“Ideas are commodity. Execution of them is not. ”
Northern New Mexico
Rugged and refined, historic but New Age, northern New Mexico offers a colorful landscape and a lifestyle that tempts vacationers with a panoply of world-class golf, fashionable ski resorts, operas, fine-art galleries and handcrafted goods. The Land of Enchantment, nestled around the southern end of the Rockies, is as much a state of mind as a geographical region.
In Santa Fe, America's oldest state capital, you'll sense a palpable metaphysical energy. In the city's Plaza, you're as likely to meet a raw-food devotee working as a yoga instructor as a Native American artisan. Stop by the farmer's market, where famous chefs mingle with bankers, architects and truck drivers. The City Different, as the nickname suggests, is a crossroads of culture, melding the ancient and the avant-garde with natural wonders, sunlight and silence. If you're a first-time visitor, plan on spending a minimum of three nights in the chic city to take it all in.
The Plaza dominates the main thoroughfare as it has since 1610, when the Palace of the Governors was built. Today the humble palace bustles with artisans who barter their work under the portal. The town-center location adjoins the freshly renovated New Mexico History Museum. The Museum of Art, Institute of American Indian Arts and O'Keefe Museum are within walking distance.
To sample the city's gastronomic treasures, take a walking tour offered by the Santa Fe School of Cooking. You'll meet top chefs in their kitchens for a tasting of house specialties and regional wines. The afternoon culinary extravaganza entices the taste buds and satiates the stomach, so plan on skipping dinner.
Artist Georgia O'Keefe said that New Mexico "is not a country of light on things. It is a country of things in light." Indeed the quality of light illuminating the hills here dazzles and invites artistic creation. Hundreds of galleries-specializing in paintings, prints, folk art, photographs, sculpture, carvings, textiles and leather-crafts-line the famed Canyon Road, and visitors face the daunting task of deciding where to roam. Santa Fe, the third-largest U.S. art market (behind New York and L.A.), promotes a myriad of workshops and classes that attract participants from around the globe.
O'Keefe chose to live at nearby Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu during the second half of her long life. Ranch tours can deliver you to the same sun-drenched vistas that she transmuted onto canvas. Tour guides hold up poster-sized prints of the artist's work, so you can compare the inspirational landscape with her legendary interpretations. You'll find the majority of her priceless works at the O'Keefe Museum in downtown Santa Fe, where limited-engagement shows permit more of her vast collection to be displayed.
Just an hour's drive from Santa Fe rests Bandelier National Monument. The cliff and canyons of the Pajarito Plateau were home to the Pueblo people from the 12th to 16th centuries. You needn't be a serious hiker to climb into the volcanic-rock caves carved by the original dwellers. Alcove House, perched 170 feet above the canyon floor, is reached by a series of steep, primitive wooden ladders. Climbers are rewarded with a visit to a reconstructed kiva (underground ceremonial dwelling) and a view that stretches far over the jagged valley. Stop and listen-you might just hear the beat of a drum and envision ancients performing rituals to their gods.
Los Alamos, a favorite stop for history and science buffs, boasts the highest number of Ph.D.s per capita in the U.S. The Atomic City earned its name as the top-secret site where World War II Manhattan Project scientists created the first atomic bomb. Today, Los Alamos National Laboratories is a cutting-edge research center that helps to oversee national security and safeguard nuclear weapons.
Move north to the Old West town of Chama and hop aboard the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. The Denver to Rio Grande line opened in 1880 and functioned as a lifeline to gold and silver mines. Today, a hand-shoveled-coal-powered train chugs along the restored system-a history museum on wheels. The 1925 engines huff and puff through a day-long, 64-mile journey, passing from 8,000 to more than 10,000 feet of elevation at a 4-percent grade, through tunnels and across trestle bridges and dramatic gorges. Passengers relax in reproduction rolling cars or stand in the open air to snap photos and enjoy views of pinion-, aspen- and juniper-lined valleys, craggy mountain peaks and dust-covered tumbleweed.
The town of Angel Fire, 23 miles east of Taos in the majestic Moreno Valley, derives its name from Indian legend. The Ute tribe observed flickering red and orange lights above the Aqua Fria mountains and believed the gods were blessing their annual celebration. Later, Franciscan friars arrived and transposed the name to "the place of the fire of the angels." By 1845, Kit Carson had coined the phrase "Angel Fire" and the name stuck.
The Enchanted Circle Byway leading to Angel Fire, Eagle's Nest, Red River (a former gold-mining town) and Taos loops through 82 miles of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, valley, mesa and national park. Wheeler Peak, the state's highest point at 13,161 feet, offers expert-terrain downhill skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling and snowshoeing. In summer, there's hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, ATV trail excursions and whitewater rafting. You can also try panning for gold in the mountain streams.
Golf in the Southwest capitalizes on the diversity of arid mountain geology. Course designers shape every hole into the red earth like a potter working a delicate pattern into a piece of clay. Black Mesa, which has been ranked among America's top 50 courses, is said to play like wild Scottish links when the native grasses blow in the breeze. The signature hole at the high-elevation Angel Fire Resort Golf & Country Club floats a tee box a spectacular 200 feet above the green. Towa Golf Resort at Buffalo Thunder (36 holes), in the Pojoaque Valley, features an immense 8,200-square-foot island green-the only island green in New Mexico.
Spa anyone? Healing-arts practitioners blossom in the healthy climate and clean air, where organic and green living are the norm. Massage, yoga and mineral soaks enhance well being. The waters at Ojo Caliente, near Taos, carry a history of miraculous cures. The Chimayo Chapel in the Rio Grande valley beckons as a healing pilgrimage church including a side-room with a pit containing "holy dirt" that visitors may take away.
Sublime year-round fly-fishing abounds, from the mountain-high lakes and pristine streams to remote desert canyons. Autumn through spring, the rushing flows burst with trout along the Rio Grande Gorge. Hiring a guide allows you to avoid the crowds and enhances the fly-fishing experience.
A visit to the area isn't complete without at least one stop at a pueblo. Each maintains its own government and ancestral traditions and many feature casinos. Buffalo Thunder, a plush, 587-acre resort, offers a gaming hall, a celebrity-class spa, fine restaurants, native-artisan shops, golf courses and pools.
The history of this land of enchantment commingles with the modern artistic climate to create a spectacular oasis. You won't soon forget it.
Traveler Fast Facts
What it is: Northern New Mexico, one of the most noteworthy vacation destinations in the Southwest U.S., is called "The Land of Enchantment" because of its vibrant landscapes, artistic community and outdoor-adventure options.
Climate: Temperature ranges in this year-round destination depend on elevation. Spring and fall breezes are ideal. Heat in the desert regions can soar in summer yet winter in the higher elevations brings plenty of snow.
Getting there: Albuquerque is New Mexico's largest city and has its busiest airport. Consider flying into Santa Fe (SAF), which is at an elevation of 6,348 feet and has three runways, the longest of which is 8,342 feet. The FBO here is Santa Fe Air Center (800-263-7695). Angel Fire (AXX), 23 miles east of Taos and 152 miles northeast of Albuquerque, caters to corporate and private aircraft. It's the fifth-highest airport in the country (elevation 8,406 feet) and has an 8,900-foot runway. FBO services are provided by Ross Aviation (575-377-3171). Taos (TSM), elevation 7,095 feet, has one 5,803-foot runway. The FBO here is Taos Aviation Services (575-737-9790).
Traveler Report Card
Accommodations (A+): Santa Fe boasts a wide selection of upscale lodging choices. The St. Francis Hotel (hotelstfrancis.com) surrounds guests with peaceful ambiance and simple elegance and offers an award-winning chef and bar. Historic LaFonda Hotel (lafondasantafe.com), the grand dame on the Plaza, abounds with artwork and remains a gathering place for locals. Buffalo Thunder (buffalothunderresort.com), a resort north of Santa Fe, features Native American design and endless activities. Angel Fire Resort & Country Club (angelfireresort.com) welcomes guests with mountain-themed accommodations, fabulous food and golf.
Food (A+): Santa Fe dining hot spots include La Bocca, which features mouthwatering tapas in a bistro atmosphere; the Inn of the Anazasi, which is known for its innovative recipes; and Il Piatto, which serves Italian fresh farmhouse food. The hip Rio Chama Steakhouse maintains an 11,000-bottle wine cellar. Maria's New Mexican Kitchen serves up Southwestern fare-and great margaritas-in a cantina setting.
Activities (A+): Northern New Mexico is a golfer's paradise with many courses available year-round and abundant hiking and fishing. There's expert terrain winter skiing in Angel Fire and Taos. Red River promotes scenic off-peak ski season ATV and Jeep excursions. Santa Fe Opera performs to sell-out crowds during July and August. Don't miss the hot baths at Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese-like onsen, or the range of fitness classes and pampering treatments at Body of Santa Fe. Reserve early for acclaimed art, cooking and photography workshops. Ghost Ranch conducts one-hour landscape tours by reservation (call 505-685-4333). Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad tickets start at $75, including full-course luncheon.