As a young twenty something in 1988, I traveled for the first time to northern New Mexico for my honeymoon. I was struck by the vast azure skies, colorful mesas dotted with Piñon and juniper trees, and the brilliant light. Descending into the outskirts of Santa Fe, the adobe structures and uneven coyote fences informed me that this was a special place, a City Different. A recent return trip to La Ciudad Real de Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis was a celebration of the past, present and future - Santa Fe today has so much new to offer while still remaining true to its rich historical roots, making it a completely unique experience.
As the oldest capital city in the U.S., hundreds of years of history involving different cultures have played out along the Caminos, Calles and Acequias of this city. The first nation peoples descended from the nearby mesas to populate the Rio Grande Valley. The Spanish asserted their rule over them with both sword and crucifix; unlike other native peoples, the Puebloan culture survived the European conquest and is a vital, integral part of 21st Century Santa Fe. American settlers took control from the Spanish and Mexican governments. Since then, the area has exerted a consistent attraction on artists, fortune-seekers and daydreamers seeking a new life.
For me, simply a visitor, a return to Santa Fe brought new things to love.
Santa Fe may be best known for its historic Plaza, the true corazon of the city. Ringed by historic structures, in the shadow of the magnificent Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, the plaza hosts tourists and locals alike with an air of perpetual celebration. On my visit, a lively concert had attracted a large crowd to dance, chat and enjoy the blessings of a mid-summer’s evening cooled by an approaching rain. The Palace of the Governors Museum and the native American jewelry market makes the Plaza truly unique and a great place to start your exploration.
Meandering the narrow, winding streets of central Santa Fe - all adobe, stucco, and wrought iron – could fill an entire visit and is best done on foot. With galleries, restaurants, gardens and unique shops, there’s plenty to see. Due to a rich and complex history, as well as locals with passionate devotion to this extraordinary place, Santa Fe offers a surprisingly deep array of cultural, culinary, and experiential treasures for such a small city. Allow yourself time to slow down and just take it all in!
Walking: Railyard District
On this visit, I arranged a tour with local guide from Wander New Mexico (which combines food and culture) and ventured further out to discover an emerging new side of Santa Fe called The Railyard District. A short walk from the Plaza, this area is built around the original railroad station and yards. Now it hosts many events and attractions including a year-round farmer’s market full of beautiful, local produce and friendly vendors selling their crafted wares; hours are limited, so check for market dates and times.
Galleries, eateries and open spaces make this an inviting area to wander. Be sure to visit the community “waffle” garden irrigated by an original acequia to appreciate the ingenuity of the original farmers in this arid region.
A unique art space SITE Santa Fe, part of the Center for the Contemporary Arts (CCA), was under construction, and worth a look on a future visit as it promises to host an ever-changing array of artists and their installations. As the Plaza promises a solid link to Santa Fe’s past, this space will focus on what’s next.
Art is an integral part of Santa Fe. Public and private art is everywhere, embedded in the very fiber and soul of the place. To appreciate this and learn more, I toured the Canyon Road art galleries with tour leader, Elaine, owner of Santa Fe Art Tours. An excellent guide, she provided insight and access to gallery owners and artists that revealed more about the art than I ever would have known. She also included a visit to a local chocolatier and a sampling of drinking chocolate elixir that was divine.
Although born in the green meadows of Wisconsin, Georgia O’ Keefe found her true inner self in New Mexico and called it home for much of her life. Her namesake museum celebrates her life and is dedicated to sharing her visions with the world. This fairly small museum displays just a fraction of her work at a time, on a rotating basis; most are on various global tours. Don’t be disappointed if you are unable to see some of your well-known favorites. Instead, use the visit as a chance to learn more about this revolutionary American artist. I was surprised to learn she was a sculptress, and thrilled to learn that at the nearby O’Keefe Research Center, a 10-foot-tall sculpture was on display amidst gardens hosting her favored plants and celebrating her lifelong love of gardening.
A short drive from the city center is Meow Wolf, a wholly unique art experience. This immersive, interactive, experiential art installation is part mystery and fantasy. Extremely popular among locals and visitors alike, it proves Santa Fe is a relevant arts player in today’s competitive cultural scene. Allow at least two hours, arrive early before opening time, and buy tickets in advance to avoid the long wait to get in! A host of food trucks provide quick food and beverage options. (Note: this is not appropriate for mobility impaired or people who are sensitive to dark and confined spaces.)
A thrilling highlight of my return trip was the Santa Fe Opera. Perched along a wild mesa to the north, overlooking a valley rimmed with mountain ranges beyond, the open air theater is an architectural gem. Over the years, the theater has been fully covered overhead, but the open air sides allow plenty of fresh juniper scented breezes - and the occasional rain driven in by summer monsoons! Be sure to take a light jacket or poncho, even in the height of summer, as the evening cools off at 7,000 feet above sea level. As a treat, I attended the preview dinner at the nearby pavilion. This lovely plein air tented space, surrounded by lush gardens, houses the star guest performers of the opera. A delicious buffet dinner with wine is accompanied by a guest speaker who provides sneak peeks and insights into the production. It’s a worthwhile treat if you are lucky enough to snatch up these sought after tickets. You can also order dinner boxes for tailgating or dining on the patio. The 2017 season, which runs through August features a range from the classic Lucia Di Lammermoor to the world premiere, The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs.
Santa Fe offers a full array of accommodations, from cheap motels to luxurious resorts. For our visit, we stayed at the Hilton Santa Fe Historic Plaza Hotel in a 300-year-old hacienda just blocks from the Plaza. We stayed in the Hotel’s casitas, built within walls of the 1625 former coach house with two-foot-thick adobe walls and perfectly decorated with rustic Spanish style and contemporary art. Like Santa Fe, the blend of past and present feels right. A large pool area and on-site dining at Ortiz Restaurant made this a convenient, relaxing oasis after hours touring the city on foot.
For lunch one day we ventured out to the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado, just outside of Santa Fe, and enjoyed a delicious meal on their outdoor patio with a stunning view of distant blue mesas. Afterward, we strolled the peaceful and beautifully landscaped grounds; the clusters of casitas blended into the landscape like an idyllic village surrounded by vistas of mesas and mountains. For travelers seeking resort-style escape with peace and quiet, this is the place.
The dynamic Santa Fe dining scene offers many options to adventurous palates! For traditional regional culinary delights (blue corn tortillas, spicy red chile sauces, posole) head to The Shed (central location, watch out for long waits at peak periods!) or their sister café La Choza (Railyard District, less busy and bigger menu). An adventurous menu awaits at State Capitol Kitchen, where we enjoyed a delicious pasta and lamb dish; Chef Mark takes inspiration from local ingredients to explore new culinary territory. The very contemporary sleek décor of his rehabilitated pizza restaurant space is comfortably hip. Chef Joseph at his namesake restaurant, Joseph’s, strikes a delightful middle ground by using locally sourced and culturally-relevant ingredients (lamb, duck, local vegetables) and preparing them with a more sophisticated touch. His charming, cozy restaurant space reminded us of a friend’s country home.
Local craft brewers provide fresh tasting beers with a Santa Fe twist including: Chili Line Brewing (emphasis on smoked beers, with an enormous secluded patio and Italian food) and Second Street Brewery (large indoor and outdoor areas with pub fare in the Railyard District).
Santa Fe Spirits’ tasting room is a cozy adobe casita; sample their unique, locally-inspired spirits like Atapiño (contains pinon nuts and sap!) and Apple Brandy (ask how they get the apple in the bottle!). Sip them straight, or enjoy a variety of unique cocktails.
This is just a sampling of Santa Fe’s treasures for travelers. Outdoor experiences like hiking, biking, rafting abound nearby, as do so many other rich cultural experiences in the nearby pueblos, Museum Hill and the various marketplace events that draw artists from around the globe. My return visit to Santa Fe was unforgettable, packed with new experiences as well as treasured old favorites, like visiting a dear old friend. Time flew past and yet there was so much more to explore… another trip to my beloved Santa Fe is already in the works.
For more information on Santa Fe, visit http://www.santafenm.gov/convention_and_visitors_bureau
Courtney Drake-McDonough is a Colorado-based contributor to Watchboom.com as well as to other local and national magazines and newspapers. She is also the founder and editor of a news and reviews website covering food, arts, culture and travel in Colorado, www.ingoodtastedenver.com
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