The High Style of Santa Fe
From adobe architecture to desert landscapes, the city is a still life of things Southwest.
What you notice first about Santa Fe, and remember later, is the smell: a clean whiff of mesquite, juniper, and piñon pine that wreaths through the dry desert air and perfumes everything. This isn't the only homegrown blend the city distills. A hypercultural hybridequal parts Wild West and New Age, Native American and Hispanic, old money and old hippieSanta Fe is used to mixing things up and still creating an oddly seamless whole. "That's because everyone here has the same state of mind," says Coyote Cafe owner Mark Miller. "We're all looking for some spiritual or artistic kind of self-development we can't find anywhere else, and a quieter way of life." The quiet, at least, seems assured, in the adobe town where jewelry designers still outnumber computer programmers, bolero ties pass for formal wear, and the sense of escape is immediately apparent. "What struck me when I first moved to Santa Fe," notes Jennifer Rios, a public relations director who migrated from the East Coast, "was the signature of true native." It isn't the cowboy boots, tie-dyed T-shirts, and black dresses that parade by jars of salsa every Saturday at the farmers' market. "No, you can tell real locals," Rios claims, "because they almost never wear a watch, and if they do they wouldn't be caught dead checking it."
Lit by an annual average of 300 days of sunshine, and situated 7,000 feet above sea level at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the city of 67,000 inhabits an airy plateau of its own. Adding to its reputation as "the City Different" is Santa Fe's curving silhouette of low-lying adobe buildings, which means the closest thing to a local skyscraper is the occasional supersize cactus.
For the best sense of Santa Fe's heart, head toward the central Plazaa leafy small town square that resembles Mayberry crossed with Mazatlán. Its anchor is the sprawling Palace of the Governors, where Native American vendors collect under the portal, spreading their silver across a sea of Pendleton blankets. The older treasures, though, lie just outside of town, at the Museum of International Folk Art, which features Chinese opera dolls and Mexican masks wearing identical pop-eyed expressions. It's the same exuberant look you'll see on faces at Ten Thousand Wavesa mountainside spa cum New Age clubhouse where you can sample salt glows and a communal hot tub filled with local channelers, aromatherapists, and psychic pet healers.
WHERE THE LOCALS EAT
In a city where even kids know their chipotle from their poblano chiles, all the seasoned palates have bred a conga line of fine chefs. Among the best of the bunch is Mexican-born Martin Rios, who dishes up a buttery sesame-crusted ahi tuna in the Old House restaurant. Just as memorable is the Coyote Cafe, the original template of Santa Fe style where the carved jackalopes peering over the bar still look fresh. So does Mark Miller's menu, which whips the city's Spanglish flavors into modern Southwestern creations like a chile verde-infused pork shank. "Call me," Miller laughs, "the Santa Fe pioneer," though the same tendency to experiment surfaces at Geronimo, in the 1756 adobe house where a stylish crowd plows through spicy Thai prawns. If the global potluck grows overwhelming, head for the die-hard taco joints that stick to a single tradition. At Maria's you know your chicken enchiladas are wrapped in fresh tortillas because they're rolled before your eyes (though you may not notice after dipping into the restaurant's menu of 100-plus margaritas).
Ranking as the third largest art market in the U.S., Santa Fe could look like an overstuffed galleria if it didn't horde so many genuine finds. Typical of the folk art haul: painted saints on tin at Pachamama; the serenely elegant Navajo blankets at the Morning Star Gallery; and belt buckles as big as satellite dishes at the Western Warehouse. If you can't decide among souvenirs, grab a bagful of creamy chocolate, silver-leafed "milagros" (religious icons) at Todos Santos Confections, a short walk from Canyon Road, where every second historic building houses either an art gallery or café.
LODGINGS OF NOTE
Like the city itself, the local inns know how to mix homespun and upscale. At La Posada that means the recently refurbished adobe offers kiva fireplaces and beamed ceilings in many guest suites, but also hair dryers and a health spa. The same attention to detail typifies the Inn of the Anasazi, just off the Plaza, where the obligatory kivas face four-poster beds and the generic chocolate on your pillow gets replaced by home-baked cookies. Even the sugar rush, though, won't keep you awake in the cozy designer rooms, unless real peace of mind means saving money. Among the less expensive options: the homey, recently expanded Alexander's Inn; the Adobe Abode, where the suites include a rodeo-ready Bronco Room.
For a quick history lesson start at the Palace of the Governors, where the museum documents New Mexico's Spanish colonial history. The most impressive exhibit, though, is the palace itself, which was built in 1610 as the original capitol of the Spanish government. Nearby, the equally stately Georgia O'Keeffe Museum could pass as the city's new wave capitol. All lit by the same desert light, the gallery's paintings of Southwestern landscapes reveal what kept O'Keeffe working outside of town, and what makes the area such an ongoing magnet for fresh pioneers. But then so does Café Pasqual's, where huevos rancheros get served under bright murals, breakfast can easily run into lunch, and crowds of Santa Fe's newest settlers keep the city's party fever running all day long.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.