When John Steinbeck headed to Baja California in the 1940s, his goal was to gather samples of the sea creatures living in what was then a little explored coastline. The Baja expedition I’m about to embark upon might be less lofty but just as soul satisfying. For the next few days my goal is to do nothing but stare at the azure sea with my feet sunk deep in the sand, sip margaritas, snorkel a bit and hit the spa a lot. 

Back when Steinbeck made his journey, Cabo San Lucas was a tiny fishing village made up of shacks sprinkled along a dusty road. While Baja California remains a largely undeveloped desert Frontera, as the locals call it, the southern tip of the peninsula—made up of Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo and the Corridor—is booming with glitzy resorts, popular bars and perfectly manicured golf courses. Every winter, thousands of gray whales travel 12,000 miles from the arctic to these warm, clear waters. And people from around the globe come here to catch the world’s largest marlin, dive among coral reefs and get pampered at luxurious spas that beckon almost at every turn. 

The first thing I do after checking in at the hotel is head to the beach where I get right down to business: with some chips and salsa and a chilled Pacifico beer in front of me, I wait for the sun to set and let the warm sand tickle my feet.

The sky, changing from crimson to orange to a potpourri of pastels, is made even more dramatic by the presence of the often photographed rock formation called El Arco and Playa del Amor, a secluded little beach that marks Land’s End. 

Early the next morning I flag down a water taxi and in about five minutes we reach the beach. As the boat slows down, I peer through the glass bottom to marvel at the colorful fish and the coral below. My water taxi guide, Fernando, points to the famous arc. “It looks like a donkey with its head down drinking water,” he says. Next to it is another rock formation, this one shaped uncannily like the head of Scooby Doo. “Do you see his pointy ears?” he asks. Over a dozen sea lions rest lazily on another rock and we get close enough that when one dives in I get splashed with water. 

At Lover’s Beach you can go for a pleasant swim in the Sea of Cortez and then walk the 300 yards to the opposite side to swim in the Pacific, where you’ll likely struggle with the strong undertow and the pounding waves. The water on both sides is delightfully warm and I make a mental note to come back with my snorkeling gear.  

I arrive at Las Ventanas al Paraiso, a 61-suite “window to paradise” resort popular with Hollywood jetsetters like Jennifer Aniston, and manage to tear myself away from the stunning view to get to my spa service just in time. My skin feels soft and polished after the Desert Purification treatment, a Mexican clay application designed to detoxify the skin and body. The extensive range of spa services is inspired by holistic therapies, healing rituals and organic products from Baja, Bali and Japan. 

The Spa at Las Ventanas advocates a “total lifestyle” approach, meaning it addresses the body essentials, as well as those of mind and soul. A day at Las Ventanas begins and ends with a healing ritual called “Crystal Tones Sonic Meditation,” wherein staff and guests come together at sunrise and sunset to listen to the harmonic sounds exuding from crystal bowls. The ritual is meant to encourage thoughtful meditation while empowering the spirit. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for life-affirming encounters but when I’m on vacation I prefer to wake up at a more reasonable hour than sunrise—say, closer to noon—and take my breakfast in the suite’s private rooftop before slipping into the infinity-edge pool. Poolside at Las Ventanas, a Pool Butler greets you at an oversized lounger and offers you reading material as well as an iPod pre-loaded with thousands of songs, from Jazz to hip hop and classical. After you’ve made yourself comfortable, the Butler cleans off any SPF smudges on your sunglasses, keeps you cool with mists of frosted Evian sprays and cold towels, and serves you complimentary refreshments such as frozen chocolate sorbet cups. I wonder if I can take a Pool Butler home with me. 

By 7:30 the next morning, I am unexpectedly awake and ready to explore Baja’s rugged backroads with friends. Baja Outback offers expeditions off the beaten path that last anywhere from a few hours to multi-day circuits for those who want to explore the peninsula’s colorful northern towns. Our caravan of yellow Hummer H2s heads away from the ocean and into the vast desert. Driving ahead of us, our guide tells us by radio that we are passing through a stretch of land where Brad Pitt’s Achilles fought for dear life in the opening sequence of Troy. I don’t remember the movie but the cacti-studded hills and blooming desert flowers that surround us are impressive. Occasionally we spot a family of wild boars or a lonely donkey. We maneuver the Humvees through a challenging terrain of steep grades, over rocks and little streams of running water. Eventually we reach Rancho La Verdad, an agricultural oasis where a friendly old farmer treats us to grapefruits and berries picked right off the tree. 

Back in town we stop at Vistazul, one of two hotels in the region that houses a Temazcal. The traditional Mexican steam room dates back to the ancient Mayans, who were said to spend days sweating within to attain mental and spiritual purification. In our bathing suits, we crawl inside the adobe igloo—it represents Mother Earth’s Womb, we’re told—and wait for the Shaman to begin the session.

Baking in the Temezcal, I quickly fall into a trance. I’m not quite sure if it’s because I’m sweating profusely or because of the Shaman’s words and the rhythmic sounds of native flutes and drums playing on the stereo outside.

An hour later, I come out and sip a cup of herbal tea while a clay mask dries on my face. That night I sleep more soundly than I have in ages. 

I spend my last evening in Cabo at One & Only Palmilla, once a tropical hideaway for the likes of Hemingway. The 172-room resort underwent an $80 million makeover a couple of years ago and it’s clear why it has become one of the world’s premiere retreats. Treatments at the spa focus on ancient and modern healing techniques and take place in your own private spa villa. The Jack Nicklaus-designed 27-hole course with breathtaking views of the sea is renowned as Mexico’s best. Massive wooden doors weathered with age open to suites tastefully decorated in delicate Mexican artistry. If your stay coincides with prime whale-watching period (January through early April), you won’t have to go much further than your private balcony to spot one of the incredible mammals. 

At the palapa-style Agua restaurant I savor “Mexiterranean” dishes prepared by executive chef Larbi Dahrouch. The tajine of sea bass with artichokes in a charmoula sauce is to die for. The house band is playing an old standard, “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas,” while starlight dances on the water. And I’m thinking, lucky Steinbeck to have spent months here on his marine collecting expedition. Then again, if whales make Los Cabos an annual destination, I figure I can too. 

Photo by Ani Carrington on Flickr.com