Rancho Leonero: a slice of old Baja magic -

July 11, 1999 - San Diego Union Tribune
By Ed Zieralski

Sun- and fun-seeking visitors often leave only as a last resort

EAST CAPE, Baja California -- Happy Hour took on a new meaning one recent afternoon as guests at Rancho Leonero gathered for adult beverages.

La Jolla's Bill Decker was at center stool and telling how he hooked a marlin earlier and fought it ever so briefly from one of the resort's kayaks less than a mile off the beach. The man vs. marlin battle only lasted 90 seconds or so, but it was enough to inspire novice paddlers to go for their own misadventures.

Resort owner John Ireland could only smile, knowing another story had been added to the scrapbook that is this storied oasis of a resort.

Ireland came here in 1979 for his own adventure, and the place stirred him so much he never left.

"I slept right there the first night I owned the place," Ireland said, pointing to the stone porch beneath the window carved into the resort's bar.

Cabo San Lucas to the south has very little left of the real Baja that existed before "the road" connected the United States to the Cape and brought the Giggling Marlin and Hard Rock Cafe. But Ireland has bottled Baja magic and retained it here.

"All these resorts have their own charm," said Steve Freedman, a San Diego accountant who owns a place near the resort. "It's like going to a restaurant and seeing that each one has its own dish, own specialty. But this one has a very comfortable atmosphere. It has a cabin feel with the rock walls, the flagstone and palm-thatched roofs. It's like the tongue-and-groove knotty pine cabins in the mountains. It just has rustic charm."

Freedman is gushing with enthusiasm on this day. He'd been out fishing and saw so many marlin and caught so many dorado the experience nearly was enough to get him to cancel his flight home later in the day.

Freedman came here 10 years ago and, like Ireland, won't ever really leave. Ditto for Jim Smith, a former Los Angeles motorcycle cop who said he once was "strained through the grill of a Cadillac." The accident left him disabled as a policeman. He's been at Rancho Leonero since 1953 and even knew the original owner, Gil Powell.

That was back when celebrities such as John Wayne and Bing Crosby and wealthy sportsmen flew in here to recreate and fish. Powell was related to actor William Powell and as a wildlife cinematographer filmed all over the world. His many trips to Africa earned him the nickname of "El Leonero," which translates to "the one who knows lions."

Powell died in 1974, and the ranch was deserted when Ireland discovered it five years later.

Powell's original ranch house forms the bar and office of the current resort, but Ireland transformed it into the cozy resort it is today, loaded with amenities, but plenty of Old Baja.

"I tried to make it as simple as I could and yet not have people want anything when they're here," Ireland said.

Ireland is most proud of the fact his resort is not totally dedicated to fishing, although it is equipped with 26-to 33-foot cruisers and a dozen pangas for serious anglers.

The resort also offers kayaks, all-terrain quads, horseback riding, snorkeling and scuba diving, a full open-air gym with free weights and exercise equipment. There's also a pool and spacious air-conditioned rooms and oceanfront king-size bungalows.

"We really get a lot of families here," Ireland said. "Women usually make the bookings."

Twenty years after discovering the place, Ireland is as excited as ever about the area's prospects. More additions to the resort are planned, and there could be a golf course on the horizon.

Bobby Van Wormer Jr., 28, was named Baja's state tourism director, and Ireland sees good things from that appointment. Bobby Van Wormer Sr. is one of the pioneers of tourism in Baja.

"Bobby is young and energetic, and he and his father have always been rabid about conservation and controlling commercial fishermen here," Ireland said.

Ireland said Van Wormer Jr. will spend more of the state's advertising dollars promoting the entire state of Baja, not just Cabo San Lucas, as in the past.

Rancho Leonero's success, Ireland said, has been due to the quality people he's brought to the resort. His girlfriend, Jennifer McMurtray, assists him, and last month Ireland hired Gary Barnes-Webb as manager.

Barnes-Webb was a professional big-game hunting guide from South Africa who had guided Ireland and McMurtray on a couple of successful hunts. Barnes-Webb, who is a fifth-generation South African, moved his wife and two children to Baja in early June.

Of all the resort's selling points, however, the main one flows underground from the nearby Laguna Mountains. There's truly nothing bottled that matches the sweet taste of this area's well water. It's one of the few places in Baja where you can drink the agua without fear.

"If you ever drink the water here, you'll always come back," the old-timer Smith said. "It's Baja's best-kept secret."