Whimsical Santa Fe rises out of New Mexico’s endless, stark desert landscape like a colorful oasis that teeters between over-the-top kitsch and expressive old soul. Many longtime visitors and, of course, locals bemoan the fact that seemingly the whole world has caught on to the charm of their little town, and it’s true that parts of Santa Fe are hopelessly overrun—and overdone. But during my recent trip to the New Mexican capital—the United States’ oldest, which will turn 400 years in 2010—I was relieved to discover that underneath all the touristy commerce, Santa Fe still maintains its hippie-chic, New Age heart. At the lovely Teahouse, a wonderful break along gallery-packed Canyon Road, a woman with a halo of wispy white hair asked, “Dear, what’s your sign?” and, upon hearing my reply (Pisces), she nodded and said, “Yes, I got that vibe.” Artsy-looking ladies of a certain age championing astrology was precisely the Santa Fe I had missed among the onslaught of silver jewelry in the Palace of the Governors boutiques. But pockets of authentic Southwestern flair and Santa Fe charm continue to thrive—you just have to know where to find them.
The highlights and favorite discoveries of my trip included:
Encantado (198 State Road 592; 505-946-5700)
This sister of Napa’s acclaimed Auberge du Soleil (and arguably, Santa Fe’s most luxurious resort) is located a 15-minute drive north of downtown and that’s precisely its draw. Perched on a hilltop, Encantado is all about space: there are sweeping desert views; the massive suites have minimalist-chic decor (no Navajo-inspired carpets here); and the property fronts a national forest, so hiking trails begin right behind the buildings. While first-time visitors will want to be based in Santa Fe proper for their first couple of nights, a great way to conclude a trip is splurging on a night or two at the gorgeous Encantado. The spa alone is worth the journey; plus, guests can make use of a fleet of Mercedes, facilitating day trips to such nearby sites as Bandelier Park, Ghost Ranch and Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu studio.
New Mexico History Museum (107 West Palace Ave.; 505-476-5200)
While it is impossible to pick a favorite museum of Santa Fe’s incredible offering—don’t miss the world-class Georgia O’Keeffe, Wheelwright, and International Folk Art museums—the recently opened New Mexico History Museum gives a high-tech and in-depth overview of the state’s complex history. Be sure to plan to spend some time here; the main exhibition, “Telling New Mexico-Stories From Then and Now,” is divided into six sections that cover ground from the pre-colonial era to the present. There are lots of fascinating multi-media pieces, as well as displays of period paraphernalia (dresses, wagons, weapons), so the show is also entertaining for kids.
Morning Star Gallery (513 Canyon Road; 505-982-8187)
Canyon Road, Santa Fe’s famous gallery quarter, has almost become a stereotype of itself, with endless sculptures of woeful maidens and noble Indians lining the gardens, but if you dig deep, there’s still a lot of quality work to be found. The Morning Star Gallery is not a new tip, but if you are interested in Native American art, both antique and contemporary, it should top your list. The shelves are lined with museum-quality items, from pottery and baskets to fashion and jewelry, and the staff is well-informed and glad to tell the tales of the exquisite handcrafts. There are also interesting smaller pieces, like the beaded Sioux baby bonnet, dating from 1880, I discovered on my recent trip. The incredible skill and care with which it was made was especially moving considering the short use of such an item.
Comparisons to New York City’s Chelsea may be exaggerated (so far), but Santa Fe’s new gallery quarter in the redeveloped Railyard District is indeed flourishing, with a handful of cutting-edge spaces. From downtown, it’s about a 15-minute walk and you can see the Railyard offerings in an hour or so, but it’s definitely worth a look to get a sense of contemporary Santa Fe. Don’t miss SITE (1606 Paseo del Peralta; 505-989-1199), the gallery that launched them all; Tai (1601B Paseo del Peralta; 505-984-1387), a smaller space dedicated to Asian art; James Kelly (1601 Paseo del Peralta; 505-989-1601), who was showing Bruce Nauman when I visited; and LewAllen (1613 Paseo del Peralta; 505-988-3250), a soaring light-filled gallery. On Tuesdays and Saturday, there’s also a Farmer’s Market, where you can stock up on local food and have a picnic right by the old tracks.
Restaurant Martín (526 Galisteo St.; 505-820-0919)
My only regret this past trip was that I couldn’t try the brand-new Restaurant Martín, which opened in early October. Don’t get me wrong: I had plenty of fabulous meals (Santa Fe has a wealth of culinary talent) at such spots as Café Pasqual, La Boca, Coyote Café and the Shed. But the new venture of charismatic James Beard award-winner Martín Rios—whose resume includes stints at the Inn of the Anasazi and the acclaimed Geronimo—was the buzz amongst foodies. If you’re planning a trip to Santa Fe, make your reservation to Restaurant Martín, located a bit outside the downtown hoopla, now.