The Beach Beckons
Story and photos by Shilo Urban
The single rugged thing about Mexico’s One&Only Palmilla resort is the ocean, but adventure awaits in so many other ways
With my hair still wet from the spa, I sit down to a happy hour pop-up of tapas with sexy-sounding names: chapulines, escamoles, gusanos. The delicacies arrive in a lidded box like a gift, nestled among leafy herbs and purple flowers.
The natural presentation is only fitting, because my appetizers are grasshoppers, ant larvae and worms. It’s the moment of truth: Am I adventurous?
I had arrived in Los Cabos the previous day, and quickly felt the freewheeling insouciance that a beach vacation inspires. As I sample the tapas, the sun begins to slip toward the shimmering Sea of Cortez. A salt-kissed breeze laps at my toes. Stingrays stunt-leap out of the water and turn flips, showing off for beachgoers. Somewhere, someone is playing the Rocky theme song on a flute.
After landing in Mexico, I had a piña colada in my hand for the 20-minute ride in a private SUV to the oceanfront resort One&Only Palmilla. I’m thankful for the quick trip; this hotel was once only accessible by boat or plane. One of the first luxury resorts in Los Cabos, it catered to the likes of John Wayne and Lucille Ball.
Now expanded and modernized, the secluded garden retreat retains its exclusive ambiance (and it still attracts the rich and famous). Pathways curve through cascading tropical greenery, passing under archways and up to swank villas. The heady fragrance of frangipani flowers hangs in the air. I feel like I’m at the ends of the earth, and I am — at the tip of the Baja California peninsula. The area’s two main towns are collectively known as Los Cabos: Cabo San Lucas (a nightlife hot spot) and San José del Cabo (artsy and more upscale). One&Only Palmilla stretches around a small cape between the two, bookended by the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean.
The confluence of two massive bodies of water produces spectacular crashing waves but few swimmable beaches. Luckily, one of those is steps away from my suite. Golden sand cradles the entire resort, which unfolds in layers down a gentle cliff. The gemstone blues of the water are nothing short of thrilling in shades of turquoise, sapphire and aquamarine. It’s a treasure trove of sea life; during whale season, you can sail alongside the magnificent creatures or simply watch them pass by the coast from your lounge chair. Los Cabos also is a playground for sports adventures, from deep-sea fishing to scuba diving.
At Palmilla, there’s no shortage of activities. I want to try everything; should I book a tee time or a desert safari? Learn to surf? Set off in a kayak or catamaran? I opt for a place more suited to my athletic abilities: the infinity pool. I swim up to the bar for a banana milkshake and gaze at the ocean horizon, a constant reminder of the world’s vast expanse and the smallness of our worries. I feel mine drift away into the blue.
The view is just as beautiful from my suite; its hand-painted Mexican tile work and rustic rivet detailing evoke an Old World-meets-New World elegance. Lulled by the sound of the waves, I stretch out on the patio’s oversized daybed. Binoculars stand ready for stargazing and whale-spotting, and my butler has stashed pink grapefruit-ginger margaritas in the minibar.
I resist these temptations, as I want to explore San José del Cabo. A charming Catholic church anchors the town, the descendent of a Spanish mission founded in 1740. Shops and cafes surround the wide plaza. I gallery-hop on the side streets, admiring art that veers from colossal skulls to intricate Huichol beadwork.
I’m inclined to check out Los Cabos’ farm-to-table scene; restaurants such as ACRE and Flora’s Field Kitchen boast international buzz. But chef Harunobu Furuta is waiting for me at Palmilla to teach me the art of sushi rolling at Suviche, the hotel’s Japanese-Mexican eatery. He greets me with his hand over his heart, the customary salutation at the resort. Making sushi is easier than I expected, especially when an expert chef with a $10,000 knife slices the seafood, prepares the rice and guides your hands in rolling. There are three other restaurants on the property: Agua and Breeze (both outdoors), plus SEARED for surf-and-turf by Michelin-star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. It’s a name you hear whispered by the pool with a respect that nears reverence.
Another celebrity chef, Matthew Kenney, hosts a pop-up dinner in the herb garden. Don’t call it vegan food; this is “plant-based culinary art.” You can laugh — I did. But then I experienced six courses of pure kitchen wizardry. Kenney transformed cauliflower into caviar, macadamia nuts into mozzarella and this beef-loving Texan into a true believer. He’ll soon be opening a restaurant proper at the resort and has launched a cooking school to share his magic.
After days of feasting on creamy Baja oysters, lobster tacos and cajeta-filled churros, I’m feeling a bit tubby. That all changes with a monumental massage. I become light as air at the angel hands of my therapist. I forget where I am and afterward linger at the spa’s plunge pools in a hazy-brained daydream.
By the time happy hour arrives with my insect hors d’oeuvres, I’m emboldened by a flight of mezcal that was strategically served first. I bite into each bug-covered canape and am shocked — they’re beyond delicious. I could do without the grasshopper legs, but the agave worm and ant larvae taste nutty and buttery and totally distinctive. This is travel’s greatest gift: new experiences that give you a deeper understanding of the world and of yourself, and a good story to tell your friends.
Luxury is no longer just about fluffy bathrobes and sheets with ridiculously high thread counts (although you’ll certainly find those here). It’s a feeling of specialness created by unique moments that can only exist at a certain place and time.
At One&Only Palmilla, those moments come together like a strand of precious pearls, each a reminder to relax, play, indulge — and escape to the beach whenever you can.