By Eleanor Berman
The oldest hotel in America’s oldest capital city is fresh from a multi-million renovation. But like all the best face lifts, this one hardly shows.
La Fonda on the Plaza, the venerable landmark on Santa Fe’s historic plaza, has accomplished something rare. The 174 guest rooms have been upgraded with the latest in temperature control, insulation, lighting, wiring and bathroom plumbing. But once the gutted walls were restored, the design was deliberately kept to the look of the legendary décor that was created for the hotel by designer Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter from 1926 to 1929.
Renovation architect Barbara Felix has seen to it that reproduction hand-crafted furniture and rugs are hard to distinguish from the antiques, and original art work remains on all the walls. She found local artisans to hand-paint new headboards in classic designs. Outside, the colors of the building’s stucco exterior were so closely matched to the original that restoration is all but invisible.
My favorite space in the hotel, the airy La Plazuela restaurant, was the first phase of the renovation, completed in 2009. Carefully replicating the original 1920s style fountain and preserving the room’s wonderful hand-painted glass window panes, the renovation earned a Heritage Preservation Award from the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division.
So now you can stay at La Fonda, enjoying the spirit of old Santa Fe in modern comfort, while you discover all that is new in this ever-fascinating city.
The liveliest development is the Santa Fe Railyard. Starting back in 1880 when the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe first rolled into town, this was a busy place, but a century later, highways had killed the railroad and the area was in decay. The city took over the property and in the past five years has turned it into a community hot spot. New cafes and shops and a brewery have opened, the Farmer’s Market every Tuesday and Saturday draws big crowds and the lofty spaces in the area’s former warehouses have lured many contemporary galleries, forming a new Railyard Arts District. The Santa Fe Artists Market holds outdoor shows by local artists every Saturday.
Trains are pulling into the historic depot again, as well. The New Mexico Railrunner Express runs shuttle connections to the Albuquerque airport, giving visitors a new way to travel to Santa Fe, and the Santa Fe Southern railroad offers day excursions in 1920s vintage trains.
Back in town, Santa Fe’s newest major museum, the New Mexico History Museum, stands across the courtyard from its oldest, the 400-year-old Palace of the Governors. The lavish building tells the full story of the state’s colorful Spanish and Indian past. The second floor has a big and entertaining exhibit on cowboys that will remain through March 16, 2014.
It joins some 15 other museums, including the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, an outstanding folk art museum and several museums showcasing American Indian art old and new, an astonishing number for a city of less than 70,000 residents. Changing exhibits mean there’s always something new to see. I was taken with the recently renovated Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, the only museum dedicated solely to new Indian artists.
While Santa Fe’s fine dining is as fine as ever, the newer trend seems to be small and personal cafes emphasizing fresh local ingredients. Two good examples are Taberna La Boca, an off-shoot of a popular bigger establishment known for tapas, and Il Piatto Italian Farmhouse Kitchen. The Farmhouse Kitchen is especially recommend on Tuesday or Friday when the chef often prepares what he has garnered at the day’s Farmers Market.
If you are enamored of New Mexico cuisine, you can learn to make some of the specialties at the spacious new quarters of the Santa Fe School of Cooking. Their personable chefs offer hand-on classes where you learn all about chilies, red and green, while preparing traditional treats like tamales, rellenos, tacos and a variety of sauces. You can cool your palate afterwards at the Marble Brewery, which serves all 12 varieties of the Albuquerque-brewed beer.
At day’s end, head back to La Fonda, where the newly renovated Bell Tower Bar is the best place in town for watching a glowing southwestern sunset.
Visit La Fonda on the Plaza, 100 E. San Francisco Street, Santa Fe, NM 87501
Eleanor Berman, a New York freelance writer and award-winning author of a dozen travel guides, has covered 82 countries and all 7 continents. She has written for many national publications, including Travel & Leisure, Ladies’ Home Journal, Diversion, Robb Report, Boston Globe, Atlanta Constitution, Denver Post, Miami Herald, and the New York Daily News. Among her guide book awards are a Lowell Thomas award for Traveling Solo, Thomas Cook Book of the Year for Eyewitness Guide to New York, and Independent Publishers IPPY award, best guide of the year, for New York Neighborhoods.