What’s love got to do with it? It being butlers, private outdoor infinity tubs, and custom-embroidered pillowcases. My wife and I were flying 1,300 miles to find out, at the arid tip of Baja, where the Sea of Cortez becomes the Pacific and a second hot tub waits inside your suite lest you think, What, only one?
For as long as I can remember, the paradise-industrial complex has taken a powerful interest in the state of my marriage. As a person who periodically writes about traveling, I receive a steady stream of emails inviting me to Spice Up My Weekend or Rekindle My Romance at some soft-focus locale or other. The locales look peachy, but the romance part always seems half-baked and desultory, to say nothing of heteronormatively dopey. Love—you know, that nuanced and baffling force that braids two infinitely complex humans into a strange and fragile oneness—evidently just means drinking white wine on a beach near small candles.
And so I’d delete those emails, mine being a normal adult nonridiculous relationship. If my wife, Amy, and I ever unkindled, we’d do the standard adult thing of sublimating via parenting and/or a free trial HBO Go subscription, no sexy air travel required.
But lately something had shifted, partly on the side of the travel industry. In the endless arms race to refine already extravagant vacation spots, I couldn’t help noticing the offers getting a tad more grown-up. This honeymoon package had newlyweds not simmering in a heart-shaped Jacuzzi but restoring reefs in Mozambique. That travel company encouraged couples not to dip themselves in chocolate but “listen to what each other wants” and “compromise.” I got the sense, in certain corners anyway, that perhaps some thought was finally seeping into this creaky genre. But the bigger shift was in me. Studiously avoiding those trips for so long had apparently planted a seed of curiosity. What, exactly, happens on these vacations? How is romantic travel different from travel travel? And what, just wondering, does a Department of Romance at “Mexico’s Most Romantic Resort” do? This is how we came to land recently at Mexico’s Los Cabos International Airport, catch a ride to the coast, and glide through the grand open-air entrance of Las Ventanas al Paraíso.
From the moment we arrived, shock-and-awe indulgence rained upon us. Las Ventanas isn’t huge—71 suites, 12 villas—but no fewer than 635 staff members attend to its guests. A private mariachi performance greeted us, followed by chilled margaritas, then head-and-neck rubs, to soothe us after all this hardship.
If Baja is a rocky, cactus-strewn desertscape, Las Ventanas is a genteel hillside village, one where Brad, Jen, Angelina, J. Lo, and Pink happen to pop by. (The resort is a favorite among VIPs seeking privacy; no highway signs indicate its presence, and the staff is practiced at warding off lookie-loos.) Whitewashed buildings, vaguely Moorish, rise under a desert sun, linked by curving walkways and sparkling pools. Flowering ocotillos, barrel cactus, and giant prickly pears dot the landscape, and then the landscape pours down to the sea, whose turquoise has been expertly calibrated to match the resort’s eight pools. On the beach I watched an employee in a modified golf cart Zamboni the sand smooth, our own private Sisyphus, manicuring the beach only to have people tramp all over it again.
It was all we could do to take everything in: The device in our suite that let us select which aromatherapy we preferred. (Exuberance!) The way rolled-up towels were inserted under our knees the moment we stretched out poolside. The booth with the rotating platform that automatically sprayed us with sunscreen. The artistic or architectural or floral or culinary or luxuriant flourish around every corner. Noticing every detail felt like a moral obligation.
“What is this called?” I asked Amy at dinner.
“I mean the pattern.”
But then our chicken adobo came, and then some pretty horses sauntered by on the beach, and that’s basically how we would pass the next three days: enjoying one thing and then another, which, all due respect to normal life, isn’t the typical program.
We woke the next day and walked down an airy arcade below the resort’s main entrance, to a tidy office marked “Romance” An exuberant woman named Romina Torres was waiting to meet us.
I’d wanted to meet Torres since first learning of her actual, not-being-ironic title. As Director of Romance at Las Ventanas, she facilitates countless wedding proposals, honeymoons, baby-moons, mini-moons, anniversary trips, and other expressions of amour that happen here. Where other destinations offer generically lovey experiences, Las Ventanas boasts a bespoke reinvention of the romantic getaway—an itinerary designed around your relationship’s unique DNA.
There was the guest last week who brought his girlfriend to the beach for dinner. Before eating they took a stroll, and she noticed a bottle sticking out of the sand. Inside was a wedding proposal, planted by Torres and her team. A horse promptly sauntered over, ridden by a man who handed an engagement ring to the soon-to-be groom.
Love—you know, that nuanced and baffling force that braids two infinitely complex humans into a strange and fragile oneness—evidently just means drinking white wine on a beach near small candles.
Some couples have Torres et al. write romantic messages in sand. Others elect for a private outdoor film screening and partway through find a special message spliced into the movie. One couple, recently engaged, was presented with a silver box. Opening it up, they found a button. They pressed it and were soon watching a personal fireworks show.
Amy and I did not need to fall in love. We did that during the Clinton administration, at grimy bars and on sweaty road trips and in the million ordinary things we’ve done ever since—walks to the store, putting flea medicine on the cats, reading to our children. So what does “romance” mean for two middle-aged parents? A message in a bottle seems like something our kids would do, and I generally don’t consider them romantic. Our love language is more the dishwasher’s making a weird sound and did you pay the piano teacher?
Nevertheless, before our trip, Amy and I had filled out an extensive get-to-know-you questionnaire. Torres had taken our answers and converted them into a tailored three-day program, which we now held in our hands as we bid her adieu.
What I had expected of the Department of Romance was minimal—really just some kind of travel-agency-plus-therapy amalgamation that burrows ingeniously into the deepest crevices of your intertwined psyches and emerges with The Perfect Three Days to Make Everything Amazing. What we found was subtler: a lot of swell moments.
“Look at this!” I exclaimed to Amy that afternoon. Amy did the opposite of looking, which is lying on your back with fabric over your eyes, making creepy I’m-super-relaxed noises.
I’d been admiring the beach from our terrace, directly below our upper terrace, both of which sat outside our palatial suite, when I first heard the splashes. Stepping behind our private terrace telescope, I saw what appeared to be heavy dark sails, one after another, launching diagonally out of the water. Some shot as high as five or six feet. They’d hang in the air for a moment, flap madly, then land with a massive thwap. Sometimes they popped straight up like toast. Finally I realized they were manta rays.
Nobody knows why they do it. Some speculate that the behavior is courtship display— marry me, I can do this! Others theorize it’s a form of communication: a signal to fellow rays that this is the spot to be in. Still others believe they’re slapping parasites off their bodies.
A fourth possibility is that they were doing it for Amy and me. If that sounds unlikely, you don’t understand how many other things were being done for us. At one point we left our suite and returned to find that the ratty old subscription card holding Amy’s place in her book had been magically replaced with a proper bookmark. After another outing—a couple’s massage—we came back to find a sewing kit with the selection of threads perfectly tailored to Amy’s wardrobe. At the end of our second day, as the afternoon shadows gave way to dusk, we padded onto the sand at the edge of the resort, per Romance itinerary. In the distance, maybe 50 yards from the surf, a single wood table waited for us, set for a four-course meal, as though washed up in a kind of formal shipwreck miracle. It seemed something about our relationship DNA called for a private dinner near the water’s edge, serenaded by a classical guitarist. Waves crashed passionately, an instrumental version of “Take on Me” bathed us in tasteful sixth-grade vibes and, by god, we were soon drinking white wine on a beach near small candles—6 million of them when I lost count. There are worse things, turns out.
Perhaps you’ve had a waiter deliver you plate after plate of delicious food on a warm night at the southern tip of a rocky peninsula. It was a first for us. The moon rose off our western bow, a perfect cinnamon-colored bulb of longing and strangeness. A shimmering ribbon of reflected moonlight stretched across the water. If someone had spotted us, they’d have bragged to friends that they saw an Oxygen network movie being filmed.
For us, the dazed talent, it was a fine opportunity to ponder some basic questions. Was this romance? What is romance? In the run-up to our trip, I’d asked friends what the word meant to them—and then abandoned the project when it became clear nobody knew. One woman suggested romance is when she goes to a party and gets socially exhausted and comes home and plops into the emotional safety of her husband’s company. Another said “romantic” would be realizing that she and her partner had each independently gotten interested in the same obscure hobby at the same time.
“That’s . . . a pretty specific scenario,” I said.
But, of course, weird little specifics is where love happens. Live with someone for years and what your heart wraps around isn’t the sprawl of their general goodness, but how they pronounce “linoleum,” or their ambivalence about certain Neil Young albums. Bookmarks and butlers have nothing to do with it—but bookmarks and butlers create an alternate universe, which is itself romantic. Two days earlier Amy and I had been rushing to finish work, rushing to pack, hurrying to get our kids to their grandparents, who’d generously agreed to raise them for a few days. Now we had the unfamiliar experience of being still, absorbing things. Here was a hummingbird zipping past some euphorbia. Here was an iguana sunning beside a desert agave. Here we were, half-napping on cool sheets as manta rays slapped the water.
In addition to dining on the beach, our bespoke agenda featured couple’s massages and a private photo session with a photographer from Mexico City. She was lovely and it was horrible; if I never peer meaningfully into my beautiful wife’s eyes at the golden hour again, it’ll be too soon. We recovered, the photos were excellent, and on our last night we walked past the skinny pool and the lazy river pool and 18 other pools for one last dinner. Arbol is the resort’s modern, vaguely urban spot, all trance-y beats and James Turrell-ish lighting. You can eat on the patio overlooking the golf course or under a cavernous ceiling or at a sunken table surrounded by water but not in water. “What will they think of next?” Amy and I wondered—not in a marveling way, but out of genuine concern for the luxury seating arts: Can there be anything left after this?
Then our waiter brought us martinis and a plate of fresh ceviche and we stopped worrying.
Amy key-carded us into our suite after dinner, and gasped upon stepping inside. While we were at the restaurant, our room had been invaded. A pathway of rose petals—hundreds? thousands?—stretched from the foyer to our bed and to a freshly filled tub. More rose petals, in the shape of a heart, covered our bed. A bottle of Veuve Clicquot was chilling on the hearth. We stood there, gaping, and then did what any non-Brad, Jen, and Angelina people would do. We grabbed the bottle and bolted.
My take on “romance” had been agnostic at best a week ago—how should I know what that silly Hallmark idea means? But maybe I did know.
The beach was dark and empty, save for unseen butlers who’d presumably buried themselves in the sand to address any remaining needs. But we had none. We had only the dwindling lights from the resort and the inky black sea. We lie down under the stars.
My take on “romance” had been agnostic at best a week ago—how should I know what that silly Hallmark idea means? But maybe I did know. Maybe romance is just immersing yourselves together in the great weirdness of the universe. Iguanas and butlers, flapping manta rays, a robot that sprays sunscreen, the notion of romance itself. Perhaps you’re transformed by it all, perhaps you’re still just you after three days, but you marvel either way, the two of you, lying in the sand for I don’t know how long. A shooting star streaks overhead, vivid as a pen mark. What will they think of next?