You don't have to go to Hawaii to find paradise in the winter. I found a place in the sun just 30 minutes south of the border in Baja California, Mexico. Marvelous ocean views, great weather, fantastic shopping, luxury hotels and world-class restaurants are available in Rosarito for a pittance compared to a similar experience in Hawaii. Best of all was the warm and sincere welcome - "Mi Casa es Su Casa" - "My Home is Your Home."
When traveling to Baja from the Northwest, choose any airline that services San Diego. From there, you can rent a car for about $230 a week, but you must have Mexican insurance as your American insurer will not cover you in Mexico. If you don't want the hassle of driving in Mexico (I didn't) Mexicoach will deliver you to Rosarito for about $30. You won't need your passport if arriving by land or sea until January 2008, but you will need it now if arriving by air.
If your Spanish is a little rusty, it's no big deal. Almost everyone in Rosarito speaks enough English for everyday transactions, and those who do business with tourists are usually fluent. And if you're worried about the water, don't be. I found the water perfectly safe in Rosarito and the U.S. dollar is accepted everywhere. Although I always felt perfectly safe, venturing out solo at night is not a good idea for women anywhere in the world, especially when alcohol is involved, and Rosarito is no exception.
The number and variety of fine hotels, spas, restaurants and activities available for visitors is stunning. The Rosarito Beach Hotel, where I stayed, was established in 1925 by aspiring Mexican starlet, Dona Maria Luisa Chabert de Barbachano and her husband, Don Manuel. Their film connections attracted many celebrities from a grander age, including Gregory Peck, Mickey Rooney, Lana Turner, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.
As for activities, there are so many it's hard to choose. I found fancy boutiques with equally fancy prices, but still less than the U.S. Bartering is expected and welcomed and I was amazed by the low prices. A leather handbag that would cost $70 or more in the states could be had for $5.
Don't miss the very special, tiny fishing village, home of the internationally (and justly) famous Puerto Nuevo lobster. The tradition began when fishermen took tourists out fishing. When they got back, the fishermen took them home for a simple meal of rice and beans. This proved so popular that there are now more than 30 restaurants - from no-frills to elegant. All have the same basic menu - lobster, beans, rice, chips and salsa. The lobster is traditionally prepared by splitting it lengthwise and deep-frying in lard, but if your arteries can't take the cholesterol load, the delicious crustacean is also served steamed or grilled. I had it grilled and it was the best I've ever had. And it only cost $13.
If you have the opportunity to visit this little known, close-to-home treasure, take advantage. I left Rosarito with photographs, souvenirs and happy memories to share with my friends at home, but I also left a little piece of my heart in that warm, hospitable seaside town.
THINGS TO DO: Three miles south of Rosarito, Fox Studios Baja occupies 45 acres overlooking the Pacific. Originally built for the epic film, "Titanic" in 1996, eight movies, several television shows, many commercials and video productions have been filmed there. The complex contains the world's largest filming tanks, stages, offices, scenery shops, dressing rooms, wardrobe facilities and other production areas needed to meet most filming requirements.
Foxploration, a kind of theme park, was introduced in 2001. The movie business is all about illusion, and at Foxploration, I had great fun learning some intriguing bits of legerdemain inside a working movie studio. On display were many original props, sets and costumes from the blockbuster film "Titanic," including a full-size replica of the ship. I also walked on the deck of the replica ship used in "Master and Commander."