Once upon a time, say about 1972, Cabo San Lucas was a sleepy little fishing town at the southern tip of Baja California. Then came the paved highway, the international airport, the marina, the golf courses, the raucous bars and well-heeled retreats. At the newest and perhaps fanciest, Capella Pedregal, suites this spring start at a cool $675 per night.

In Cabo, you just might score the spring break you'll never forget — or the one you won't remember.

And then there's Todos Santos, still small, still drowsy at most hours, wedged between the mountains and sea about 45 miles north of Cabo.

Its sugar mills, born amid a 19th century boom, died about 60 years ago. The paved highway didn't arrive until the mid-1980s, about the time the first American expat artist, Charles Stewart, moved in. With no airport, no marina, no golf and virtually no nightlife, downtown amounts to just a few blocks of newish galleries, inns and shops in oldish buildings. Outside town, cardón cactuses stipple the hills, and miles of lonely beaches roar under assault by waves so wicked that surfers and swimmers must pick their spots carefully.

Todos Santos, whose population might be as high as 15,000, depending on how many surrounding hamlets you include, is not where you come for action. But if you're after Mexican flavor, Pacific solitude, desert vistas, fresh food and a seriously slow spring break, this might be your place.

"We close down at Baja midnight, which is 9 o'clock," said Lisa Harper, former chief executive of Gymboree and now proprietor of the Rancho Pescadero hotel, about six miles south of town. "We're not up partying until all hours. We don't hang you upside down and give you shots of tequila from holsters. It's a very calm, relaxed area. Lots of surfers, lots of expats. Lots of Italians with great food. Lots of fantastic Mexican food, great galleries and artists."

Pat Cope, who arrived from Los Angeles to open a gallery with her husband, Michael, and infant son, Lane, remembers that "when we first moved here, all I heard was roosters." Sixteen years later, Lane is contemplating colleges, and the roosters still greet each morning, Cope said, but "I don't hear them."

Todos Santos, said Paula Colombo, co-owner of the Café Santa-Fé, "is real. Good and bad, it's real." Now that the recession has slowed the pace of coastal vacation-home building outside town, Colombo added, "maybe we can settle down and do what we have to do to keep this place as magnificent as it could be …an oasis in the desert."

My first stop was at Harper's Rancho Pescadero hotel (no warning given, full price paid). Billed as a different kind of "dude" ranch, it has been busy since it opened in November 2009 with 12 rooms, a restaurant, a bar and a pool. If things keep going this well, Harper said, the hotel could add 15 units by year's end.

To reach the 15-acre site, you turn off two-lane Highway 19 at a Pemex station, drive a mile on a dirt/sand road, and stop just past the green fields of basil. (The area sits on an aquifer that feeds many organic growing operations and keeps the place rich in chiles, mangoes, avocados and papayas.)

Once on the grounds, you can take refuge in your large room (the smallest is still more than 600 square feet) or your mostly private patio (but be sure to reconcile your curtains with the neighbors' sightlines). Before long, you'll be sipping your welcome drink, strolling past the fire pit, through the fledgling palm grove, to the dunes and the wide, lonely beach.

Don't jump in. Staffers warn guests not to swim at the hotel-adjacent beach because the tide is treacherous. But you can flop onto one of the Rancho Pescadero daybeds on the dunes. Or walk at water's edge, especially near dawn or dusk, where you'll get the full effect of near-empty beach coastline: pelicans gliding above the swells, offshore breezes blowing feathered foam off the whitecaps. As it happened, the waves were especially big and glassy when I showed up.

In fact, it's a wonder I turned away long enough to spot the handwritten signs for the San Pedrito Surf Hotel, a few hundred yards north of Rancho Pescadero. Beginning four years ago, manager Andy Keller told me, he and the other owners upgraded the beachfront site from a camping spot to a seven-unit hotel (rates are $55-$200, a kitchen in every room), but it remains rustic: tile floors, stray flippers, a few shelves of well-thumbed paperbacks, all at the end of another dirt road.

"I'm into the classic look," Keller said. "No red lights, no parking meters, no pavement....You have the dirt roads, you have the dogs with no collars … the proximity of the mountains, just beyond us here, and the ocean just behind me. It's the best of both worlds."

Out on the water — that is, the San Pedrito surf break, known up and down the West Coast — I spotted half a dozen euphoric young men carving waves with their short boards, their tents tucked away down at the rocky north end of the beach.

If you can't surf like those guys but want to get into the ocean, you drive a couple of miles south (more dirt roads) to Cerritos Beach, which has milder tides, beach gear for rent and the passable Cerritos Beach Club restaurant.

That beach, long empty, has been busy with development in the last few years. Just south of the restaurant, workers have completed about 10 Cerritos Surf Colony bungalows, which are being sold as time-shares and rented at $125 nightly. About 60 more are planned.

On the cliff top just north, meanwhile, looms the immense yellow-orange Hacienda Cerritos, a 30,000-square-foot walled mansion that's unfortunately visible for miles. Workers said it was built as a private home last year by Oregon developer Roger Pollock. Pollock's finances having become complicated in the recession, the hacienda has been recast as a hotel, renting 11 rooms for $295 and up nightly. The tour befuddled me. Even with multiple zero-horizon pools, a massive patio, handsome tiles and big ocean views, the place felt somehow iffy, more like a rental house than a hotel and costlier than anything else I saw.

Downtown Todos Santos is much more affordable and easy to understand: the 18th century mission on the plaza, the galleries, shops and eateries on narrow streets, mostly unpaved. I looked at paintings in Galeria Logan and Galeria Indigo, chatted with sculptor Benito Ortega as he worked in his studio, checked out the noble workers and triumphant teacher in the 1930s mural at the Cultural Center. I picked up a book in English at El Tecolote bookshop on the main drag, Juárez, and sipped some cool gazpacho on the patio of Los Adobes de Todos Santos.