I am not a man who parts well with hard-earned cash. So blowing more than US$ 1,500 a night on a honeymoon vacation did not come easily. As it turned out, I would have paid more.
Las Ventanas al Paraíso is what’s called a five-diamond luxury resort. Perched at the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, the place would be relaxing if they just set out some lawn chairs and an ice bucket. But you don’t get named one of the top 100 of the world’s best hotels by Travel & Leisure magazine by setting out lawn chairs.
My wife and I picked Las Ventanas for two reasons: web shots of the infinity pool that appears to drop into the Sea of Cortez (I’m all about a great pool), and because of a romance package that made the trip seem almost affordable.
In addition to an all-inclusive meal plan (though it excludes the most important line item — cocktails), we’d be reduced to blubber with various treatments at the world-renowned spa, gorge at a quixotic dinner on the beach and loll with aromatherapy turndown service.
Rave reviews from the online source TripAdvisor and what seems like every travel magazine that ever made a “best” list (Forbes, Condé Nast Traveler, Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report, Wine Spectator and others) helped with our choice, not to mention cheap airfare from Seattle.
What the heck — we put ourselves in massive debt with the wedding — what was another 10 grand for a once-in-a-lifetime excursion?
We arrived in Cabo and immediately got a taste of the good life. Outside baggage claim, a driver escorted us to our waiting Mercedes, then provided us with refreshing drinks, a cool, lemongrass– scented face towel, a chart of the week’s weather and a briefing from The New York Times. Already, I felt like Trump on holiday. Twenty minutes later we’d arrived at our destination — and were ruined for any future travel experience.
Apparently there is no “check-in” upon reaching paradise. No standing in line, no schlepping bags. A uniformed gentleman who knows your name hands you a parasol and leads you immediately to your suite, where champagne and fresh fruit await. You are given a map of the property, a brief overview of the room’s ample amenities, and a card with your contact’s name should you be needing anything further.
They really mean anything — as in helicopter rides, a sunset cruise on the hotel yacht, handmade suits, a Mini Cooper convertible, in-room spa services, gourmet feasts to your specification and, for those staying in the largest suites, their own personal butlers. You name it (and pay for it) — it’s done. Being on somewhat of a budget, we drank the free bubbly and headed to the pool, where we hoped to rub shoulders with the rich and famous.
The brochure says that “Las Ventanas was not simply built, but created.” Part Disneyland, part Xanadu, part Buddhist temple, Las Ventanas is a serene, elegant dream world where thoughts of the life you left behind stay in the deep recesses of your memory until you are dragged kicking and screaming back to it.
Every detail — from the hand-laid mosaic walkways to the meandering waterways, and original art by Mexican master Rodrigo Pimentel — has been designed to rejuvenate and satisfy the senses. For those needing to fast track the relaxation agenda, there’s also a tequila-tasting bar with the world’s best agave distillations.
Apparently, a huge part of the mega-rich experience is being waited on hand and foot. And not the kind of bad lingering where you pay a Mariachi band just to leave you alone, but the kind of service that feels more like a friend — a friend waiting on you hand and foot, but a friend nonetheless.
Staff outnumber guests at Las Ventanas almost four to one (there are 400 employees and around 120 guests in only 61 suites), but you won’t see most of them as they scurry to clean your room or deliver fresh ahi tuna loin; hidden service tunnels run underneath the property, allowing guests to feel as though they are alone at all times.
If you do catch a glimpse of a maid, she’ll be costumed in a beautiful hand-embroidered Mexican gown, riding a white vintage bicycle and pretending she’s immune to the heat.
Our expectations for the trip were high. A guest profile, filled out before our arrival, assured that the pillows were to our specifications, the library included books and DVDs to our liking, and that staff were aware of our honeymoon celebration, as well as my wife’s birthday. (Special menus were printed at the restaurant, and presents arrived from the hotel gift shop throughout the day.)
Slippers delivered to the room were exactly to size (a tough match for my bride’s tiny toes), the mini-bar was stocked with our favorite booze and, get this, personalized sewing kits had been tailored to our clothes. That’s right — while we dipped our feet in the ocean, the staff checked out what was hanging in our closet, and created customized threads to match. It’s the little things that blow your mind.
My main goal on vacation is to move as little as possible, which worked out nicely at the Las Ventanas pool. While some folks are wine snobs, or know their Cuban cigars or golf clubs like the back of their trophy-wife’s hand, I’m a pool connoisseur. Like most swank hotels, the pool area features oversized loungers, preeminent bar service (not to mention $16 mango margaritas), super-fluffy towels, shade umbrellas and a swim-up bar.
Oliver Salinda, a pool butler from nearby San Jose del Cabo, is the most important liaison in the resort. Not only is he where the action is, but his subtle services are what we remember most from our stay. One afternoon it was an offer to clean our sunglasses, another, providing iPods for our listening pleasure.
Attendants constantly readjust umbrellas for shade, leave ice buckets and spray canisters of chilled Evian (I kid you not), and come around with a variety of sorbets, blueberries on a stick, frozen grapes and iced tea samplers to whet your scorched palate. Want some sun block? Name your SPF factor and you’re as good as bronze.
Since most of the guests come to the property to celebrate a special occasion (honeymoon, birthday, anniversary, etc.), Las Ventanas has a director of romance. Marissa Wood has been in the high-end hotel biz long enough to know money can’t always buy you panache. “My job is basically to help the romantically challenged,” she says.
Making it easier for the millionaire geek to propose to his girlfriend in style, she’ll arrange for white stallions, scatter roses or make string quartets appear on the beach at just the right moment. Or in our case, stay out of the way, keep the champagne flowing, and make sure that after returning from dinner, our room has been transformed into a den of iniquity — romantic music and candlelight filling the suite, along with chocolate strawberries on the mantle, and bougainvillea flowers arranged in the shape of a heart on our bed.
There’s an important spiritual component to the “windows of paradise.” Blending in with the Mexican desert, New Age elements appear in every corner: Zen-raked sand, small, bubbling pools of water, perfect cactus gardens and the smell of lemongrass that leads to the spa where the signature therapies, wraps and massages will send you to comatose faster than a Yanni album and a hammock.
Every moment wasn’t perfect; we saw a cockroach the size of a VW Beetle on an exterior path, my white wine was less than cold at one point, and instead of Tom and Katie at the pool, we had Texan toddlers, five of ‘em, splashing about and turning a relaxed pool scene into a trailer-park dunk-a-thon for an hour or so.
Clearly, children should be banned from luxury hotels. (While horseplay and diving are forbidden at the infinity pool, children are not discouraged.) Luckily, the iPod that had been provided drowned out the rugrats.
On our last night we thought we’d seen it all: Pink and Fred Savage at the pool (don’t worry – they weren’t together), tequila tastings perfectly paired with ceviche plates, massages under the stars, and nightly souvenirs delivered to the room that included a hand-made, leather-bound photo album for our expensive memories.
The resort’s brilliant Swiss chef, Michel Gehrig (previously executive chef at The Trafalgar and The Cardiff Hilton), hand plates each incredible dish at The Restaurant, and has quickly turned the avocado into an art form. As my wife and I dined on yet another grilled prawn the size of a baseball mitt, a waiter appeared and quickly removed my white napkin, swapping it for a black one and disappearing.
It simply matched my black slacks better, and these kinds of details matter in the world of paradise and vacation make-believe. Talk about things falling into your lap; we’d almost come to expect it.
On the way to the airport, takeout meals were provided for our plane ride home, so we could at least pretend we were still first-class citizens, even back in the econo-zone. As I carved into my filet mignon in 22D, the guy next to me had peanuts. Like I said, it was worth it.
If You Go
Las Ventanas al Paraíso