This article is from the March 1996 The Mexico File
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An Easy Destination, The Unique Allure of La Fonda
The clanging border gate at the San Ysidro crossing, the most heavily trafficked border crossing in the world, within sight of the high rise buildings of downtown San Diego, greets the traveler with something resembling the cacophonous chaos of mania: "Welcome to Mexico... Taxi to Avenida Revolucion for you, senor.?...Almost free.. Chiclet, Chiclet." The first impression may be less than positive, perhaps alien and possibly intriguing, for the casual traveler venturing across the border into Tijuana.
Driving is highly recommended: the sights and sounds of the urban border are still there, but the border guard waves your car through without an intimidating question and you are quickly following the signs for the coast road south to Rosarito/Ensenada. Actually there are two roads, the old libre (free ioad) and the recently resurfaced cuota (toll road), an asphalt marvel which zips past miles of gringo-leased beach properties. The two-lane libre is for those who want to sample the color of long traffic jams in Rosarito Beach and slow trucks carrying produce, and it can be ever so tiresome and even dangerous. Whichever of the parallel roads you choose, there are miles of grandeur, in between the long expanses of development, as waves crash over beachside boulders and you look out onto the endless vista of the blue Pacific. Ah...Mexico.
Stay on the Ensenada cuota or the libre for 37 miles south of the border and exit at La Mision/Plaza del Mar and there you will jump back in time to mid-century Mexico. La Fonda is the second-oldest hotel on the Baja coast and little has changed in many a year. Enter the front door and you will find the famous La Fonda bar, dark with plastic flowers and sombreros decorating the walls and overlooking a pristine beach from its clifftop perch. Mariachi players sit in the corner telling jokes and shooting tequila. The owner, Orest Dmytri, sits at the desk near the window, offering stories and drinks to any traveler looking for rest. old glamour and a historic place to stay.
Guests checking into this hideaway find a world populated in the past with movie stars, wealthy businessmen, L.S. senators and travelers lost along the Baja coast. The hotel has hosted such luminaries as Rita Coolidge, Larry Hagman, Patti Page, Joan Collins and Senator Ted Kennedy. Rita Ilaywoith and Mary Martin used to drive down together from Los Angeles for a quiet getaway. Zsa Zsa Gabor honeymooned there with her seventh husband, Count Felipe de Alba of Spain (while a guard stood watch over her Rolls Royce around the clock), although, alas, the marriage ended after eight days!
Despite the glamorous allure of La Fonda, don't expect many of the amenities of modern travel. There are no television sets, and don't look for a telephone in your room. Stay in one of the cliffside rooms, though, and you will find comfortable beds, clean linens, potable water, and a crackling fire to greet you in a massive stone fireplace. Some of the rooms have their own kitchenettes. As you shower you may well be looking directly out onto the ocean, just feet below your room. Massive private decks just outside your room and overlooking the Pacific, nestled among the cliffside trees and subtropical flora, can provide a site for hours and days of listening to the lull of the surf.. peace.. groundedness. The constant, eternal sound of the waves can send you far away and deep inside, and you can rediscover your internal home. A series of pathways built into the side of the cliff take you from your room down to the unpopulated beach. Dolphins can be seen jumping out of the water and body surfing. Should one ever have to leave this place?
The food is fabulous. Most of it comes from the local ranches and farms owned by Dmytri. He owns one of the largest hog farms in Mexico and he raises about 800 head of sheep on his ranches. His quail farm produces more than any other in the country. The seafood comes in fresh every day and the vegetables are all bought from local farms. Bananas are La Fonda's best known produce and large bunches of them are suspended from the bar, within easy reach for the bartender. Grown on Dmytri's banana farm, the restaurant uses about 40 stalks of bananas a week for banana daiquiris, banana pancakes, and, the pride of the kitchen, roast suckling pig with bananas. Fresh seafood dishes are as good as any along the coast, and the lobster is relatively cheap and plentiful. A hefty end-of-the-day dinner, along with dancing on the small dancefloor to a surprisingly good band specializing in American standards from the forties and fifties, can make one's stay at La Fonda one of those expenences that remind you ofjust what can be good, very good, about life...even if it is at an old, mist-eroded, primitive hotel thirty-something miles south of the border.
The top-of- the-cliff patio is the venue for breakfast served at brightly tiled tables under palapas, and it is not to be missed, especially for those in the mood for banana pancakes, chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage) and eggs, beef machaca, or a variety of other special dishes. For $10.95 the Sunday brunch, served from about 10 in the morning until mid-afternoon (or whenever they run out of food), offers unlimited bloody mary's and a wide buffet selection of lamb, prime rib, goat, seafood, and traditional Mexican dishes.
Most who go to La Fonda plan a relaxing, and perhaps romantic, stay. Those with energy can surf, mountain bike, snorkel, fish, or rent a horse for $5.00 an hour from a nearby stable (otherwise, bring your own sports equipment). On the other hand, a day trip to Ensenada from La Fonda might be to the liking of some~..although immersing oneself in the experience of the hotel itself is satisfying in its own right. A short half-hour drive south will take you into Ensenada with good shopping (at noticeably higher quality than the junk one typically finds in Tijuana) and good seafood. And that half-hour drive is spectacular. Along the drive down, look for Bajamar, a 27-hole ocean-front golf resort (weekend green fees are $50 and weekdays are $40...but they are $l0 cheaper respectively for those who stay at the Bajamar Hotel. Call the pro shop at 011-526-628-0550 from the States, and if you want hotel reservations call 1-800-342-2644). Bajamar has something of a resort quality about it, unlike La Fonda, but Mexico travelers who are also golfers may really appreciate this special course with greens staggered along the Pacific coast...sort of a south of the border Pebble Beach. A must-see spot along the drive down to Ensenada is the vista lookout about ten miles north of town. Park in the parking lot at this high mountain cliffside viewpoint and look out onto a spectacular sight offered in few other locations on the planet.. .the ocean, the mountains to your left, the road into Ensenada, and, if you're lucky, the spouts of the migrating grey whales. It's a peak experience.
La Fonda the details: All 25 rooms at La Fonda have ocean views. There is a newer building near the road, but the best rooms are those that are built on the side of the cliff, so when you reserve a room ask for one of the cliffside rooms. Most have doors that open to private decks overlooking the ocean, and all the rooms have different designs. Most rooms are doubles, although some sleep four or six people. Doubles are $46.00 per night and those with kitchenettes rent for $69.00. To reserve a room, call 011-526-628-7352 and send a deposit for the first night to La Fonda, P.O. Box 430268, San Ysidro, CA 92143. Personal checks are acceptable for the deposit. La Fonda does not take credit cards, so bring cash or traveler's checks. Make reservations at least two weeks in advance.