One&Only Palmilla resort review: reach for the stars
Join the A-listers at one of Mexico’s most magical beach resorts
“Tequila, it makes me happy” – so goes the song by Terrorvision and perched at the bar of Agua, one of the five restaurants at Mexico’s One&Only Palmilla resort, I’m ecstatic.
While the city that gave its name to Mexico’s most popular spirit is several hundred miles to the east of this haven of indulgence, set on the Baja California Peninsula, it is here, under the auspices of Palmilla’s suave bar manager Philippe Zaigue, that I am to learn exactly how the agave nectar originated, how it’s made, and, most importantly, how to tell a good one from a bad one.
Zaigue talks me through the various distilling processes that result in either tequila blanco (non-aged), reposado (aged for between two and twelve months), anejo (between one and three years), or extra (aged for above three years), while I sip each one slowly, savouring the flavours and fragrances. While we Brits have a delightfully studenty habit of slamming any old brand as shots, accompanied by a dash of salt and a lick of lime, the good stuff can – and should - be enjoyed slowly, like a fine malt whisky.
The good stuff, it’s worth emphasising, will be labelled “100% agave”. But if the barman doesn’t let you see the bottle, there’s another way to tell: pour a thimbleful into the palm of your hand and then rub both hands together (it will feel bizarrely oily). If the resulting aroma on your skin smells herbal, it’s quality; if it reeks like Walter White’s meth lab, offer it to the frat boy sitting next to you.
Agua stocks more than 30 types of tequila, as well as several types of mescal, with a cellar of hundreds of wines from around the world. This is a resort that takes drinking, and eating, very seriously.
The One&Only Palmilla sits by the Sea of Cortez, between the Baja California Peninsula and Mexico’s mainland, in a small patch of Baja known as Los Cabos (meaning “the capes”). The area encompasses two very different towns: San Jose del Cabo is sleepy and laid-back, while Cabo San Lucas is all about the partying. This latter destination is where US students come for spring break, with all the fluorescent-coloured cocktails, dental-floss bikinis, and steroid-enhanced pecs that this entails.
The area is also a huge celebrity draw and no wonder. With a 20-mile stretch of coastline, fringed with the requisite golden sandy beaches ebbing into turquoise water, this is prime real estate for multimillion dollar houses, championship golf courses, and a small handful of lavish, luxury resorts.
I happen to be staying at what is arguably the best of them. The One&Only Palmilla has always had an affiliation with the A-list: originally built in 1956 by the catchily named Rod Rodriguez, the son of one of Mexico’s former presidents, it started out as a simple but elegant hacienda-style hotel with just 15 rooms. Only two hours from Hollywood, it attracted the likes of John Wayne, Lucille Ball, and Bing Crosby.
These days, you’re more likely to bump into Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz or Eva Longoria, and the resort is bigger and more refined, thanks in no small part to massive refurbishments undertaken after it was battered by Hurricane Odile in 2014.
The One&Only’s current owners, Kerzner International, took the opportunity to give the resort a multimillion-dollar facelift, to further beautify its 174 rooms and suites. The results are rather magnificent. Picture a Colombian drug dealer’s luxury home, then dial it back a bit.
On arrival, a sweeping driveway takes you to a porte cochère that leads down to a wide courtyard in front of the main building. In the centre of the courtyard sits an octagonal stone fountain, while to the side there is a beautiful, colonial-style chapel (dating from the original construction), which is still used for Sunday Mass and for picture-perfect weddings. The whole resort is set in 900 acres of lush gardens, bursting with bring pink bougainvillea and palm trees, along with agave and other cacti.
An archway next to the concierge desk frames an almost insanely opulent scene: steps lead down to the outdoor seating for the resort's more casual restaurant, Breeze, while beyond lies the adults-only infinity pool and beyond, the ocean, where frothy, toothpaste-white waves break onto a rocky outcrop below.
I barely take time to explore my junior suite – complete with an optimistic welcome flask of tequila (it’s 10am), leather-panelled mini-bar, spacious terrace and on-call private butler – before racing back to bag a sunlounger.
I’m swiftly provided with pillows for both my neck and behind my knees, and an ice bucket packed with bottles of mineral water, by an attendant decked out in the resort staffs’ stylish uniforms, which are variations on traditional costumes from different regions of Mexico. He also points out the bookmark-like strip of leather that I’m to hang off my table if I want to request anything else. I’m an independent kind of girl, though, so I dive into the pool to order a coconut margarita at the swim-up bar.
Palmilla is the kind of place that caters to the richest people on the planet - one of its two private villas, Villa One, costs a cool $20,000 (£15,000) per night and has hosted the likes of Rihanna and, er, James Corden, though it’s far from blingy. Indeed, it feels like a private residence that just happens to host hundreds of guests. The stretch of beach on which it sits is, technically, public, but is mercifully uncrowded, with a vibe so laid-back, it’s almost horizontal.
Stressed-out city types can get into a suitably relaxed head zone at the resort’s spa. This miniature paradise, complete with its own lovely fountain and white-walled outbuildings, has 13 treatment rooms, a range of steam rooms and saunas, a beauty salon, and a barbershop which has to be the hippest man cave I’ve ever seen, down to the gleaming Gaggia coffee machine and well-stocked tequila bar. Treatments range from the standard (a Swedish massage here, a revitalizing facial there) to the more unusual, including a selection of traditional healing treatments. I decide to try the Temazcal, described in the spa brochure as “a steam bath with medicinal herbs to detoxify the mind and purify the body”.
I don’t know what I expected but it definitely wasn’t the two-hour treatment delivered by the resident shaman, Raul, a genial fortysomething descended from a local tribe. He performed a series of chants while I was enclosed in what was basically an adobe sweat lodge, to cleanse me of toxins and free my mind (man). It was basically like being in a very, very hot sauna, as volcanic rocks – preheated in an open fire for two hours – were added to a firepit in the middle, while I was regularly drenched with water infused with local healing herbs.
Afterwards, I felt… lighter, somehow. And thirsty, so very thirsty. Which brings me back to bar guru Zaigue, along with the wonderful food on offer at the resort. I tried most of the restaurants but my favourite had to be Agua. The head chef, Moroccan-born Larbi Dahrouch, presides over a kitchen that specialises in grilled seafood, such as octopus or tuna, and also uses ingredients from the resort’s own garden, from coriander to carrots.
Meanwhile, Suviche restaurant, as the name suggests, serves up delicate ceviche and sushi, while steakhouse Seared is overseen by culinary supremo Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
You can, of course, explore further afield. If you want to catch your own lunch, sign up for the Catch, Cook and Cocktail experience, during which you’ll be whizzed away on a speed boat to fish for marlin. Dahrouch will then help you transform your catch into grilled fish tacos when you get back.
If you’re lucky, as I was, you might also spot black dolphins darting alongside the boat as you whip through the waves. Whale-watching season runs between December and April, when hese magnificent mammals are so prevalent that you can sit and watch them from your sunlounger in the resort, I’m told.
For a taste of local town life, head to San Jose, just 15 minutes away by cab, and its atmospheric old town, with cobbled streets, colourful paper flags, and pastel-painted walls. This atmospheric district is home to a range of restaurants, from laid-back taqueria La Lupita to a couple of farm-to-table restaurants. I loved Acre, a modern, low-slung concrete building set among huge saguaro cacti and palm trees, where they make their own mescal and serve up poke bowls and burgers.
Don’t stay away from Palmilla too long, though; it’s the kind of place you feel you never want to leave…
Double rooms at One&Only Palmilla start from £477 per night between June and September 2018, and £608 between October and 18 December . For further information and to book, visit oneandonlyresorts.com.
British Airways flies from London to San Jose del Cabo via Dallas. To book, visit ba.com.