Give Popupla contributing editor Kate Donnelly a few minutes to talk about Santa Fe, her annual summer getaway spot, and it'll turn into a whole day event. But who can blame her? Here's the long story short.
SANTA FE, New Mexico – It's no secret. I love Santa Fe.
I visit every year for a week with my family. Usually my mother and I sign up for the Southwest adventure series, last seen on Popupla. We are thick as thieves, so much so that I've taken to calling us Thelma and Louise in honor of our many road trips around this Land of Enchantment. (New Mexico's is a state motto that doesn't mess around.)
The air hasn't changed much since my last visit to Santa Fe, which I also reported for Popupla. I'm sentimental to a fault, and I tend to seek out repeat venues when I travel – a favorite restaurant, wine bar, or running trail. But the more I wander, the more I find myself looking for new experiences. Even in places I know intimately; even when "new" only means "new to me." This time around, I take Georgia O'Keeffe, iconic symbol of the area, as my inspiration.
I start by studying the New Mexico sky. (All good artists think first about light.) It is close to flawless, like a landscape painting. The sky pops and unveils itself in stunning cloud formations hovering with bright intensity. The sky in Santa Fe never has a bad day. A rainbow pokes through the horizon.
ON THE ROAD IN O'KEEFFE COUNTRY
Everybody visits the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, but the real find is Georgia O'Keeffe's Home and Studio, located 60 miles away in Abiquii. The adobe house perched atop a cliff is exactly as O'Keeffee left it when she died in 1986, and anybody interested in art, architecture, gardening, Mid-Century modern, fantastic taxidermy, Japanese aesthetic, landscape, adobe restoration, and peaceful retreats should make the journey.
Outside, her skull collections (you've seen the photos of them) dot the grounds like relics. The spare inner patio with sage plants reveals the salita door that inspired many of O'Keeffe's oil paintings, including In the Patio III (1948) and My Last Door (1952/54). Inside, her progressive 1950s pantry is filled with dried herbs, pots and pans by Corning and Le Creuset, tea kettles and her favorite teas. Her sitting room (which you can only peek inside, due to the nature of the fragile floor) has a minimalist aesthetic, with pieces like Florence Knoll's Womb Chair, Alexander Gerard pillows, and a McIntosh stereo. On a seating ledge sits Ansel Adam's ashtray. Every space in her spectacularly simple home has been considered with detail. Less is more.
Outside the kitchen door, O'Keeffe's garden is anchored with Japanese influences, like Chinese elms and a juniper tree trimmed like a bonsai. In another building, O'Keeffe's studio is lined with the various stones and rocks that she carefully collected and meticulously arranged. A large north window reveals breathtaking views of the Chama River Valley, another inspiration. She may be gone, but her essence and spirit are everywhere.
An important travel planning note: O'Keeffe house tours require advance reservations, so plan accordingly. Sadly, no cameras are allowed.
After the tour, stop for lunch at the family-owned Bode's General Store and grab a burrito or sandwich made to order. While you wait, check out the souvenirs and local wares. No time to digest. Get back in the car and head deeper into O'Keeffe country.
Six miles north, off a dirt road that isn't well marked (you'll want to follow the directions), you'll find the Plaza Blanca rock formations. We're alone amid stunning and surreal bone-white cliffs. On a bright day, you'll need sunglasses and sunscreen. If you feel like working off lunch, this is an excellent place to hike.
No rest for the wicked. Back in the car, heading sixteen miles due north to the starkly haunting Ghost Ranch, with sweeping and gorgeous scenes of red, clay-like rock formations and a dramatic, rocky mountain range. O'Keeffe spent her summers painting here, though the home where she stayed is closed to the public.
After several high-altitude morning runs along hilly paths — with wild lavender, fresh pinion wood, and wildflowers providing total sensory assault — I decide my weary sea-level bones require work. It's off to the spa at Four Seasons Rancho Encantado Santa Fe for the 110-minute Mountain Spirit Purification treatment. I'm instantly encompassed by the unmistakable smell of sage, the warm adobe clay mask, and the juniper massage with stones from the neighboring Rio Grande River. (This experience truly sums up the spirit of Santa Fe.)
Afterwards, I feel totally relaxed and detoxed. Of course, this doesn't derail me from snagging an outdoor table at the hotel's rustic, chic restaurant, Terra, and ordering a Silver Coin margarita, freshly baked chips and guacamole, and savory shrimp corn chowder. The milieu is easy on the eye, with dramatic views of the Jemez Mountains.
I stroll over to Books of Interest to browse their great collection of regional Southwest books. I pick up 109 East Palace, about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the scientists at Los Alamos, and, craving more insight into O'Keeffe, a copy of Laurie Lisle's biography, Portrait of an Artist. If you're in a culinary mood (and, if you're me, when are you not?), España is the great cookbook by James Campbell Caruso, the award-winning chef at La Boca restaurant, a local favorite.
A few blocks away is Santa Fe Farmers' Market, a treat for locals and visitors. The colors and textures and sheer selection are almost overwhelming: peppers for miles, sugar snap peas, buckets of electric green and bright red chilis (local Chimayo, Velarde, and Socorro varietals), tomatoes, pretty purple Caliope eggplant. The brilliant aroma of fragrant Hatch chiles (named for an area in New Mexico) roasting fills the air as roasters churn dozens in a round contraption. They crackle and pop over hot flames. They would pair perfectly with a hamburger. Oh, look, I'm hungry again.
I take my fresh market finds back to my hotel suite, the well appointed Fairmont Heritage Place, El Corazon de Santa Fe, swing open the patio door, and sip some local Gruet Winery sparkling rose (a steal at $19 and available nationwide). Thumbing through my O'Keefee book, I make dinner in the kitchen using the market's own recipes for asparagus soup and flank steak bruschetta.
AT HOME ON THE RANGE
Jumping on a horse and channeling your inner John Wayne is a great way to take in the enchantment. I have a date with my mom at The Equestrian Center at The Club at Las Campanas, a 10-minute drive from Santa Fe. We mosey and saunter like cowboys along the trails, admiring the distant Jemez range and the cattle-grazing land of bright yellow wildflowers, pine, cottonwood blossoms, and, of course, cactus. Being on horseback absolutely grounds me in the moment, in the scenery, in the experience.
Even closer to town, The Bishop's Lodge Ranch Resort and Spa offers year-round rides at all levels with experienced wranglers, well-cared-for horses, and a variety of trails. Consider a half-day ride with a picnic lunch and bring your camera.
TO THE TABLE
I kept the theme going when I picked my restaurants: some old-school, well-worn establishments that I'd never been to; some new, talk-of-the-town spots.
Beat the crowds and arrive early in the morning for a seat at the counter and blue corn huevos rancheros at the 30-year-old diner mainstay Tia Sofia (210 W. San Francisco St.; +1-505-983-9880). I had great Southwestern meals a short distance out of town at Tesuque Village Market, a hip general store, and Gabriel's, where I sat on the patio and ate handmade tortillas and guacamole prepared tableside. At La Casa Sena I devoured an excellent wild mushroom tamale with a crisp sauvignon blanc. I loved it.
France in New Mexico? Why not? Small and quaint Clafoutis French Bakery (402 N. Guadalupe S.; +1-505-988-1809) serves excellent coffee, croissants, and pastries.
The locals don't really embrace the hotel restaurant movement, but Tabla de los Santos at St. Francis Hotel is churning out fresh farm-to-table New Mexican food. The charming TerraCotta Wine Bistro (note the pressed tin-ceiling) is nice a pit stop for wine and cheese. More sophisticated palates will dig chef Charles Dale's casual, chic Bouche Bistro and chef Martin Rios' Restaurant Martin
I already look forward to the next trip. I will come up with yet a different itinerary and hold dearly my motto: The journey is the destination. So make it count.
Scenes of Santa Fe: More gorgeous pix from this trip
See the locations in this story. (Google Maps)