All the Way with Santa Fe New Mexico

Judith Schrut visits Santa Fe, New Mexico and discovers why it proudly calls itself ‘The City Different’

Americas, City Breaks, Culture & History, Gastronomy, Outdoors, Sustainable / Eco

Santa Fe takes great pride in its nickname, the City Different.  It has a lofty reputation for history, gastronomy, nature, culture — my personal Fab Four of travel. It’s capital of the western state of New Mexico and one of America’s oldest cities, yet as a travel destination it’s not well known outside the US. 

Nonetheless, Santa Fe has topped my travel bucket list for ages, so high time to find out for myself why this cheeky little city is so different, so special, and so well worth a visit.

It’s early March when I land at Albuquerque Sunport, fetch my rental Mini and zoom off for the 54 mile drive and 7,000 feet uphill climb to Santa Fe.  Although bitterly cold outside and the surrounding Sangre de Cristo mountains are covered in snow, the skies are a dazzling blue, the air fresh and crystalline, the vistas magnificent. As soon as I enter Santa Fe the ‘Different’ is immediately clear, and whatever the season there are reasons aplenty to spend time here.

Santa Fe Style
Santa Fe Style

The City Different – A Very Special Look

The most obvious difference is Santa Fe’s unique look. Home to Pueblo Indians for hundreds of years, then capital of Spain’s New Mexico Territory until the United States took over after victory in the Mexican-American War of 1846, Santa Fe has long been a major crossroads for Native Americans, Spanish culture and the Great American West.

Strict legal codes in force since the 1920s have ensured historic buildings are preserved and new ones built using traditional techniques and styles. That means everywhere, as far as the eye can see, are adobe-style buildings with earthy colours, flat roofs and vigas (round wooden beams), neatly linking past with present. This gives the town a distinctive look known as Pueblo Revival or Santa Fe Style.

Unique Places to Stay in Santa Fe

If you like sleeping with history, Santa Fe has plenty of legendary lodgings. I’m staying in the city’s oldest, Hotel La Fonda on the Plaza.

There’s been overnight lodging here since at least 1610, when it was known as ‘the inn at the end of the trail’. Since then it’s welcomed fur trappers, frontiersmen, gangsters and US Presidents alike. In various eras it’s also been a meat market, eating house and horse outfitter. By the early 20th century the inn had become so decrepit it had to be demolished by a World War I tank, its pieces auctioned off to raise Victory Bonds.

La Fonda on the Plaza, Downtown Santa Fe, 1920s
La Fonda on the Plaza, Downtown Santa Fe, 1920s

In the 1920s the site was re-invented as a huge, swish hotel in Santa Fe’s hallmark Pueblo Revival style, its vast corridors lined with luxurious leather sofas and carved chairs, handwoven rugs and a notable collection of Southwestern art. The current hotel, a member of Historic Hotels of America, straddles an entire block between Old Santa Fe Plaza and the fabled Loretto Chapel.

After a comfortable night in a ‘Traditional Room’, I’m ready to savour the celebrated hotel to the full. I browse its several foyer shops and mini art galleries, breakfast on scrumptious piñon-corn pancakes in the splendid La Plazuela restaurant, sample margaritas and mountain air on the rooftop terrace and sing along to country-western tunes in La Fiesta bar, renowned as the wartime watering hole of Robert Oppenheimer and his mates when off duty from building The Bomb in nearby Los Alamos.

Bikes, Art & the Snow
Bikes, Art & History…in the Snow
Outdoor Everything

Thanks to its history and geography, Santa Fe is no place for tour buses or cruise ships. But it’s the perfect place for those who love nature and the outdoors. Skiing, hiking, birding, water sports or long soaks in natural hot springs are all within reach, while in town you can walk just about anywhere and, unlike most US cities, cycling is both safe and popular. One of the best ways to  get up close and personal with the City Different is to join one of the excellent walking or cycling tours on tap. So,  I’m delighted to meet up with New Mexico native Josh who, along with his wife Heather, runs award-winning Routes “We are Explorers not Tourists” Rentals Cycling Tours in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and beyond. I’m on the Art & History Bike Tour, but Routes’ inventive menu includes Flavours of Santa Fe, Bike ‘n Taco, ABQ Biking Bad and Balloon Fiesta Bike Tours.

As we set off it begins to snow, but this does not deter Josh from leading me on an invigorating two-hour jaunt covering 400 years of Santa Fe history and all the top spots in town — enhanced by plenty of tips on where to eat, play, drink and play. Thanks Josh!

Two hours of snow-fuelled biking leaves me with an overwhelming desire for a hot lunch, so after the tour I follow one of Josh’s tips and head for the Plaza Café. It’s Santa Fe’s oldest restaurant, a family-run business which since 1905 has been serving up well-priced, generous servings of authentic local fare like crispy fish tacos, quesadillas, posole stew and chilli-laced, upside-down Frito Pie. My blue corn enchilada platter is astonishing, loaded with fillings, sauces and sides fit for a crowd. Here I’m also introduced to the wonderful world of sopaipillas, calabacitas and prickly pear lemonade.

Blue Corn Enchilada at the, Plaza Cafe
Blue Corn Enchilada at the, Plaza Cafe

A Destination for Foodies

Indeed, if you’re seeking an epicurean adventure, you’re in luck; Santa Fe is a renowned destination of deliciousness.  Even better if you’re a fan of chilli peppers — or chile, as Santa Feans say.  Fat, red chile garlands — ristras — are festooned from doorways, symbols of welcome and good luck, and, wherever you eat, be prepared to answer the official state question:  red, green or Christmas? (Answer ‘Christmas’ to be served the best of both).

The following day it’s still frosty although, thankfully, the snow has stopped. I’m heading into the hills where I’ve been invited to Bishops Lodge, an historic, upscale resort in the forested mountains overlooking Santa Fe.

I’m greeted by the charming Hannah who gives me a grand tour by golf cart around some of the resort’s 317 secluded acres and fills me in on the history of the place. Built in voluptuous Pueblo Revival style, it was once home to Santa Fe’s legendary first archbishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, as well as the Pulitzer family. More recent is its reputation for sustainable and eco-friendly practices, including water reclamation, recycling, support for local businesses and use of green products and materials wherever possible.

We stop by the lavish Kiva Suites, each with its own adobe fireplace, outdoor plunge pool and panoramic views. For guests who can be coaxed from the comfort of their rooms, the resort offers horseback riding, forage hikes, flyfishing, artful yoga, chocolate making, music nights and more. Its Stream Dance Spa offers holistic treatments based on ancient Native American rituals.

Kiva Suite, Bishops Lodge
Kiva Suite, Bishops Lodge

Enticing stuff. But like many Santa Fe visitors, I’m led by my stomach and must confess it’s that evening’s dinner at Bishops Lodge’s SkyFire Restaurant, with its winsome combination of warm ambience, distinctive décor and sensational menu of fresh and local flavours celebrating Southwestern food in original ways, that leaves the deepest impression. It is a highlight of my Santa Fe stay.

Wine Director Missy, our server Melissa and the talented Daniel, an esteemed member of the Executive Chef’s team, guide us through the adventurous menus and generously share their time. Daniel grew up in Mexico, learning culinary skills as a small boy at the feet of his beloved grandparents. As a result of his passion and craft, we feast on a spread which can only be described as art on a plate. Memorable starters include Hamachi Aquachile Negro— thinly-sliced yellowtail and avocado on a bed of housemade tortillas, baked in ash and tingling with lime juice and herbs; and an other-worldly Heirloom Tomato Salad — the freshest, sweetest Heirlooms gently smoked with applewood chips and layered with red pepper puree, feta cheese and parsley-chive oil. Mains were equally extraordinary — Wagyu steak with yuca chips, sweet potato and beet puree; pork ribs bathed in a knockout coffee and chile glaze surrounded by butternut squash and crispy onions. All accompanied by the seductive Red Cuvée from nearby Milagro Vineyards.

Dinner at SkyFire Restaurant Santa Fe
Dinner at SkyFire Restaurant

Santa Fe Farmers Market

Next day is Saturday and I’m up early for one of Santa Fe’s most popular, delicious and green traditions, the wondrous Farmers Market. Santa Feans were amongst the earliest pioneers in America’s farm-to-table movement, keen to promote ethically sourced food straight from local farmers when it was unusual to do so.

The Market takes place in the giant, custom-built Market Pavilion. Here you can eat your way around the Southwest, sampling freshly picked fruit and vegetables, herbs, flowers, honey, meats, cheeses and all things chile from over 150 farmers and producers. The lush smells of fresh coffee, handbaked bread, pies and pastries hang thick in the air.

Once I’ve tried plenty of samples and filled my recyclable shopping bag to bursting, I step outside for some fresh air and a stroll round Railyard Park, site of Santa Fe’s historic railroad depot, now a revitalised and vibrant art and retail district and launch point for the thrilling Sky Railway. It’s also an ideal place to start your journey on the famous Margarita Trail, with the chance to taste, if you dare,  50+ of the best Margaritas in the world.

Santa Fe Farmers Market
Santa Fe Farmers Market

Playing the Culture Card

In the early 20th century, Santa Fe and its surrounds began to attract writers and artists, like Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams and D.H. Lawrence.  They came for many reasons and stayed for the long haul, drawn by the remarkable light, wide open spaces, azure skies and stunning natural setting at the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  Santa Fe has been a centre of culture, and one of America’s greatest art cities, ever since. Lawrence’s ashes are buried at his former home in the nearby mountains and O’Keeffe lived in the village of Abiquiú for most of her adult life.

In summer, visitors flock to Santa Fe Art Week, the Burning of the Zozobra and Santa Fe Opera Festival, staged in a thrilling mountainside arena just north of town, while autumn brings the International Film Festival, Wine and Chile Fiesta and incomparable Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown. Year-round cultural treats include the Sunday Artisan Market, music and performance at the gorgeous old Lensic Centre and Meow Wolf’s gloriously mindbending House of Eternal Return.

Artist Georgia O'Keeffe at Home in Abiquiú
Artist Georgia O’Keeffe at Home in Abiquiú

With so many ways to soak up Santa Fe art and culture, I’m keen to experience as much as possible by the final day of my visit. With 20 museums on tap it’s impossible to visit them all but, dear reader, I did try,  starting with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. (And if you’re a G.O. afficionado, you’ll want to check out the limited private tours of her home, studio and garden in Abiquiú).

A quick lunch, then we’re off to explore Santa Fe’s renowned Canyon Road. This walk-friendly mile needs at least half a day to appreciate its 100+ art-filled galleries, studios, boutiques and sculpture gardens. I’m especially drawn by the wind sculptures and rock fountains at outdoor Wiford Gallery and the bronze-cast origami art of Kevin Box at Kay Contemporary.  Slow Art at its very best.

Kakawa Chocolate House

Chile & Chocolate

After all that art, walking and invigorating high desert air,  there’s only one more place we absolutely need to be. That’s nearby Kakawa Chocolate House. Like many businesses I’d come across in Santa Fe, Kakawa is serious about its green credentials, particularly its partnerships with local organic farmers and traders. Serious too about handmade, small batch chocolates, cakes and hot chocolate drinks, including the signature Chile Chocolate Elixir—  a mugful of hot, thick and spicy melted chocolate.  Ours went down a treat.

Judith was a guest of Bishops Lodge SkyFire Restaurant, La Fonda on the Plaza and Routes Rentals, with special thanks to Josh, Heather and Adrienne

For more information on Santa Fe, click here

Images: Santa Fe aerial view & Santa Fe Style, courtesy Tourism Santa Fe; Santa Fe 1920s, courtesy Hotel La Fonda; Kiva Suite, Bishops Lodge, courtesy Auberge Resorts Collection. All other images, Judith Schrut.

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Judith Schrut 2023

Judith Schrut

Judith is a writer and journalist who writes about people, places, food and the arts. At various periods she's been an editor, BBC news typist, waitress, library shelf stacker, puppeteer, folk dance teacher, museum guide, au pair, lawyer and Mum. She's more likely to get her kicks cooking up soups and savouries, learning Italian, listening to jazz, walking, e-biking, travelling and writing about it. Born and raised in California, Judith lives in London.

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