Ensenada: Baja's Overlooked Destination

Travelers who aren't intimidated by driving in Mexico should consider a visit to Ensenada, a first-rate tourist destination 70 miles south of San Diego, on the Pacific coast of Mexico's Baja Peninsula.  Las Rosas Resort & Spa Casa

"We've been overlooked—Ensenada is Mexico's best-kept secret," says Jean-Loup Bitterlin, president of the Ensenada Tourism Board. "Since so many people get here by driving, Ensenada has been thought of as a blue-collar destination."

Ensenada at a Glance

Although Ensenada lacks an international airport, it gets a significant number of visitors from cruise ships; 600,000 a year according to Bitterlin, making it the second most visited port-of-call in Mexico. In addition, the destination hosts 600,000 visitors a year staying overnight in hotels in and around Ensenada.

Casa De Los Siete Patios by El Rey Sol

Ensenada's charms are its pedestrian-friendly Paseo Calle Primera, lined with shops and restaurants; and its malecón or ocean boardwalk, with numerous small open-air restaurants. Many visitors to Ensenada come for sportfishing, surfing, golf and special events, such as the Spring Rosarito-Ensenada Fun Bicycle Ride & Finish Line, an event that attracts thousands of cyclists.

Bitterlin, also the owner of the 60-year-old El Rey Sol Restaurant, has some ideas on how Ensenada can shake its blue-collar image. "My vision is to follow the Carmel or Laguna Beach model—focusing on lifestyle by raising the level of our shopping, and promoting our great restaurants and wine routes," says Bitterlin. "We're Mexico's NapaValley—we now have over 20 wineries."

These wineries are easily reached by car, and many offer wine tasting and tours. Some wineries require reservations, so inquire in advance.

"The three things that put us on the map are our wineries, our main shopping street, Paseo Calle Primera, and our blowhole," says Bitterlin.

La Bufadora, which lies 22 miles south of Ensenada, is a natural blowhole that spouts seawater 70 feet into the air.

In Bitterlin's opinion, Ensenada doesn't need a mega attraction on the scale of a Disneyland or SeaWorld.

"Although we will be getting a new $6 million aquarium, adjacent to the cruise terminal, which will open within two years," he says. Bitterlin also notes that discussions are underway to build a cable-car ride, or waterfront gondola that will go from the cruise ship terminal up the mountain overlooking the town.

Hotel Snapshot

According to Bitterlin, there are 3,000 hotel rooms in the Ensenada area; 1,200 of these being three-star or fewer.

"We presently have enough hotel rooms to meet demand, but there is $1.5 billion in condo and retirement option projects underway," he says. "Mexico's next oil boom is the residential tourist boom—[property costs are] one-fifth to one-tenth of what it costs in the U.S."

Because many visitors will have arrived with their own cars, this makes it convenient to stay at one of the resort-style hotels just outside of town.

The 48-room Las Rosas Hotel & Spa (866-447-6727) features ocean views from all of its rooms. Through August, prices start at $181 for a standard room; this will go up to $212 in September.

The $40 million Hotel Coral & Marina (52 646 175 0000) has 147 ocean view suites, 353 marina slips and a spa. Prices start at $160 for a standard room.

Casa de los Siete Patios (cell: 00 1 858 414 4825, feliz@casadelossietepatios.com) occupies a seaside setting on two acres, 10 minutes north of Ensenada. The family-friendly property consists of five suites, and it is a popular choice for destination weddings. Prices, which begin at $1,200 a night for two, include maid, pool boy, staff, breakfast and dinner or lunch. There is also a spa service on property.

The 52-room Posada El Rey Sol (888-311-6871) is a good choice for those who want to be in the center of Ensenada, close to shopping and restaurants. The El Rey Sol is an America Best Value Inn. Rates begin at $85 during the week and jump to $95 on Friday and Saturday.

Ensenada Tourism Board 800-310-9687, www.enjoyensenada.com