The Santa Fe Trail

April 4 2006, 3:30 PM
You gotta love a good road trip. Especially when the destination is a fun town and a cheap, relaxing getaway. I took a jaunt down to Santa Fe last weekend for a quick trip with my better half, and we loved every bit of it. As we traveled down part of the old Santa Fe wagon trail -- now paved and known as I-25 over the final stretch around the base of the Sangre de Cristo range and into town -- we quickly realized that we waited far too long to take this easy road trip. Santa Fe was a complete and much-needed change of scenery and culture. If you're bad with directions, no worries; to get there you just head south on I-25 and stay put for six hours until you arrive in Santa Fe. It's a mostly scenic drive, save for a few flat, dry patches, and the landscape changes into rolling, rocky hillsides and sage-covered buttes the closer you get to town. Since this was meant to be a cheap getaway, we opted to drive down and stay at the Courtyard by Marriott (hubby traded out hotel points for a free stay) for a couple of nights. It's not nearly as cool as the quaint hotels and inns near the downtown plaza, but hey, free's free. After settling into our room, and taking a quick soak in the spa to help loosen up the car-kinks in our shoulders, we set out to find a good New Mexican eatery, and landed at Tomasita's, a family-friendly spot that attracts friendly, chatty locals and plenty of tourists, too. Tucked inside an old train station, the casual, bustling restaurant serves up fresh and inexpensive basics; we chowed down on spicy tortilla soup with chunks of shredded chicken and posole, and feasted on stuffed sopapillas filled with homemade beans and shredded beef, and blue corn chicken enchilades totally smothered in the house specialty -- super-fresh, super-spicy green chile. (If you don't like it hot, be sure to order your chile sauce on the side.) You'll get a side of sopapillas with your order too, and the huge flaky pockets are served with honey and butter, making dessert absolutely unecessary. The next day, we set off to explore downtown. Santa Fe isn't a very large city, with a population of around 65,000, and everything is centered around the old plaza like spokes surrounding the hub of a wheel. It's a great town for walking, so we signed up for a historic walking tour. We met our guide at La Fonda, a 1920's hotel located just off the plaza. She started at the beginning of the region's known history and talked about the native tribes of both nomadic and pueblo-dwelling peoples, and walked the plaza pointing out various landmarks built by the early Spanish settlers and sites of famous Wild West events. The history is fascinating; since Santa Fe has been the capitol city of New Mexico since 1610, it's the oldest capitol city in the United States. After the guided tour, we set off to visit a few more sites of our own choosing, visiting the gorgeous and mysterious floating staircase of the Loretta Chapel -- a local legend because it was miraculously built without the use of nails or any visible support -- and climbing a nearby ridge to take in the view of the entire valley (it was once the site of an army fort that pointed its cannons directly down upon the plaza). Wed ended the walking tour by dropping into La Posada Resort and Spa for a cocktail at the hotel lounge, a converted Victorian mansion where you can curl up in the old library, sitting room, or parlor, or head outside to sip wine while enjoying the incredibly gorgeous fountains, fireplaces, and sculptures of the private courtyard. Properly refreshed, we hit the streets again to take in the many galleries, shops, and art museums that Santa Fe has to offer. Along the old Governor's Palace you'll find hundreds of locals selling silver and turquoise jewelry, handmade pottery, and other crafts, and all around the downtown area are boutiques bursting with unique finds. I bought a chunky necklace made with Arizona turquoise, freshwater pearls, and silver beads from a native designer named Erlina Coriz from the Santa Domingo Pueblo. A little haggling goes a long ways with the local artists; I scored the necklace and matching earrings for $75, a bargain compared to a similar set in a nearby gallery that was priced at $190. The Santa Fe boot company had me drooling over a pair of turqoise-and-lavender leather cowboy boots with hand tooled butterflies and flowering vines, but the $595 price tag was more than we spent for the entire weekend. A few trinkets later, we stumbled upon Cafe Paris, an authentic French bistro hidden on a street called Burro Alley, where the bakery display was so tempting that we opted to stay for dinner because we knew that dessert would be amazing. Our goat cheese salad was fresh and generous, and my roast duck was divine, and our waiter was appropriately polite-yet-aloof as he spoke to us in his thick French accent. But the desserts are what really shine at Cafe Paris -- and the well-priced French wine list -- and my glazed almond tart with fresh blueberries, strawberries, and kiwis was the perfect way to end a lovely day. Sadly, the next morning came too quickly, and come Monday we were back in the car, driving home. We briefly considered taking the scenic route and hitting the Santa Fe Vineyards winery on the way back, and stopping in Taos for brunch. Then we decided to skip them both and head straight home. We'll save those stops for a different road trip.