Baja by Sea

On a crewed sailboat, all you have to do is say ahh

The sun is drifting into the Sea of Cortez as we settle into seats on the deck of the 65-foot sailboat God's Grace, icy margaritas in our sunburned hands. The kayaks we were paddling a few hours ago are safely stowed near the prow, and our snorkeling gear is still dripping on the floor. This just might be the perfect getaway from the barrage of news about war and terrorism back home. My idea of paradise is just a two-hour flight from San Diego and a 2 1/2-hour ride in a van up the coast of Baja California.

Our party of five friends set out from La Paz, Mexico, a few days ago on a cutter chartered from Baja Coast SeaFaris. We're in the care of captain Jim Loberg, a former Minnesotan, and his wife, Estrella, a La Paz native who acts as first mate and cook.

On previous land trips, we've found Baja to be friendly, relaxed, and inexpensive. But for sheer ease, nothing beats a fully outfitted five-day cruise. The itinerary is ours to control, including whether to choose daily paddles that are strenuous or easy enough for beginners. Except for the dinner wine we ordered in advance, the outfitter's $1,270 per-person charge covers everything -- including plenty of water-sports gear for when we're not lazing around.

Our past excursions in the Sea of Cortez were limited by how far we could kayak in a day. The sailboat expands our range to include scenic islands such as Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida, 28 miles offshore. From our anchorages, we launch two double kayaks and paddle in close to explore the cactus-studded cliffs, secluded beaches, and nesting places of pelicans, herons, and frigate birds. Hiking a steep trail to catch a ridgetop view gives us a chance to stretch our legs.

On our second day out, we visit Los Islotes, home to a large sea lion colony. We launch the kayaks and paddle in for a closer view, minding our distance from the massive bulls, their harems, and the curious pups. As we paddle around the back of the rocky isle, young males practice their bellowing skills on us, much like adolescent boys showing off voices that occasionally crack.

On other days, we snorkel around reefs near the islands that teem with fish in dazzling colors. One morning, a school of dolphins follows us for a half-hour, cavorting alongside the boat. Sunsets are uniformly gorgeous, the stars in the clear desert air never clearer. Sleeping berths are cramped, and privacy is limited, but we spend most of our time up top or in the water anyway.

"Anybody want to fish?" captain Jim asks one morning. We've seen a few dorado (a.k.a. mahimahi) skipping over the waves. We toss in a line, and the rod soon bends sharply. I start reeling frantically. A gleaming dorado breaks the surface, then makes a run for it. More frenzied reeling, and Jim leans off the back to net my fish, which he estimates at 25 pounds. The skipper euthanizes it with a splash of vodka in the gills. "Not the tequila," he says. "We need that for margaritas later." In an hour, we're settling down for lunch: Estrella has sautéed golden chunks of dorado to wrap in warm tortillas with homemade salsa -- the best fish tacos of my life.

Baja Coast SeaFaris (from the U.S., call 011 52 612 1259765, or send e-mail to offers trips for two to eight people. La Paz and Loreto are home to a number of companies offering crewed trips as well as bareboat sailing charters. (Several are listed at Mid-October to May offers the best weather, and spring is prime whale-watching season. But even in sweltering September, we found plenty to like about sailing laid-back Baja.

By Kathleen Kerwin

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