LA FONDA, BAJA COAST, MEXICO
Naked luaus on the beach, a unique tequila-in-belly-button championship, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Madonna dining with Sean Penn, Bette Midler, Lee Majors, spaced-out magicians and surprise bare-breasting; these - and much more - are the ingredients that make up the legacy of La Fonda. Hotel No-Tell. Andrew L. Urban reports.
Less than three hours in the Mustang convertible from Hollywood, just 59 kms south of the border in Mexico, La Fonda stands as a monument to man's search for happiness and a good weekend. Dead cows and dead cars litter the roadside along the coast, which is often rugged and rocky.
At La Fonda, the beach is wide and long. But on a summer Saturday night, it's still not wide or long enough. This is when the naked luaus combust spontaneously, and the tequila is slurped out of your belly button by half a dozen women as you are cheered on to drink from the bottle without spilling any. (Needless to say, your belly button is first brushed with a special, salted, belly button brush.) The national championships are held in November, if you’re interested.
One of the rustic rooms I admired during my visit
La Fonda, Spanish for The Inn, is a tiny, rustic cliff-top settlement of a handful of residents - and the inn. La Fonda IS La Fonda, a hotel with restaurant and bar on the Mexican coast, 45 minutes on the road past Tijuana. Over the past 10 years, two other small hotels and a few restaurants have opened up in the area and there is a camping ground nearby, popular with surfers coming to enjoy the break.
The owner who ran La Fonda when I first visited the place, Dmytriw Orest (short for Orestovich) was the son of Ukrainian immigrants, married to Sara from Siberia. Dmytriw was in the construction business until he bought La Fonda in 1970, from the widow who had built it, in 1941. "Twenty minutes after I came to the joint, I owned it," boasted Dmytriw, "a whole goddam mile. I paid for it right there." The mile of beachfront spreads either side of the hotel restaurant bar complex, which comprises buildings that have been added haphazardly over the years, giving the impression of a miniature village.
"rustic old Mexican ambiance with just a new coat of cactus green paint – and a full service
Dmitryw sold La Fonda in 2004 and has retired nearby at La Mision. But Alexandro Martinez, the young, exuberant general manager (always on hand to welcome guests), is a lifetime La Fonda man who was originally employed by Dmytriw, as are many others in the restaurant, kitchen, maintenance and housekeeping departments. The new owners (Shawn and Gary Retig and Bonnye and Richard Prieto) have been careful not to gentrify the place, retaining the original spirit of rustic old Mexican ambiance with just a new coat of cactus green paint – and a full service spa. Three floors of it! Services offered include the Baja Bomb sports massage, an open air massage with a view of the Pacific, romantic spa bath for two with champagne (and the view), as well as the usual skin care, manicure, pedicure and salon services.
Every room has a wood burning chiminea (a small clay or stone fireplace) or a full sized fireplace. But there is no guest internet, no valet parking, no turn down service, no mini bars and no TV in the rooms. Hell, there aren’t even phones in the rooms. (There are ordinary payphones for guests, but they don’t get much use.) What the rooms offer is privacy, spectacular ocean views, a unique sense of place - and a bar with great ambiance (and many colourful stories), whose verdant terrace overlooks the ocean. Not bad for US$70 a night for standard ocean-view rooms, US$85 for private ocean-front bungalows (all plus 11% tax). You can pay in Mexican Pesos, too, or use a Visa or Mastercard for an extra 6%.
Steps to the beach
It’s Saturday and the bar is overflowing with people; the kitchen serves 1400 meals in the 12 hours from noon. WHERE DO ALL THESE PEOPLE COME FROM? Well, there was an American woman in her 40s who opened her blouse and let her bosom settle slowly on Hector's bar. Her boyfriend encouraged her, but most customers continued drinking Hector's seamless banana daiquiris, and wild margaritas. The woman, one of America's wealthiest, owns a chain of pharmacies. She used to come south to relax for the weekend. Others came from Hollywood, like Zsa Zsa Gabor, who spent a few nights here after her latest wedding. One night a magician walked in and startled the drinkers at the bar with tricks. He came from Las Vegas, says Hector, nonchalantly splatting a bug with an ashtray on the bartop.
Others come from Orange County, and the small seaside communities like Carlsbad along the Southern Californian coast between Mexico and Los Angeles.
"a constant sense of discovery and surprise"
Scattered up and down the various levels of the outlying buildings are just 36 rooms that make up the hotel. Each is a statement in Mexicana, with touches of surrealism and lime green paint, and the occasional Mexican artefact, all adding to a constant sense of discovery and surprise.
One of the bigger rooms is called the apartment; the wide bed is covered with a Mexican rug, and looks out over the ocean. Opposite the bed, the wall is busy with a small print washed in pale blue, mounted on wood, depicting the charge of the Light Brigade. Below this is a framed, handwritten copy of that famous work by John Donne, "No man is an island...", and nearby, the reproduction of the American Constitution of March 24, 1789. On the kitchen wall facing the room is a framed handwritten recipe for Blueberry Grunt.
La Fonda used to have only 21 rooms, but it has expanded. One of the reasons is a retired admiral.
It seems that this admiral had been a regular for some time. He would come down each January and book out a weekend once a month for the rest of the year. He told Dmytriw, "When I come down here with my wife, it's the only time I get laid." He would always stay in the same room, and leave a happy man, to return a month later.
One year, the admiral somehow overlooked booking in for one of his weekends, and his room was taken when he arrived. Despondent, he drank himself into a banana daquiri stupor and cried on Dmytriw's shoulder. The host promised there and then to build a room especially for him.
Bar with a view
As much as the bar and the ambiance, La Fonda is built on the skills of its kitchen. Dmytriw used to own the largest quail producing ranch in the country, with 1.4 million birds. He would sell 2000 dozen a week to other restaurants. He also ran 2400 head of sheep and 20 goats. That’s all gone, but the pork served in the restaurant still comes from the pig farm owned by La Fonda.
It's the second largest hog producing farm on the coast, and the spare ribs that come from it are succulently tender. The ranch is situated 18 kms across the mountains behind La Fonda.
"a great sea change weekend"
What makes La Fonda particularly noteworthy is that it refuses to tone up and conform to its rapidly changing neighbourhood. There are now over 20,000 Americans living along this stretch of coast, and the developers have built new 'condos', resort hotels and town houses of varying standards of taste.
Much of the explosion is due to the relaxation of Mexican laws that once forbade foreigners to own seafront property. Angelinos scurried to get into a holiday villa on the rugged cliff tops of Mexico's new Gold Coast.
Just beyond La Fonda is La Mision, a clean, orderly, up market development. The Kennedys have a villa. Another five minutes further and past the smart new caravan park, which has its own gardener, is the exclusive Bajamar (pronounced Bahamah) estate of three storey designer villas facing the ocean. It has its own security gate entrance from the highway, its own golf course, with a full club house, and the relaxed feel of a place that was there before the newcomers. Some people even live there, in one of the 150 white villas, while others use it for weekend retreats. Either way, they are part of the coast population, and it's busy.
Meanwhile, La Fonda stays the La Fonda it always was, yours for a great sea change weekend – with its luxury spa the only concession to refinement.
Published February, 2012
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Dmytriw Orest, the ex-owner
Kilometro 59.5, Carretera Tijuana - Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico
A 45 minute drive from the San Diego border crossing, towards Ensanada on Mexico Highway 1.
For driving directions see website
Phone: +52-646 155-0308
Fax: +52-646 155-0390
La Fonda ‘celebrates diversity’ and welcomes all couples.
La Fonda backs onto the ocean