3 Fun Stops in Europe: Barcelona, The Languedoc and Amsterdam

Barcelona had been calling us back ever since we had a short visit there a couple of years ago.

Spanish hams grace this Barcelona shop.

Spanish hams grace this Barcelona shop.

The remarkable works of architect Antoni Gaudi are all over Barcelona.

The remarkable works of architect Antoni Gaudi are all over Barcelona.

Gaudi masterpieces in Barcelona.

Gaudi masterpieces in Barcelona are found in just about every neighborhood.

This time we rented an apartment through VRBO in the Grácia neighborhood and settled-in for 10 days of exploration. Grácia, by the way, is in a great central location, vibrant and away from most of the tourist hubbub. Our hosts, Joan and his wife Elisabeth could not have been more helpful, with lists of recommended restaurants and a local viewpoint of places to visit.

A typical square in Barcelona's Grácia neighborhood.

A typical square in Barcelona’s Grácia neighborhood.

One of Barcelona's finest.

One of Barcelona’s finest.

Friendly folks in Barcelona's Grácia neighborhood.

Friendly folks in Barcelona’s Grácia neighborhood.

Roll-up doors, not buildings seem to rule the graffiti artists.

Roll-up doors, not buildings, seem to rule the graffiti artists’ choice of canvases.

The narrow and vibrant streets of Barcelona's Gracia neighborhood.

The narrow and vibrant streets of Barcelona’s Gracia neighborhood.

Additionally, the Barcelona Tourism office in the Passatge de la Concepció is great source for maps and brochures and the staff is very cordial. There are other satellite tourism offices around the city and they have well-marked signage. Look into buying The Barcelona Card, which has multiple benefits like public transportation and many discounts. This is a new trend with many cities, as we will discuss later in the Amsterdam portion of the journey.

Public bicycles abound in Barcelona.

Public bicycles abound in Barcelona.

Public art is everywhere in Barcelona.

Public art is everywhere in Barcelona.

On our previous visit we found the Bus Turístic to be a great value. For the price of a 24-hour ticket, you can ride around, getting on and off all day and get a great feel for the layout of Barcelona and how you want to plan your daily outings. It is a genuine good deal and their map is a good one, too. Most stops are staffed and tickets can be purchased quickly. Barcelona’s clean, efficient subway and bus system are also excellent ways to get around after a good overview, and you can purchase multiple-ride tickets that save time at the fare machines. Note: Be sure to bring a credit card with a chip in it. The U.S. has been a slow adopter of these, but they are slowly being issued at last. Ask your credit card company for one if you don’t have one. It will make your transactions easier all over Europe.

One of a many inviting establishments in Barcelona.

One of a many inviting establishments in Barcelona.

So, you have your maps, your Metro tickets and a good sense of Barcelona’s layout. Let’s talk about some adventure options. Remember, most of these places have websites so do a little research on times, locations and transportation before you venture out. It will help. Also take some time to review some of Barcelona’s history and that of Catalunya. This will lead to a greater understanding of how the city’s shape evolved, fortifications giving way to neighborhoods and the politics and rivalries within Spain herself that live on today.

Huge, multi-storied flea market, rumored to be the largest in Europe.

Huge, multi-storied flea market, rumored to be the largest in Europe.

Catching up on the news in Barcelona's morning sun.

Catching up on the news in Barcelona’s morning sun.

Tapas everywhere!

Tapas everywhere!

Because some of Barcelona’s key sites can be close together, plan a day such that you are not ping-ponging from one side of town to the other. A good example is an early visit to the Picasso Museum on Carrer de Moncada, followed by a stroll down to the nearby 14th-century Basilica of Santa Maria Del Mar.  The Picasso Museum is remarkable for its breadth of coverage of the artist’s life. We were moved by his early work as a portrait artist, a trade of the time, before his better-known avant-garde work inspired by his move to Paris.

The Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar sits near the harbor area.

The Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar sits near the harbor area.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Del Mar can best be enjoyed sitting quietly in a nave or a pew and contemplating the soaring stone arches and intricate sun-lit stained glass windows. 

So now that your morning has been filled with art and antiquity, what about lunch and a siesta?  While it might seem touristy, we’ve found the outdoor restaurants right around the Basilica of Santa Maria Del Mar to be perfectly decent and fairly priced. Of these we liked the Santa Maria del Mar Cafe. Great octopus!

It would be only fair, of course, to mention one of our favorite lunch spots, however, a bus/subway/taxi ride back to Grácia. And we mention taxi ride here because you’ve been walking and taking in alot.  Taxis in Barcelona are very reasonable, regulated and safe. Take the Metro or bus to the station Grácia and walk, or tell the taxi driver to take you to La Pubilla restaurant on the Plaça de La Libertat, next to the large market. We recommend making a reservation the day before, but we’ve stumbled in without one and were accommodated at the bar by the door. The food is fresh, indicative of the Catalan cuisine and the place is filled with happy locals having long lunches. In fact, one fellow diner asked us where we were from and wondered aloud how we knew about the restaurant (it was on our hosts’ recommended list). We dined there twice and each time the menu was different and each meal was superb. Plan on savoring your meal and having a lovely siesta.

One of the daily specials at La Pubilla in the Grácia neighborhood.

One of the daily specials at La Pubilla in the Grácia neighborhood.

More tasty treats at La Publilla in Barcelona's Grácia neighborhood.

More tasty treats at La Publilla in Barcelona’s Grácia neighborhood.

Pasta and very fresh mussels at La Publla

Pasta and very fresh mussels at La Publla

As you know, people in Spain eat their evening meal quite late compared to American schedules. We think that’s why they built the rooftop bar at the Casa Fuster, so we could ease into the contemplation of dinner with a pair of finely made dry martinis and a spectacular view of Barcelona. A gem of a hotel designed by Catalan architect Lluís Dominic i Montaner (more on him later), we promise that this splurge on a couple of cocktails will be a delight. Time your visit for “the magic hour” when the sun gets low and, while there doesn’t seem to be a dress code, one feels more comfortable in “going out to dinner” attire.  That “travel sport coat” and chic “black jacket” can work wonders.

Exterior of Casa Fuster Hotel in Barcelona.

Exterior of Casa Fuster Hotel in Barcelona.

Martinis at Casa Fuster's rooftop bar, with views over Barcelona.

Martinis at Casa Fuster’s rooftop bar, with views over Barcelona.

Not far from Casa Fuster is the Plaça de la Vila de Grácia with its elegant clock tower, still ringing after all these years. On Carrer de Sant Doménec, one block from the Plaça, is Cafe Godot, which we found to be dependable and very friendly, with a good wine list (the wines of Catalunya are delicious – look for the Priorat label on the bottle). We dined there on several evenings during our visit and can easily recommend it.

Clocktower in Plaça de Vila Grácia. Nearby is Cafe Godot.

Clocktower in Plaça de Vila Grácia. Nearby is Cafe Godot.

Another choice, with an authentic Catalan menu is Envalira, in the Plaça del Sol, also in the Grácia neighborhood. Their Paella is delicious. Barcelona seems to us a well-planned city, especially considering its complicated history, and, like many European cities, open space and parks are given priorities.

This lovely building houses Envalira restaurant. Delicious Paella.

This lovely building houses Envalira restaurant. Delicious Paella.

Park Guell, designed by Antoni Gaudi is the famed architect’s idea of a whimsical place for people to stroll with clever winding paths and the expected Gaudi grace notes of color and tile.

The granddaddy of Barcelona parks is Parc de Collserola, which, at nearly 20,000 acres, sits like a mantle along the tops of the hills surrounding the city. Sometimes referred to as “the lungs of Barcelona” its abundant green forests support habitats for an enormous number of species of plants and animals. It is easily accessible by the Metro lines. Hikers will love this park.

For another day’s worth of sights and sites, try this plan. Start early at the Palau de la Música Catalana. This historic hall of music really speaks for the heart and soul of Barcelona. Designed by the aforementioned architect Montaner, the art nouveau theme pervades the entire building and the magnificent stained glass dome is breathtaking. Try to attend a performance in the main hall as its acoustics are praised by performers from all over the world. Guided tours provide some insight into how the Palau got built. Quite a story.

Palau de la Música de Catalana.

Palau de la Música de Catalana.

Palau de la Música de Catalana.

Palau de la Música de Catalana.

Palau de la Música de Catalana.

Organist rehearsing in the Palau de la Música de Catalana.

And, sticking with Montaner, next try to visit the Hospital de Sant Pau, recently opened to the public and another one of Barcelona’s World Heritage sites. It was built between 1901 and 1930 and wandering the gardens and among the modernist buildings is an experience.

Hospital de Sant Pau, by the architect Montaner.

Hospital de Sant Pau, by the architect Montaner.

Hospital de Sant Pau, a World Heritage site.

Hospital de Sant Pau, a World Heritage site.

From the front gates of the Hospital de Sant Pau you can look down the Avenida de Gaudi and see the towers of La Sagrada Famila, Antoni Gaudi’s famous unfinished church. Begun in the 1880’s, it “might” be completed, we’re told, by 2026. We’ll see, or maybe our grandchildren will. Nonetheless, even if you don’t want to brave the lines, be sure to at least walk completely around the church to appreciate the magnitude of it. Inside, of course, is amazing and the entrance lines do move right along and are well-managed by staff.

La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's famous church, still under construction in Barcelona.

La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s
famous church, still under construction in Barcelona.

La Sagrada Familia church.

La Sagrada Familia church.

Finally, we enjoyed the great, free, evening show of the Magic Mountain of Montjuïc, dating from 1929, which goes on nightly in the fountains in front of the National Museum of Art of Catalunya. It is a colorful, lovely show with music, light and water. 

So…adios, Barcelona and bonjour France!

On the sleek new TGV line from Barcelona to Beziers (which continues on to Paris)

On the sleek new TGV line from Barcelona to Beziers (which continues on to Paris)

Thanks to some superb work on the part of Rail Europe, we obtained reservations on the new TGV line from Barcelona over to Beziers, cutting the travel time in half, to about 2 hours. You can still take the “local” train which goes via a more coastal route but we wanted to experience the new line and Rail Europe’s reservations system is great, withour seats right where they said they would be.

Lezignan-Le-Cebe is a small village but beautifully situated in vineyards.

Lézignan-La-Cebe is a small village but beautifully situated in vineyards.

Vineyards near Lezignan-Le-Cebe in the Languedoc region of Southern France.

Vineyards near Lézignan-La-Cebe in the Languedoc region of Southern France.

Our friends Jean-Pierre and Meredith picked us up at Beziers, in the heart of the Languedoc wine region and hosted us for several days in their small village of Lézignan-La-Cebe. This is an area of southern France where you can go to a different market in a different town every day. Where you can go for 10 minutes on a Plane treelined road to a “certain” butcher or small farm and get just the right cut of pork or a chicken, knowing just how it was raised. And that wonderful woman in Pézanas, just up the road, who buys her fish right off the boat in Séte in the dark hours before dawn, and the croissants at the adjacent bakery and across the street at the coffee store where a complimentary cup is always offered. And, of course, the organic fava beans and other produce lovingly tendered for sale nearby in the town of Gignac. You get the picture.

Fresh strawberries in the village Gignac.

Fresh strawberries in the village Gignac.

Varieties of just about everything are found in the daily markets in the villages of the Languedoc.

Varieties of just about everything are found in the daily markets in the villages of the Languedoc.

On the way to market.

On the way to market.

Every time we go to southern France, we want to live there. Jean-Pierre, a native of Bordeaux, is an knowledgable, and suitably perfectionist, chef whose love of traditional French cooking is a great benefit to his friends. His epic cookbook, “Still Cooking After All These Years” occupies a very honored place in our kitchen and he’s even made it available to the world, for free, on a blog (link below)  of the same name . Going to market with him is an educational experience and fun. 

Shopping with Jean-Pierre is an adventure. Be sure to click the link to his cookbook at the bottom of this post. Great reading!

Shopping with Jean-Pierre is an adventure and an education. Be sure to click the link to his cookbook at the bottom of this post. Great reading and he generously shares his recipes and cooking philosophies with the world.

Our hosts took us to Séte, where commercial fishing vessels come and go from the blue Mediterranean and where the famous annual Water Jousting has been celebrated since the mid-1600’s. From there we moved along the vast beach to Agde, noting the huge oyster beds in the lagoon between the cities and the breeze off the Med making the day a delight. 

A relaxed pace in Sete, but the town really comes alive during the water jousting tournaments each summer.

A relaxed pace in Sete, but the town really comes alive during the water jousting tournaments each summer.

Beautiful, serene Sete, near Beziers in Southern France.

Beautiful, serene Sete, near Beziers in Southern France.

The wonderful long beach at Agde.

The wonderful long beach at Agde.

Wineries and wine cooperatives abound in the Languedoc. There are so many intricacies to French history and the economic relationships between the regions, departments and the central government that it makes a fascinating study. Just the origins of the wine cooperatives is worth looking into. When you are here, stop at some wineries and taste. The wine is good and the vintners are charismatic.

Here are some snapshots of things you might see in and around the small towns of the Languedoc:

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Inside a lovely home in Lézignan-La-Cebe.

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Two towns in the region we especially liked were tiny Mouréze, with its unique rock formations and hardy hiking trails up to excellent viewpoints. This is a quiet village and very picturesque. We also enjoyed visiting nearby Salasc, a charming small town, minutes from Mouréze, that makes you dream of a life in the beautiful hills there. 

Hiking trails and interesting rock formations around the village of Moureze

Hiking trails and interesting rock formations around the
village of Mouréze

And so to our land-rocket trip to Amsterdam. 

Again praising the work of Rail Europe, our TGV seats from Béziers to Paris were just as advertised and the train clean and comfortable. There are slower trains across Europe, but if you want to get to Paris from southern France in a little over 3 hours, outrunning, we noticed, several small aircraft, then the TGV is your rocket ride. TGV, as most of you know, stands for Train á Grande Vitesse and generally cruises around 200 mph between cities.

Zoom. Into Paris’ Gare de Lyon, taxi to Gare du Nord for our Thalys high-speed train to Amsterdam.  Fields of flowers race by in Flanders and we stop for a moment in Brussels, no time for chocolate, and off again for Amsterdam. We’ll return to Paris another time. We always do. 

Bicycles, canals, and flowers are signatures of Amsterdam.

Bicycles, canals, and flowers are signatures of Amsterdam.

Ah. The canals in Amsterdam. Couples, hand-in-hand, kissing as they cross on a canal bridge. An easy tradition to love. Holland is a charming country full of gracious, direct and humorous people. Most speak English, sometimes better than we do. We adore them.

We arranged our Amsterdam stay, as we did in Barcelona, through VRBO, and found ourselves in a one-floor-up apartment owned by our host André, in the newly fashionable Oud-West neighborhood, easily accessed by tram from Central Station.

Settling-in and taking a breather from our marathon train ride from southern France, we set forth the next day to obtain iAmsterdam cards from the Tourist Office across the street from Central Station. This office has all the brochures and maps you can imagine and the staff is multi-lingual, friendly and informed. The 72-hour iAmsterdam card really worked for us during our stay. It provides you with unlimited bus and tram travel and mostly free or meaningfully discounted entrance to most museums, and there are plenty of those. 

The Rijksmuseum and reflecting pool in Amsterdam.

The Rijksmuseum and reflecting pool in Amsterdam.

Our first museum was the Van Gogh Museum in the broad, clean Museumplein, also home to the newly-renovated Rijksmuseum (the National Museum of the Netherlands) and the Stedelijk Museum, which houses a large collection of modern art and design. Don’t miss “The Beanery” in the Stedelijk. In the Van Gogh Museum you will find other artists’ work on exhibit and an extensive collection by Van Gogh, of course. The Rijksmuseum houses a very good range of Dutch masters including Rembrandt’s famous “Nightwatch.” The scale of some of these paintings is tremendous, like many of those in The Louvre in Paris. Have a seat, wait until the crowds thin for a moment and regard the magnificent detail and expressions in these true works of art. Lunch in the Stedelijk’s great restaurant is recommended. We noticed locals having business lunches there as well as our fellow museum-goers.  Rembrandt House on Jodenbreestraat near Nieumarkt is also a great visit and free with the iAmsterdam card.

Bikes, bikes, bikes. Mind the bikes in Amsterdam.

Bikes, bikes, bikes. Mind the bikes in Amsterdam.

According to recent figures there are about 811,000 people in Amsterdam and 881,000 bicycles. In other words, “mind the bikes” should be on the tip of your minds when walking on the sidewalk. There are bike lanes separating pedestrian traffic from auto traffic. This means you cross a bike lane before you cross a street. Both directions. Bikes rule in Amsterdam and give it much of its character as do the canals. As in other cities, bikers texting and talking while riding in not uncommon. Mind the bikes!

Bikes rule in Amsterdam.

Bikes rule in Amsterdam.

The delightful Egyptian patroness with Moroccan oranges in our Amsterdam neighborhood.

The delightful Egyptian patroness with Moroccan oranges in our Amsterdam Oud-West neighborhood.

As always in Europe, cafes and restaurants can occupy much of one’s time. Amsterdam is no exception. The stoner “coffee shops” are still around and “head shops” can still be found, but not like in decades past. In fact, the Dutch government has recently discouraged that component of tourism. But cafes and restaurants not offering zee hemp are ubiquitous. We love Café de Jaren on Nieuwe Doelenstraat, with its unique location at a busy canal intersection. Grab a table outside and watch the parade of boats back and forth. The food is good and the staff is very friendly.

Canal side at Cafe de Jaren, Amsterdam.

Canal side at Cafe de Jaron, Amsterdam.

The small but worth-the-wait-make-reservations Foodism, on Nassaukade, is simply remarkable for what they can put out in a small kitchen. While it was the hot pick during our visit, it is not overrated. The Bosnian staff knows what they are doing and, for exceptional food with good portions, prices are reasonable, including their wine list. And two dependable and reasonable neighborhood restaurants, De Italiaan and Café Toussaint, adjacent to each other on Bosboom Toussaintstraat have our recommendation. Good locals’ hangouts and very friendly. 

A neighborhood corner bar in Amsterdam.

A neighborhood corner bar in Amsterdam.

The Anne Frank House is a pilgrimage for many. It is a touchstone for events in modern history which shape our world today. Anne Frank’s story, based on her Diary, is a story of hope and belief that goodness will prevail. For countless reasons, a visit to the house is time well-spent. Some improvements in accessibility have been made since our last visit many years ago but the house remains essentially as Anne Frank experienced it, with the nearby church bells she wrote about still audible in her family’s hiding place. Advance tickets are recommended. 

Canal boat living in Amsterdam has been the dream of many.

Canal boat living in Amsterdam has been the dream of many.

Your iAmsterdam card also gives you free boat tours on either the Blue Boat Company (departing near Museumplein) or the Holland International Canal Cruises (departing near Central Station). These tours, in boats with glass tops, give you a great sense of Amsterdam’s canals and how the Dutch figured out how to manage the sea and build a city. The boat skippers are an interesting bunch, too, dealing with amateur boaters in the canals as well as informing their passengers of sights passing by.

So that’s our report for this post….Bon Voyage!! !

WEB LINKS

Rail Europe

Barcelona Tourism

Palau de la Musica Catalna

Picasso Museum

Hotel Fuster

Jean Pierre Escudier’s Cookbook

Amsterdam Tourism

Apartment in Amsterdam

Cafe de Jaren – Amsterdam

Anne Frank House

Desert, Ocean and Luxury at the Tip of Baja, California

Sunrise at Cabo San Lucas

Sunrise at Cabo San Lucas

When you go to “Cabo”, the first phrase in Spanish you should know, after “Gracias” and “Por Favor” are, “¿Es Usted Choyero?” This is a great conversation starter as it means “Are you Baja born?” “Choyero” derives its name from the beautiful and ubiquitous Cholla cactus of the Baja Peninsula. Choyeros are very proud of their State of Baja, the youngest state in the Mexican federation. Before becoming the Free and Sovereign State of Baja California in 1953, it was a wild, sparsely populated territory ruled by the powers in Mexico City.

Our AirTran flight from the very traveler-friendly Orange County Airport took us over enough of Baja to convince anyone it is still very sparsely populated. Most of Baja is still a wild expanse of desert, mountains, washes and tiny clumps of ranch houses and small towns beautifully sandwiched between a blue Pacific Ocean and an equally “azul” Mar de Cortez. It is easy to shake one’s head and wonder why this gorgeous 27,000 square miles has not been developed more. But, then, it wouldn’t be such a treasure of a place. A good exercise is to open a Baja roadmap and see what that 1000 miles between the U.S. border and Cabo San Lucas looks like. You can draw your own conclusions.

Los Arcos, Lands End, Cabo San Lucas

Los Arcos, Lands End, Cabo San Lucas

But let’s get to the luxury part before our thoughts get too parched. Most readers have a good sense of Cabo San Lucas’ location at the tip of Baja; but CSL is only half the story. San Jose Del Cabo, where most people arrive by air, is a wonderful old Mexican town that anchors the other end of the ocean road along Baja’s southern tip. The visitor accomodations that sit, beachfront, along this corridor are our next topic.

The Sheraton Hacienda Del Mar.

The Sheraton Hacienda Del Mar.

Our two most recent experiences included a pair of Starwood resorts, the Sheraton Hacienda Del Mar Golf and Spa Resort Los Cabos and the Westin Resort and Spa Los Cabos. Both sit on dramatic beaches (mind the color of the cautionary flags) and offer distinctly different styles of accomodations.

Colonial styles at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar.

Colonial styles at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar.

Apply named because of its “old Mexico” ambience, the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar, on Tortuga Beach, gave us a cozy feel. We appreciated the use of tile, wrought iron, cobblestones and fountains incorporated into the overall concept. Some beautiful artwork and artifacts also enhance the feeling of a traditional Mexican establishment. One could imagine a honeymoon here and, yet, we saw families enjoying the amenities such as the “Kids Pool” and the “Kids Club,” candidly a relief for those of us who seek the quieter aspects of a resort. Clearly, the Sheraton folks have this figured out. We were impressed with the tranquility of this property from the moment we checked in.

Infinity pool at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar.

Infinity pool at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar.

Our first night’s meal was a splendid one at the resort’s 5-Diamond De Cortez Mesquite grill, with its lovely terrace by the ocean. With lower Baja’s dependably good weather, meals like this are dreamy. We experienced Executive Chef Manuel de Luca’s menu executed by Chef Salvador Campozano. We began with a creamy lobster bisque followed by a salad of pear, blue cheese, nuts and truffled honey. Before the main course, we tasted a delightful lamb ravioli served with morel mushroom foam and dill.

That’s right, mushroom foam. We chose, for our main course, the Seafood Skillet, in which a delightful menage of lobster tail, shrimp, scallops, mussels and sea bass soak flavorfully in a rum-hinted sauce, served in a fresh coconut. The wines we enjoyed most were reds and whites from Valle de Guadalupe, east of Ensenada in Northern Baja. A passion fruit mousse with fresh berries in a peppercorn crust provided the perfect palate relief after the richness of the main meal. These folks know what they are doing and you are on vacation. Go for it! They will even arrange for your large group to dine on the beach. In a world-class resort, usually all you have to do is ask, and many things can magically be arranged.

Artifacts at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar emphasize the colonial feel of the resort.

Artifacts at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar emphasize the colonial feel of the resort.

General Manager Renato Mendonca, with 30 years in the hotel business, and 5 years at the Sheraton Hacienda, recently oversaw an extensive renovation and the rooms show it. Our ocean-view room had its own terrace and we went to sleep that first night with the doors open to the sound of the dramatic surf. Delicious.

Of particular note at the Hacienda are the wonderful infinity pools and spas that are beachside, with the palapa bar happily nearby. Elbows up on the edge of the infinity pool, gazing out at the ocean, watching the waves break is a tonic. Time for reflection and a soul recharge. This is a good place to do it.

And, on a different scale and style, so is the Westin Los Cabos, our next destination.

Part of the dramatic setting at the Westin Los Cabos.

Part of the dramatic setting at the Westin Los Cabos.

The entrance road to the Westin Los Cabos, winding down from the main (now 4-lane) Los Cabos-San Jose Del Cabo highway, doesn’t quite prepare you for the dramatic plaza that adjoins the grand open-air lobby of this Javier Sordo Madaleno-designed resort.

The colors. As Westin Tour Sales Manager Edward Burgos says, ” The colors of the hotel are blue for the ocean, yellow for the sun and pink for the warmth of the Mexican culture. We couldn’t agree more. It is a stunning architectural achievement.

Soothing colors at the Westin Los Cabos.

Soothing colors at the Westin Los Cabos.

Every room has an ocean view and, like the Sheraton, the Westin is set on a remarkably dramatic beach and sleeping with the sound of waves each night adds value to your stay.

If you are not, by chance, a Starwood member, be sure to join as it is a huge benefit when you stay at a Starwood property such as the Sheraton Hacienda or the Westin Los Cabos. A good example of this is a the great buffet breakfasts at the Westin’s Royal Beach Club. Located in an oversized private suite with a long terrace overlooking the beach, it is an extra treat just for being a Starwood member.

Every room has an ocean view at the Westin Los Cabos.

Every room has an ocean view at the Westin Los Cabos.

During our Westin stay we observed a couple of lovely beach weddings and I asked Westin Event Specialist Juan Pablo Colmenero about their wedding business. He told me that they do about 52 weddings per year but never more than one wedding per day. Recently, he said, they had been hosting as many as 300 people in week-long international wedding celebrations.

We wished we had timed our visit to see one of these wonderful, colorful mixture of cultures on the tip of Baja, California. Mr. Colmenero said the Westin’s kitchen staff had been having a great time working with the East Indian chefs who had been added to the mix. Sounds like a great movie!

In addition to the large weddings, the Westin frequently has a full buy-out from corporate event planners, making the resort a great, private club for a large business gathering. Both the Sheraton Hacienda and the Westin offer complete golf packages with excellent courses and amenities.

The remarkable executive chef Manuel Peruyero oversees all of the food at the Westin. We dined at the La Playa Restaurant and tasted our first “Westin Margarita.” As Margarita aficionados, we agreed that there was a little something extra to them. Fish tacos. Gotta love them, and La Playa serves some great ones, typically made with fresh local sea bass. We also had a chance to enjoy one of the “dinners on the beach” that these hotels are renowned for. The buffet was comprised of nearly more choices than we could handle. Everything from grilled (a la parilla) meats and fish to delicious salsas, fresh guacamole and taco makings, all under the stars, with a lovely firepit nearby. The stunning views from the Westin’s Arrecifes Restaurant is also a must during your stay with its cocktail patio especially appealling. Service throughout the hotel and restaurants is a serious staff committment and a joy for guests.

Like the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar, the Westin Los Cabos can arrange a meal on the beach.

Like the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar, the Westin Los Cabos can arrange a meal on the beach.

The spa at The Westin Resort & Spa provides the pleasurable services you hope for in this soothing destination. Relaxing manicures, pedicures, massages, facials are available in calm, quiet, elegant surroundings. La Señora enjoyed an hour of classic Swedish full body massage in a clean, simple room with delicious aromas. The therapist was an experienced and excellent professional. Other restorative massage types are offered, including deep tissue, hot stone, reflexology and sports massage. After the massage she reluctantly floated off the massage table and downstairs to wake up with sauna, steam, and shower. Fresh, iced water is always handy, and white towels, robes and slippers are provided for comfort and harmony. The Westin is justifiably proud of this spa by the sea.

Importantly, both the Sheraton Hacienda and Westin Los Cabos are fully committed to sustainability and the community. The former sponsors and mentors a charity for parentless children and both hotels make sure extra food gets to both employees and members of the community in need.

So, you want to leave the property? What? Well, if you do, you are in for various wonderful treats. A walk around San Jose del Cabo’s historic district is a rich experience. Clean streets, colorful buildings and a great deal of art. This is an historic Mexican town, a port, and sister city to Cabo San Lucas at the other end of the corridor at the tip of Baja. San Jose del Cabo has some excellent restaurants and even some new places like Rock and Brews for the rock and roll crowd (they serve some good pizza, too).

Rock and Brews, San Jose Del Cabo.

Rock and Brews, San Jose Del Cabo.

Cabo San Lucas fishing fleet will take you deep sea fishing.

Cabo San Lucas fishing fleet will take you deep sea fishing.

At the other end of the sea road corridor there is Cabo San Lucas, with its huge charter fishing fleet, Lover’s Beach at Los Arcos (the arches at the very tip of Baja) and numerous bars and restaurants, including the legendary Squid Row and Giggling Marlin. Our favorite Cabo San Lucas restaurant has long been Mi Casa, serving some delicious authentic Mexican cuisine in a less raucous atmosphere than some of the party bars.

Fresh breads at the Penny Lane Cafe in Cabo San Lucas.

Fresh breads at the Penny Lane Cafe in Cabo San Lucas.

 

 

Rancher Lisa Whitt with fresh goat cheeses at the Penny Lane Cafe's weekly farmer's market.

Rancher Lisa Whitt with fresh goat cheeses at the Penny Lane Cafe’s twice-weekly farmer’s markets.

And here’s a special insider’s tip: Penny Lane Cafe on Camino del Colegio in Cabo San Lucas. Breakfast, lunch and dinner with the best locally sourced, organic ingredients. Twice a week owner Monica Diaz Rivera manages an adjacent organic food market with fresh breads, cheeses, vegetables and other wonderful local foods all sourced from local farms. It was here I met Lisa Whitt who, with her husband, produces a remarkable range of exquisite goat cheeses on their farm about 2 hours from Cabo San Lucas. Another tip: Try the take out pork from Los Michoacanos Carnitas.

For activities such as tours, boating trips, outback adventures etc., the folks at Terramar can arrange everything. Terramar’s website is worth a visit and the experience we had with them was professional and fun. Their staff all speak excellent English (and will help you with your Spanish).

Water tours are easily available from the Cabo San Lucas waterfront.

Water tours are easily available from the Cabo San Lucas waterfront.

And booking a whale-watching trip, in-season can be rewarding.

And booking a whale-watching trip, in-season can be rewarding.

Of, course, don't forget to learn about the grades of tequilas!

Of, course, don’t forget to learn about the grades of tequilas!

Finally, for those of you who are curious about renting a private home in the area (and there are some spectacular ones), Cabo Dreams Rentals impressed us with their offerings and Property Manager Cesar Claro seems to have some of the best places to show. Our favorite was Casa Miramar, which sits high in the exclusive Pedregal community, directly above the beautiful Playa Solmar stretching out to internationally famous Land’s End.

Beautiful Casa Miramar in Cabo San Lucas.   Many homes like this are available for vacation rental.

Beautiful Casa Miramar in Cabo San Lucas. Many homes like this are available for vacation rental.

Baja, California. Always a great idea for a getaway. ¡Buen Viaje!

 

Sheraton Hacienda del Mar: http:/www.sheraton.com/haciendadelmar

Westin Resort & Spa Los Cabos: http://www.westin.com/loscabos

Terramar: http://www.terramardestinations.com

Baja Outback: http://www.bajaoutback.com

Penny Lane Cafe: http://pennylanecafe.com

Cabo Dream Rentals: http://www.cabodreamsrentals.com

Mi Casa: http://www.micasarestaurant.com.mx

AirTran: http://www.airtran.com

Mazatlán – Pearl of the Pacific

Sunsets like these are frequent in Mazatlán

 

Mazatlán – La Perla Del Pacifico

Cliff Divers at Olas Altas Beach, Mazatlán

They had me with the Mime. When you deplane from a packed flight onto a hot tarmac in Mazatlán and all you really want is a cold, local-brewed Pacifico on the way into the terminal (super-clean with gleaming floors and nice art) at least there is the charming Mime to welcome you. He’s really good. He just needs a case of cold ones to hand out to arriving passengers. We are, afterall, about 20 miles south of the Tropic of Cancer.

So began a return to Mazatlán after a 10-year hiatus. What I found was the charm and friendliness of the Mazatlécas alive and well.

Fun at the Fish Market in Mazatlán

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New hotels and yacht harbors have been  built as well as a world-class Mazatlán International Center, smartly located near The Golden Zone. This beautiful facility is a testimony to Mazatlán’s serious pursuit of the convention business.

The brand-new Mazatlán International Center

Mazatlán translates as “place of deer” and the Totorames tribe had the place to themselves until they disappeared many years before Spaniards first showed up in 1531. You can see some artifacts in the Museo Arqueológico in Centro Historico.

It was many years until the city emerged from a fishing village. Gold and silver shipments transited Mazatlan’s port from the mines in the mountains during the 1700’s, attracting pirates to the area. In the latter part of the 19th century, the city grew significantly, upgraded its port and buildings and, in the first few decades after the 1910 Revolution, Mazatlán became a modest tourist destination, with several hotels establishing themselves in the old town near Olas Atlas Beach, enjoying popularity with vacationing movie stars.

Near the Art Zone in El Centro

The heartbeat of this enchanting city is strong and the First Friday Art Walk (from November to May) is a great way to experience a bit of the Centro Historico, discover a great meal at one of the sidewalk cafes around the Plaza Machado (1837) and perhaps attend a concert at the multi-tiered Teatro Angela Peralta (1870). We attended a splendid performance there of Mozart’s “Requiem” the on the eve of El Día Del Muerte.

The Mazatlán Symphony Orchestra

 

 

 

Two dining standouts around Plaza Machado: La Bohemia and Pedro y Lola’s.

La Bohemia Restaurant on Plaza Machado

Plaza Machado, Mazatlán

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While on the subject of dining, close to venerable Olas Atlas Beach is a delightful courtyard restaurant, La Bahia, overseen by hostess Maria Lourdes, aka “Malu.” A few dishes we sampled were Pulpo a la Diabla (octopus) and a great rendition of Aquachiles con Camarones.

Lourdes at La Bahia Restaurant, near Olas Altas

Pulpo a la Diabla at La Bahia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not only a fun and sun tourist destination, Mazatlán is a huge shrimping port and the state of Sinaloa, in which Mazatlán resides, is Mexico’s top agricultural producer. A trip to the French Colonial-style Pino Suarez Mercado (1899) in Centro Historico speaks to this with butchers at work on fresh meats and fish mongers selling the day’s fresh catch.

Butchers at work in the Mercado

A smile and some beautiful fresh fish at the Mercado

Food stands fill with locals and the feel of a community gathering place is tangible.


This is one of my favorite destinations in Mazatlán and over the years it has become a more comfortable place to wander around.

Fish stand in the Mercado

 

 

 

Born in Spain, Julio Berdegé was a man of vision and personal achievement in Mazatlán’s modern history. Arriving in Mazatlán as a young man, he built Mexico’s largest commercial shrimp fleet and created the first master-planned resort community in Mexico, known as the El Cid Resort and Country Club. As a marine biologist and conservationist, he also had a prominent voice in matters of Mexico’s fisheries management. The El Cid development, now in command of his son Carlos, is dominant in the Zona Dorado of hotels and restaurants which takes off north of the Olas Altas Beach area. One of the newest properties is the El Cid Marina Hotel, which sits along the channel for the marina, has two beautiful pools, a splendid, attentive staff and a unique, private ocean beach accessed by a short water taxi ride. Party fishing boats come in and out of the harbor and the curious can catch a glimpse of what kind of luck prevailed on the day’s fishing adventures. It is my favorite of the El Cid properties. http://marinaelcidmazatlan.com

The El Cid Marina, Mazatlán

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many cities in Latin America have what is known as “The Malecon,” a broad promenade along the beach. Mazatlán’s Malecon is one of the longest in Latin America, stretching miles along Olas Altas and newly widened with new monuments. In Mazatlán they love their monuments.

The Siren Monument along Mazatlán's Malecon, the longest in Latin America

There are monuments to Pacifico Beer (the dramatic copper top of a beer cooking vat), the Fisherman’s  Monument, The Siren Monument, The Continuity of Life Monument (fabulous sculpture of leaping dolphins), famed musician Jose Angel Espinoza Aragon aka “Ferrusquilla” , a delightful, whimsical monument to the Pulmonia, the ubiquitous open-air alternative to taxi-cabs and many more. All the monuments serve to enhance a long amble along Mazatlán’s beautifully upgraded beachfront Malecon.

Monument to famed musician Jose Angel Espinoza Aragon aka "Ferrusquilla"

For a little more immersion into Mexico, Pronatours http://www.pronatours.com.mx can help.

One destination that a day-trip will cover is the nearby country town of Quelite (25 miles northeast). Most of Quelite’s residents are engaged in ranching or agriculture and town has a feel of “real Mexico.” It is in Quelite that Dr .Marcos Osuna built El Meson d’ Los Laureanos, a terrific restaurant in a venerable history-rich building. An excellent host, Dr. Osuna’s kitchen serves recipes handed-down through generations and prepared with a “home cooking” touch that reflects the cuisine of southern Sinaloa.

 

As you walk around Quelite, you can visit a wonderful bakery with a huge stone oven and delicious treats for sale, Our Lady of Guadalupe church and a monument to an ancient Aztec game of “The Ulama,” still played by locals.

Monument to the ancient game of "The Ulama" in Quelite.

Stone oven in Quelite bakery

 

 

 

There are additional tour options available, including a hugely fun cooking and dancing experience called Salsa y Salsa http://www.salsaandsalsa.com, rated the no. 1 tour for Mazatlan on http://tripadvisor.com. Hotel concierges work hard in Mazatlán to connect vistors with a fun experience and are there to make sure you want to come back.

Some quick study of online sites and a little Spanish brush-up can enhance your trip.

Many Mazatlécas speak excellent English, of course, but attempts at conversing in the local language is always bridge-builder. ¡Vámos a Mazatlán!

 

 

Additional Mazatlán and Quelite images at:  http://www.dimarcoimages.com/mazatlan

A local in Quelite, about 40 km from Mazatlán