By Kara Williams, on April 28, 2014

Surprise romantic getaway to Cabo

We’d been dating less than a year when Valentine’s Day 1998 rolled around, and my boyfriend (now husband), Quent, announced he had a surprise for me. Roses? Jewelry? Nope. It was a plain white envelope. Fearing a gift certificate (so not romantic and not what I was hoping for), I warily opened it up to find a page from what looked like a magazine cut up into little pieces. Turns out, my gift was very romantic: I put the pieces together to find an ad for a resort in Mexico. One to which we were jetting off the following week. Surprise!

I’m embarrassed to say it took me 16 years to return the favor. I’ll blame it on the fact that we started building our house the week we returned from our honeymoon, and that our first child arrived 10 months later (also that we had another child less than two years later, and then he bought a business, and I was busy building my freelance-writing career). Sure, during that time, we traveled without the children plenty—camping trips to Utah, a whirlwind vacation to Hawaii, East Coast getaways for friends’ weddings. But I never had surprised Quent with a romantic vacation the way he’d done for me when we were dating.

All of that changed earlier this month, when I presented him with his own puzzle to solve. This one announced that we were leaving on a storybook trip… to an unknown (to him) destination…the next day…without our children.

He was blown away and totally surprised. (I captured his reaction on video in this blog post). And I was thrilled to give my sweet husband a gift that represented more than just a vacation away from real-life. The trip was a huge “thank you” to him for his unconditional love, his ongoing support for my career, his remarkable patience with our children, his kindness and generosity and easy-going nature that make me fall in love with him again every time he walks in the door from work and greets me with, “Hi, beautiful.” (Yes, I know I am a very, very lucky girl.)

So, where did I surprise the love of my life with a trip? Mexico, of course! I’d looked at more “exotic” destinations, but a short trip to Cabo San Lucas fit my budget, and more importantly, our 4-night time frame. Neither of us had ever been that far south in the Baja Peninsula, and I knew that a stint of sun, sand, and surf would set the scene for romance, relaxation, outdoor adventures, and good food south of the border. Turns out that the few reservations I made before we arrived—our luxury hotel, two dinners, and one active excursion—were perfect for our kid-free trip. Here are the highlights.

Grand Solmar Land’s End Resort and Spa

Set at the very tip of the Baja Peninsula against soaring cliffs and facing the Pacific Ocean, Grand Solmar Land’s End is a sprawling resort complex with multiple pools and high-rise buildings filled with spacious guest rooms. Our oceanfront master suite was huge: full kitchen with stainless-steel appliances, breakfast bar, dining room table, living area, separate bedroom with king-size bed, closet and dressing area, and bathroom with two sinks, soaking tub, and shower. (To say we had room to spread out is an understatement.) Classy decor included dark-wood furniture, plush pillows, and glass art tucked in cut-out wall shelves in the bathroom. Our long balcony with chaise lounges and comfy chairs provided a sublime view of the infinity pool and quiet golden beach below.

The ocean in front of the Grand Solmar Land’s End isn’t swimmable; the Pacific Ocean undertow makes it too dangerous to enter the water here. Nearby swimming beaches include popular Lover’s Beach at Land’s End, or busy Medano Beach on Cabo San Lucas Bay. Most Cabo visitors take a water taxi from Medano Beach (or the marina) to slightly quieter Lover’s Beach. We preferred to go the free, more difficult route: Scrambling up the steep rocks right next to our resort.

It was quite an adventure to take the road less traveled, an unmarked trail over big boulders and wind-eroded rocks at the edge of the ocean. (Locals typically are on hand to point the way.) It took us about 30 minutes of scaling rock and walking across unswimmable Divorce Beach to land at Lover’s Beach. After cooling off in the bay, munching on our picnic lunch, and celebrating our journey with the cold beers we’d packed in our backpacks, we opted to pay one of the ever-present water-taxi drivers a few dollars each to take us to El Arco (“the Arch”), to see Cabo’s landmark rock formation and the sea lions who make their home nearby.

Viewfinder tip: Watch fresh tortillas being made at The Office, a bustling, casual spot for a Mexican lunch at Medano Beach, where you can eat barefoot in the sand under plentiful umbrella shade.

Romantic dining in Cabo San Lucas

After reading online reviews of El Farallon, a fine-dining restaurant at Capella Pedregal, I knew it would be the ideal spot to take my husband for a romantic—and unusual—meal of fresh seafood. Here, tables are perched on the side of the cliff, with the powerful Pacific waves crashing into rocks below. It makes for quite a dramatic setting! And, on the night we visited, as the sun set behind those cliffs and the tiki torches were lit, the open-air restaurant became incredibly romantic as well.

The dinner menu at El Farallon is fixed every night, and there’s little deviation. The night we were there, the menu began with tasty flatbread and homemade pretzels, followed by soup and trio of appetizers to share (ours were crispy shrimp, sea bass ceviche, and seaweed salad). Then it was time for the “fun” course: We dinner guests visited the “fish expert,” who detailed the seafood entree offerings for the evening based on what had been caught by local fisherman that morning. We opted for flounder and amberjack, but lobster, clams, shrimp, parrot fish, red snapper, and steak also were on the menu. Each item was laid out in front of us on ice, so we could see exactly what we would be eating. Prices were handwritten on a chalkboard next to a hanging scale—as if we were visiting a fish market. It would have been difficult to get fish any fresher than these!

  • El Arco, a Cabo landmark

  • Water taxis on Lover’s Beach

  • Waves crashing on Divorce Beach

  • Living room in Grand Solmar master suite

  • Menu at El Farallon

  • Evening ocean view at Hacienda Cocina y Cantina

  • Running through town during the A-MAZE-IN CABO RACE

While the full moon rose over the Pacific, we ate every bite of our fish entrees—seared and sauteed with simple seasonings and then served with three different sauces (the pesto with crushed pumpkin seeds was my favorite). Each dish was accompanied by two sides (the quinoa and grilled asparagus were especially tasty). We capped our meal with hot doughnut holes dipped in strawberry compote and lemon curd, then we waddled back down the beach to the Grand Solmar Land’s End. Though the restaurant was pricey, I thought the entire experience—from choosing our fish to the remarkable setting—was worth it.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another outstanding meal my husband and I enjoyed while in Cabo, this one at beachfront Hacienda Cocina y Cantina at the luxury Hacienda Beach Club & Residences. Here, brightly colored cushions on comfortable rattan chairs and twinkling lights strung between palm trees set a festive scene, and the view of the bay—especially as the sun set and the moon rose—was divine. We stuffed ourselves with ceviche, mixed greens with mango, pollo con mole, assorted tamales, and tasty churros dipped in caramel sauce. Also after this meal, we were delighted to forego a taxi back to our resort in order to walk off some of our decadent meal.

Racing through the streets of Cabo

We didn’t just opt to walk after big meals; generally, Quent and I like to stay active on vacation. It’s not that we dislike vacation reading poolside, it’s just that we get bored easily if we’re sitting around. That’s why I knew he’d be fine with—even excited about—the reservation I’d made to participate in a weekly A-MAZE-IN CABO RACE. The event is sort of like the television show, The Amazing Race. Only it happens in real-life. In and around Cabo.

Eschewing a paper cup to finish the Fifteen teams compete in this race through town (and on the water!) to find clues, solve puzzles, and face challenges in an effort to be the first to finish the clever scavenger hunt. I don’t want to spoil any surprises for those who might book this fun activity, but I will say, there are some physical skill challenges that include tossing beanbags and drinking (non-alcoholic) frozen concoctions. (Hint: If you want to get through the “brain freeze” challenge quickly, ditch the provided paper cups and just chug from the pitcher.)

Since Quent and I were in it to win it, we ran from clue to clue, sweating profusely, completing our tasks and having fun with each other and the other teams we met along the way. Locals in souvenir shops and restaurants were happy to point us in the right direction (though we’d been warned sometimes they might trip up race participants by sending us the wrong way), and we saw parts of Cabo that we likely wouldn’t have stumbled upon by exploring on our own. I was pleased with our valiant tied-for-third-place finish, though disappointed (and slightly mortified) that we ended up behind family teams with children.

Overall, A-MAZE-IN CABO RACE was extremely well-planned and organized. We felt safe the entire time, and the chips, beers, and margaritas included in the price and offered at the finish were quite welcomed. Though this level of exertion isn’t what many Cabo visitors might like, it was a perfect adventure for my husband and me, and definitely added an element of amusement and entertainment to our storybook trip.

What sort of plans do you make for a romantic vacation?