DSC00436Summer passes quickly in northern climates. All too soon, ice has locked up the Great Lakes, and boats sit in storage buildings and under shrink wrap, waiting for spring.
That’s not all bad news, however. The offseason can provide valuable opportunities to travel and discover new boating playgrounds. Many Great Lakes boaters, like their East Coast counterparts, have discovered Mexican Caribbean destinations like Isla Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, and Cancún.
A smaller group heads west, bound for Los Cabos at the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Few will turn their eyes to the scalloped Pacific coast and rolling green hills of northern Baja’s border country, just 78 miles south of San Diego.
Earlier this year, I traveled to Ensenada, Baja California, to see what treasures it might hold. I quickly learned what West Coast boaters have known for years. This is more than a city of 280,000 people, more than the first major port south of the U.S. Mexico border, more than the terminus of the venerable, 66-year-old, 125-mile Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race.
She’s called the “Cinderella of the Pacific, and she’s a city worthy of the title. Not only is the city home to world-class boating and fishing, myriad cultural attractions, and diverse recreational opportunities, it lies adjacent to the Valle de Guadalupe, a wine-growing region celebrated throughout Mexico and garnering increasing attention worldwide.

Getting There

Great Lakes visitors likely will arrive in Ensenada by air or land. You can book a flight to Tijuana or San Diego, then rent a car, hop on public transportation, or investigate shuttle options with your hotel (Ensenada has more than 3,500 rooms, from one- to five-star).

For example, Hotel Coral & Marina guests who fly into San Diego can meet a hotel shuttle at the airport or at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, which is an easy trolley ride from downtown. At San Ysidro, U.S. Interstate Highway 5 crosses into Tijuana, and from there, the shuttle takes you along magnificent México 1; past Fox’s Baja Studios at Rosarito, where Titanic was filmed; and right to the hotel’s front door.

If you decide to drive across the border (see sidebar to get information about required documentation and Mexican insurance), you may be surprised to discover that it’s a complete nonevent. It’s absolutely effortless from the U.S. side.

This is the busiest land border crossing in the world, with roughly 50,000 vehicles and 25,000 people on foot crossing each day. Historically, lines have been quite long on the Mexico side as vehicles and pedestrians, including countless daily commuters, wait to cross into the United States. Since I had a flight home out of San Diego, I was told to allot plenty of extra time. It took nearly two hours.

Those monstrous wait times could be a thing of the past, however. At press time, San Diego news outlets reported that, after years of construction and lane closures, U.S. border authorities have opened all 25 lanes to northbound traffic. Waits are now measured in minutes rather than hours.

Her Face Toward the Sea

Ensenada, one of the Californias’ earliest settlements, has always turned her face to the sea. The native Yuman Indians would travel to the waterfront for seafood (the Pai-Pai, Kumeyaay, Cucapá and Kiliwa nations continue to live in the area today). Early settlers relied on the sea as their lifeline for food, supplies, and communications.

Today, residents and visitors alike stroll the waterfront malecon, watch the cruise ships come in, and check out the fresh catch at the outdoor market. And they take advantage of the city’s world-class boating facilities so they can cruise, dive, paddle, and fish the impossibly blue Pacific waters.

For trailer boaters, there are launch ramps at the three Ensenada marinas — Hotel Coral & Marina, Baja Naval, and Ensenada Cruiseport Village — as well as at the Estero Beach Resort,  for a fee if you’re not a guest. You also can use the cement launch ramp at Punta Banda Rincon, and if you have a kayak, canoe or dinghy, there are beach launch facilities at Campo La Jolla.

If you’ve arrived in Ensenada by air, or by car minus a trailerable boat, don’t worry. This city offers plenty of opportunities to get out on the water. The marinas are overflowing with local charter boats and captains who are willing to take passengers on half- or full-day trips to enjoy fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving, whale-watching, and even surfing.

At Isla Todos Santos, just 12 miles offshore, wave faces can reach 60 feet at a famous site called “Killers.” Professionals flock here, and this past June, the iconic breaks from Salsipuedes to Killers was designated the sixth World Surfing Reserve.

During my stay, I took advantage of a sunset cruise in Bahía de Todos Santos and along the Ensenada waterfront aboard the 47-foot Bertram Papa Loco. Our captain, Miguel, worked as a professional fisherman on a tuna seiner for many years. These days, he offers his expertise to sportfishing enthusiasts.

Boating is the obvious highlight, but if you’re looking for land-based adventure, Ensenada is a good base from which to try horseback-riding, hiking, mountain biking, and ATV excursions. The national parks at Sierra de Juarez and San Pedro Mártir aren’t too far away, either.

The Ruta del Vino

You’ll definitely want to visit Baja California’s Ruta del Vino, the renowned Valle de Guadalupe wine country. Major hotels like the Hotel Coral offer shuttle service so you can tour the Vine and Wine Museum, which opened in 2012 and remains the only such facility in Mexico; savor a meal at one of the many diverse wine-country restaurants, such as the new farm-to-table, open-air Malva Cocina de Baja California; and sample the various wines in the valley, which is now home to more than 60 wineries. The oldest, Bodegas de Santo Tomás, opened in 1888.

At the five-year-old Hacienda La Lomita winery, you can taste signature Baja California wines such as the leggy, full-flavored 2011 Pagano (in its über-cool square bottle); the bright, polished 2011 Tinto de la Hacienda; and the smooth, buttery 2013 Espacio Blanco while cleansing your palate with locally made artisanal breads, and marmalade and fresh Paloma cheese made by the owner’s mother.

“Winemaking is getting to be a very big business,” said Fernando Pérez Castro, 37, Hacienda La Lomita’s proprietor. “It’s about 20 percent of our economy, and it’s growing 0.5 percent annually.

“It’s an exciting time,” he continued. “There are five or six new wineries being built right now, and several new places to eat. I’ve lived on the border all my life, and I can honestly say that the 2008 economic crisis was great for this area. The spring-break and party places closed, and they’re now art galleries. There’s amazing mescal, street food, craft beers. And you’re going to meet owners, chefs, all kinds of people who are passionate about their community and about what they’re doing.”

Five years ago, Ensenada first emerged on the radar in Mexico as one of the most important places to eat. Part of that, Castro said, is the wine produced in the valley. The other part is “how careful we are with our food.”

“It’s mind-blowing what’s happening in gastronomy here,” he commented. “‘Baja Med’ is a big movement that’s giving Mexican cuisine a new name, and because it’s a mixture of southern California and northern Baja, it unites us all. It’s like there’s no border.”

Indeed, this is a rapidly transforming economy, thanks in part to the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California. Not only was UABC ranked the second-best public university in the country in a national 2008 survey, it’s home to Mexico’s only enology school and offers degrees in gastronomy as well.

“A lot of young people are working in the new ‘Baja Med’ culture,” said Roberto Alcocer, chef at Malva Cocina de Baja California, located at the Mina Penélope vineyard. Just 30 years old, Alcocer earned a bachelor’s degree in gastronomy; studied for a year in Bordeaux, France; completed additional coursework in Belgium; and practiced his craft in France before returning home.

Malva is one of the newer restaurants, and as Alcocer executes his own unique farm-to-table vision, he draws inspiration from local indigenous cultures. On the menu during my visit, in fact, was a salad with locally harvested fruits and wild mustard, fennel, arugula, rosemary and malva, the restaurant’s namesake. From there, I tucked into a masterfully prepared escolar with a jicama puree, lemon puree, and more local greens.

Between the resurgence of interest in the region’s traditional indigenous cultures and burgeoning economic opportunities presented by the wineries and restaurants, there is great hope for the future of Mexico’s border region. Castro perhaps said it best.

“We’re writing our own history right now, all of us together,” he said. “This is our spring.”

Gems in the Crown

Simply walk through downtown Ensenada, and you’ll see the positive changes afoot in the city. Yes, this is still an important cruise-ship port, particularly for Pacific Princess and Carnival, and it has its requisite shopping district for day-tripping passengers. But there’s so much more.

Visit the 1930 Hotel Riviera del Pacífico, which flourished as a destination for U.S. glitterati for a few short years — until the U.S. repeal of the Volstead Act ended Prohibition in 1933 and Mexico outlawed gambling in 1938.

“The hotel was inspired by Monaco and the French Riviera,” said Rafael González Bartrina of the Seminario de Historia de Baja California, who moved to Ensenada as a child in 1948. “It’s our pride and joy.”

Today, the genteel, confectionlike property is home to a regional history museum, a cultural center, a collection of valuable 1929 Alfredo Ramos Martínez murals, and popular legends about Al Capone and the mafia. Take a tour, and stop at the bar for a margarita, which allegedly was invented here.

Across the street, where sand dunes tumbled to the shore in Bartrina’s boyhood days, you’ll find a science museum and a new aquarium facility that is currently underway. In the meantime, you can view the art exhibits at the nearby Centro Estatal de Las Artes and pick up a coffee at Cafe Tomas, which Gabriel Shimomoto of Ensenada’s state tourism office insisted is the city’s best.

Tour the city’s many other art galleries, visit the original history museum (once the Mexican army’s headquarters and a municipal jail), stroll the sweeping waterfront malecon, and watch waves roll across the Bahía de Todos Santos from the large public beach. If you’re thirsty, consider a stop at the famous 1892 cantina Hussongs, or pop into Wendlandt’s Cerveceria, an intimate pub where you can get an impressive sample board of hand-crafted beers.

“Craft beer is the latest thing in Ensenada,” Shimomoto said. “We had more than 4,000 people come to our 5th annual Ensenada Beerfest in March, which included 40 beer makers from northern Baja, mainland Mexico and Southern California.”

When you’re ready to refuel, expatriates recommend the Belio and Ophelia restaurants, as well as the variety of ethnic street foods — from Armenian to Argentinian — available at the Callejón Colectivo Culinario and Región Gastronómico. And, since Ensenada was the birthplace of the fish taco, add that to your must-eat list while you’re in the city. The fish couldn’t be any fresher; look no farther than the sprawling, energetic seafood market at the waterfront.

If you’d like explore farther afield, visit La Bufadora on the Punta Banda peninsula, approximately 20 miles south of Ensenada. This marine geyser is one of North America’s largest blowholes, and it’s been known to shoot seawater more than 100 feet into the air. Then there’s Ojos Negros in the San Rafael valley south of the city, where you can experience the region’s artisanal cheesemaking, and the Las Cañadas Campamento, which includes ziplines, canopy tours, and a popular waterpark.

City of Festivals

Ensenada also is a city of festivals. Some commemorate sporting events such as the world-renowned Baja 1000 off-road race, the Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race, and the Rosarito-Ensenada Bike Ride, while others revolve around the city’s exploding “Baja Med” scene. These include the Festival de las Conchas y el Vino Nuevo Ensenada in April, Ensenada de Todos festival in May, and the Fiestas de la Vendimia (Wine Harvest Festival) in August, which also includes a paella contest.

Outdoor concerts in Ensenada and at the various wineries throughout the Valle de Guadalupe are major events on the region’s annual calendar as well, as is Carnaval. In Ensenada, this six-day wintertime celebration draws roughly 300,000 visitors.

With the region’s pleasant Mediterranean-like climate, Ensenada will hold great appeal to visitors from northern climates throughout the winter and spring months. Shimomoto said he’d like to see more Americans make the trip.

“Our winemakers are traveling all over the world for contests, and they’re winning awards,” he noted. “The word’s getting out.”

“If you want adventure and new experiences, come to Baja,” Castro insisted. “It’s something to savor. It’s a state of mind.”