by Wendy Lemlin
San Felipe, on Baja’s Sea of Cortez, has always been a playground and vacation home destination for those in the San Diego and SoCal areas, but until recently, getting there was definitely NOT half the fun, necessitating a 4+ hour drive into Mexico, over mountainous roads and sometimes long border waits on the return trip home. All this changed this past December, when Portland, OR-based SeaPort Airlines began offering non-stop air service from San Diego International Airport to San Felipe in their nine passenger prop planes, currently on Monday, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
The easy, hour and 20 minute flight takes passengers over breathtaking views of mountains and canyons that few travelers ever see, far from any roads or vestiges of “civilization”, and deposits them at the small San Felipe airport, on the placid shores of the Sea of Cortez, just a 5 minute drive from the lovely beachfront San Felipe Marina Resort and Spa.
I said “easy flight” and it generally is, but every once in a while, Mother Nature likes to throw a curveball. When it comes to travel, I’ve always maintained that when everything goes well, there are no good stories to tell, and by that I mean that my trip to San Felipe in early March started out with the potential to be a plentiful source of amusing anecdotes. To wit: especially in these drought-plagued years, it rains only infrequently in San Diego and rarely as late in the year as March. Being mostly a desert, it almost NEVER rains in San Felipe. For the week before I left for what I hoped would be a fun-in-the-sun getaway, the weather every day there had been sunny, warm and calm. So, of course, as soon as I arrived at San Diego airport for my flight to San Felipe, it started pouring. Then, the wind picked up, gusting ominously. The small plane sat forlornly on the runway, waiting for the weather to abate. And waited. And waited some more.
When the sky began to finally clear, I boarded with the other 6 passengers, as well as the fresh-faced young pilot and co-pilot, and strapped myself into my seat. We took off, enjoying the amazing, low flying views of San Diego, sparkling below from her recent shower. The sky over the ocean behind us was luminous blue. The sky in front of us, however, was not. In fact, it was getting darker with every passing minute. A half hour in, as we approached the first mountain range, the rain started. There were a few bumps, but inveterate traveler that I am, I had survived many turbulent flights and wasn’t at all worried, even when my friend in the seat across the small aisle grabbed my hand with a panicked squeeze that matched the fear in her eyes. “It’s fine”, I soothed, “It just feels worse because of the small size of the plane”. She calmed down enough to let go of my hand. Then, a flash of lightening, a boom of thunder and a much bigger series of bumps that elicited an “oh shit” from the co-pilot, which is not what you want to hear when you are sitting right behind him in a 9 passenger plane. Soon we were heading back to San Diego, as the pilot yelled back to us over the noise of the engine that a huge thunderstorm had stalled over the mountains, and we couldn’t fly over it, and there didn’t seem to be a way around it, so out of concern for our comfort and safety, we were turning around, and hopefully we could try again in a while.
Five hours later, we were once again boarding the plane under clear skies and this time it was smooth flying all the way. The views below us were truly magnificent throughout the entire flight, as we skirted mountain tops and marveled at lush palm canyons watered from hidden springs, at hillsides of giant boulders, at an intensely rugged and awe-inspiring topography that could only be appreciated from the air. The previous scary flight and unusual weather pattern were an anomaly, and I appreciated the fact that the pilots had cared more about our comfort and safety than for maintaining a schedule. Our landing was uneventful, I cleared customs, and was soon ensconced in my very spacious oceanview room at the San Felipe Marina Resort and Spa, watching the full moon rise gloriously over the Sea of Cortez. For the remaining three days of my visit, the trip was as much fun as I had been looking forward to.
San Felipe Marina Resort and Spa is located about 4 miles south of town, in a quiet
location on the beach, next to a “marina” that still has not yet quite fully materialized, although that is about to change. Originally built in 1992, the 68 room hotel is scheduled to expand into a true resort, with the addition of a Jack Nicklaus Design golf course and condominiums in the early stages of construction, as well as slips for the marina, which currently consists of a few docks sheltered by a breakwater. The “spa” part of the “Resort and Spa” is also currently being reconcepted.
The hotel rooms are festively appointed with an arty “Mexican” décor—colorful textiles, whitewashed walls and tile floors that so pleasantly impart a sense of place and a vacation frame of mind. The amenities of the resort include a prime beach-front location, an enticing infinity edge pool, a convivial palapa bar, and a full service restaurant, El Secreto, which serves THE best breakfasts—everything from luscious tropical fruit platters
to such Mexican favorites as huevos rancheros and chilequiles. If you fly to San Felipe, rather than drive, don’t worry about how to get around without a car; the hotel transportation service will get you where you want to go—usually at no additional charge and depending on availability.
So what is there to do in San Felipe, you might ask? To start with, there are miles and miles of beaches. Even when the main playas downtown become crowded, there are always quiet, almost empty, alternatives a short drive away. As you would expect from any beach town, watersports are plentiful—charter and boat rentals, fishing excursions, kayak and canoe rentals, water skiing, jetskis, and the like—there are ATVs to rent for exploring the desert and sand dunes, there is an 18 hole championship golf course at nearby retirement and vacation community El Dorado Ranch, and, of course, a plethora of bars and restaurants, all with that casual, warm and hospitable Mexican ambiance.
One of my favorite eateries in town is Baja Mar, located on the Malecon (the waterfront) and owned by longtime San Felipe resident Octavio Ascolani and his family. The restaurant features traditional regional cuisine, showcasing the fabulous shrimp and seafood for which San Felipe is known, as well as steaks and other meats. The atmosphere is welcoming and gracious, much like Sr. Ascolani himself, and the food is delicious and real—no “celebrity” chefs trying to make an artistic statement at the expense of eatability, nothing glitzy or over-contrived. In Playa de Oro, another upscale expat retirement community on the beach about 6.5 miles north of San Felipe, Octavio Ascolani, Jr., the 21 year old hardworking son of the Ascolani family will welcome you to his fun and casual Margarita House, where you can imbibe an extensive assortment of Margaritas, accompanied by ceviche and other snacks.
The subtle beauty of the desert surrounds San Felipe and nowhere is it more majestic than in Valle de los Gigantes, the Valley of the Giants, near Punta Estrella, about 15 minutes south of San Felipe. The park is home to a forest of giant cardon cacti—the tallest cactus in the world, although the sign at the entrance erroneously refers to them as sahuaros, or saguaros (there are no saguaros in Baja!). These monsters can grow to a height of 60 feet, and weigh as much as 25 tons, living for many hundreds of years—some sources say a millenium.
The cardon is extremely slow growing and won’t even put out its first “arm” until it is 75 years old, and most of these have many arms. Walking among these imposing giants, with the silence of the desert broken only by the call of an occasional bird, it’s easy to feel that you are in the presence a powerful antiquity, of magnificent sentinels of the past who will hopefully be left alone to survive to a distant future as well.
San Felipe, which is technically a part of Mexicali two hours away, was negatively impacted by the downturn in the tourist economy in recent years, and although that hasn’t been the best economic reality for those who live there, to my thinking it has enabled the town to keep its funky, Mexican beach town vibe, and it feels more “real” than the steady line of real estate developments and half-built high-rise condominiums that line the western Baja coast from Tijuana to Ensenada. These days, with reliable air service four days a week, and significant improvements to the highway that runs from Tecate east to Mexicali and then south to San Felipe, the town is ready to reclaim its place as the fun Baja getaway destination it’s always been.