Santa Fe: The City Different is More than Just a Pretty Place
Updated: Nov 1
Here's a link to the travel review by Judith Hennessey that was published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch Travel section on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023.
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Here are some favorite photos from Santa Fe, New Mexico along with the original article in full.
Santa Fe: The City Different is More than Just a Pretty Place
by Judith Hennessey
When a friend invited me to visit Santa Fe for the first time in 1998, I assumed it would be a lot like neighboring Arizona, a sun drenched cacti-studded desert filled with resorts. She was in fact attending a conference at a resort catering to golfers, spa seekers and corporate events. Golf wasn’t my thing but I liked spending the day getting pampered and relaxing by a pool so I accepted the invitation.
Landing at the Santa Fe regional airport is more like entering a historic hacienda: no jet bridges in sight. As we deplaned, the crisp cool air kissed my face. It was impossible not to notice the Sangre de Cristo Mountains stretching across the horizon and the crystal-clear turquoise sky. After all of 10 minutes to get our luggage, I felt the effects of the altitude (Santa Fe sits at 7,200 feet) as I dragged my bags to our rental car. Within minutes we were on our way to our downtown hotel.
I was stunned at the absence of high-rise buildings. In their place was a wide-open rugged landscape like I had never seen. Rolling clay hills were blanketed with wild green grasses, round piñon pines and junipers. Impossibly tall puffy white clouds floated above the mountains and I felt like I could see forever. The highway into town skirted the foothills. For once I was glad we had rented a compact car to navigate narrow, windy streets clearly built for foot traffic, burros and wagons. Our hotel was on the historic Santa Fe Plaza, a magical place untouched by time, with charming adobe shops filled with pottery, jewelry, rugs, and art. Native Americans sat under a long portal displaying their art on brightly colored blankets, just as they have for hundreds of years.
The sweet scent of burning piñon hung in the air. I was transported. My senses were heightened and I felt an invitation to slow down. I took a deep breath followed by a surprising sense of peace. This was NOT Arizona. I knew I wanted to spend more than a weekend soaking in this mysterious feeling.
And so I have returned, like so many writers, artists, archeologists and architects in the past. For more than two decades I return several times a year; each time I discover something new. Each time I dig deeper. The more I dig the more I understand what makes Santa Fe and New Mexico so unique.
For starters, Santa Fe is steeped in history. It is the oldest state capital in the country, dating to 1610. If you only have time for one museum, visit The New Mexico History Museum with something for everyone. It tells the story of the earliest indigenous people, the Spanish conquistadors, the cultures and conflicts from the past and the more recent history of the building of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos. It encompasses The Palace of the Governors, built by order of the Spanish crown in 1610, the oldest public building in continuous use in the United States. Not far away is The Barrio de Analco, a national historic district and location of San Miguel Chapel (circa 1610), the oldest church in the continental United States. Museum Hill has an even larger campus with four museums crisscrossing art, history, and culture.
A few short road trips will reveal more jaw-dropping scenery that graces this area. Sanctuario de Chimayo, a National Historic Landmark, is a 25-minute drive and a place of miracles, for real. It’s considered the most important Catholic pilgrimage site in the U.S. Pecos National Historical Park offers a chance to walk the walk, literally, via an interactive trail through the crossroads of cultures and amazing, preserved dwellings. If Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project is of interest, it’s a day trip (35 miles). Bandelier National Monument, near Los Alamos is definitely worth the stop with cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and evidence of human presence going back 11,000 years. You could spend weeks exploring. Local companies offer tours which help narrow down to the highlights.
Artists from all over the world have flocked to Santa Fe for the light, landscapes, skyscapes, and melding of cultures that allows freedom of expression. Many of their works are in the New Mexico Museum of Art. For an O’Keeffe fan, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is a tribute to the artist and woman who found inspiration and serenity in New Mexico. Ghost Ranch and O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu is another short winding road trip through the stunning terracotta badlands that captured her heart and art for most of her life.
No car, no problem. Galleries galore are scattered throughout the city. Head to Meow Wolf immersive exhibit or to The Railyard District or the new Vladem Contemporary for more contemporary works. The infamous Canyon Road has it all—sculpture, pottery, textiles, paintings and anything else you can think of—making gallery hopping an art in itself.
Mother Nature blesses New Mexico with living art year-round and a plethora of outdoor activities. And yes, we have four seasons. Ski Santa Fe is the place for skiing, snow-shoeing and other winter activities. April can be, let’s say windy. And muddy from the snow melt. But come May, you can fish, ride a river, saddle up a horse or a bike with one of the local outfitters. Or take a hike; there’s no shortage of hiking trails. Hyde Park Road has easy access to trailheads suitable for novice to expert, through ponderosa pines and quaking aspens and showcasing spectacular views.
After all these activities you’ll be famished. Luckily, Santa Fe is one of the best places in the country to find GREAT food. Honestly, you could just eat the whole time. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner; pick any meal and find something fabulous among a plethora of diverse cuisines. Here are a few favorites from years of indulging and overindulging.
AM eateries: Tia Maria’s and The Plaza Café for that famous red and/or green chile and Northern New Mex fare. FYI the scent of roasting chile is the state’s official aroma. Try the Five and Dime for their famous Frito Pie (another story, but give it a try).
For dinner, La Fonda and Gabriel’s get my vote for Northern New Mexican fare. Both serve awesome table-side guacamole. Mille’ for a French twist; try a Spicy mocha (with green or red chile powder sprinkled on top). Dolina’s banana cream pie is swoon worthy. Harry’s Roadhouse (seen on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives) serves a little of everything, all good. Tesuque Village Market is a throwback from the 60s and a local fave. Always jammed with a colorful crowd, the wait is worth it for the amazing wood-fired pizza.
Topping my fine dining list is the iconic Geronimo, romantic and cozy with exceptional food and service, embodying Santa Fe elegance. Sassella, steered by Chef Christian Pontiggia who brings his Northern Italian heritage and culinary talents to Santa Fe with mouth-watering pasta dishes.
One of the best parts of Santa Fe dining is the many, and I do mean many, fabulous outdoor venues. Santa Café—one of my favorites with its Old World courtyard and fountain—has me addicted to their lobster rolls. For beef, look no further than The Bullring with the best filet I’ve ever had, perfect every single time. For a more casual vibe, grab a seat in the bar.
Where to stay while you play, eat, drink? Of course, there are hundreds of hotels, motels, and Airbnb’s to suit any budget. La Posada’s great downtown location in a charming historic hotel (circa 1882) has multiple casitas spread across beautifully landscaped grounds. Other downtown choices are the Inn at Loretto and the Inn of the Anasazi. The trendy El Rey Motel, a few minutes drive down Cerrillos Road, one of the busier thoroughfares, sports a hip bar and music scene.
For a special occasion or decadent splurge, check out the newly renovated Bishop’s Lodge, Auberge Resorts Collection. This stunning property was once a private ranch owned by St Louis’s Pulitzer family. Well before that, Bishop Lamy (yes, that Bishop from the Willa Cather novel) built the chapel that stills sits on the property. This luxe resort has done an exquisite job melding the old with new added amenities. The accommodations are over the top, most with kiva fireplaces. The common areas, bar and dining rooms are decorated with an impressive collection of original indigenous art. Skyfire, the flagship restaurant, promises a quintessential Santa Fe dining experience as Chef Pablo curates a regionally inspired menu. The Sikil P’ak Tostadas are layered with guacamole and just the right amount of heat. Tortilla soup with grilled avocado, market fish with green chile Romesco, and fall-off-the-bone Elk short ribs are a few favorites. Sip a Holy Margarita on their fabulous terrace, dine by the crackling piñon fire and enjoy the famous Santa Fe sunsets. The Stream Dance Spa offers treatments rooted in ancient ritual, including vibrational sound healing, restorative massage and the ultimate in skin rejuvenation, the Bio-Radiance acupuncture facial.
For decades Santa Fe has been a destination for healing and alternative wellness modalities. One such EQUUS, founded by Kelly Wendorf, offers custom designed shamanic work and experiences “informed by nature”, some partnering humans with horses.
“Shamanic work is simply a nature-informed process that helps us connect more with ourselves and with nature,” explains Wendorf, a certified international life coach and horse trainer who has studied with indigenous teachers all over the world.
Native American shamanic healing has always fascinated me. Unfortunately the timing didn’t work out for a ceremony, but I scheduled an in-person EQUUS session with the horses. I spent 20 minutes in the arena with this amazing herd of equine guides, my teachers for this session.
Horses are highly sensitive and carry instinctual wisdom. I believe they are mirrors of the soul, as Missouri horse trainer Dennis Cappel says, “What’s on the inside of a man shows up on the outside of his horse.” In those minutes interacting with the horses, I received mind-blowing information and insight about myself.
This is not “airy fairy” stuff; the system of the horse herd is 56 million-years-old. In essence you are engaging in biomimicry (biology and sociology that looks to nature to solve problems) a neurobiology. That requires much more explanation! Thankfully, Kelly penned a remarkable book, Flying Lead Change: 56 Million Years of Wisdom for Leading and Living. She goes into depth about this fascinating process, including amazing stories, insights, journaling suggestions and exercises. Even though you’re not physically with a horse, it offers a personal experience.
I asked Kelly, who was born and raised in Santa Fe, why she thought Santa Fe was so different. She answered, “The indigenous people, the pueblo people, were not hunters and gatherers, they were farmers. They domesticated animals and plants. This allowed them to root deeply in their homes. They were not displaced like other Native American populations. Because of that, it’s my experience that their culture is more alive, vibrant, and intact than almost anywhere in America.” Wendorf pauses, takes a breath and continues, “that means something. That impacts this place. You may not experience it when you fly here, go to the plaza, and have a margarita, but it’s here. It’s impacting you in a positive way.”
It’s my turn to pause, then ask if she means that “energy” we all talk about.
“I’m talking about limbic resonance: the frequency or vibrational energy of that intact culture impacts you when you come here and helps you orientate to things that are important and everlasting and meaningful. THAT is what makes Santa Fe so special.”
And that, my friends, is what I felt back in 1998 and what keeps me returning to Santa Fe. The City Different is indeed gifted with so much beauty; it’s everywhere you turn. Come see it, taste it, and feel it for yourself.