Palmilla would be spectacular under any conditions. But the fact that it recently suffered a natural disaster and has come back better than ever is truly remarkable.
On September 14, 2014, Hurricane Odile battered Baja with winds of 140 miles per hour, leveling La Palmilla as it did much of Cabo. Yet, a scant seven months later, while some parts of the peninsula have yet to fully recover, La Palmilla is back in the business of pampering visitors.
That's to be expected, considering that the Dubai-based One & Only has a reputation for luxurious properties ranging from Mauritius and the Maldives to Australia.
As of April, here in Cabo guests are once again checking into spacious suites (each with an expansive patio or terrace and an ocean view) decorated with travertine marble floors, heavy iron-studded doors and bathrooms adorned with Mexican tiles.
Once again private butlers arrive with afternoon snacks, and pool attendants offer complimentary foot massages and margarita ice pops. Guests arrange for spa treatments in one of 13 private villas set amidst landscaped gardens, and the female of the species will enjoy being pampered at OBO Salon, created in collaboration with Beverly Hills celebrity stylists Jonathan Antin and Amanda George.
You can put on your best duds and have dinner in Jean-Georges Vongerichten's newest steakhouse, Seared, or go resort casual at Breeze, an open-air terrace overlooking the sea, or my favorite, Agua. For a different experience at the latter, book one of the private tables on the lawn with a dramatic view of the coast.
If you really want to splurge, arrange for a trip on the property's 95-foot yacht, Catari. Excursions can range from a 4-hour afternoon sail around the coast to a 7-day cruise of the Sea of Cortez.
It won't take long before you realize that any time spent at One & Only Palmilla is too short.
The wild and the mild
Thankfully, for the local economy, tourists are once again flocking to the southern tip of Baja, with its striking combination of seascape and desert landscape. Visitors have only to decide whether they want their Cabo adventure to be on the wild side or the mild side.
Those opting for wild head for Cabo San Lucas and its frenetic shopping-till-you-drop and partying-the-night away lifestyle. Although once a sleepy fishing village, Cabo San Lucas became Mexico's West Coast equivalent of Cancun in the Yucatan, designed by the government to generate a flow of tourists and their pesos.
The town is known for its raucous nightlife with spots such as Squid Roe (rocking even on the quietest of nights) and Cabo Wabo, named after owner Sammy Hagar's song that he co-wrote with Eddie Van Halen. If you've ever dreamed of cutting loose and dancing on the bar after downing tequila shots, either of these places is for you.
From the Cabo San Lucas marina, you can take a boat taxi to the peninsula's most notable landmark, El Arco or The Arch. The rock formation, jutting up from the water, marks the official dividing line between the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean.
The locals have given two small beaches near the arch humorous monikers: Playa del Amour (Lovers' Beach) is safe for swimming, snorkeling and selfie-taking, while at Playa Divorcio (Divorce Beach) the angry, raging currents on the Pacific side make it unsafe for swimming.
Twenty miles from Cabo San Lucas — down a thread of beach peppered with glitzy hotels, designer golf courses and luxurious villas — is San Jose del Cabo, designed for those who prefer their vacation style to be mild.
This quiet colonial town with its historic church and a bevy of courtyard restaurants, boutiques and galleries surrounding a traditional town square is postcard-perfect. San Jose's vibrant Arts District is reminiscent of that of another Mexican jewel, San Miguel de Allende (if you are here on a Thursday night from November to June, join locals on a weekly art walk).
Just at the edge of town is Estero San Jose, which provides a stark contrast to the arid desert scenery typical of the Baja Peninsula. Although developers have done their best to despoil it, the palm-lined estuary, threaded with lagoons, is still rich in native bird life from white herons to red-tailed hawks.
Regardless of whether you are wild or mild, you'll probably want to test your luck on a deep-sea fishing expedition, or if you're here during the winter when gray whales begin their migration from the Bering Sea to Baja for mating, you can get a closer look on one of the numerous whale-watching tours.
Those who love this idyllic stretch of the Baja Peninsula can be thankful that Odile's destruction is, for the most part, a thing of the past.