Margaritaville -

April 1995 - Conde Nast Traveler By Michael Shnayerson

The Baja, to most southern Californians, means Cabo San Lucas, and at this point God knows why. Over the last decade, long-weekenders have flocked down to it in such numbers that the once-tiny fishing village at Baja's southern tip is now a colony of half-finished hotels, construction equipment, and roads that wash away in the rain. True, you can always stay at one of the two just-out-of-town gems, the Twin Dolphin and La Palmilla, but for a quiet weekend of off-the-beaten-track beaches and desert splendor, consider flying into La Paz instead. From there, you can rent a car at the airport and drive 90 minutes south on Route 1 to an unpretentious getaway called the Hotel at Rancho Leonero.

Set directly on the Sea of Cortes, at the end of a winding, five-mile dirt road that peels away from Route 1 south of Los Barriles (there's a big Rancho Leonero sign at the turnoff), the compound consists of gracious flagstone-and-thatched-roof cottages. It is presided over by John Ireland, a genial former Santa Monica real estate man.

Understand: this is not a resort, and if what you want is robotic waiters bringing you mai tais by the pool, Rancho Leonero is not the place. There is a nice pool directly in front of the bar and the baronial dining room with Spanish-leather chairs and long wood tables, and drinks are available - if you don't mind making the ten-step shuttle yourself. Considering that it could be your only exercise of the day, this is not a terrible burden.

If you want the additional workout of reeling in a big fish, you just might get it, for the Sea of Cortes is heaven for billfishing: marlin, sailfish, sunfish, and the famously hard-to-catch, gloriously acrobatic roosterfish. Every morning, giddy guests head out in Ireland's pangas - [$175] a day for smaller boats, [$240] for the "superpangas" which go faster and have toilets on board (rates are for up to three people, include a skipper, and are for eight hours of fishing). Peak fishing season is April through August, during which the inn's [26] rooms are almost always full, but there's good sport year-round, as one novice proved on an October day last fall by reeling in a 90-pound sailfish.

Ireland guesses that maybe 70 percent of his guests come for the fishing, 20 percent for the excellent scuba diving and snorkeling. Then there's the indolent 10 percent who loll on the beach, frolic in the pure blue bath-warm sea, or explore the desert roads by foot or car. At day's end, all convene in the bar for terrific margaritas and Jimmy Buffett music, "Oh yes, we're all parrotheads," says the inn's accountant, Roy, with a parrot on his shoulder to prove it.