When you picture a luxury hotel, do you imagine towering treehouses in a palm forest? “People that are seeking luxury nowadays aren’t looking for uptight luxury,” Acre Baja’s chef tells me in one of the sleek, concrete booths of their all-day breakfast diner. Unlike many colossal resorts found in Los Cabos, Acre Baja – a 25-acre intimate jungle oasis located 10 minutes outside San José del Cabo – aims less for impressiveness and more for authenticity, as they recognize travelers are increasingly seeking immersive experiences.
It’s no surprise Acre Baja exudes such a sense of place – the property was born out of adoration for its setting. Canadians Cameron Watt and Stuart McPherson were on Christmas vacation seven years ago, and stumbled upon an empty lot for sale while hiking outside San José del Cabo. A lush mango orchard sparked visions of the romantic property they could create, and so they purchased the land. Today, you’ll find 60 mango trees on property, some of which are 45 – 50 years old, as well as countless other Mexican plants, almost all of which were planted by McPherson himself. “I take a lot of pride in the plants,” he says.
The owners’ affection for the desert environment is evident from the thriving cacti and agave succulents that line the twisting concrete paths which lead you to your guestroom – a soaring treehouse nestled among the Washingtonian Palms. The entire property maintains this discreet, locally-inspired architectural approach: the 12 treehouses were constructed with metal and Pau D’Arco, a local branch, while the rest of the building walls were made with rammed earth – a local soil – that deflects the blistering Baja heat during the day. Building materials such as these are both decorative, to enhance the guest’s connection to the Baja desert, and practical, maximizing the elements’ natural benefits.
But above all else, it’s the organic restaurant that delivers the most immersive Los Cabos experience. With 80 percent of Acre Baja’s produce grown just steps from the kitchen, the menu is farm-to-table beyond the trend. But “it’s not traditional farm-to-table, we have contemporary flare,” says chef Branch. “You still have a sense of place here – it feels organic, natural, and thoughtful.” Despite devoting 19 years to cooking in his hometown of Mexico City and having worked in esteemed kitchens around the world, such as The French Laundry and Enrique Olvera’s Manta, Branch doesn’t care about labels and trends – for him it’s about honoring the unique products of Los Cabos. He tells me he will never have salmon on the menu, “Why would a restaurant spend more money to fly something across the world? Why is that high-end?”
Not too long ago, the wow-factor at a luxury hotel was the property’s size, the distance an ingredient had flown for the guest, or being waited on hand-and-foot by private chefs and butlers. Now, Branch tells me, luxury is about feeling a sense of connection to the destination and knowing that every detail has been thought out. Branch’s farm-to-table approach is not only cost-effective and environmentally friendly, but by preparing detail-oriented dishes that highlight local ingredients, it makes the guest experience more luxurious.
While traditional luxury resorts – in pursuit of pleasing the guest – may purchase expensive pesticides and non-native plants that require extra care, Acre Baja recognizes that the natural approach not only makes the guest experience more authentic, but is more economical and efficient. Once an ingredient has been used for all its parts – whether for immediate use on the menu or pickled and brined for future cocktails or dishes – it becomes compost for the farm. Since the desert soil is overly sandy, the compost – when combined with dirt – acts as a binding agent to help strengthen the soil. Despite the busy service, from hotel and restaurant guests alike, the restaurant farm is run by only five farmers, who lend their expert knowledge of the Baja environment from growing up on nearby farms. Every bite is that much more meaningful knowing the amount of work that went into the production of each vegetable and fruit.
The same respect for all the parts of the ingredient is seen in Branch’s treatment of seafood, to which he applies the Japanese technique of Ikejime: a preparation style that maximizes the qualities of the different parts of the fish. While I had the same fish twice in one day – tuna sashimi for lunch and seared ahi tuna for dinner – they were prepared differently based on the unique attributes of each cut. Branch informed me that the fatty nature of the tuna belly is better suited for a sashimi preparation while searing is the most appropriate technique for the thicker texture of the tuna’s back. Branch’s attention to detail extends beyond the fish to the supply chain: “How is it caught? How is it butchered? How is handled afterwards?” he asks. He cares too about their future, and is piloting a sustainable fishing program in Los Cabos to ensure their preservation.
A deeper connection to Los Cabos is cultivated through the incorporation of the regional flora and fauna into the guest experience, but also by being mindful of the property’s relationship with the local community. “Staff members have become family. There’s a lot of pride that we’ve been able to impact the community – through employment but also by giving back in less formal ways,” co-owner McPherson tells me. Leftover pastries go to local drivers as they wait for guests in the parking lot, for example. The on-site animal sanctuary runs a puppy rescue program and a scholarship program for students to learn organic farming is in the works. “You want to be interactive with the environment in a way that you give to the place, not just take, take, take,” says McPherson.
For some, a luxury vacation is about traveling not for the destination, but to be seen at the destination. For many travelers, however, luxury is increasingly about all the little details, each with their own intention, culminating in an experience defined by the destination. Luxury at Acre Baja is not air-conditioned rooms or over-the-top service, luxury here is having two very different-tasting tuna dishes in the same day or tepache – a pre-Columbian fermented drink – made with pickled mangoes from their orchard. I may not have been overly-pampered at Acre Baja, but I received an education by way of the palate that deepened my connection to Los Cabos. Now that, for me, is worth traveling for.
Photography by: Anna Haines