By Peter Rigby & Jacqueline Lang
With Durango in the rear-view mirror, we swing our car east for Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Not wanting to reach America’s fabled oldest capital city too late in the day, we put the proverbial hammer down.
After passing through Pagosa Springs, we head south, hugging the Continental Divide into more wooded snowy high country, then descend into northern New Mexico.
The desolate, weathered terrain here is mesmerizing in the afternoon light. Small wonder umpteen artists have flocked here over decades to paint the landscapes and wide-open skies. The light seems more vivid and intense, the striated earth more vibrant, reminding us of the Australian north-west.
Hurtling happily along, we suddenly notice another kind of hypnotic light in our mirrors – the flashing blue and red strobe of a police car – that universally dismal sight.
I hadn’t noticed the change in speed limits crossing between Colorado and New Mexico and, entranced by the landscape and illusory freedom of the open road, had taken my eyes off the speedo.
Perhaps no US road trip is complete without a state trooper emerging in a wheel-spinning cloud of dust from behind a bush, butte or barn, siren blaring.
A stab at charm proves pointless with our taciturn, by-the-book, Spanish-American gendarme, who’s soon handing over a ticket. Chastened but mollified that the citation is way less than the West Australian equivalent, we press on.
At dusk we glimpse the flat-top Pedernal Mountain silhouetted against lilac sky to the east. This striking New Mexico landmark was often painted by US artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who had a home in the area.
As darkness falls over what was once Apache country, we spot a turn-off leading out to Los Alamos. Manhattan Project enthusiasts will know this is where Robert Oppenheimer and his team secretly built and tested the first atomic bomb in 1945. The lab is still a research and development facility. Happily we don’t spot any blue-mauve flashes on the horizon.
We zoom through the obligatory stretch of kitschy, commercial suburbia that unfortunately rings most US cities nowadays…and over-shoot our turn-off. Do you know the way to Santa Fe? Seems we didn’t, being weary from a day skiing and hours on the macadam. Somewhere just north of Terra Del Fuego we make a U-turn, back-track, and finally reach delightful, downtown Santa Fe.
We roll into the drive at La Posada de Santa Fe Resort and Spa, our home for the next two nights, a welcome, luxury oasis after the rigors of the highway. We check into a comfortable suite, and head downstairs for a vino in the historic Staab House Bar then a meal in the adjoining Fuego Restaurant. Steak never tasted so good!
Next morning we can see just how charming La Posada is (and very central, an easy stroll to the old quarter). Every spare wall is dotted with paintings from top artists from around the US. This hotel has a long, colourful history. In 1882, a prosperous merchant, Abraham Staab, built a three-story brick mansion – in the French Second Empire-style – on the property.
Back then, it was like a piece of ornate Parisienne architecture plonked in a rough and ready wild west town, incongruous, but quite the place to be seen for the citizenry of Santa Fe.
Abraham and wife Julia, entertained society in their grand residence, decked out with exquisite European furniture and art. Legend has it that Mrs. Staab loved her home so much that she seldom left it, and is still here as a ghost. Word is she is one of the most active poltergeists in America, regularly acquainting herself with startled hotel guests.
In recent years her spritely spirit has been the subject of ghost tours, an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, and Weird Travels. I swear I sense a fleeting frosty presence when touring Mrs Staab’s boudoir (retained in pristine period condition); perhaps Mr Staab did too back in the day. Happily we weren’t alarmed by the good lady’s wispy apparition in Victorian garb or struck by hurling bedpans.
In the 1930s, the mansion’s new owners, R.H. and Eulalia Nason constructed a series of Pueblo Revival-style adobe casitas (small bungalows) around the existing Staab Mansion and carriage house. The Nasons called their new business La Posada, Spanish for “inn” or “resting place.”
In ensuing years, La Posada became a summer arts school with many long-term guests an important part of Santa Fe’s flourishing arts community.
After its adobe and southwest style facelifts, Staab House became a bar and private dining and meeting rooms. The different architectural styles, layered over the decades, afford La Posada a charming persona of its own.
More renovation in the late 1990s included additional lodging, Spa, and Conference Center, La Posada became the full-service resort that it is today. It’s the ideal base for the weary traveler who has just two days to explore the USA’s art capital.
Before breakfast, we power walk down nearby Canyon Road, home to over 100 high-end galleries attracting art lovers from around the globe.
This delightful street helps us gain a grasp of how art and design are the heart and soul of this captivating city.
Like all of Santa Fe, the building style in Canyon Road is adobe, and must stay that way. Strict building codes are in place to maintain the look of the city, perhaps America’s most recognisable metropolis.
Each edifice features the distinctive soft curves and earthen façades of the regional architecture, a unique cross of Indigenous and Spanish building techniques.
Even window frames are painted an aqua or cerulean tinge to ward off evil, along with bunches of dried red chilies draped everywhere!
It’s too bad many other towns and cities around the world don’t demonstrate such urban pride.
After hearty southwest breakfast back at La Posada, we venture out to see the town. Local tourism honcho Steve Lewis kindly drives us around, pointing out key monuments and galleries.
The city’s history spans at least 1000 years (probably a lot longer), from the original Pueblo Indian settlements (circa 1050), to Spanish colonial (1540-1821), Mexican (1821-1846), U.S. Territorial (1846-1912) and statehood (1912-present).
Soon we’re wandering through Santa Fe Farmer’s Market, meeting chatty locals and sampling tasty tucker.
Rose, a beautiful elderly Californian selling lavender sachets, smiles when we photograph her and presents us with a floral bouquet. She’s a charmer.
So is Peter, the old boy from northern New Mexico with round shades blazoned with cannabis leaves, selling spicy fruit chutneys.
The market is a potpourri of delights featuring home made hats and ponchos, exotic vegetables, crafts and chili jams hot as the sun. One family has even managed to turn dried corn-cobs into donkeys and dolls. The bright colours, patterns and linear motifs of Indian and Spanish heritage abound.
We meet many a wizened hippy, farmer, trader, artisan, musician, and snake oil merchant – all happy to chew the fat while making a sale.
We then head around the corner to visit the William Siegal Gallery, which features both contemporary and ancient art pieces. This gallery prides itself on selling works that looks modern, but can be thousands of years old, such as equine sculptures from the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). One marvelous Peruvian wall-hanging, which looked like it was woven and painted last week, was dated to 1250 AD.
We then toddle off to the centre of town, stopping in some fun and funky shops and boutiques. Before long, Jacqui is snapping up a velvet flapper-style chapeau and embroidered cardigan in a vintage store. Here we meet a group of chirpy ladies down from Colorado on a girls’ weekend, all heavily laden with boxes. Big tip: SF is great for shopping, no mater what takes your fancy.
Like most towns of Spanish origin, Santa Fe was constructed around a central plaza, and this remains the beating heart of the city. The Historic Plaza is a designated a National Historic Landmark and is home to shops, live music venues, art galleries and restaurants.
We stroll through the Palace of the Governors (built in the 17th century as Spain’s seat of government) in the Plaza, where Native American artists sell their jewellery and crafts to tourists each day.
It must be said, the Native Americans we spot look a tad miserable, hunched under blankets over their wares. Perhaps it’s just due to the wintry weather and lack of buyers on this drizzly day..
Surrounding the Plaza are the New Mexico Museum of Art, Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, the gorgeous Loretto Chapel, and the American Indian War Memorial monument. It would be easy to spend days in this thriving and culturally rich, magical square mile. If you love Native American art, August is the best time to visit Santa Fe. Each year it hosts the the Santa Fe Indian Market, the largest show and sale of Native American art in the world.
We lunch at a bustling café in the Plaza where there’s an abundance of well-priced atmospheric eateries.
Then we walk to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, devoted to the works of this renowned artist who lived in the area for much of last century.
O’Keeffe was so much more than just the painter of lush, sensual flowers.
Her depictions of the stark yet many-hued northern New Mexico landscape, bleached animal bones, abstract renderings of buildings and iconic flower series stand as some of the most evocative works of 20th century American art. The museum is a delight and a fitting memorial to this great artist.
We then move on to the nearby New Mexico History Museum. This impressive, modern facility vividly relates the known history of the region up to the present day. Artifacts and memorabilia are combined with the latest digital technology. It is a deeply human story drenched in adventure, tragedy, conquest, deception, hope and reconciliation in progress.
If you have any doubt at all (and why would you) that the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans intimidated, tortured, manipulated and bullied the native people into submission before taking their lands, then call in here.
The Museum does a fine job of explaining in an objective, candid way, how the natives were treated and the trials and tribulations of building a modern state. It was strangely emotional for us both, learning about the plight of the original tribes at the hands of conquering Europeans – perhaps a little close to the bone for two visiting white Australians.
Back at our hotel, we meet up with the La Posada Art Curator, the fascinating Sara Eyestone. She tells us how this hotel was the first in the US to regularly display works of some the country’s foremost artists, including Will Shuster, Pansy Stockton and Georgia O’Keeffe. Of course, nowadays it is quite common to see art displayed and for sale in hotels and restaurants, but La Posada did it first.
“We are still one of the only hotels in the country to have an art curator on staff,” says Sara, an established artist in her own right, who first came to New Mexico because her scientist father worked at Los Alamos with Oppenheimer.
“It’s a dream job, recapturing the ‘glory days’ of the past with memorable events and world-class art.
“All the originals in our public spaces are for sale at the artist’s studio prices.”
And anyone who buys a piece of art from the hotel gets to return at half price rates.
“So there’s plenty of incentive for buyers to come back,” she beams. “Some art lovers return three or four times a year!”
“We often have an artist at work somewhere in the hotel. That has been going on since the 1930s when artists painted throughout the gardens, tourists socialized with them, and collectors acquired spectacular art.”
Sara encourages travelling art enthusiasts to come and stay at the hotel and take one of her tours, espousing its vibrant arts history.
Our heads full of all things aesthetic, we head to the La Posada Spa, where I’m booked in for a Hot Stone full body treatment, while Jacqui is to be encased in a Chocolate-Chile Wrap.
I highly recommend the hot rocks. I emerge feeling at one with the universe, as does Jacqui, who also smells like Willy Wonka!
To cap off our wonderful day, we linger over a glass of good Oregon Pinot in the Staab House Bar before tucking into another delicious dinner next door.
Next day, we slip back into town to check out the Renaissance to Goya: prints and drawings from Spain, at the New Mexico Museum of Art.
It’s a stunning collection of works by the Spanish masters, and we were lucky to catch it, Santa Fe being the only US town the travelling show visited.
We also pop our heads in at the St. Francis Cathedral Basilica, in time to observe a few minutes of a Sunday morning service. One of the few buildings in town that’s not adobe style, this magnificent church was opened 1886 and built in the Romanesque Revival style by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. It’s on the site of an older adobe church, La Parroquia (1714).
We could have spent weeks in Santa Fe, a fantastic town which impressed us on so many levels. There’s much to see and do.
However it’s time to hit the road for Taos, a few hours to the north.
The call is loud and strong to go back and explore – sooner rather than later!
Next Edition: Toas and the High Road Through the Mountains.
We stayed at:
La Posada De Santa Fe Resort And Spa
Santa Fe Farmers Market
1607 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
217 Johnson St, Santa Fe
New Mexico Museum of Art
107 W Palace Avenue, Santa Fe
New Mexico History Museum
113 Lincoln Avenue, Santa Fe
William Siegal Gallery
540 South Guadalupe, Santa Fe
La Posada De Santa Fe Resort And Spa
And the hotel’s charming and helpful Marketing Manager, Marcia Sky.
Steve Lewis, informative raconteur, of the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau.
For more information about Santa Fe, including events, dining, shopping and accommodation, visit http://santafe.org
Photographs: Peter Rigby, Jacqueline Lang and courtesy La Posada