Not so long ago, Los Cabos — the twin capes of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo at the tip of the Baja Peninsula — was a virtually unspoiled paradise, with some of Mexico’s best fishing, whitest sand, and quaintest resorts. “Cabo,” as it came to be called, symbolized the anti-Canc�n, a place for “those who know.” But time passed, and word got out. The Mexican government promoted aggressive investment in resort and luxury home development, and time-sharing norteamericanos descended en masse. Now longtime visitors are searching for the anti-Cabo.

Punta Mita might just be that place — for now. Occupying a peninsula in the state of Nayarit, across the Bah�a de Banderas from the wonderfully cultured but crowded resort hub of Puerto Vallarta, Punta Mita features aquamarine waters so clear you can see the living coral reef. Fishing boats bob along the waters, their catches of snapper, lobster, oysters and scallops appearing on the tables of the humble palapa restaurants that beckon from the Punta Mita Highway, a two-lane road carved from the lush jungle at the foot of the rugged Sierra Vallejo mountains. Northbound side roads lead to an ecological treasure trove featuring peccaries, coatimundi, iguanas and tropical birds, while pristine beaches hide off the southbound routes, drawing snorkelers, surfers and those lucky enough to get a glimpse of the occasional humpback whale, sea turtle or dolphin.

You can catch these views, as well as some killer sunsets, from any of the friendly resorts and beach clubs that dot the shoreline. But the most civilized vantage point is at the westernmost tip of the peninsula, home to the five-star Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita. Almost all of the enormous, richly appointed casitas and suites come with oceanfront views and private verandas, where you can sip margaritas and watch giant iguanas sun themselves on the rocks just yards from your cooling plunge pool. The Aramara, the main open-air restaurant, dishes up Chino Latino cuisine, with Cuban cigars and rare tequilas available to savor at the outdoor bar. And, as at all Four Seasons, the service is unparalleled: Attendants at the pool and beach come by every half hour with iced towels and cold spritzes of Evian, and golf carts appear in seconds to transport you anywhere on the property.

The golf in and around Punta Mita, as at Cabo, is first-rate. But unlike Cabo, where a round can run close to $300, Four Seasons Golf Club Punta Mita charges about $160. The formidable Jack Nicklaus layout includes an optional hole featuring a tee shot to an island green in the Pacific. When tides and waves permit, an amphibious vehicle ferries you and your putter to the green. Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf also have signature courses at Vista Vallarta, a half hour east on the road to Puerto Vallarta, and this December the Nicklaus course will host Tiger Woods and the 2002 PGA World Cup. (El Tigre happens to be the name of the new Robert Van Hagge course at nearby Paradise Village that’s quickly earned a rep as the toughest tracks in the area.)

Punta Mita’s relative isolation contrasts dramatically with the bustle of Puerto Vallarta, about an hour away by car and in an altogether different time zone, both figuratively and literally (although the Four Seasons sets its clocks to Puerto’s Central Time instead of the local Mountain Time, to ensure that guests arrive at the Puerto Vallarta airport in time for their departures). Should you want a shorter ride to the airport, spend a night or two at one of the 15 five-star resorts in Puerto’s luxurious Marina Vallarta section, minutes from downtown.

Although it rivals Canc�n as Mexico’s most popular tourist destination and has just as many high-rises blotting its beaches, Puerto is rich in history and soul. To see it in full display, head to Old Vallarta on a Sunday evening for a stroll along the Malecon sea wall. Great restaurants abound in this city: The hacienda-style Las Palomas, just off the Malecon, never disappoints. Nor does Le Kliff, with its stunning setting overlooking the bay and its mouthwatering shellfish stew. For Spanish tapas, try a beautiful new restaurant named Barcelona. And for one of the best dining experiences in all of Mexico, head to 702 Guadalupe Sanchez, where chef Thierry Blouet holds forth at the urbane Caf� des Artistes.

The word iguana figures into the name of many shops and restaurants, an homage to John Huston’s 1963 film “Night of the Iguana,” which transformed Puerto Vallarta from a sleepy fishing town into a jet-set destination. No films are planned for Punta Mita, but two more golf courses are, and with them luxury residences and resorts. With the Four Seasons becoming increasingly popular, the St. Regis Hotel chain plans to build, and Rosewood Resorts of Dallas has announced a neighboring five-star resort that will be a sister property to its famed Las Ventanas al Paraiso in — you guessed it — Los Cabos.

Punta Mita is less than an hour by car from Puerto Vallarta International Airport. Most major airlines offer direct flights from many U.S. cities.

The Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita
Tel.: 011-52-329-291-6000