Q&A on Baja and Cabo San Lucas
Nikki Goth Itoi has been exploring the Baja Peninsula on land and under the sea for more than a decade. A few years ago, she took over the best-selling Moon Baja and Moon Cabo guidebooks. Here, she shares some tips for planning an unforgettable Baja adventure.
BT: Baja is well known among eco-travelers as a place to see gray whales up close. Where is the best place to catch the action?
Nikki Goth Itoi: The gray whale migration is truly a wonder of Baja. Mothers come into the shallow lagoons on the Pacific side of the peninsula to give birth to their calves. During the January-April season, you can observe the whales breaching offshore from just about any coastal vantage point. A number of companies offer traditional "whale watching" boat trips out of Cabo San Lucas, Ensenada, and other major ports, but the only-in-Baja experience is to observe the whales up close from a small panga boat in one of three lagoons along the central coast: Laguna Ojo de Liebre near Guerrero Negro, Laguna San Ignacio near San Ignacio, and Bahía Magdalena, near Loreto and Todos Santos. Since the lagoons are several hours from the largest tourist destinations and the observation process is carefully regulated to protect the whales, most travelers book an organized trip through a professional outfitter.
BT: Though some travelers worry about food safety abroad, others plan their trips around culinary experiences. What are the must-try foods of Baja, and where do you go to get them?
NGI: Tecate beer and fish tacos are the signature Baja foods, but you can get much more adventurous than that. Ceviche is a seafood cocktail made of fresh white fish marinated in lime juice and often served in a martini glass with a tomato-based sauce. Lobster platters are big in Puerto Nuevo, Baja's lobster capital. The fish tacos are especially tasty at the Mercado de Mariscos in Ensenada, but you can find them on the plaza of any town on the peninsula. (Look for the longest line in the evening and order there.) If you are preparing your own meals, be sure to seek out the local tortillerîa, as nothing compares to freshly made tortillas (corn or flour)—order them by the kilo and enjoy them while they're still warm from the press. My personal favorite, the refreshing michelada, is kind of like a beer margarita, often served spicy like a bloody mary.
The current trend in gourmet Baja dining is to create menus that emphasize "alta cocina Mexicana"—innovative dishes that blend traditional flavors with fresh, local ingredients. Tijuana, Ensenada, La Paz, and San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas all have restaurants offering this type of cuisine. Wineries in the Guadalupe Valley make outstanding reds, and these labels are available on the menus of many restaurants, or you can visit them in person if you are planning to be in the Ensenada area.
BT: Mexico is known for its large-scale resorts, like Cancun and Cabo San Lucas. But many travelers want to go to Mexico for a more authentic experience. Which towns in Baja are less crowded and touristy?
NGI: To me, La Paz, the capital city of Baja California Sur, still offers the most authentic and least touristy experience for visitors, although a number of resort developments are taking shape on the outskirts of the city. For other options, Loreto in Central Baja and San José del Cabo at the tip of the peninsula both resemble "real" Mexican towns, as opposed to purpose-built destinations for travelers.
BT: Is Baja a suitable destination for young children? What about food safety and access to emergency medical care?
NGI: Baja is very safe and fun, especially for kids who like the water. Families have many options for a memorable trip, from week-long beach vacations to longer stays that might include Spanish language classes or scuba diving or kayaking instruction. Some of the most family-friendly locations include Loreto, Cabo Pulmo, La Paz, Cabo San Lucas, and Pescadero.
The best way to guarantee food safety for yourself and your kids is to rent a place with a kitchen and prepare meals yourself. The Los Cabos area has organic produce stands and large, modern supermarkets, so you can choose the ingredients you like and then drive to a more remote location. Bottled water is always a good idea; just be sure you don't buy the flavored kind for teeth-brushing, as I once did for my son! San José del Cabo and La Paz both have modern medical facilities, and there are professionally staffed medical clinics in many towns along the peninsula.
BT: For travelers who are based on the east coast of the United States, is it worth going all the way to the west coast of Mexico? What are the benefits of Baja vs. the Mexican Riviera?
NGI: The desert/tropical scenery of Baja is unique and very different from the lush jungle of the Mayan Riviera. If you're looking for a resort experience where you can relax by the pool and take a dip in the sea, then the mainland would be more convenient. But if you plan to explore the surrounding area, learn a new water sport, or get involved in conservation, then I believe Baja is absolutely worth the extra time and effort.
To learn more, pick up a copy of the Moon Baja or Moon Cabo guidebooks online or at your local bookstore.
Menu for Hope: Battle hunger and boost your next vacation
It's time again for the most delicious of do-good campaigns, Menu for Hope. This annual effort enlists food bloggers (full disclosure: I'm one of them) in the fight against hunger. In recent years, the campaign has raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars to support the UN World Food Programme. It has also given away some sweet prizes. Through December 25, you can purchase a single $10 ticket (or many) to bid on the prize item of your choice. Here are some that will be of serious interest to those traveling in 2010: Heading to New York? Bid to win a two night stay in the Chelsea studio of a local food writer. Want to get out of New York? Bid to win a two-night stay at the Farnum Hill Orchard in New Hampshire, with a tour of their cider making facility. Additional items and details at East Coast Prizes. Those going west might bid on dinner for two at Michelin 2-star restaurant Manresa, or a two-day artisan baking class at the San Francisco Baking Institute. Budding photographers bound for L.A. might bid to win a Food Styling & Food Photography Workshop with renowned shutterbug Matt Armendariz. Additional items and details at West Coast Prizes. Visiting Europe in 2010? Those dreaming of Italy can bid to win a two-night stay at a small inn in the alps of Piedmont, a market tour and trattoria lunch in Florence, or a personalized wine tasting class in Rome. Context Travel is offering two spaces in any of its scholarly city walks; in Europe, that includes Rome, Venice, Naples, Florence, London and Paris. A trip to Paris would also be elevated by winning a ten-course dinner for two with wine pairings at Hidden Kitchen (value $230). And if you're wondering where to eat while in Paris, I myself have signed on to be somebody's food slave, writing a tailored printable guide with recommendations based around the winner's personal taste and budget. Additional items and details at European Prizes. These are only a fraction of the prizes being offered for your traveling and gastronomic pleasure in 2010. Visit this site to bid on any items before December 25! ELSEWHERE... NYT: The Frugal Traveler on Ways to Give Back
Holiday scenes in NYC
Manhattan is in full-blown holiday mode! The tree is up, skaters are spinning, street vendors are roasting chestnuts, and tourists and locals alike are crowding the streets to be a part of it—and to peer into this year's dolled-up store windows. Photographer Joshua Paul captures these magical scenes in our slide show. AND WHEN YOU WANT TO WARM UP... Where to Drink Hot Chocolate in NYC
Pirate treasure comes to Norfolk, Va.
Pirates are, distressingly, much in the news these days, so it might be something of a relief to focus instead on treasures recovered from the wreck of a long-gone pirate ship. The Whydah, a three-masted galley ship capable of carrying 300 tons of cargo, was captured in February 1717 by Captain "Black Sam" Bellamy. The ship's hold was full of gold and goods traded in Jamaica for 312 captives sold into slavery (the ship was named for the port city Ouidah, in present-day Benin). But Bellamy didn't enjoy his spoils for long—he sailed the Whydah into a storm off Cape Cod in April 1717, and the ship sank. Underwater explorer Barry Clifford and his team discovered the site of the wreck in 1984 and spent two decades recovering objects from the ship. Now National Geographic and Arts and Exhibitions International, who also put together the exhibit "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," have cooperated to produce "Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship." The 16,000-square-foot exhibit, which opened at Norfolk's Nauticus on November 21 and runs until April 4, 2010, features more than 200 artifacts and a life-size replica of the ship that visitors can enter. We've written about Nauticus before, so suffice it to say that "Real Pirates" is just one more reason to visit this fun museum, where kids (and adults) can touch horseshoe crabs and everyone will enjoy learning about the history of our Navy. Do not miss the USS Wisconsin.
Edible Advent Calendar: Week 3
PARIS TREAT Dec. 20: Millefeuille from Jacques Genin I've tried throughout this advent calendar to avoid repeating a single address. That's kept me from posting about the salted butter caramels at Patrick Roger, the fig tart at Pain de Sucre and the bananutella waffle at L'Avant Comptoir. I'm making an exception to return to Jacques Genin and gush about his marvelous millefeuille. This "thousand layers" dessert is often a too-sweet soggy mess. Chez Genin, the millefeuille is assembled at the moment of your order. The buttery layers stay crisp and have just enough salt to counter the pure vanilla cream. It's a revelation for €5.40 ($7.75). La Chocolaterie Jacques Genin, 133 rue de Turenne, 3rd arrondissement, +011-33/1-45-77-29-01. PARIS TREAT Dec. 19: A sultry éclair from Fauchon This iconic luxury food emporium on the Place Madeleine dates all the way back to 1886. Many of its products are priced out of reach, but this little lady (in pastry form) is well within your grasp. As I reported back in November, the sultry image of Brigitte Bardot is now appearing on Fauchon's rose and almond éclair. She'll melt slowly in your mouth for €6 ($9). Fauchon, 24-26 place de la Madeleine, 8th arrondissement, +011-33/1-70-39-38-00. PARIS TREAT Dec. 18: Macarons from Ladurée The French macaron (way different from that American coconut confection, the macaroon) inspires delight and serious debate. True fans of the delicate cookie never tire of arguing about the best source, and Ladurée is always among the contenders. This venerable house has been producing pastry since 1862 and makes macarons that are more traditional than their main rival Pierre Hermé. They're beautiful to behold... so much so that film director Sofia Coppola used the pastel colors as the basis for costumes in Marie Antoinette. Macaron flavors change according to season, but some of my favorites include cassis-violette (black current and violet), bitter chocolate, salted butter caramel, and rose petal. A selection of four mini macarons (like those shown here) is €7.10 ($10.20). Ladurée, 21 rue Bonaparte, 6th arrondissement, +011-33/1-44-07-64-87. PARIS TREAT Dec. 17: Ispahan from Pierre Hermé Pierre Hermé, the city's most esteemed pastry maker, will be remembered for at least two things: his superb and often stupefying macarons (with surprising notes of white truffle, balsamic vinegar or candied kumquat), and the invention of the Ispahan flavor profile. This combination of rose, raspberry and litchi is used in a range of different sweets and pastries. My favorite is this signature dessert, which sandwiches rose petal cream with fresh litchis and whole raspberries between two rose-flavored macaron cookies (€6.60 ($9.48)). Ask for two spoons and take your dessert to share in the pretty place Saint-Sulpice. Pierre Hermé, 72 rue Bonaparte, 6th arrondissement, +011-33/1-43-54-47-77. PARIS TREAT Dec. 16: Chestnuts roasting in an open market When Jack Frost is nipping, as he often does in December, it's nice to have your hands wrapped around something warm. These roasted chestnuts make a cozy companion while browsing the open-air Christmas markets of Paris. A small cone for €3 ($4.37) should be more than enough, unless you want a few extra to warm the inside of your mittens (large cone for €5 ($7.29)). These particular châtaignes grillées come from the market at Saint-Sulpice, where you'll also find vin chaud (hot spiced wine) and other cold weather Christmas treats. Marché de Noël, place Saint-Sulpice, 6th arrondissement. PARIS TREAT Dec. 15: Golden threads from the saffron king When you're shelling out for the world's most expensive spice, it helps to have a trustworthy advisor on the other side of the register. Jean-Marie Thiercellin is a sixth-generation spice merchant whose family has been trading in saffron for hundreds of years. His shop in the upper Marais sells the stuff in every conceivable form: threads and powders, mustards and oils, and even saffron ice cream. A sachet of saffron powder is €5.50 ($8), and you can also pick up an award-winning book on the history and uses of the spice. Don't leave without stopping by "le Sniff Bar"—his selection of spices in smellable cannisters that are sure to make you swoon. Goumanyat & Son Royaume, 3 rue Charles-Francois Dupuis, 3rd arrondissement, +011-33/1-44-78-96-74. PARIS TREAT Dec. 14: A buttery brioche When Philippe Conticini recently opened his Pâtisserie des Rêves, people were lining up on the rue du Bac for the chance to sample the "pastry of dreams." One of his most eye-catching treats is this brioche, composed of fine flaky layers that melt like butter in the mouth. This particular brioche is built for a giant, but he sells one for mortals for only a few euros. Another treat that shouldn't be missed is the Paris-Brest. Named for the famous bike race, this is a wheel of choux pastry stuffed with smooth hazelnut cream. Absolutely delicious for only €4.80 ($7). La Pâtisserie des Rêves, 3 rue du Bac, 7th arrondissement, +011-33/1-42-84-00-82. MORE Our Edible Advent Calendar: Paris Food Treats Week 2 Our Edible Advent Calendar: Paris Food Treats Week 1 The photoblog of our expat correspondent in Paris