Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A calmer, cultured Cabo getaway

San Jose more sedate than its hard-partying big brother

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San JOSE DEL CABO, Baja California Sur -- The quiet little sister to a boisterous big brother on the tip of Baja California Sur is growing up. And while she's content to let Cabo San Lucas do most of the hard partying, San Jose del Cabo shines in her own right.

The quaint town of about 70,000 lies 30 minutes northeast of Cabo and just 10 minutes away from the region's international airport. Surrounded by scrubby desert hills on one side and the azure waters of the Sea of Cortez on the other, it's continually bathed in sunlight, with a cooling breeze to keep the temperature just about perfect all year round.

Those attributes, combined with increasing opportunities for business and pleasure, keep the gringos coming. It's one of the fastest growing regions in Mexico for tourism and expat relocation, with many websites devoted to the topic.

Signs of expansion are everywhere, with a new resort community going up around the marina and a convention centre and related infrastructure being built on the outskirts of town in time for the G20 summit in June.

Roads are being built and land cleared in the corridor between San Jose and Cabo and to the north in the East Cape area. Despite all this, San Jose del Cabo remains cosy and comfortable and, most importantly, is unspoiled by the passage of time. While Cabo is awash in Sammy Hagar-style cantinas, T-shirt shops and upscale malls, San Jose is more about arts and culture and soaking up the relaxed vibe.

The best place to do that is in the town's central plaza, which likely hasn't changed much in the centuries since the Jesuits established a mission near here in 1730.

The mission was eventually moved to the mouth of the town's estuary, which is home to 150 species of fish, birds, turtles and other sea life. An important waterway that once provided fresh water for Spanish galleons, it links the town to the sea and the beachfront tourist zone.

A 15-minute stroll from the oceanfront hotels takes you past a cemetery and cactus garden on a street fringed with tiny shop after tiny shop, some permanent and others haphazardly constructed out of plywood. All boast overflowing collections of ceramics, crafts and some stunning artwork. In fact, the town hosts a brilliant art walk every Thursday night in the rambling, narrow streets behind the cathedral. Galleries throw open their doors in the historic district, many serve wine and cheese, and you see Mexico's rich history on display in weavings, paintings, sculpture and jewelry. There's money in San Jose, and you'll see much of it sauntering about that night.

Those well-heeled tourists have many options in San Jose, including intimate inns in the centre of town such as El Encanto Inn, Hotel Colli and Casa Natalia. If cosy courtyards lush with pools and greenery and the sounds of jazz at night aren't your thing, head to the beach zone, where you can choose from a range of resorts. At one end, nearest the estuary, is the Holiday Inn and the Grand Mayan time-share suites. Then there's the Posada Real and the five-star Barcelo beside the adults-only Temptations resort and Mega store, which looks surprisingly like a Canadian Superstore.

Posada Real and Barcelo are a study in contrasts and reflect the socio-economic dynamic that makes up much of Mexico.

Posada Real is a throwback to simpler times in Mexico. Two three-storey wings flank either side of a cactus courtyard, pool and palapa bar. It sits on an enormous reach of beach that is one of the cleanest you'll see in Mexico. The rooms are plain but clean, the beds hard, and there's only one buffet restaurant, along with an exceptional pool bar. What makes this place stand out from so many more expensive ones is the service. It has a dedicated staff who make you feel like family.

There's nightly entertainment, which rotates from a Mexican whip dancer to a folk music trio and traditional dancers. They even host a Canada night, with games and music dedicated to their most frequent visitors. Prices range from $101 a night for a garden view with complimentary drinks to $189 for a garden view all-inclusive. Even if you eat out in town a few times a week, the all-inclusive price can save you cash if you plan to park yourself in front of the pina colada and margarita slushy machine.

Nearby, the tone at the Barcelo is more serene, with five pools and eight restaurants designed to provide private areas for families away from the adults-only section.

The hotel opened in 2009 with 619 rooms and has the only swim-up rooms in the Los Cabos region. All the marble, granite and artwork are Mexican and the rooms are suites with sitting areas and plush fabrics. Canadians make up the biggest percentage of Barcelo's market and it is targeting tour groups, conventions and weddings.

Prices here reflect the expense of creating such a top-end resort. A junior suite deluxe starts at $360 a night and the price goes up to $630 a night for the deluxe swim-up club premium.

Whether on a budget or not, San Jose del Cabo is authentic Mexico. There's no denying Cabos' tequila bars and jet skis make a fun date, but San Jose sticks with you for a lifetime.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2012 D1

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