Santa Fe, N.M. The light is different here. It makes the colors on the mountain cliffs pop, so bright they don't look real. The light makes even a plain, tan adobe wall eye-catching, as shadows form angles and shapes in the high afternoon.
Far from dry desert landscpaes, the Land of Enchantment earns its moniker. The skies in and around Santa Fe are a shade of blue I'd never seen -- a color akin to the cornflower crayon in the big 64 box.
My mother and I spent a week here in early June. We picked the vacation spot because we wanted to see a relatively new museum here featuring the works of famed landscape and flower artist Georgia O'Keeffe. We found many other beauties in Santa Fe outside the museum walls.
The food was wonderful, the people were friendly, and the weather -- even in the heat of summer -- was a peaceful break from the humid Midwest climate.
Santa Fe is best when enjoyed on foot, at a slow pace. Give yourself days to admire the art galleries, to sample New Mexican food and to take in a few mid-afternoon siestas.
One tip, though: Don't take your time getting there. We were under the romantic notion that a peaceful train ride on Amtrak's Southwest Chief would be the perfect way to start our vacation. Not only was the train nearly two hours late out of Kansas City's Union Station (regulars said that was typical), it also was overrun with 12 Boy Scout troops on their way to Philmont Scout Camp.
Plus, the coach cars were chilly, leaving my mother and I to share a cardigan sweater (one arm each) because train attendants ran out of blankets. The train drops you at a remote station in Lamey, N.M. A shuttle takes you in to Santa Fe.
Shops and sopapillas
Once in the town proper, we made a beeline for Canyon Road, the narrow mile-long strip of art galleries and antique shops. Almost everything was out of our price range, but pottery lovers can find some steals at Canyon Road Pottery, 821 Canyon Road.
We spent the next two days museum hopping and touring the St. Francis Cathedral and the Loretta Chapel. The best deal is to buy a $10 s person, five-day pass to see the five major museums -- Palace of the Governors, Museum of Fine Arts, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Museum of International Folk Art and Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
The last two are not within walking distance of the downtown Plaza, so we took the bus (50 cents each way). The Plaza, by the way, was a bit disappointing. It's mainly touristy frou-frou.
When we needed to kick our feet up, we headed back to one of the two bed and breakfasts we called home during our stay. The innkeepers at the Alexander's Inn (888-321-5123) and Spencer House Bed & Breakfast (800-647-0530) provided valuable insights into the best places to eat.
Among our favorites: The Shed, 113 1/2 E. Palace Ave., which served a smothered enchilada dish so hot it made me cry; Tia Sophia's, 210 W. San Francisco, which had the best guacamole in town; and Tomasita's. 500 S. Guadalupe, a place that locals swear by that served a wonderful stuffed sopapilla.
While in Santa Fe, you don't have to stick to just New Mexican fare. Two of our best meals were at places with no chiles on the menu. Bistro 315, 315 Old Santa Fe Trail, served well-appointed, savory French cuisine, while El Farol, 808 Canyon Road, served tasty Spanish tapas.
But after a few days of gastronomic indulgences and strolls on the town square, you may get -- as we did -- antsy to hit the open road.
Taking the high road
Heading northwest on U.S. Highway 84 in our rented car, our first stop was Abiquiu, a small town (if you can call one restaurant, one gas station and an inn a town) that is famous only because O'Keeffe had one of her two New Mexico homes there.
Three months prior, we had made reservations with The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation (505-685-4539) for a tour -- which set us back $22 each in mandatory "donations." Tourists from Germany had no luck in begging the rather snooty foundation staff to "work them in" to the 12-person tour.
The hour-long tour, despite the price, was worth it. While in the courtyard of O'Keeffe's home, you feel like you are in one of her paintings. The tour was the highlight of our trip.
After our tour, we took the highway north to Ghost Ranch (where O'Keeffe had another home -- although no one will tell you where it is). Our destination was Taos, but we took our time to enjoy the painted cliffs and scenic vistas of the Santa Fe National Forest. A vertigo-inducing stop at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge -- 650 feet above the canyon floor -- was too much for my mother, who waited in the car on the other side.
Once in Taos, we checked in to our casita at the Adobe & Pines Inn (800-723-8267), and took other guests' advice regarding dinner -- the patio at Stakeout Grill & Bar at sunset. The restaurant, 101 Stakeout Drive, off New Mexico Highway 68, serves varied continental cuisine and provided one of the most romantic settings in which I've ever eaten a meal -- even if I was with my mother!
The next day we shucked plans to hang out in artsy Taos, and decided instead to drive the famed Enchanted Circle -- a loop of New Mexico Highway 522 that travels in and out of the Carson National Forest. The green scenery resembled Colorado more than New Mexico, although the frequent "Warning: Extreme Fire Hazard" signs reminded us that we were in the heart of the dry Southwest.
In a couple of hours, we were back where we started in Taos, and headed south back to Santa Fe along the curvy High Road to Taos. Guidebooks suggest stopping in the ridgetops villages of Chimayo and Espanola, although we kept going -- hungry for more chile sauce and sopapillas.