Enchanting Crossroads

Santa Fe melds variety of cultures, cuisines and arts

The only thing wrong with Santa Fe, N.M., as far as I’m concerned, is that it’s full of vacationing Texans. Fortunately, they’re easy to spot with their $200 designer blue jeans, $1,000 cowboy boots and trophy wives with big hair, and thus they’re easy to avoid. Otherwise, Santa Fe’s a great place for a Las Vegan looking for a break from traffic jams and torn-up streets and depressed real estate values and one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

Santa Fe is a high-desert oasis, meaning it has a perfect climate year-round. It’s mostly sunny in the winter with a little snow now and then but not so much it gets annoying. Its summer days are hot and dry—but not too hot, not ever Las Vegas hot, because the town sits at 7,000 feet—with thunder showers that seem to arrive at 3:15 every afternoon from June through August and last 20 minutes and then move on, setting the stage for brisk evenings when everyone (Texans, too) goes out to dinner in one of the town’s many fine—though some of them hideously expensive—restaurants. After a day of gallery-hopping, of course.

As a desert oasis, Santa Fe was for millennia a vibrant cultural crossroads and trading center, like oases the world over, a place where travelers from all corners stop and rest and resupply, trade goods and swap gossip and get drunk and maybe laid before pushing on, leaving the consequences of any indiscretions or follies behind. In this, certainly, Las Vegans will find something comfortingly familiar about Santa Fe.

The Spanish showed up here in 1598, and then in 1610 Don Pedro de Peralta founded Santa Fe (“holy faith”) as the capital of the Spanish colony. The Spanish formed an uneasy alliance with the local Pueblo Indians against common enemies, including the Apaches, Comanches and gringos. But as the Spanish empire began to fray at the edges in the early 1800s, the gringos began to move in, pouring west along the ancient trading route known today as the Santa Fe Trail. And the gringos kept on coming and coming. For a decade or so, Santa Fe even found itself absorbed into the short-lived Republic of Texas, which could explain why the place is so full of Texans today; they still think of it as theirs.

All oases, no matter where they may be, usually have more in common with other oases than the surrounding dominant culture, and thus it is that Santa Fe seems a world unto itself, not really part of America, or perhaps more accurately what is quintessentially America, or what a better America might be, that is a melding of Native American, Spanish, Mexican and European cultures, cuisines, arts and architecture, and with an exuberant, cross-roads tolerance for otherness—for writers and artists and aging out-of-work actors and the idle rich and kooks and retired hedge-fund managers now sporting gray ponytails, and, yes, even for Texans. I mean, what’s not to like?

If You Go …

Getting there: Southwest has nonstops to and from Albuquerque every couple hours. Once you’ve landed, you can rent a car and drive (about an hour) to Santa Fe. There are also shuttle buses ($47 roundtrip). But more fun is the new train from downtown Albuquerque to downtown Santa Fe. Round-trip tickets are a great deal at $8, but you have to take a cab from the airport to the station, which takes 20 minutes and costs $15 each way.

Staying there: Generally, prices rise the closer you are to the historic plaza. If you have a Texan’s spending power, then by all means stay at the La Fonda on the plaza (LaFondaSantaFe.com). This inn (or fonda) was founded by the Spanish more than 400 years ago; it’s been in business ever since in various incarnations. The current La Fonda was built in 1922 and comes complete with authentically squeaky wooden floors. The Inn and Spa at Loretto (InnatLoretto.com) and La Posada (LaPosada.RockResorts.com) are in the same price range and just a block from the plaza. Even these expensive places run specials, so you might get in for a hundred bucks or so if you plan ahead.

Eating there: The first time I visited Santa Fe, 30 years ago, everything I ordered came with a big roasted green New Mexico chili on top. About 20 years later, all of the town’s eateries had gone fusion or something, and there wasn’t a roasted green chili to be found, not even in the Coyote Café downtown, which features “modern southwestern cuisine.” And there still isn’t. Alas. A good, reasonably priced place is the Atomic Grill (103 E. Water St.), just a couple of blocks off the plaza with its 100 beers and late hours, but no roasted green chilies. This place has sort of an old-growth hippie vibe that tends to scare the Texans. Next door is Café Pasqual, whose “organic and naturally raised foods” makes it another place Texans don’t like. Perhaps my favorite restaurant is the Rio Chama steak house on Old Santa Fe Trail. Aside from great steaks, it may be the only restaurant left in Santa Fe where you can smoke a cigar while you eat.

Doing art there: Santa Fe (population 75,000) could have more galleries (200), artists and art dealers per capita than any other place in the country. The old center of it all, Canyon Road, is still lined with galleries, an awful lot of which sport the obligatory paintings of an Indian chief in full regalia sitting on a pinto, gazing philosophically at a distant mesa backlit by a setting sun. But now a lot of the galleries featuring works by artists that are also right at home in the hipper New York galleries are clustered around the rail station downtown. Check out Evo Gallery, for instance, as well as James Kelly Contemporary Art and Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, and, nearby, SITE Santa Fe, a museum of contemporary art.

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