I am no novice to Santa Fe. Over the years I’ve visited multiple times, yet I remain impressed at its lists of notable residents. Long ago my attendance at Sunday mass at Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi revealed an usher best known as ‘60s actor and heartthrob Tab Hunter. On my most recent visit, I was treated to an intimate, tented and chandelier-adorned tailgate dinner preceding a performance of the Santa Fe Opera. The crowning jewel of this crystal-stemware, sterling-silver type affair was its tableside preparation by James Beard award-winner Todd Hall, executive chef of Julia, La Posada’s signature restaurant.
Not every trip to New Mexico’s capital city is punctuated by star sightings, but any visit can mean mornings with Native American artisans selling their wares, afternoons spent gallery hopping along Canyon Road and evenings enjoyed over meals in James Beard-recognized restaurants. Santa Fe is a don-your-turquoise-and-silver and kick-around-in-your-cowboy-boots kind of town. It is both sophisticated and laid-back. It’s these distinguished attributes that provide countless reasons to visit.
Photo Credit: La Posada de Santa Fe Resort and Spa
The city is older than the U.S. itself; when the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, Santa Fe had its own governor. A product of Spanish heritage, Native American roots and Old West ways, Santa Fe has a rich and distinctive narrative, one like no other. At an elevation of 7,000 feet (nearly a half mile higher than the nation’s mile-high city, Denver), it enjoys more than 300 days of annual sunshine and four distinct seasons. Reflective of its forever edict, no building is taller than four stories, and it is home to adobe-style architecture. It remains a world-class city with a small-town vibe.
With such historical beginnings, the best place to begin exploration of the nation’s oldest capital is La Posada de Santa Fe Resort and Spa. Built in 1882 as the Territory’s largest home, the Staab Mansion quickly became the hub of entertainment with Julia Staab at the helm. Considered the unofficial hostess of New Mexico, her guest list overflowed with the region’s “who’s who” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Surrounded by casitas (now rooms) originally built for traveling artists, La Posada is also known as the Art Hotel of New Mexico. It earned the moniker because of its long ago display and sale of original art, including the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. Though this was two decades before Santa Fe’s galleries began to flourish, this tradition continues today. It is under the guidance of noted art curator, Sara Eyestone that artists display exclusively at La Posada, which also hosts a weekly Friday afternoon art reception and chef’s tasting.
A compact and walkable town, Santa Fe is easy to explore, so let’s start at its heart: the Plaza. Noted as a National Register of Historic Places, the city’s 400-year-old central park and home to a classic bandstand and the American Indian War Memorial monument, it is the perennial gathering spot of tourists and locals. It hosts such seasonal events as August’s internationally-renowned Indian Market and is decked out each Christmas with thousands of glittering lights and farolitos. Palace of the Governors was constructed in the 17th century as Spain’s seat of government. Beneath its portal, Native Americans sell their own tribe’s authentic handicrafts—from jewelry to pottery to kachina dolls—all made from traditional materials (no fake turquoise will be found here). It’s worth noting that these items are tax exempt, but “thinking about” a purchase may mean losing out as artists appear on a rotating basis.
Photo Credit: Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
Overflowing with galleries and museums, there’s no shortage for the art lover. Every creative foray should begin at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the short movie on the artisan’s life, followed by a stroll amongst her creations. It’s said that Canyon Road is to art what Rodeo Drive is to fashion. Located a short walk from downtown, the noted street is dotted with one gallery after another. McLarry Fine Art and its sculpture garden showcase the work of celebrated Southwestern artists, while Morning Star Gallery displays museum-quality antiques from more than 50 Native American tribes. On Museum Hill you’ll find four additional art centers, plus The Botanical Garden.
Photo Credit: Cynthia Dial
Shopping is distinctive in Santa Fe. It has its own look, its own flair. Whether your quest is for handcrafted jewelry, custom cowboy boots or an antler-enhanced chandelier, it can be found here and it will be top quality. Ortega’s on the Plaza is known for its custom-designed jewelry by the world’s top artists, including Don Lucas and Federico. Though at first glance it appears a museum, Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery sells a large selection of American Indian pottery, including San Ildefonso Pueblo’s distinctive black-on-black earthenware by Maria Martinez, known as the “Picasso of Southwest pottery.”
So creative is its preparation that Santa Fe’s food scene is described as “appetizing art.” With its title as the birthplace of Southwestern cuisine, its love affair with chiles (red or green is the perpetual query) and more than 200 restaurants to showcase its edible imagination, Santa Fe has a collection of top chefs and a remarkable lineup of eateries.
Photo Credit: The Compound
Located in an 1835 adobe and a former stagecoach stop, El Farol, the city’s oldest restaurant, is known for flamenco entertainment. Eight-time James Beard award nominee James Campbell Caruso is chef-owner of La Boca, a lively tapas restaurant and wine bar. Noted as Santa Fe’s first fine dining restaurant, The Compound features the seasonal contemporary American menu of Mark Kiffin (James Beard-named “Best Chef of the Southwest”), with such popular inclusions as stone crab polenta and olive oil ice cream. Frito pie, a different but authentic treat, is found at the back-of-the-store food counter of the Plaza’s Five & Dime (formerly Woolworth’s, where it’s claimed to have been invented). A regional treat, it’s an open bag of chips topped with chili and cheese. For hands-on but delicious encounters with the town’s touted dining arena, Santa Fe School of Cooking serves up classes and restaurant walking tours.
This small town has a full calendar; but among such offerings as the Chamber Music Festival, Independent Film Festival and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, it is best known for the Santa Fe Opera (established in 1957). Called the all-star game of the music world and set in a dramatic, open-air theater on a 100-acre backdrop, this is the hottest ticket in the coolest of towns.
Beyond Santa Fe’s distinguished culture and cuisine are equally unique activities. The state’s 19 pueblos give a peek into the Native American lifestyle, with Taos Pueblo one of the grandest. Nearby Los Alamos is known for the Manhattan Project, which created the atomic bomb. Its Bradbury Science Museum documents the highly sensitive and secretive World War II mission. Bandelier National Monument has some of the area’s finest hiking, especially in its little known Tsankawi section, which I discovered only with assistance from Monique, hiking guide/owner of Great Southwest Adventures. This trail running atop a mesa has Native American cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and vantage views that are so rich in history its signage reads: “Take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but tracks.”