The Cabo Corridor and the East Cape of Mexico’s Baja may be an hour’s drive from each other, but they tell two different stories of tourism, real estate development and the pursuit of the good life.
Just what, exactly, do we mean when we say “luxury” in 2020?
It’s hard to imagine a word more fraught and more fuzzy. Ask any copywriter.
Luxury was once reliably tailor-made, and now it’s peak sneaker—Balenciaga Triple S sneakers for $1,250, to be exact. It used to be shiny and new, and now it’s a vintage Cartier Tank Française watch snagged off The RealReal for less than two grand; it was a full, fresh closet forever, and now it’s a pair of Derek Lam 10 Crosby check trousers rented for $64 from Rent the Runway, the runaway-successful sharing site.
In the blink of an eye—or, perhaps more accurately, in the decade since the Great Recession—luxury has gone from predictable to playful, from things with a clear, specific meaning to the bouncy-castle chaos of color, pattern and proportion at Gucci.
What you own, and how you own it—or not—is in turmoil.
In the real estate space, luxury tropes die hard. Couples clinking glasses of champagne on the deck of their very own slice of paradise is still, for the most part, the benchmark.
But there’s revolution here, too.
“A shift has occurred among the majority of the affluent population,” Cara David, managing partner at public opinion miners YouGov, told the Future Laboratory, a trend consultancy. “The new status is a life of purpose, not of possessions.” YouGov also reported that 77% of affluent individuals are making fewer, more meaningful luxury purchases.
Depending on how you define meaningful, you can get fractional ownership of a jaw-dropping penthouse in Waikiki, join a Destination Club like Inspirato and vacation in swank spots globally. Or flit, unfettered, from flower to luxurious flower—home, hotel, OneFineStay.
And yet, the pull of a second home continues to be powerful, and real real estate is still being sold.
Take the Cabo Corridor—the Pacific stretch between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas—and Cabo’s East Cape, on the Sea of Cortez. They’re two coastlines in close proximity where markedly different definitions of luxury have emerged. Each appeals to a different slice of the affluent market. And both are thriving—as hospitality, and often as real estate.
The Corridor is familiar but new, reborn from its cheap and cheerful spring-break roots after hurricane Odile in 2014.
The storm’s $1.2 billion of destruction gave everyone pause—just long enough to reconsider their floor plans and think about how they might rearrange the view from the bar. Real estate owners didn’t, however, reconsider their deals: the Cabo brand is more powerful than a Category 2 hurricane, and visitation is increasingly intense. Cabo attracted 2.7 million visitors in 2018, 7% more than 2017, and many more are coming in on nine new flights that launched in the past 18 months. The total weekly lift is now more than 500 direct flights to Los Cabos, with some 36,000 seats.
Many of those visitors, then and now, are Californians—L.A. is just 2.5 hours from Cabo, and of the 1.8 million international travelers who visited in 2018, California generated some 40% of them, according to Rodrigo Esponda, managing director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board. That’s about 720,000 people.
Today, the Los Cabos vibe is evolving from all-inclusive to affluent. The region currently has 17,000 hotel rooms, including 1,100 deluxe rooms in seven hotels, 6,500 rooms in the all-inclusive category, and 50 rooms in three boutique hotels. Industry estimates forecast 17 new hotels opening through 2021, representing an investment of more than $1 billion in some 5,000 additional rooms. That includes a bounty of pure-play five-star hotels and some hotel-residences: Montage Los Cabos (hotel and residences); Auberge Chileno Bay Resort and Residences; Nobu (resort); Viceroy Los Cabos (resort and residences); The Cape, a Thompson Hotel (Hyatt); Caesars Palace Puerto Los Cabos (a non-gaming hotel); the St. Regis Los Cabos Hotel and Residences at Quivira; Solaz, a Luxury Collection Resort (Marriott); 1 Hotel and Homes; and Zadún, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve (resort).
Virtually all of them claim to have a swimmable beach, a luxury on a coastline known for gnarly riptides.
The new generation of luxury hotels have strong followings, and often locations, in California, which makes their Cabo openings an effortless extension of home. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times reports that, apart from tight security at resort gates, “visiting Cabo is like going on a resort getaway at home. Seventy-five percent of rooms here are rented to U.S. citizens, with 40% of them hailing from California.”
The Corridor is an effortless home away from home for Californians—reliably luxurious in a familiar, reassuring form: close, English-speaking and U.S. dollar-accepting, buzzy with the people and brands they love. When Montage opened, Condé Nast Traveler described its clientele as “West Coast industry peeps—studio execs and creatives from L.A. or tech-heads from Silicon Valley or Seattle—looking for a few days of sun and poolside palomas,” and the dress code as “well-dressed but casual—Isabel Marant and Eres—but not without a little bling. If someone you meet in the pool asks if you’d like a ride home, it means they’re happy to make an additional stop in their private plane.”
But back to that tight security at the gates for a second. It’s part of a five-point, $50-million plan to overhaul the region’s security after nationally waged drug wars broke out in Cabo, in which innocent visitors were literally caught in the crossfire.
After the measures were implemented, Baja’s Esponda noted that crime was down 90% in 2018.
And tourists? They just keep coming. The Los Angeles Times declared Montage “one of Orange County’s favorite luxury resort brands,” and described the style as “more Scottsdale [Arizona] than Baja, Mexico, but if you like cushy digs, exclusivity and tranquil surroundings, this place is for you.”
THE OTHER LUXURY
If the cushy digs, exclusivity and tranquil surroundings of Los Cabos don’t entirely satisfy, the nearby East Cape of Baja on the Sea of Cortez adds the opportunity for a walk on the wilder, wide-open side—more active, more adventurous and considerably more spacious.
Four Seasons Los Cabos at Costa Palmas opened in October 2019 on a 1,000-acre property on the East Cape fronting the Sea of Cortez. The now UNESCO-designated waters were first lifted from their spectacular obscurity by a host of hard-living, big-game-fishing, small-plane-flying Hollywood intrepids in the mid 1950s. The combination of desert and landscape, elephant cactus and burning light, small villages and huge fish combined to create a destination with an irresistible tang of adventure. Author John Steinbeck articulated the allure in his 1951 Log from the Sea of Cortez. “The sea here swarms with life. Everything eats everything else with a furious exuberance. The abundance… gives one a feeling of fullness and richness.”
The feeling begins the moment you leave Los Cabos International Airport, heading northeast across the cape—turning left, not the familiar right along Highway 1. You skirt the 20-mile corridor between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo entirely, and pass the sign that demarcates the Tropic of Cancer. It’s a feeling of entering the uncharted and the exhilarating.
About 45 minutes later, you can walk through the strikingly contemporary outdoor lobby of the Four Seasons onto almost two miles of calm sand beach that stretches in either direction as far as the eye can see: the little-changed shimmer of the Sea of Cortez beguiles you just as it did Steinbeck almost 75 years ago. Behind the hotel is still, timeless desert, and beyond that, a zig-zag of green mountains. There’s a semi-private marina big enough for 250-foot yachts. And if you’re really lucky, there won’t be another soul in sight.
For some, this privacy and infinite breathing space is luxury enough—especially when it’s accompanied by a Four Seasons with 141 guest rooms, 23 suites, five dining options—including the extravagantly delicious Estiatorio Milos—along with retail, a sports complex and fitness center, four pools, spa and wellness, teen center and Kids for All Seasons program. And a collection of whole-ownership private villas and private residences.
“THE WORLD’S AQUARIUM”
So far, so familiar. But beyond the comforts of a Four Seasons, beneath the waters, another world awaits. Jacques Cousteau described this protected sea as “the world’s aquarium,” and it’s filled with 6,000 cataloged and some 6,000 yet-to-be-discovered species; 695 kinds of aquatic plants, more than at any other marine World Heritage site on earth; 891 species of fish, 90 of which are endemic.
Assorted whales, dolphins, porpoises are in the aquarium: 39% of the world’s marine mammals and a third of the planet’s marine cetacean species are here. All less than an hour from the airport and 30 minutes from Cabo Pulmo, the oldest of the three living coral reefs on the West Coast of North America.
“For a certain kind of person, everything desirable about travel is here,” says Andrew Miele, VP of development, Americas, for Four Seasons.
Four Seasons has long had an eye for what people seek from travel. The organization has gone in where others feared to tread on the Peninsula Papagayo of Costa Rica and in Mexico’s Punta Mita near Puerto Vallarta, where it opened two decades ago and became a magnet for early adopters W and St. Regis. Today, Four Seasons Punta Mita is also being joined by One&Only, Auberge, Rosewood and Fairmont, and the coastline has been baptized Riviera Nayarit.
Even with two miles of truly swimmable beachfront and the interest of a major hospitality flag, the Sea of Cortez property was just the proverbial “piece of dirt” until a development vision was brought to bear.
Jason Grosfeld of Los Angeles-based Irongate turned out to be an ideal partner for a new frontier. Grosfeld saw the luxury of the East Cape landscape as both the opportunity for once-in-a-lifetime experiences of the natural world adventure and an environment for new thinking about architecture.
“In the Sea of Cortez, I saw an exquisite blank canvas—a place that virtually no one knew about, not even the best-traveled of people, right next to a place that everyone knows,” Grosfeld says. “That gave us the opportunity to start fresh, to really invent a way to live in this landscape. We imagined everything anew—architecture, experiences, cuisine. And the result is a place unlike any in the world.”
At the beginning of the sales process, Irongate leveraged the immense, pristine environment, building four spare, dramatic cabanas on the edge of the water and, over the course of two years, hosting prospects for the weekend. Visitors would lounge, swim, spearfish, dive, snorkel, paddle, then dine on the fresh-caught and fresh-picked. In an outdoor kitchen, chefs made magic in front of open racks of fire, vegetables charred, sparks flew and the stars shone bright above. Later, prospects would fall into a dreamy sleep to the sound of the water whispering up the sand, and awaken to a limitless vista of sea, desert and mountains.
It was an effective strategy, and with the hotel open, word is spreading fast among the cognoscenti.
When they arrive, guests will be greeted by a built landscape as distinctive as the nature around them—Costa Palmas is a destination of expansive and handsome contemporary villas and residences gently embraced by its timeless environment.
“What we were after is distillation,” says Brendan Guerin of New York architects Guerin Glass, which designed the Four Seasons. “Just really reducing things down to their primary elements.”
The forms of homes, hotel and condos, designed to be “non-architectural” and to “showcase and celebrate light, shadow and the landscape” are, if not architectural, certainly remarkable. “Think of the buildings as vessels to contain landscaping as much as they are a structure,” says Guerin. You can also think of it as one of the few places anywhere where you can have a residence with your yacht anchored out back.
In 2021, Four Seasons Los Cabos will be joined on the Costa Palmas property by Amanvari, the first Aman Resort and Residences in Mexico. It’s an auspicious coupling, a one-two combo of big names with impeccable luxury credentials and head-turning architecture. Architect John Heah has imagined the Amanvari residences as otherworldly pods perched above an estuary.
Amanvari is one of the most geographically accessible of the Aman resorts, which are traditionally secluded to the point of invisibility. While the two flags are located on either side of the 1,000-acre Costa Palmas resort, owners of both will be invited to join the Costa Palmas Beach & Yacht Club. The reward? A casually luxe gathering place where wealthy private worlds come together to lounge, swim, sip mezcal barefoot at the beach bar, play as much golf as they please and watch the kids at the soda fountain and sports field. Children, in fact, are an integral part of the mix, and club programming also includes Aventura, an adventure concierge with an imaginative list of only-here experiences for the whole family, from snorkeling to spearfishing to scuba dives into the rich underwater world.
In 2021, affluent visitors on the Corridor and the Cape will dress for dinner as pleases each, go down to the water’s edge and pause to savor the sea, the stars and their great good fortune. Then they’ll go up to dine in high-profile destinations from Nobu to Milos, and feast on the bounty of two of the world’s richest and most generous seas. Later, they’ll dance or stargaze; tomorrow they’ll sit by the pool or opt for immersion in a frenzy of marine life. Both will be delighted. In 2021, luxury—whether barefoot or high-heeled, educational or superficial, high design or low key—means exactly what people want it to mean.