The 'Wow' Factor

One&Only Palmilla reopens after $90 million overhaul

By: Maribeth Mellin

The grand opening of the One&Only Palmilla in Los Cabos in February was auspicious on several levels. The expanded and remodeled resort has raised the bar once again in Los Cabos by offering stunning suites, a Mandara Spa and a restaurant with a celebrity chef. Private butlers tend to the needs of pampered guests. Palm groves and golf fairways edge the secluded property. Whales spout in the Sea of Cortez, visible from every room. It has, in the words of international resort developer Sol Kerzner, “the wow factor.”

On a larger scale, the Palmilla serves as the first of many Kerzner International Limited developments to come in Mexico. “I’ll be disappointed if we don’t have several hotels in Mexico in the next few years,” said Kerzner, the company’s enthusiastic chairman and CEO. “I personally love Mexico as a tourist destination.”

Kerzner International is known for its resorts in exotic locations, including Dubai and the Maldives. It’s also the developer of mega-resorts at Sun City in South Africa, Atlantis in the Bahamas, and the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Working with Fonatur, Mexico’s National Tourism Development Fund, the company last year acquired a 50 percent equity interest in and long-term management contract for the Palmilla resort.

The company remodeled the Palmilla into a One&Only hotel, Kerzner’s brand name for its luxurious five-star properties. The Palmilla is the first One&Only hotel in the Americas a second is scheduled to open in Havana, Cuba, within a year. The luxury properties combine sublime creature comforts and stunning scenery. According to Kerzner, they are designed to “blow away the customer.”

Kerzner did just that with the remake of the Palmilla, spending $90 million in just eight months. The transformation is impressive. The hotel’s landmark white wedding chapel still sits atop a hill draped in fuchsia bougainvillea, but it now overlooks an elegant spa where guests are pampered in private villas rather than common treatment rooms.

A few of the property’s original white stucco buildings with arches and tiled staircases remain intact, and the architecture of the new buildings mimics the old. The much admired open-air bar overlooking the Sea of Cortez still has tables and chairs nestled under white archways, but the furniture is sleek and modern.

Charlie Trotter, whose eponymous restaurant in Chicago is famous with foodies, oversees the menu and kitchen at his C restaurant beside the bar. The decor is L.A. chic, with blue cylindrical aquariums separating the dining room and kitchen, but the menu reflects Baja’s influence on Trotter’s cooking.

“I didn’t want to impose Chicago style on Cabo,” Trotter said as he juggled plans to feed celebrities at the opening. Instead, he’s relying on local ingredients to create his daily menu.

A second restaurant, Agua, sits beneath a large palapa (thatched roof structure) at the edge of the Palmilla’s new infinity pool. Guests are greeted by private butlers when they check in to their rooms, which combine Asian, Mediterranean and Mexican touches with a definite wow factor. Until the 1980s, the rooms at the Palmilla lacked TVs and phones; now they have plasma screen TVs, DVD players, Bose sound systems, high-speed Internet connections (with wireless coming soon) and telescopes. The bathrooms have “wet rooms” with large, open showers with rainshower heads, oversized tubs on platforms and windows facing the sea.

Each room is assigned a personal butler and all guests find a handcrafted bottle of One&Only brand tequila by the front door. Many of the employees who have worked at the Palmilla for decades made the transition to the One&Only style, wearing new uniforms created by Hollywood costume designers and clothing makers in Guadalajara.

Edward Steiner, the hotel’s managing director and One&Only’s regional vice president, said he wanted the employees to look like performers on stage as they welcomed the guests.

“We have a lot of drama here,” Steiner said.

The Palmilla has been a magnet for celebrities since it first opened, and the new incarnation is no exception. The day after the grand opening, Hollywood stars arrived in a private jet for John Travolta’s surprise 50th birthday party. The Palmilla got plenty of coverage in the celebrity press, but the most important clientele includes guests and their families who have been returning to the Palmilla for decades.

“When people come back to the Palmilla, I want them to not even realize anything happened,” Kerzner said last year when he broke ground for the expansion. “Except they’ll love the new rooms.”


One&Only Palmilla
Km. 7.5 Carretera Transpeninsular
San José del Cabo
800-637-2226, 52-624-146-7000, fax: 52-624-146-7001
Hits: By retaining the Palmilla’s classic architecture, Kerzner made sure returnees would not be disappointed with the expansion. The food at C and Agua is innovative and excellent, and the service is top-notch. The extensive library of CDs, DVDs and current novels is great for those who want to lounge about in their rooms. Experienced concierges have plenty of ideas for excursions.
Misses: Poor lighting on the balconies makes it hard to read at night. The large daybed on the balcony is comfy, but there’s nowhere to set your cup or glass. Room service can be slow and $19 for a continental breakfast is steep, especially south of the border.
Be Aware: My rainshower showerhead sprayed water all over the bath area, soaking towels and anything else nearby. The in-room phone system is complicated. Have your butler explain the various electronic features and light switches.
Plugging In: Just put your laptop on the desk at the foot of the bed, hook up the DSL cable hidden in a niche and sign on through the hotel’s provider. The connection is complimentary.
Clientele: The rooms adapt well for those traveling on business, though most guests are leisure travelers including celebrities, wealthy families and wedding parties.
Rates: Room rates start at $325.
Commission: 15 percent