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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Santa Fe and La Fonda

As someone who enjoys traveling, I have been remiss in exploring the southwest. In choosing a destination there, it was word-of-mouth praise that encouraged me to visit a small city that is renowned for its art market, its golden sunsets, and its history. Founded by Spanish settlers in 1609, the city was named La Villa Real de la Santa Fe - the City of Holy Faith, or Santa Fe.
Santa Fe is the oldest state capital in the nation. Unless you're driving cross-country, or choose fly into another airport hub, you'll most likely find your way there from Los Angeles by flying into Albuquerque and driving about an hour north. It's a quick drive. Interstate speed limits are 75 mph. The desert landscapes are stark, interspersed with roadside poverty, with the most prominent landmarks at each major off-ramp being successively more enticing Indian casinos. There are even native billboards that malign the state. One read - "New Mexico - first in poverty, first in nuclear weapons."
But once I arrived in Santa Fe, my impression of New Mexico significantly improved. There is a small town charm to Santa Fe and yet it is an art mecca, the third largest art market in the world, trailing only New York and Los Angeles. It has 250 art galleries, 70 jewelry stores, 13 museums, several theatres, and a world famous opera. And for a city its size, it is rife with an eclectic mix of wonderful restaurants, more than 200. It would be hard to have a bad meal in Santa Fe with everything from Italian to Thai to even Egyptian food to choose from.
I stayed at Santa Fe's best-known landmark hotel, La Fonda (800-523-5002), located right on the city's scenic and historic downtown Plaza and just a few blocks from art gallery row on Canyon Road. Be prepared to take it easy on your first day here and drink a lot of water. The climate is most often hot and dry and Santa Fe is 7,000 feet above sea level. It takes a day or two to acclimate to the high altitude.
While there has been some inn or "fonda" on La Fonda's site since 1610, it did not assume its current incarnation until 1922 when the pueblo-style hotel was rebuilt by Santa Fe investors who wanted a first class hotel for their city. The venture failed but the hotel was soon purchased by Fred Harvey and became one of his famous "Harvey Houses," a chain of hotels and restaurants whose goal was to entice easterners to visit the "Old West."
La Fonda has 167 rooms with rates from $209 per night. The rooms are spacious, decorated with local scenes - Indians and adobe villages, desert flora and fauna. There are hand painted wooden headboards and furniture, wrought iron lamps, and Spanish tiled floors. Call it pueblo chic. The hotel also has a more luxurious area, a hotel within a hotel, called La Terraza with 14 rooms and suites built around a landscaped rooftop garden with views of the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the St. Francis Cathedral, and historic downtown. Rates for La Terraza range from $379 per night.
Santa Fe is a walking city, easy to explore. Trekking about its central Plaza, take in the Palace of the Governors, the oldest public building in the United States, having served as the seat of government for Spanish rulers, Indians, Mexicans, and finally Americans. Within it you'll learn the history of New Mexico and Santa Fe. There's even a fascinating exhibit detailing Jewish pioneers of New Mexico. Would you believe a Jewish settler married an Indian girl and eventually became an Indian chief? Leaving the museum, you'll pass Native Americans selling their crafts beneath the portals of the old Palace. Other museums just a short walk from the Plaza include the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Indian Arts, and the newer Georgia O'Keefe Museum.
You can spend days here exploring art galleries and a long walk down Canyon Road, through the dozens of galleries that line it, has to be a part of any visit to Santa Fe. Here you can, not only view and perhaps buy wonderful art, you can meet the artists as well. In a city of barely 70,000, it has been estimated that there are nearly 5,000 artists.
There is not a lot to do in the evenings. Most stores close by 6 p.m. But there are many wonderful restaurants - with superb food and ambience to while away the evening hours. I enjoyed La Casa Sena Restaurant (505-988-9232). It sits in the Sena compound, an adobe home built in 1867 by Civil War hero Jose Sena for his wife and 23 children. The restaurant is set in one corner of the old home before a beautiful garden courtyard. The cuisine is a blend of New Mexican and continental. They did wonderful things with lamb. Adjacent to the main dining room is La Cantina, their less formal bar and restaurant, where waiters sing Broadway show tunes. My evening there was delicious and entertaining.
Before departing Santa Fe, we made a day trip to nearby Bandolier National Monument. The park has a visitor center where you can watch a movie describing the history of the site before setting out on a leisurely hike up to the 1000 year old ruins of Anasazi Indian cliff dwellers. To get to Bandolier you have to pass by the city of Los Alamos which is still home today of the nation's premier nuclear research facilities. Being somewhat of a history buff, a visit here to the Bradbury Science Museum was a major highlight. The museum does a magnificent job of describing what took place in the nation and particularly in this high desert community with the development of the atomic bomb in the 1940's. On display are the letters of Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, General Graves and others involved in the Manhattan Project and the development of the A-bomb. There are also full-scale replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On the way back to Santa Fe, stop at Shidoni. It's but an asterisk on the map but it's the site of a sculpture foundry and a glassworks where you can meander through a modern sculpture garden worthy of any museum.
If anyplace earns New Mexico its sobriquet, "Land of Enchantment," Santa Fe is it.