Automotive tourists and Angelenos alike are familiar with the cast metal bells that dot the 101 freeway, which purportedly traces the historic El Camino Real. The roadside bells aren't entirely authentic markers of the ancient Spanish "royal road"; rather, they commemorate the mythical idea of Franciscan fathers traveling Alta California's missions from San Diego to San Francisco, notes Nathan Masters at LA as Subject. Nevertheless, this "obscure footpath" did exist in a more modest, lesser-traveled form, and its early beginnings can perhaps be traced back to the tiny town of Loreto in Baja California Sur. Located just a two-hour flight south of Los Angeles (one-week getaway, anyone?), the town is also the site of Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, one of the earliest successful Spanish missions. I had the opportunity to explore this historic church and much more several weeks ago during an incredible (full disclosure!) hosted stay at the incredible Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto, a luxurious beach resort and spa in Mexico. There, I joined a great group of fellow bloggers (check out my new friend Kate's awesome recap on her blog, Catching Up with Kate, right here!) for an amazing four-day tour of the Mexico hotel and its breathtaking surroundings, which happen to be designated as a United Nations Heritage Site. Even better: Groupon Getaways happens to have a very sweet deal on three- or four-night stays starting at $299. The Resort: the Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto Flanked by the Sierra de la Giganta at its back and nestled within the Danzante Bay of the Sea of Cortés, the Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto—which opened about three years ago—overlooks the sparkling sapphire of a wonder that legendary marine explorer Jacques Cousteau once christened the "Aquarium of the World." Not a bad place to call home for four days and three nights, right? The resort itself sits on an approximately 4,500-acre plot of protected land, which will soon include an 18-hole golf course. I know what you're thinking: "Great, just another soon-to-be Cabo and plenty of greenhouse gases and waste to go with it." But perhaps one of my favorite things about VDP Loreto is that it's an eco-friendly resort that strives to minimize its carbon footprint as much as possible. In addition to the usual recycling program and on-site herb and vegetable gardens, the resort also houses their own seawater purification system, converts their (almost) year-round sunny days into energy via rooftop solar panels, and implements a grey water recycling program. And because the lands are protected, there's little chance that the landscape will become Baja California's next overdeveloped spring break destination, nor will it become trampled by droves of tourists or corporate retailers seeking a piece of this prime gem of a property. Upon our Thursday afternoon arrival, our group was greeted with margaritas and a six-course lunch at Danzante Restaurant. From there, we had a chance to unwind settled into our one-bedroom suites—each clocking in at just 1,300 square feet. Having just moved to a tiny two-bedroom house on the outskirts of Culver City, the lofty space was a serious treat for me: boasting two bathrooms (with a jacuzzi!), a kitchen, laundry and dryer, a living room and a balcony, the cherry on top was the ridiculous coastal view. In fact, each and every room in the resort enjoys prime views of Danzante Bay or the regal sierras. Adventure Time: Exploring Loreto and Its Islands The next day, Friday, we embarked on our island-hopping boat ride to Isla Carmen with our incredibly friendly and knowledgeable guide, Carlos. As we traveled north along the Baja California coast through the archipelago and reefs, Carlos narrated the history of the lands, its people and its marine life. To our left (designated as 9 o'clock to better direct our gazes) stood a reef that found itself a popular spot among the Spanish conquistadors, who made pit stops to collect salt (produced with the help of the blue footed booby birds', well, poop) for their gunpowder. "Geologists go crazy when they come here!" Carlos tells us. And those islands with the massive cardon cacti, which happen to be the largest in the world? Christened "the giants" by the native Guaycura peoples, the hundreds-of-years-old cardon cactuses that pepper the landscape today were believed to embody the spirits of their ancestors, purportedly giants based upon the incredibly tall cave paintings they left behind. Who else could create such a massive work of art other than a giant? After becoming fast friends with a group of dolphins, we arrived at Isla Carmen, where we munched sandwiches on the beach and discovered life beneath the surface as we snorkeled in the clear blue waters. From there, we hopped back into the boat and continued north to Loreto and encountered even more dolphins—this time, hundreds—and three baby whale sharks. Being surrounded by immense beauty of the earth was a true "pinch me" moment, one I hope everyone who visits the resort has a chance to experience. In Loreto, we explored the aforementioned mission and the surrounding shops. The shopaholic in me wanted to pick up trinkets for my friends and family, but given that most of the items were made in Mexico City and not in Loreto, I couldn't justify buying souvenirs that I could easily get at LA's own Olvera Street. I ditched the retail therapy (a rare move!) and opted to play a game of futbolito—foosball for us Yankees—with the local kids because why not? I like to think they were impressed with my better-than-average skills. (Fun fact: I honed my table football dexterity at a previous job, where our break time antics included...foosball.) After enjoying more fresh chocolate clams at a local seafood spot (or rather, I watched everyone else enjoy clams thanks to my shellfish allergy), we headed back to the resort for a fine dining feast of a dinner beneath the stars. The Grub: Multi-Course Decadence for Every Meal The resort offers three eateries: the fine dining option Danzante Restaurant, the buffet-style Market Restaurant, and Casa Mia. I wish I had better documentation of our grub, but I was too busy savoring every course. Whether you're gluten-free, vegan, or just plain picky, the incredibly accommodating staff will cater to your tastes and needs. I don't eat red meat, pork, and shellfish, and I enjoyed plenty of vegetarian-friendly options, like the below dinner of delicious grilled eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes. The Activities: Hiking, Hammocking, Kayaking, More While Friday was spent courting the dolphins in the Sea of Cortes, Saturday kicked off with an easy and breezy morning hike that culminated in 360-degree views from the ranges to the coast. In addition to island-hopping tours and hiking, the resort also offers plenty of options for active folks, from clear-bottom kayaking, stand-up paddling, snorkeling, clam digging lessons and more. Of course, there are the hot tubs and pools (five of them, which form a tortuga as you gaze upon them from your balcony), and for the kiddos, an arcade and play area. For adventure-seeking outdoors lovers, I highly recommend taking the short hike down to the beach. From the resort's main hiking trail, there's a fork in the road between the 20- to 30-minute mark (depending on your pace); take the offshoot to the right, which leads to an approximately five-minute downhill walk to the pebbled beach. Head there early in the morning to enjoy a mostly-shaded jaunt to what will likely be a quiet spot with tidepools, small caves and most definitely one killer yoga spot. Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto: A True All-Inclusive Mexico Vacation I'll admit that this mini-vacation was somewhat bittersweet since I went sans my husband—making this luxurious (and affordable) spot truly worthy of another visit. From the tour guides to the sous chef to the housekeeping team, it's evident how much pride and care the entire staff has invested into this secluded little paradise on the Sea of Cortes. I even took a few moments to observe the rest of the guests (who ran the gamut from young couples, families, empty nesters and everyone in between) and it was clear that us FAM trippers weren't the only ones getting the star treatment. You can learn more about the beach resort and spa's suites, amenities, travel packages and more at their website, www.villadelpalmarloreto.com and check out their many five-star reviews at Trip Advisor. For even more photos from my stay at the luxurious Mexico beach resort, take a look at the slideshow below.
- Official Resort Site: Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto
- Groupon Getaways: Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto
- Trip Advisor: Reviews of Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto
- Catching Up with Kate: A Family-Friendly, All-Inclusive Resort
- A Gringo in Mexico: Luxury in a Rustic Paradise
- L.A. as Subject at KCET: How El Camino Real, California's 'Royal Road,' Was Invented