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Santa Fe: The City Different

Warmed by world-class art and nearly constant sunshine, Santa Fe offers a bright escape in midwinter.
  • Photo Courtesy of Ocean/Corbis

    'So beautiful, it's ridiculous'

    Georgia O'Keeffe, a child of Wisconsin's gray winters, stepped down from the train in 1929 and into a landscape drawn in several extra dimensions. New Mexico's juniper-covered hills leapt forward in air so clear and sunlight so pure that sandstone miles away felt so close she could touch its rough face. The landscape seemed to pulse with light originating from within as much as from above. "The sky is different. The stars are different. The wind is different," O'Keeffe wrote to a friend. "It's so beautiful, it's ridiculous."

    After that first glimpse, O'Keeffe set her paintbrush to capturing the land around Santa Fe, making it her signature subject and launching an arts community that has grown to more than 200 galleries and a dozen museums. There's rarely a bad day for painting--or anything else, really--in Santa Fe, which sees 300-plus sunny days a year and enjoys the crystalline atmosphere of a 7,000-foot elevation. And fortunately for winter-weary Midwesterners, that forecast includes winter, when high temps average only around 50 degrees, but dry air and sunshine make for relaxed strolling in a historic downtown.

    Click ahead for more information on a getaway to Santa Fe. A suggested two-day itinerary is on slides 6 and 7. Pictured: Desert landscapes rise just outside Santa Fe.

    Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau

  • Photo Courtesy of Chris Corrie

    A city of earth-color adobe

    The city rose up 400 years ago around Santa Fe Plaza, a parklike square anchored by the famed Palace of the Governors, America's oldest continually occupied building. With such age come the narrow, curving streets common in Europe. But here in the Southwest, they wind past earth-color adobe buildings, some dating nearly to the city's founding. As if deferring to the intensely blue sky and surrounding mountains, short, brown buildings fill the city (population: 70,000), where even retail chains are housed in recently manufactured "faux-dobe."

    Pictured: Santa Fe's San Miguel Mission is the oldest church in the United States (santafe.org)

  • Photo Courtesy of Chris Corrie

    The mysterious staircase

    Staring up at that sky and the rough tower of San Miguel Mission (established in 1610, it's the oldest church in America), it's easy to see why New Mexicans hold a long view of history. Walking backward along the sidewalk, a tour guide named Arlene proudly says, "There was a lot going on out here before the Pilgrims."

    A mystical note runs through the lore, too, and it doesn't just stem from the Kokopellis and other Native American spirits dancing through so much local art. Almost every visitor, for example, stops at the Loretto Chapel to marvel at the famous spiral staircase (pictured), built around 1880 by a mysterious carpenter who crafted the gravity-defying structure without supports then drifted away without leaving his name or a bill.

    Just east of the chapel (you can walk to almost every famous spot in Santa Fe) is Canyon Road, the city's Rodeo Drive of art. On this seven-block stretch of 100 high-end galleries and studios, even small works can cost more than a car. But artists and gallery owners welcome browsers, and the desert wind doesn't ask about your budget as its voice rushes with haunting tones through kinetic sculptures outside the Wiford Gallery.

  • Photo Courtesy of Douglas Merriam/ LaFonda

    Red or green? New Mexico dining

    The language of New Mexico dining can feel just as unfamiliar. The cuisine features plenty of blue-corn tortillas and spiced grilled meats similar to those of Tex-Mex. But first-time visitors can get stumped when a server asks, "Red or green?" The official State Question (made law in 1996) asks whether diners want red or green chile sauce on a dish. A word to the wise: Don't assume green is less spicy. And those feeling ambitious should say "Christmas" to order both.

    Each evening as dinners wind down, sunset makes the blue sky glow, setting adobe buildings ablaze. Suddenly it's obvious why natives created legends of cities built from glowing gold. In the unusual light of this place, almost everything looks like a masterpiece.

  • Photo Courtesy of Ocean/Corbis

    Mellow out on turquoise

    The Doors pop up with uncanny frequency on car stereos along the Turquoise Trail. But as you drive the 62 miles of this National Scenic Byway connecting Santa Fe and Albuquerque, Jim Morrison just seems to fit. State-14 winds between the Sandia and Ortiz mountains to Cerrillos, where visitors hike a beautiful state park and walk dirt streets barely changed from when Young Guns was filmed here.

    But the route's cosmic soul is Madrid (pronounced "MAD-rid"), a town of about 300--mainly hippies who moved into coal miners' shacks in the '70s after the coal gave out. Today, scores of artists sell painted tiles, sculptures, jewelry and smudge bundles (dried ceremonial sage). For travelers squeezed between Santa Fe's blue-chip galleries and the kitsch of tourist shops, the relaxed art scene waiting in Madrid fills an affordable sweet spot in the middle.

    Shopkeepers (inevitably sporting long gray hair) create many of the items on display. And nobody's too rushed to share stories about their artistic vision, life in Madrid and the little native lady who carries in turquoise from the mountain out back (505/281-5233; turquoisetrail.org).

    Turquoise Trail

  • Photo Courtesy of Robert Reck/LaFonda

    Two-day itinerary: Day 1

    Get oriented to the plaza's layout and history with Historic Walks of Santa Fe, leaving from downtown hotels. Guides showcase favorite shops and highlights, such as the Palace of the Governors and the Loretto Chapel's legendary staircase (505/986-8388; historicwalksofsantafe.com). Finish your primer at the New Mexico History Museum, where state-of-the-art exhibits recall a story stretching from conquistadores to the first nuclear bomb at nearby Los Alamos (505/476-5200; nmhistorymuseum.org).

    Break for lunch--and pastries--at Clafoutis, an authentic French cafe run by natives of Dijon (505/988-1809). It's a short walk to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, which helps you see your visit through the eyes of New Mexico's most famous artist (505/946-1000; okeeffemuseum.org). An afternoon only lets you skim Santa Fe's art scene, but for a review of the highest-end works, stroll along Canyon Road, a rich lineup of galleries. No one minds if you browse (canyonroadarts.com).

    Stay at the definitive plaza hotel: the La Fonda, built in 1922. It includes shops, a courtyard restaurant, live music at the bar, and rooms with balconies and wood-burning fireplaces. From $245 (800/523-5002; lafondasantafe.com).

    For the meat, tortillas and chile sauce of quintessential New Mexico cuisine, dine at The Shed in a courtyard near the plaza (505/982-9030; sfshed.com).

    Pictured: The La Fonda Hotel displays Santa Fe's famous adobe.

    Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau

  • Photo Courtesy of High Feather Ranch/Michael Melford

    Two-day itinerary: Day 2

    The go-to breakfast near the plaza is colorful, organic Cafe Pasqual's, known for drawing movie stars living nearby (505/983-9340; pasquals.com).

    Head south on State-14 toward Albuquerque to tour the Turquoise Trail (slide 5). Tiny Madrid hosts one of the area's best restaurants: The Hollar. Chef Joshua Novak specializes in Southern dishes, such as pan-seared scallops with spicy grits (505/471-4821; thehollarrestaurant.com).

    Stay at High Feather Ranch Bed and Breakfast, a beautiful, secluded hacienda 20 minutes from downtown Santa Fe. Owner Marianna Hatten not only makes a great blueberry-pancake breakfast but acts as a wonderful concierge for travelers (505/424-1333; highfeatherranch.com).

    Pictured: High Feather Ranch Bed and Breakfast

    (A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® January/February 2012.)

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