Monday, October 14, 2013

Rosarito and Ensenada adventures

Miss Bones stood patiently as I swung myself onto her saddle, and soon we were following Krystal Redmon and several other riders into the inland hills and valleys of Baja, several miles south of Rosarito Beach.

We rode for two hours in a scenic countryside that most tourists never see, with boulder-strewn mountains, grassy meadows and sweeping ocean views, often passing groups of free-ranging horses placidly grazing in the meadows. Eventually, we rounded a bend to find Krystal’s husband, Randy, presiding over a table from which we were served wine and tapas, while our horses rested in the shade.

The Redmons are the founders of All the Pretty Horses of Baja Rescue and Rides. You’d never know it to look at the healthy, well-fed mare now, but Miss Bones was the first horse that Krystal and Randy rescued from a life of abuse, neglect and starvation about six years ago. These days, about 15 horses are in the rescue program, headquartered on a sprawling ranch in the Baja “backcountry,” some awaiting adoption and some remaining at the ranch for the trail rides that help support the program.
The joy of exploring the interior of northern Baja on horseback was just one of the many pleasures I experienced on a recent getaway, where I found that these days, things are once again rosy in Rosarito and energetic in Ensenada. Visitors are returning to beaches that are still beautiful and peaceful, hotels are bustling, and restaurants are serving inventive cuisine.
About 20 miles from the border, Rosarito has graduated from its “spring-break, party-hearty” atmosphere. Instead, the town has become more appealing to visiting families and couples on romantic getaways, who while away the days on the wide, sandy beaches, shop in the craft markets and stroll along the quarter-mile-long sportfishing pier in front of the Rosarito Beach Hotel.
My favorite restaurant in Rosarito has always been Susanna’s, tucked into a peaceful plaza with a cascading water wall and abundance of greenery. Expat Susanne Stehr opened the eatery about 10 years ago, serving up “Cuisine of the Californias” and ensuring that everything is made from scratch, using local produce and ingredients. House-made tapenade, herbed butter, and fresh-baked breads greet diners at the table. The reasonably priced dishes that follow might include such yumminess as Asian-inspired Orange Ginger Escolar Fish, Salmon topped with fresh strawberry pico de gallo, or Poblano Pasta.

Heading south, the approximately 50-mile drive from Rosarito to Ensenada on the excellent “Cuota,” or toll road, is a feast of dramatic coastal views, with massive sand dunes, rugged canyons, awe-inspiring cliffs, quiet lagoons and sun-glinted bays. A stop at “El Mirador,” a somewhat abandoned former cliff-top restaurant and picnic area at about KM 84, affords extraordinary panoramic views of Ensenada Bay and Todos Santos Island.
While retaining its laid-back “maƱana” charm, Ensenada has also grown into a hipper, more enchanting version of itself. Situated between the two great wine-producing areas of the Valle de Guadalupe to the north and Valle de Santo Tomas to the south, the influence of the wine and cuisine culture has naturally left its mark on a number of excellent restaurants celebrating the locally harvested seafood and produce of Baja California. At Bistro & Cava, in the marina-front Hotel Coral, standout dishes include herb-flavored shrimp rolled in “paper” made from mushrooms and huitlacoche (a type of fungus that grows on corn), and a shellfish soup loaded with mussels, clams and scallops in a chili/mint broth poured tableside. In the ultra-luxurious Casa Natalie, a seven-room oceanfront boutique hotel, Lucca is an intimate restaurant presenting such delicacies as paper-thin scallop carpaccio with citrus pesto, made even tastier by the sunset view of the infinity-edge pool, which seems to merge right into the ocean below.
Even casual eateries in Ensenada are serving excellence on their plates. Cerveceria Wendlandt, a leader in the city’s burgeoning craft brewery scene, not only pours about 80 types of beers, including six outstanding ones of owner/brewmaster Eugenio Romero-Wendlandt’s making, but also features a brew-complementing menu of seasonal culinary creations from chef Krista Velasco. Dishes such as Natural Fries with Ramonetti Cheese, Truffle Oil and Aioli are all freshly handmade and locally sourced — even the ketchup served is house-made, proving unequivocally that casual food can be good food.
From tranquil beaches to jaw-dropping scenery, from horseback riding in secluded mountain valleys to haute cuisine in gracious settings, Rosarito and Ensenada offer myriad reasons to head south for your next getaway. The warmth and friendliness of the people who live there just make it so much better.

If you go

Getting there
Cross the border at San Ysidro and bear to the right, following signs for Rosarito-Ensenada Scenic Road and then signs for Ensenada Cuota. For the Rosarito Beach Hotel and Susanna’s, take the third Rosarito exit, and continue straight to Blvd. Benito Juarez.
Returning to the U.S.
Important: You must have a valid passport to re-enter the United States.
Some hotels and restaurants, including the Rosarito Beach Hotel and Susanna’s, offer a one-time “Fast Pass” allowing access to the faster, specifically designated border lanes.
Ensenada lodging
Casa Natalie:
Hotel Coral & Marina:
Rosarito Beach lodging
Rosarito Beach Hotel:
Where to eat
Rosarito: Susanna’s Restaurant, open daily except Tuesdays; 1 to 11 p.m.
Ensenada: Cerveceria Wendlandt, Tuesday-Saturday, 6 p.m. to midnight;
What to do
All the Pretty Horses of Baja rides & Rescue: Info at By appointment only.

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