Santa Fe: World Class Hotels, Spas & Skiing
By William C. Triplett
To those who ski out West, I imagine it comes as no surprise there are East Coasters who never thought for a minute Santa Fe could be a ski destination. Taos? Sure – way north, the Sangre de Christo Mountains, near the Colorado state line, world famous. But Santa Fe is about 90 minutes south, in the New Mexico desert, right? Bit warm and flat, I’d think. Or, to be more precise, someone clueless about skiing in the Southwest would think.
Santa Fe is renowned for many things, like a thriving arts and food scene, among others, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized (finally!) what so many others already know – that the oldest state capital in the United States sits at 7,200 feet elevation in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo. And within 40 minutes or so, up into the mountains, several ski resorts are roosted. Late last February, I spent a few days at one – Ski Santa Fe – and came away feeling more than a little foolish to have missed something so special for so long.
It’s not size that makes Ski Santa Fe interesting – seven lifts and 86 trails on 660 skiable acres. (Colorado’s Steamboat, in contrast, sports 18 lifts and 169 trails across 3,000 acres.) What I loved about Ski Santa Fe was its maximized use of relatively compact terrain and its nice mix of trails – 20 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate, and 40 percent expert. There’s also some beautiful glade skiing, the majority single- or double-black diamonds; moguls are fairly represented, and the views from its 12,000-foot peaks can take your breath away.
Best of all, I thought, was the prevailing vibe of the place – extremely chill – probably a result of the many locals who spend a fair amount of time on these slopes. A big backyard resort, in a way.
Of course, such high elevation can get mighty cold and breezy sometimes, as I discovered my first day when we had snow falling from heavy gray clouds and 14 degrees at the base (elevation 10,300), while the summit was reporting in at almost zero with a howling wind. Not a problem, as it turned out. I stayed with two chairs – a quad and a deuce – that took you past mid-mountain but not all the way to the top.
The Santa Fe Super Chief (the quad) drops you amid a good half-dozen trails you can enjoy. I got a kick out of taking Crossover, a green connector, to Muerte, a single diamond, which had a nice pitch that emptied into Spruce Bowl (intermediate), which in turn took you into the Adventure Land Glade until the trees ended and you found yourself shooting across a flat back to the lift. There were all sorts of similar combinations you could put together for a run, or you could just barrel down a single piste. Lots of options, especially when you added in the other slopes serviced by Sierra, the deuce chair.
The clouds lifted after lunch, the wind died down, but it didn’t get much warmer. However, I could now see the extent of the resort a lot more clearly, and while admiring the landscape my eyes took note of another skier-friendly thing about high elevation – dry powder. Not a huge amount today, maybe four or five inches, but enough to kick up and enjoy. With sunshine making visibility just about perfect, I felt more comfortable taking on some bumps, and I even punched down Slalom Slope, which is only a short stretch but a lot of fun.
On another day, this time in the 20s with no wind and just a bluebird sky overhead, the group I was with hit the two triple chairs (Tesuque Peak and Millennium) to check out the mountain tops. After taking in some of the stunning vistas, we had to make some choices. Lots of trails and glades spread out before us – and across the landscape. On this side of the resort, things are spaced out more widely than the other side, and you could again mix-and-match blues with black diamonds – with or without trees or bumps – and have a great time with very few other skiers or boarders around. This was midweek, so I’m sure Saturdays and Sundays get more of a crowd, but the lift lines I went through were minimal.
One day we skipped the usual apres scene and headed to 10,000 Waves, a Japanese-style spa (think ryokan) not far away, its network of pools and soaking tubs set amid pinons and juniper bushes. All manner of wellness is on offer, including scrubs and massages. Or you can do as we did – simply book a private, tiled pool with a fountain in the center to relax those tired quads in welcoming hot water. It really did feel like stepping into another world, featuring wooden porches, stone walkways and koi ponds lit by artful lanterns.
There’s no lodging at the resort, so for the first part of our visit we bunked at Bishop’s Lodge (an Auberge Resorts property), just northeast of downtown Santa Fe and maybe 10 or so miles from the slopes. It’s like a high-end ranch harmonized with the surrounding terrain of trees, trails, and hills, and anchored by a Pueblo lodge next to a large, heated swimming pool. Guest houses of varying sizes and degrees of luxury dot the landscape, which, in a way, is really the heart of being here. The land, the outdoors – they’re the stars. But the outstanding restaurant, SkyFire, plays an extraordinary supporting role, too, along with a very creative bar.
Of course, there’s history here, too. Bishop’s Lodge was originally the chapel and residence of Santa Fe’s first archbishop, who arrived in the 1860s. It changed ownership over the ensuing decades – for a while, counted among the properties of the Pulitzer family – eventually falling into disrepair until new owners and management stepped in some seven years ago and poured $80 million into renovations and rehab. It’s an upscale stunner now, to be sure.
For the second part of our stay, we were in La Fonda on the Plaza, another renovated old building with its own slice of history. La Fonda is a traditional hotel, the original structure dating back a couple centuries or more. It was redesigned in the early 1920s by a then-celebrated architect of the region; it got its most recent update in 2013. Wood abounds as do Native American paintings and objets d’art, giving the considerably large lobby a very warm, Southwestern atmosphere. Decades ago it was owned by the American hospitality legend Fred Harvey – yes, as in Harvey Girls – and its many guests over the years once included Simone de Beauvoir, who proclaimed La Fonda, “the most beautiful hotel in America, perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in my life.”
La Fonda’s restaurant, La Plazuela, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a Southwest flair. I especially enjoyed breakfast, with hearty and tasty huevos rancheros providing terrific fuel for a day of skiing (accessible from downtown by bus). But I loved its location, right next to the city’s central landmark, the Plaza – home of the 400-year-old Palace of the Governors and a bevy of cafés, antique shops, art galleries, restaurants, boutiques, and more. Little side streets wend off from the Plaza, taking you to more bodegas, many of them preserving the look of the Old West. Walking throughout the historic district, I discovered, was among the real pleasures of visiting Santa Fe. A friend who lives there and her mother met me on the Plaza and led me on a stroll to the top of The Cross of Martyrs hill, where I had a lovely view of the city below and the landscape beyond.
Downtown is also replete with some very interesting eateries. I don’t eat meat, which, in some places, can be a problem. I do eat seafood, however, and while extensive vegetarian dining wasn’t something I saw in Santa Fe, it seems to be gaining a foothold. At Luminaria Restaurant (part of the Inn & Spa at Loretto), I had some wonderful fish tacos along with one of the spiciest – and best – bloody marys I’ve ever tasted. At the Palace Prime Steakhouse, I was pleasantly surprised to not only find superb halibut but also oysters on the half shell (flown in from Canada) with a zinger of a vinaigrette. Cowgirl BBQ, not a name that evokes salads, featured sections on the menu for not only several vegetarian dishes but also vegan. (I went with the Bourbon salmon – delish.)
If you feel like splurging, then go as we did one night to The Compound, an award-winning restaurant southeast of town led by executive chef Weston Ludeke, who is Michelin-trained. I had the Tuscan Lettuces (sheep milk cheese, toasted almonds, grapes, and a truffle vinaigrette) followed by roasted scallops. Two of us split a bottle of sauvignon blanc from the extensive wine list (navigated for us, thankfully, by our thoroughly knowledgeable server), and after a sip or two I was regretting splitting it with anyone.
It’s almost enough to distract you from the slopes. The grub at Ski Santa Fe is pretty simple and straightforward. But it doesn’t pretend to be anything more. Doesn’t need to. You’re on this mountain to ski, and then, if you want, take in some of Santa Fe’s uniquely American culture built from proudly Native American and Mexican influences.
William C. Triplett is a playwright and the former DC bureau chief for Variety. Triplett has written about various destinations, from Scotland’s Inverness and Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon and the Beatles’ old haunts in Hamburg. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Baltimore Sun, and Capital Style.