The Confluence of Santa Fe
Story and photos by Neil Wolkodoff
There may not be a better place to get your creative juices in high gear than Santa Fe. From its roots in the Indian trails that crossed in Santa Fe, then to horse and wagon travel, mutating as a railroad hub as the industrial revolution descended, the area has always been a crossroads. The intersection of ideas with culture is a strong underlying theme.
Santa Fe is constantly melding this confluence of culture, history, art, ideas, activities, and culinary diversions in just about everything. Starting with buildings, much of the original architecture, especially churches, stood from just after the city’s founding. Start your architectural history excursion with the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, built in 1860 and still functions today with services. Close is the Loretto Chapel & San Miguel Mission, constructed in 1878. Just sitting around the grounds, or better yet inside these churches, gets the creative vibe going about life in Santa Fe over the last four centuries.
Given the size of Santa Fe, there is an abundance of museums dotted here and there. Start with the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, a window into life before the Spanish. If you want to see how culture was viewed in history, then the Spanish Colonial Museum has a nifty exhibit melding trade, transportation, and culture. If there is one theme in Santa Fe, this is probably where it all started and why creativity was welcomed from day one. The Site Museum, at one edge of the Railyard district, features various exhibits that run the entire art-culture, modern-day conglomeration. You will get everything from exhibitions on refugees to the operatic heroine paintings of Mary Weatherford, most rotate in and out every three months.
Taking something home from the place of travel is a popular activity, and in Santa Fe, that starts with a stroll through the shops of the central Plaza. Just about every form of art and wearable is here. Wahoo! Santa Fe showcases new and vintage jewelry. The Tom Taylor shop provides a New Mexican selection of hand-made belts, buckles, and bags. The Original Trading Post dates back to 1603, and the selections span a variety of arts and local products.
Many food, art, and local goods pervade the famous Farmer’s Market in the Railyard district. A number of the specialty growers and artists who sell here had first careers, and what is their passion is also now their work, and it shows. While every picture tells a story, every good or food here has a fascinating tale behind it. Black Garlic, organic Lavender, and baked goods with a hint of pinon nuts are just some of the unique food items. Twice weekly, the market is in full gear, and many of the shops are open daily.
At least one trip to Canyon Road to visit the impressive art displays is required with the famous art scene. Even if you are not an art hound, you will find something that will peak your visual and mind curiosity in the 80+ galleries and studios. The Freeman Gallery presents a wide variety of painting and sculptures which cross art forms. Moving wind and kinetic sculptures are just one of the art mediums at Mark White Fine Art. The mixed media of Carole LaRoche takes many of the themes from wolves, regarded as protectors and guardians, and mystifies their existence just that much more.
Santa Fe is a place where daytime exploring is the best way of creativity exposure, yet you want your bed to be comfy and a bit unique. If you’re going to stay just a few minutes out of town, yet close to the start of the national forest with hiking and biking trails, the Four Seasons is a small, full service, get-away option. The rooms are actually in casitas, so you get a sense of your place with an enormous bathroom, storage, seating area, and southwest-themed patio. The view is either the valley to the mountains to the west, or the peaks rising up to almost 12,000 feet to the east. Combine the 65 rooms with the pool, spa, locally-sourced dining, and other amenities. This is as fast or as slow as you like it.
With the art galleries and other creative stops centered in town, a stay action-close is ideal if you want to explore both by walking and short car trips. Get a historical bent with the La Fonda on The Plaza, the only hotel that dates from the first settlement. The site goes back almost 400 years, with the hotel concept getting more formal in 1821, and another big jump to the current structure in 1922. The railroad boom and American tourism helped renown architect Mary Colter, and others put unique artistic and cultural touches on the property, many of which remain today. Then Fred Harvey, the alpha of modern hospitality and fine dining, brought the La Fonda to the next level. Each room has its own art, furniture, and decorations, all dating to Mary Colter. And besides the much better than average La Plazuela restaurant, the property has its own docents. They can explain historical and artistic details. To say the least, you could write books about this place, and they have, and those are available in their gift shop.
Placed at one end of the Railyard district, the Hotel Santa Fe is the only native-owned and run stopover in town. As soon as you land, you get an immersion in the Pueblo people’s art, architecture, music, and language. The best option here is the Hacienda Suites, limited to 35 superior rooms in their own building. Another nifty feature next to the spa is the rooftop reception every evening where you can survey the town while the sun goes down libation-style. Each suite includes a well-appointed living area with a desk, more than ample bathroom, and an outdoor seating area. All extremely comfortable with additional touches from the Pueblo nation.
The creative juices are literally just that as distilleries and breweries seem to pop up every year in Santa Fe, thanks to both the creativity and the unique botanicals. Right across the street from the Railyard, New Mexico Hard Cider will expand your tastes to a new universe. The most celebrated is the Purple Bunny: purple carrot wine mixed with apple cider, back sweetened with apple juice. A sure way to get a buzz on Bugs.
If something a little stouter than water is required, head to one of the two locations for Santa Fe Spirits, home to some unique whiskey and gin. Using locally grown botanicals and ingredients, try their Wheeler’s Gin, sure to make the gin lover like Santa Fe a little more with some local sage. For the whiskey drinker, the Atapino Liquor is whiskey with an infusion of pinon nuts and, for sweetness, a wee bit of ponderosa sap. Likely to be the most unique whiskey in any form you have had.
If trekking around is your get-away, Santa Fe boasts 33 trails within 20 minutes of downtown. The interactive map, a nifty feature for sure, will guide you to a specific route’s longitude and latitude. Another part of the map is usage notes that tell you what activities are allowed, from hiking to backpacking to horseback riding to mountain biking.
Golf in the surrounding hills is vista-rich, and Santa Fe boasts some scenic courses within a short drive of downtown. A bit west of town is Cochiti, native-owned and right on the edge of their reservoir so expect grand vistas and excellent conditions. A bit north of town, right in Espanola, is Black Mesa. Voted the number two course in New Mexico, you meander up and down the mesa, mini canyons, and small buttes. Never a dull golf moment here. A little closer in town, and with the option of pulling the slot levers after your round, is Towa Golf Club at Buffalo Thunder. This set up has three distinct nines, with the Pinon and Boulder providing the most unique experience and views.
Dining is not a pastime in Santa Fe. Instead, it is a passion. And a really serious one with over 200 restaurants in the city limits. You have every choice imaginable, but when in Santa Fe, the best two options are New Mexican food that is a little more comfort and chile in nature, and fine dining. Any restaurant that has been going for more than three years here could make a stand anywhere in the U.S. because of the business’s competitive nature further flamed by the afterburner of pervasive creativity.
Essential in Santa Fe does not mean bland, especially in the world of chilies. Going strong for over 40 years, Tomasita’s by the Railyard serves New Mexican food that is casual yet chili-laden. If you want an Old West experience, park the pony at the Cowgirl Cafe. All the way from breakfast to dinner, you get New Mexican cooking with a twist of the old west, like the Bunkhouse Brisket. And when you do get to the chili overload point, then Clafoutis is a French bakery with extensive breakfast and lunch items to give you a tasty excursion, as the coconut French toast with berries.
In the desert direction, Kakawa Chocolate House is an edible history lesson into chocolate in the Americas. Sampling traditional Mexican and then European chocolate drinks really give the taste buds some appreciation for the differences. Mexican applications tend to be more robust, with less sugar. In comparison, the European versions tend to tone down the chocolate and add just a bit more sugar. The confections run a unique selection with the goat cheese and sage truffle the most surprising.
Because people dress casually in Santa Fe, fine dining is not the correct term for those restaurants, rather extremely refined foods. No shortage here as you munch your way through culinary excursions and taste explosions. Unique in its marriage of food and art, Restaurant Martin sets the standard with Progressive American Cuisine. If Picasso were reincarnated as a chef, it would be Chef Martin Rios. Merely an artist whose medium is food. You just stare at each dish, wondering if you should even touch it, yet then the first bite starts the gravy train. The beet salad is a salad, but it looks 24KT.
Pushing the northern Italian boundaries is Sassella, just a short stroll from the Plaza. Here classic dishes get a dose of Santa Fe spirit and taste. Better rattlesnake sausage on the plate than nipping at your heels. Steaks and primi are excellent here, and so is the matched wine list and dotting service. While the food is authentic northern Italian, there are enough local ingredients to give it an enjoyable twist.
The cuisine is in warp-drive at Sazon, the embodiment of Chef Fernando from Mexico City. As there has been pushing of the envelope in fine Mexican cuisine, Sazon may be king of the taste mountain with the incredible depth of flavor and texture. The food here gets you guessing and then pleasantly surprised by the layers of flavor, temperature, and texture. Any chef that can make over 30 kinds of mole’ flawlessly has got more tasty tips up his spoon. Like the Soupa de Amore, layers of amaretto foam with a lump of blue crab in the middle with a cold avocado broth on the bottom. Sazon is a nice roller coaster of Mexican food excellence and creativity.
The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi
Loretto Chapel & San Miguel Mission
Sleep In Style & Comfort
Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado
Kakawa Chocolate House
Santa Fe Links
Spirits of Santa Fe
Neil Wolkodoff, PhD, is a Sports Scientist in Denver, Colorado who has worked with golfers over the last 15 years. During the rare free times, he travels to exotic golf destinations to see how golf, culture and local geography mix in different locales. He has penned articles for Colorado Avid Golfer, Golf Digest, and Golf Magazine. In his travels, he has golfed with royalty, tour professionals, the local duffer, and the occasional goat.
I lived in Santa Fe with husband and small children some thirty years ago. Santa Fe was the town from which to explore the surroundings – especially Taos, the small town in which artists flourished.