The sunlight is blazing off the Pacific, seagulls rise up on the wind, swirl and dive along the Baja California coastline. There is a very rich history here from Tijuana all the way to Baja Sur. Yet, there is little known about Baja during Prohibition from 1920 into 1933. These years are shrouded in an exciting mystery with whispered rumors. I am in search of one of those stories today, as a strong north wind seems to push me south toward The Castle where Al Capone came to play.
I pass Rosarito Beach Hotel, a famous historic site where millions of people have visited from its first opening in 1925. Leaving Rosarito behind, the free road curves along the bluff and passes by Calafia, another historic site with architecture which honors an old mission. It is said that Capone also enjoyed Rosarito Beach Hotel, and the beautiful Hotel Rivera in Ensenada, which was built especially for the time period of probation. He had a private room there with an entrance and exit, just in case the police were looking for him. Minutes beyond Calafia, I begin to look for the Castle. At one time this beautifully paved four-lane road was but a dusty path for horse drawn wagons; later came Model T Fords and Roadsters built by Packard. In 1920 to 1933 Prohibition lit up Baja as the rich and glamorous, as well as the infamous, found their way across the border looking for drink and a good time. To my right, I almost miss the sign, as the Castle itself cannot be seen from the road. The immediate right turn, down a brief but steep incline, is a test of skill. Driving through the stone arches lined with evil looking glass bottles, The Castle is a dark silhouette against the late afternoon sun.
The two story structure with turrets and arches were created out of volcanic rock hauled from other locations, giving it a rich red brown texture. A wide open undeveloped area serves for easy parking for large group venues. For the moment no one is around and I have the place to myself. I’ll be meeting the proprietor, David Perez Elfman, soon, but for now I get to wander on my own to take pictures. Today the Castle is open for visitation only, however some may recall it was once a restaurant. Now the Castle is a unique venue opportunity for weddings and large business groups.
On closer inspection of the walls of the building, I see the volcanic stone work is beyond amazing. Large round rocks, all odd sizes fit together with small stones tucked in to fill the holes. It must have taken a master stone-mason to keep everything level. Thinking of men having to hand carry each stone for the construction, creates a bit of awe and gives “labor intensive” new meaning. Below the house on another level is an amphitheatre with stone columns for outdoor weddings. The vast view of the ocean is a stunning photographic backdrop. I will learn later this was not part of Capone’s original building, but added by David.
Entering the massive stone structure, the first floor is a large open room with arched windows looking out on the view north to Calafia and south to La Misión. It is said a Spanish galleon carrying gold sank near here off this coast. The room is filled with interesting eclectic furnishings from David’s world travels and there are two special velvet chairs that belonged to his grandmother. I fantasize about the old days when no flat screen TVs hung from the walls distracting from the ambiance. I cannot help but think how wonderful that must have been. I climb the curved staircase to the upper floor. The view is spectacular. I take the opportunity to sit at the bar and contemplate the atmosphere. Musing, I realize I am actually in the very room in which Al Capone partied with his Hollywood friends over 90 years ago. It was a bastion built to protect him so he could relax and have a good time. Today it is quiet and I can hear the sounds of the surf; the call from the gulls. My imagination takes flight into those years when “hooch” was poured freely. I can almost hear the music and laughter… see the swirling gowns of the beautiful starlets escorted by handsome actors. Suddenly, for some reason, I realized back then this room would have been filled with cigar and cigarette smoke, somewhat dashing my sense of romance. I come out of my musing as David finds me and begins to fill in some of the history.
It is said that it was Jack Dempsey who built this rock fortress for his friend Al Capone. Capone never lived in it, but it was one of the many places he came to hide out. David confirmed some of the stories I’d heard, adding, “Capone required three things when staying anywhere. First, there had to be bullet proof walls. The volcanic rock wall is nearly a foot thick. The second requirement was there had to be a clear view of the road coming and going. Before the new four lane road was built the old road was lower and there were no other structures on either side. It was a clear open bluff overlooking the Pacific. The third requirement was there needed to be an outdoor theme with a touch of Italy, honoring his home country.”
David’s father purchased the Castle in 1966 and it was then passed on to David who held a vision and a dream for the property. Major remodeling began in 2003. David shared, “I had to replace the whole roof, even put in skylights using sliding glass doors. I used as much recycled material as I could find.” He also replaced the old wooden doors with highly varnished replicas and created secure stairs and level patio. David opened a restaurant in 2005 but it closed in 2007. Anyone living here in 2007 will remember the difficult time period when the housing bubble popped and Baja California endured a painful recession. Many businesses had to close for years. There has been slow and steady growth since that time and today the Castle is the destination for lovers. “We are now a wedding venue,” says David. He is very excited about the future and seeing that his dream has come to complete fruition. He is touched when a bride tells him that he made her wedding unforgettable. All arrangements can be made with David, from the flowers, gorgeous table linens and crystal wine glasses with perfect food presentations. While Al Capone’s parties were more than a little rowdy, David Perez Elfman has created a new world inside one of Baja California’s historic sites.
The Castle is open for visitors Monday through Saturday, 9:00 to 5:00
Phone: +52-664-251-9815, US 619-488-2345
Martina's email: mteomaya(at)gmail.com